Family Law

How a Vocational Expert's Analysis Affects Alimony or Child Support in Divorce

By Kristina Otterstrom, Attorney
Find out more about a vocational expert’s role in a divorce.

Since support amounts are income-based, an expert’s opinion on earning potential can impact alimony and child support. Learn more about how a vocational expert’s analysis can affect your divorce case.

What Is a Vocational Expert?

A vocational expert is trained to determine earning capacity (how much income an individual can earn) based on job skills, work history, education, and jobs available in the local area. In a divorce, a vocational expert’s job is to give the court a clear picture of what you or your spouse should be earning now and in the future. The vocational evaulator will review training, job skills, historical earnings, and employment history to come up with an opinion on earning potential. If there is a slow economy or limited job market, an expert will take that into account in the analysis.

How Can a Vocational Expert Help My Case?

You may be reluctant to add another professional’s bill to your mounting divorce costs. However, a vocational expert can save you significant money in the long run. For example, if your spouse is responsible for alimony and child support, but claims a sudden inability to work or earn wages, a vocational expert can provide an unbiased assessment of your spouse’s true earning power.

A spouse may intentionally reduce income to keep support obligations low, for example, by quitting a high-paying corporate job to work at a fast food restaurant. But a "deadbeat spouse’s" efforts to reduce child or spousal support will usually backfire. Vocational experts are trained to look for underhanded attempts to limit earnings.

A vocational expert’s analysis will show a judge what a spouse should be earning. If it turns out that one spouse could be making more, a judge can then impute or assign the additional income amount to that spouse. Child support and alimony obligations will be based on imputed wages, rather than actual earnings.

A vocational expert may assess your earning potential as well. If you've been out of the job market for a period of time to raise young children or pursue an education, your ability to earn right away may be hampered. A vocational evaluator can consider all of these facts when coming up with your earning capacity. This can be beneficial if your spouse is trying to impute an unreasonably high salary to you: Your vocational expert can show you’d realistically earn a lot less. Also, a vocational analysis can give you an idea of what careers and salary expectations are available to you based on your education and work history.

Will a Vocational Expert’s Opinion Affect Support?

A judge isn’t bound by a vocational expert’s opinion, but it's usually highly persuasive: If you disagree with it, you will have to produce evidence to refute it. If a judge imputes income to the paying spouse, the resulting child support or spousal support amount will increase. By contrast, if the vocational expert’s report says the job market is tough and the paying spouse's long-term prospects are limited, support amounts may remain unchanged or even decrease.

If, on the other hand, an unemployed spouse is being asked to reenter the job market and the vocational expert finds that this spouse has a high earning capacity, a judge may impute some income to that spouse, such that support amounts may decrease. In some cases, a judge may even order the unemployed spouse to immediately begin seeking work and report to the court about employment search efforts. But if one spouse is unemployed in order to care for very young children, it's unlikely a court will impute income or order that parent back to work right away.

The impact of a vocational evaluation will depend on the facts of each case. If you have specific questions about your own divorce, you should contact an experienced family law attorney in your area.

Vocational experts can provide the court with important employment, salary, and earning information. This expertise can be invaluable, especially if you think your spouse could be earning more. Because support figures are based on incomes, it’s critical to have an accurate salary figure for both spouses in a divorce.

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