It's a decision countless young married couples make every day. To make it through those lean college years, one spouse agrees to work and financially support the other while he or she pursues a higher education degree.

One spouse sacrifices with the hope that the married couple in general will benefit from a high-paying career that usually comes with a degree.

It doesn't always turn out that way.

After years of scraping up enough money to pay for rent, utilities and tuition, some working spouses find themselves on the curb as soon as the parchment hits their partner's hand.

While Utah's laws do consider earning potential in calculating alimony, a higher-education degree, such as a doctorate in medicine, is not considered a real asset in which a monetary value can be placed. Utah is among the majority of states that see it this way.

Legal experts say Utah's divorce laws do not recognize verbal promises or silent understandings between couples. If a spouse wants to make sure he or she is not left out on the doorstep after graduation day — put it in writing.

Linda Smith, professor at the University of Utah's S.J. Quinney College of Law, said verbal agreements between spouses are recognized by the courts but only for about a year.

Alimony and division of property does afford a jilted spouse some compensation, Smith said. A court can look at a graduate's earning potential; however, courts have viewed alimony as putting the spouses back to their financial status before they were married and alimony typically only lasts as long as the marriage did.

Smith said some attorneys have argued the way alimony is currently structured, it does not compensate for spouses who invest time and money into their partners. Smith said the attitude of the courts has been that people earn their degrees based on their own talents and if a spouse wants a better quality of life, he or she should go back to school and earn a degree.

Take the case of Gloria Ashby and Dallen Ashby. When the couple married in 1997 they agreed that Dallen would go to medical school while Gloria worked to support them. In doing so, Gloria says, she put aside her own educational opportunities.

In 2006, soon after Dallen received his medical degree, the couple divorced. In addition to the divorce case, Gloria filed a separate legal claim of breach of contract and unjust enrichment.

Gloria contended that she and her ex-husband had an agreement that she would support him through medical school and he would provide her with the "niceties of life" incidental to a doctor's salary, according to court records.

In a recent ruling by the Utah Court of Appeals, the court found that Gloria could sue her ex-husband for breach of contract but that she had to provide proof of a written contract.

David Hunter, attorney for Dallen Ashby, said the court of appeals ruling sets a bad precedent by allowing spouses to file civil suits separate from divorces. "Divorces are tough enough anyway," Hunter said. "These cases will never die."

Hunter said there was no formal contract between the couple but that Gloria Ashby has a series of letters sent between the two while Dallen Ashby was on a mission. It will be up to a judge to determine if those letters constituted any sort of contract.

Hunter said he and his client have yet to decide if they will take the case to the Utah Supreme Court.


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