What Is a Vocational Expert?
In the divorce context, vocational experts are trained to assess a spouse's earning potential in the local, existing job market by looking at a number of factors, including:
- employment history
- job skills and training
- health, and
Either spouse can hire a vocational expert, but occasionally, a court will appoint an expert on its own, if there are conflicting opinions about an individual's employment capacity.
Practical Situations Involving a Vocational Expert
Courts determine alimony and child support based, in large part, on income. For the paying spouse, earning less may mean lower support payments. Likewise, for spouses asking for alimony or child support, low income can increase the chances of getting alimony and result in higher support amounts. Little wonder then why so many divorcing spouses attempt to manipulate or intentionally reduce their income.
A classic example is where a high-earning spouse experiences an income loss. If the individual works in an economic sector that's been battered by market conditions, that's one thing. But if this spouse voluntarily cut back work hours, switched from a full-time to part-time schedule, or left a good job for a lower-paying position, at least a few red flags will go up. The vocational expert will review all the circumstances surrounding the income loss to figure out why it happened. This isn't always as easy as it might seem, because not every situation is black-and-white. For instance, the person could have suffered an injury that might have impacted the ability to work at the same level as before.
Other cases may involve spouses who've been out of work for some time. The other spouse may claim that this isn't a viable reason for not currently seeking employment. Here, the expert will look at the factors referred to above to determine what type of job the unemployed spouse would be suited for, as well as possible training programs, which could help that spouse re-enter the job market.
What Does the Court Do with the Expert's Findings?
Assuming a court finds that the expert's opinion is valid and that a spouse either has purposely reduced income or is capable of working, but refuses to find a job, the next step is to decide what to do. In that regard, the court has limited options in attempting to balance the scales. The reason is that in many states, a judge can't force someone to work. However, in some states like California, courts can issue "seek-work" orders, mandating that a spouse look for a job.
Most courts will usually impute income to the offending spouse. In effect, they're telling spouses that if they refuse to earn to their capacity, the court will simply base child support and/or spousal support on what they should be earning, not what they are earning. It's then up to the paying spouse to cope with this financial reality.
If you have any questions about using a vocational expert in a divorce, be sure to consult an experienced divorce lawyer.