Indefinite Alimony and Disability in Maryland: SSA Determination Alone is Not Enough

On September 3, 2013, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals issued its decision in Hiltz v. Hiltz considering the trial court’s decision to award the wife indefinite (permanent) alimony based on her claim that she was permanently and totally disabled. This case essentially harmonizes the law in Maryland regarding long-term disability insurance plans’ views on Social Security disability insurance determinations with the Maryland domestic relations law regarding awards of indefinite alimony based on disability.

The basic facts of the case are as follows: The parties were married in 1990 and starting having marital problems shortly thereafter.  In April 2004, the wife suffered a serious back injury that was further exacerbated by her fibromyalgia, making it difficult for her to continue to maintain the marital and impossible for her to work on a regular basis.  With the husband’s support, the wife applied for and was approved for disability insurance from the Social Security Administration (“SSA”).  The parties separated in 2008, and the wife filed for divorce in 2010.

After a two-day divorce trial in Baltimore County in July 2011, the trial court awarded the wife indefinite alimony based on its finding that the wife was permanently disabled and therefore unable to return to the workforce.  In making its award, the Court found that the wife’s award of SSA disability insurance benefits was prima facie evidence of her inability to work and raised a presumption of disability for purposes of an indefinite alimony award.  The Court further found that based on the initial finding, the burden then shifted to the opposing party to refute the presumption by clear and convincing evidence.  The husband appealed the Court’s award of indefinite alimony to the wife and this decision followed.

In Maryland, indefinite alimony may be awarded if the court finds that due to age, illness, infirmity or disability the party seeking alimony cannot reasonably be expected to make substantial progress toward becoming self-supporting.

In reviewing the trial court’s award, a case of first impression, the Court of Special Appeals discussed whether an SSA disability letter, by itself, and the requesting party’s own testimony regarding the disability, are sufficient prima facie evidence that the proponent is unable to earn any income through work-related activity and is therefore permanently and totally disabled.  The Court found that such evidence was not sufficient, and further found that the fact that the SSA does not preclude disability insurance claimants from engaging in any work-related activity whatsoever as an extremely relevant financial point in these matters.

The Court found that some social security disability recipients maintain the ability to work part-time and earn at least some additional funds without losing their disability status.  Based on this fact, the Court found that the burden remains on the requesting party of proving such a disability.  In the Hiltz case, the Court also found that the wife’s SSA letters presented provided no insight regarding the nature, extent, severity or permanence of the wife’s physical or mental impairment.  The wife did not present any corroborating evidence regarding her inability to work, such as medical records and/or expert testimony.  The Court concluded that although the letters were relevant evidence, the wife failed to satisfy her requisite burden of proof because she did not provide any additional evidence to demonstrate that she was totally and permanently disabled.  Accordingly, the Court remanded the case to the trial court with instruction to permit both parties to present additional evidence to support and/or refute the wife’s claim of total and permanent disability.  However, the Court was careful to not foreclose the trial court’s ability to still issue an award of indefinite alimony pending the outcome of the evidence presented on remand.

The importance of this case lies in its holding that a finding of disability by the Social Security Administration, on its own and without more, is not sufficient for a trial court to base an award of indefinite alimony based on inability to work under the alimony factors set forth in the Maryland Code.  Essentially, the case requires that the parties’ divorce court “retry” the issue of the requesting party’s claimed disability – including requiring the moving party to provide medical records and even possible expert testimony – to demonstrate that the individual is unable to engage in any work whatsoever, a fairly high threshold and heavy burden.  Although in many cases the evidence of disability may be crystal clear, such as when a party suffers from cancer or dementia, other cases will prove to be much more difficult to prove, such as in Hiltz where the wife suffered from fibromyalgia and a back injury.  Such stringent requirements to satisfy the definition of “disability” belie the Maryland statutory scheme’s preference favoring term or rehabilitative alimony to indefinite alimony.