When Separate Maintenance Morphs into Alimony

December 8, 2015 § 2 Comments

After William Lane’s wife, Stella, obtained a Mississippi separate maintenance judgment, William moved to Texas and obtained a divorce from Stella there. He then petitioned the Mississippi court to terminate alimony because he was no longer married to Stella.

The chancellor refused William’s request, ruling apparently that the separate maintenance would continue as alimony, and William appealed. In Lane v. Lane, decided December 1, 2015, the COA affirmed. Judge Fair, writing for the majority, laid out the rationale:

¶8. “[A] divorce action involving one resident party and one foreign party may or may not be able to adjudicate personal rights, though it can sever a marriage as long as at least one party is a resident of that state.” [Lofton v. Lofton, 924 So.2d 596, 601 (Miss. App. 2006)]. William personally appeared before the Texas court. At the time the suit was filed, he had been a domiciliary of Texas for six months. Stella entered a general appearance through local counsel, ultimately signing the divorce decree along with William as to “form and substance.” The divorce decree specifically did not litigate the issues of support and property division. In fact, the decree declined jurisdiction over all but the divorce itself, deferring to the chancery court and its separate-maintenance judgment for “all issues involving the division of the property and debt of the parties.”

¶9. In Weiss v. Weiss, 579 So. 2d 539, 540-41 (Miss. 1991), the Mississippi Supreme Court reaffirmed that Mississippi law allows for separate litigation of divorce and alimony. Thomas and Barbara Weiss married in Mississippi. Id. at 540. Thomas later moved to Louisiana and filed for divorce. Id. That same year, Barbara filed a request for separate maintenance in Mississippi. Id. The Louisiana court granted the divorce but reserved the issue of alimony for the Mississippi court. Fn2 Id. Our supreme court held that the Mississippi court had jurisdiction to determine alimony because the parties’ foreign divorce decree did not litigate the issue of alimony. Id. at 541.

Fn2 Barbara’s claim for separate maintenance was no longer proper since a divorce had been granted but was convertible to a claim for alimony. Weiss, 579 So. 2d at 541. Separate maintenance and alimony may both result in payments for a short period of time or an extended period of time (the period of time for separate maintenance is more uncertain). Id. at 542.

¶10. The supreme court dealt with a similar issue in [Chapel v. Chapel, 876 So.2d 290 (Miss. 2004)]. In that case, the Jackson County Chancery Court awarded Grace Chapel separate maintenance in 1996. Id. at 292 (¶5). Mr. Chapel was granted a divorce in Virginia in 1997. Chapel, 876 So. 2d at 292 (¶6). The Mississippi chancellor modified the separate-maintenance agreement in 1998 and 2001. Id. at 294 (¶13). Grace argued that the chancellor lacked subject-matter jurisdiction because the Virginia divorce decree terminated the original separate-maintenance agreement. Id. at 293 (¶10). The supreme court held that “the . . . chancery court continues to have jurisdiction in what originally was the separate-maintenance case, but which converted to one for alimony and other claims compatible with divorce actions[] after the date of the foreign divorce.” Id. at 295 (¶15). Fn3 In her treatise, Bell on Mississippi Family Law (2d Edition 2011), Professor Deborah Bell refers to this as a “recharacterization” of separate maintenance as alimony.

Fn3 The supreme court also stated that because “neither party . . . made formal objections to the chancellor’s authority to modify the original separate-maintenance judgment after the Virginia divorce was granted, it is not necessary for the Court to reach the issue of whether . . . a foreign divorce decree[] terminates a domestic court’s order of separate maintenance.” Chapel, 876 So. 2d at 294 (¶11).

¶11. Like the divorce decree in Weiss, the Texas divorce decree in the present case expressly reserved Stella’s rights to enforce the separate-maintenance order. And, similar to the wife in Chapel, Stella was awarded separate maintenance prior to the entry of a foreign divorce decree, and the foreign decree did not address the issue of separate maintenance. We do not find, like the dissent, that Stella’s failure to expressly petition for alimony prohibits the chancellor’s sua sponte “recharacterization” of separate maintenance as alimony. As stated in Weiss, “‘[a]limony’ and ‘maintenance’ are merely different words used in differing situations to describe the same thing.” 579 So. 2d at 541 (citation and quotation omitted) (emphasis added). Mississippi law clearly provides that the chancery court retained jurisdiction over William and Stella’s separate-maintenance agreement, as acknowledged by the Texas court with the consent and agreement of the parties. [Emphasis in original]

It did not help William’s cause that the parties’ divorce agreement in Texas included language specifically acknowledging the continuing jurisdiction of the Mississippi court, and the Texas judgment afforded the Mississippi judgment full faith and credit and recognized its continuing jurisdiction. Any different language in Texas, however, would not have changed the outcome. Once Mississippi’s courts have acquired jurisdiction over the property and support (maintenance) issues, a subsequent divorce in another state is not effective to deprive the Mississippi court of jurisdiction over those issues.

The dissent would have held that by failing to request “recharacterization” of the separate maintenance award as alimony Stella deprived the chancellor of authority, making it erroneous for him to do so. The majority rejected that approach.

The MSSC dealt with a similar set of issues last year in Pierce v. Pierce, about which I posted here.

Oh, and before I leave the subject, here are three quotes you might find helpful next time you have to deal with an alimony case:

  • “Alimony — the ransom that the happy pay to the devil.”  —  H.L. Mencken
  • “Alimony is like buying oats for a dead horse.”  —  Arthur Baer
  • “Judges, as a class, display, in the matter of arranging alimony, that reckless generosity which is found only in men who are giving away someone else’s cash.” —  P.G. Wodehouse

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§ 2 Responses to When Separate Maintenance Morphs into Alimony

  • Bill Featherston says:

    I was under the impression that separate maintenance terminated upon the reconciliation or divorce of the parties.

    • Larry says:

      Not when the divorce was granted in another state that did not have jurisdiction to decide the equitable distribution and alimony issues. If the divorce is granted in Mississippi, then the court will, of course, decide equitable distribution and alimony in the course of the divorce action, and separate maintenance will be terminated. Reconciliation does terminate separate maintenance if the court finds that it was, in fact, a good faith reconciliation.

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