No Judgment of Modification = No Modification

October 14, 2014 § Leave a comment

You’re going to have to read for yourself the MSSC’s decision in Shumake v. Shumake, handed down September 18, 2014. It’s a dizzying scenario involving a divorce judgment ordering payment of alimony, bankruptcy, petition to modify, contempt hearing, a temporary reduction of alimony, and subsequent contempt. The Special Chancellor ultimately found that ex-husband Leslie Shumake owed his ex-wife Katarina Shumake $58,550, plus interest, in alimony arrearage. Leslie appealed.

The case was first assigned to the COA. The court noted some confusion arising from language that the special chancellor had used in effecting a temporary reduction in alimony while bankruptcy payments were being made. In its November 23, 2013, opinion, the COA held, among other things, that on the unique facts of this case, it ” … would be fundamentally unfair to charge Leslie with a $58,550 arrearage …” and reversed and rendered that part of the judgment.

The COA granted cert and reversed the COA. Here’s what Justice King said for the unanimous court (Lamar not participating):

¶11. Originally, the chancellor ordered Leslie to pay Katarina $5,750 per month in periodic alimony. Leslie never met this obligation. Instead, he paid Katarina $650 per week in alimony. Katarina filed a contempt complaint asking the chancellor to require Leslie to comply with the divorce judgment. In response to Katarina’s contempt complaint, Leslie requested a modification, claiming that his extreme economic hardship had resulted in a substantial and material change in his circumstances. The chancellor then entered an order requiring Leslie to transfer his interest in the marital home to Katarina to cover part of the arrearage at that time. Leslie was to pay the remaining amount of the arrearage from cash. Of particular note, the chancellor did not modify the alimony or specifically address Leslie’s request for modification. Moreover, the order states that the chancellor “reserves the right to make a ruling regarding any arrearage and/or future arrearage . . . .”

¶12. According to the parties, the chancellor entered another order in November 2010 which required Leslie to pay Katarina $750 per week. This order is not in the record, although it was discussed at length at an April 2011 hearing, and the docket reflects that the chancellor entered an order at that time. At the hearing, Leslie argued that the November 2010 order temporarily modified the alimony. Katarina, on the other hand, maintained that Leslie was still required under the divorce judgment to pay $5,750 per month in alimony. Thus, Katarina claimed that Leslie owed $58,550 in arrears.

¶13. The [special] chancellor, who was not the chancellor who entered the divorce judgment or prior orders in the case, ultimately found that the previous chancellor never entered an order permanently modifying the original divorce judgment which required Leslie to pay $5,750 per month in alimony. Thus, the chancellor found that Leslie was in arrears for $58,550 to Katarina. The chancellor ordered that Leslie, upon completion of his bankruptcy payments, pay Katarina for the arrearage in monthly payments of $1,500.

¶14. After reviewing the record in today’s case and considering our law with respect to alimony modification, we cannot find that the chancellor abused his discretion. An alimony payment vests on the day it is due. Bowe [v. Bowe], 557 So. 2d [793] at 794 [(Miss. 1990)]. And a court order is required to modify alimony. Id. Because no order expressly modified Leslie’s alimony obligation, the [special] chancellor in today’s case did not abuse his discretion in ordering Leslie to pay the arrearage.

¶15. Further, the Court of Appeals’ statement that it would be “fundamentally unfair and unjust” to require Leslie to pay the arrearage is supported by neither our caselaw nor the chancellor’s order. The order considers – and provides some allowance for – Leslie’s bankruptcy by allowing him to pay the arrearage when the bankruptcy is complete. Our caselaw addressing the effect of bankruptcy on alimony payments is consistent with this approach. See Varner, 666 So. 2d at 497-98. Finally, the chancellor’s decision not to punish Leslie through contempt does not absolve Leslie’s arrearage. See Hand, Mississippi Divorce, Alimony, and Child Custody § 14-6 (“If the responding party is found to be in contempt and refuses or fails without justification to pay the arrearages as previously required by the court, he may be punished by civil or criminal sanctions, or both.”) (emphasis added). Put simply, Leslie’s alimony payments vested on the day they were due and the record does not support a finding that the vested payments were or should have been modified. The chancellor did not abuse his discretion in ordering Leslie to pay the arrearage. [Emphasis added]

There is a handful of lessons here:

  • Never walk away from a case until you are sure that every order that should have been entered has gotten entered. You can not rely on opposing counsel to agree with you to the terms of a missing order so as to reconstruct it. Even if counsel opposite wants to “do the right thing,” memories fade with the passage of time, and two honest people can remember the same event in quite different ways.
  • Without an order in which to rely, your client has no cover for his actions. That November order might have saved Leslie a lot of money because alimony payments become vested when they are due, and they can not be modified except by express order of the court.
  • Note the language about bankruptcy. In ¶10, the court points out that bankruptcy does not in all cases rise to the level of substantial change in circumstances that would warrant modification.

 

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