ALIMONY IS NOT FOR EQUALIZING THE DIVISION

February 22, 2012 § Leave a comment

What is the proper role of alimony vis a vis equitable distribution? In Williamson v. Williamson, decided by the COA on January 10, 2012, Judge Carlton’s opinion stated:

¶21. The record reflects that in equitably dividing the marital property, the chancellor erroneously applied the Armstrong factors by awarding Mary alimony in order to create equalization of the parties’ incomes. The chancellor then ordered Will to pay Mary $594 per month to be applied toward the mortgage on the marital home; and, in addition to that amount, the chancellor awarded Mary $200 per month in periodic alimony, for a total of $794, or approximately $800, until the former home sold. [Footnote omitted] As evidenced by the chancellor’s findings, the chancellor accomplished the ordered equitable division of the marital property by aid of an award of periodic alimony in favor of Mary in order to make the parties’ financial situations “equalized.” The record shows, as set forth in the excerpts herein, that the chancellor had not completed an equitable division of the marital property prior to considering alimony. In accordance with precedent, the equitable division of the marital property must be completed prior to determining if either spouse suffers a deficit in the division of the marital estate warranting an award of alimony. The record in this case shows, however, that the chancellor used alimony to equalize the parties’ future incomes instead of awarding alimony based upon need existing after completion of an equitable division of the marital property.

¶22. Mississippi now embraces the process of equitable division of the marital property. In applying the “equitable” division of the marital property in accordance with the Ferguson factors, alimony fails to serve as the primary method to equalize property division. See Lowrey, 25 So. 3d at 292 (¶44) (“[A]limony has become a secondary remedy to property division . . . . ‘One of the goals of adopting equitable distribution was to alleviate the need for alimony.’”). Alimony, instead, assists in the event the chancellor determines that a need exists by a spouse after the completion of the equitable division of the marital property. See id. at 293 (¶44) (“If the situation is such that an equitable division of marital property, considered with each party’s non-marital assets, leaves a deficit for one party, then alimony based on the value of non-marital assets should be considered.”); George v. George, 22 So. 3d 424, 428 (¶7) (Miss. Ct. App. 2009) (“[A]n award of periodic alimony is based upon need.”).

The proper procedure follows this sequence:

  1. Determine which assets are marital and which are non-marital;
  2. Adjudicate the values of both marital and non-marital assets;
  3. Apply the Ferguson factors to the proof in the record to determine whether there should be an equitable division of the marital estate, and, if so, how it should be accomplished;
  4. If the equitable division of the marital estate, considered with each party’s non-marital property, leaves a deficit for one party, then the court should analyze the evidence in light of the Armstrong factors to determine whether alimony should be awarded.

From a pratice standpoint, then, here is what you need to give the chancellor so that she or he can do the job:

  • An itemization of all assets, showing which your client claims to be marital and which your client claims to be non-marital. The best way to present this itemization is through lists introduced into evidence, rather than just a narration by your client. Have your client testify as to her basis for putting each asset into either category.
  • Assign values to each asset. In advance of trial have your client assign values to each asset. Real property, heavy equipment, leaseholds, buildings, fine art and jewelry, business operations and interests, and other assets other than automobiles and ordinary personal property should have values established by appraisals. Again, this should be done by lists and documentation as much as possible, although experts may be needed as to some items.
  • Offer proof as to each Ferguson factor. Have a copy of the factors to use as an outline as you develop testimony at trial. You might also want to look at the Cheatham factors for lump-sum alimony.
  • Whether your client is trying to get alimony or trying to resist it, put on proof as to the Armstrong factors. Have a copy of the factors to use as an outline as you develop testimony at trial.

In my opinion, one of the chief causes of failure on appeal is that the lawyers do an inadequate job of making a record that the chancellor can use in making a decision. This forces the trial judge to have to patch something together in an attempt to cover everything, and the result is a flaw that the COA will find reversible. Make your record as airtight as the truth allows.

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