Recently the Superior Court considered a case in which a party died during the pendency of a support action. In the divorce case for Moser v. Ronald R. Renninger, et al., No. 1065 MDA 2014, the husband and wife were separated with the wife having filed for divorce and sought spousal support against the husband, receiving an interim support order of $394.10 per month plus arrears in an unspecified amount.
As an interim order, this matter was scheduled for an evidentiary hearing and designated complex which allowed the parties to conduct discovery (typically “simple” support cases do not permit discovery). Approximately two months after the interim order was entered, the husband died and, without having established grounds for the divorce, the divorce action and the husband’s estate filed a motion to terminate the support action and Support Order on the basis that without a divorce action, alimony pendente lite is not available to the wife.
While the wife agreed that the support obligation terminated upon the husband’s death, she argued that it is appropriate to apply a support order to the estate for the purposes of paying the accumulated arrearages. Basically, wife argues that she is a creditor to the estate.
At trial, the court found that wife could proceed with an arrearage-only spousal support case. On appeal, the estate asked the Superior Court to consider: 1) whether the failure to dismiss the support case is an error of law and an abuse of discretion; 2) that the record does not support finding that wife is entitled to receive spousal support; 3) error of law and abuse of discretion were committed in miscalculating (husband’s) income.
Though acknowledging that she was no longer eligible for APL, wife pursued her claim for a separately filed spousal support action and disputed that such action necessarily abates with husband’s death. The Superior Court followed the reasoning of the trial court in finding that while a support order cannot be entered post-death, the interim order was valid and wife could continue her support action on the basis that a surviving spouse can collect unpaid support from the estate of the deceased spouse.
For the second issue, the estate attempts to argue that the husband had a defense to spousal support. Unlike APL which is a statutory entitlement to the dependent spouse, the payor in the spousal support case can offer defenses to the payee’s entitlement to spousal support. In this case, the estate points to trial court’s failure – in their opinion – to adequately consider a protection from abuse petition filed by husband and that wife voluntarily deserted husband. The trial court, however, noted these events and cited that both parties filed PFA’s and both voluntarily withdrew them. Mutual allegations of abuse, the trial court reasoned, are inadequate defenses to a duty of support. The Superior Court again sided with the trial court’s reasoning.
The final issue involves the calculation of husband’s income. The estate contends that the trial court improperly allowed evidence which was not authenticated and failed to consider the husband’s 2011 tax return. Basically, the estate objected to the introduction of PACSES records generated as part of the support conference on the basis that it is hearsay requiring authentication by the custodian of records. The support master found the information provided to be maintained by the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and reliable.
The trial court acknowledged the problem of authentication and that the record did not fall within an exception to hearsay evidence. The Superior Court agreed with the trial court, however, they also cite the trial court’s reliance on corroborating evidence which established husband’s income and supported the records offered at the master’s hearing. So while an authentication and hearsay issued existed, it was not enough to justify remanding the case back to the trial court.
While the support case terminated, the wife remained a creditor to the estate. This case highlights a few issues, but the more important being that the death of a party without grounds having been established may not justify stopping all the actions in the case. Careful consideration must be made of what can abate and what requires the court’s review.