Steinmann Decision Contains Troubling Implications

By Attorney Gregg Herman
June 30, 2008

A song by the Temptations comes to mind after reading Steinmann v. Steinmann. “Ball of Confusion.”  That’s what the law of maintenance is today.

This is the third of three articles analyzing the recent Wisconsin Supreme Court decision in Steinmann, No. 2005AP1588, released May 23.

In Steinmann, the parties signed a post-nuptial agreement entitled “Limited Marital Property Classification Agreement.” Although the agreement stated that it was binding in the event of a divorce, it did not mention maintenance.

Walworth County Circuit Court Judge Michael S. Gibbs awarded the husband 10 years of maintenance, after 10 years of marriage. The court based that decision, in part, on the “opulent lifestyle” that the parties enjoyed during the marriage, and the husband’s inability to support himself at a standard reasonably comparable to that.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court in an unpublished decision, and the Supreme Court, in turn, affirmed the lower appellate court in a decision written by Justice Louis B. Butler Jr.

The decision is noteworthy for two reasons.

First, typically in short-term marriages where maintenance is awarded, it usually doesn’t exceed one-half the length of the marriage. A 10-year maintenance order in a marriage of that length, with no children, no adverse health issues or other extraordinary facts is unusual.

However, as noted by the Supreme Court, the amount and duration of maintenance is “entrusted to the sound discretion of the circuit court” and appellate courts are not to “disturb these findings where the record shows that the court considered the facts and came to a reasonable conclusion consistent with applicable law.”

The justices, in holding that the trial court did not misuse its discretion, noted that the trial court considered the length of the marriage, the parties’ health, education, employment, contributions to each other’s careers and other factors. Certainly, these are the relevant factors upon which an exercise of discretion is to be based.

Still, the decision is somewhat curious, in that the high court recently denied review of a Court of Appeals decision that reversed the maintenance award of a circuit court as a misuse of the court’s discretion. Wright v. Wright, No. 2006AP2111 (Wis. Ct. App. Dec. 4, 2007) (publication ordered). In Wright, the trial court’s decision encompassed 121 pages and 1,062 findings of fact. Yet, unlike Steinmann, the Court of Appeals was somehow unable to find a sufficient basis for the trial court’s exercise of discretion. The message, it seems, is that an appellate court has discretion as well.

Second, the Supreme Court decision contains a statement that is the very definition of dicta. Worse, it is contradictory to Wisconsin statutes.

The court held that “[P]arties with marital property agreements are not, as a matter of law, exempt from maintenance awards. Unless the agreement contains a waiver of maintenance rights as described in sec. 767.26(8), a court may conclude that a maintenance award is appropriate.” (Emphasis added).

The problem, as pointed out by attorney Patricia K. Ballman of Quarles & Brady LLP in Milwaukee at the recent American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers seminar, is that Wis. State. sec. 767.26(8) does not provide for a waiver of maintenance. Rather, this section makes an agreement on maintenance merely a factor for the court to consider. Although there is already a Court of Appeals case, Gardner v, Gardner, 190 Wis. 2d 217, 527 N.W. 2d 701 (Ct. App. 1994), which creates some confusion, the dicta by the Supreme Court creates more confusion.

At my suggestion, the State Bar of Wisconsin Family Law Section, under the signature of its chair, attorney Daniel R. Cross, of Peterson, Berk & Cross S.C. in Appleton, has written to the Supreme Court to ask that it withdraw this dicta from the opinion.

While the Supreme Court did not deem it wise to grant review of the reversal of the Court of Appeals decision in Wright, despite the criticism of that opinion in this column, it is hoped that the justices will respect the Family Law Section enough to reconsider the ill-advised and unnecessary language in Steinmann.

The article originally appeared in Wisconsin Law Journal.

Attorney Gregg Herman is a founding partner of Loeb & Herman, LLC in Milwaukee, WI. He practices family law exclusively, and can be reached via e-mail or by calling (414) 272-5632.