Social Security and its Impact on Alimony

June 22, 2017 § Leave a comment

Susan and Thomas Leon Harris were divorced from each other in 2011. Their property settlement agreement provided that Leon would pay Susan $2,755 monthly in periodic alimony. The only contingency recited in the agreement was that the alimony would cease at Susan’s remarriage or death.

At some point after the divorce, Susan filed for and began receiving Social Security retirement benefits in the amount of $1,035 per month. Susan’s benefit was based on Leon’s earnings record and was described as “derivative” of his benefit.

After Susan filed a pleading asking the court to review part of the agreement, Leon counterclaimed to reduce or terminate the alimony because Susan had begin drawing benefits off of his earnings record. Following a hearing, the chancellor ordered that Leon should pay Susan only $1,720 per month in alimony, since he was already receiving $1,035 based on his earnings record. Susan appealed.

In Harris v. Harris, decided May 16, 2017, the COA affirmed. Since the opinion addresses two issues of interest to chancery practitioners, I am including Judge Irving’s entire analysis:

¶6. Susan asserts that the chancellor erred in modifying the Agreement before requiring Leon to show a material change in circumstances. Susan asserts that the Agreement is a binding contract that is devoid of fraud, unconscionability, or any other factors which would render it an invalid contract; thus, the chancellor erred by disturbing the Agreement’s terms. She cites Peebles, in which this Court held that a property-settlement agreement—like any other contract—is “an agreement made between the parties [and] should ordinarily be enforced, and the court should take a dim view of efforts to modify or reform the parties’ settlement agreement.” Peebles v. Peebles, 153 So. 3d 728, 732 (¶17) (Miss. Ct. App. 2014) (quoting McFarland v. McFarland, 105 So. 3d 1111, 1119 (¶23) (Miss. 2013)). Susan also cites Lestrade, in which this Court held that property-settlement agreements “entered into by divorcing parties and incorporated into the divorce decree are not subject to modification, except in limited situations.” Lestrade v. Lestrade, 49 So. 3d 639, 642 (¶10) (Miss. Ct. App. 2010).

¶7. In support of her argument that the chancellor erred when he granted Leon credit for the Social Security benefits that she was receiving without first requiring Leon to show that a material change in circumstances had occurred since entering into the Agreement, Susan cites this Court’s decision in Cockrell, which provides:

A payor spouse’s alimony obligation may be modified or even terminated if the spouse is able to show a material change of circumstances has occurred since the original divorce decree. West v. West, 891 So. 2d 203, 212 (¶21) (Miss. 2004) (citation omitted). However, “the material change must be one that was not reasonably anticipated at the time of the original decree.” Clower v. Clower, 988 So. 2d 441, 444 (¶7) (Miss. Ct. App. 2008) (citing Holcombe v. Holcombe, 813 So. 2d 700, 703 (¶11) (Miss. 2002)). A material change in the income and expenses of both parties should be considered in determining any modification of periodic alimony. Austin v. Austin, 766 So. 2d 86, 90
(¶19) (Miss. Ct. App. 2000) (citing Armstrong [v. Armstrong], 618 So. 2d [1278,] 1280 [(Miss. 1993)]).

Cockrell v. Cockrell, 139 So. 3d 766, 770 (¶12) (Miss. Ct. App. 2014). Susan contends that Leon cannot show a material change in circumstances, as his health status has not changed, and he is still working as a bank president like he was at the time of the divorce. Susan
argues that even if her receipt of Social Security benefits constitutes a material change, Leon should have reasonably anticipated at the time of the divorce that she would begin collecting Social Security benefits in a few years, since Leon was sixty-one years old and Susan was sixty years old at that time. She also points out that at the time the two entered into the Agreement, Leon could have reasonably anticipated the need for a clause addressing Susan’s probable receipt of Social Security benefits in a few years.

¶8. In response, Leon submits that neither Peebles nor Lestrade is proper authority for this issue because both cases address modification of property division, not modification of alimony. Leon references this Court’s decision in Clower, which provides that “[p]eriodic alimony can be modified by increasing, decreasing, or terminating the award due to a material change in circumstances.” Clower, 988 So. 2d at 444 (¶7). Leon asserts that he was not required to show a material change in circumstances because he was not attempting to modify his alimony payment; rather, he maintains that he was only seeking clarification from the court as to how to make his alimony payment, because the Agreement is devoid of language specifying from which source those payments may be derived.

¶9. Leon cites Spalding v. Spalding, 691 So. 2d 435, 439 (Miss. 1997), in support of his argument that the chancellor was correct in finding that he should be credited for Susan’s receipt of the Social Security benefits derived from his work record. The facts of Spalding are similar to those in the matter at hand. In Spalding, the appellant insisted that “the decision of the chancellor to credit derivative Social Security benefits against alimony represented a downward modification of the alimony granted to [the appellant],” and asserted that “[the appellee] failed to meet his burden of proof regarding a material change in circumstances.” Id. The chancellor, in considering whether derivative Social Security benefits could be credited against alimony, relied on the Mississippi Supreme Court’s decision in Mooneyham v. Mooneyham, 420 So. 2d 1072, 1073-74 (Miss. 1982), wherein the court held that Social Security payments derivative from the child-support payor should be credited against the payor’s child-support obligation. Spalding, 691 So. 2d at 438 (citing Mooneyham, 420 So. 2d at 1073-74). The Mississippi Supreme Court in Spalding affirmed the chancellor’s application of Mooneyham, finding that, in light of Mooneyham’s holding that “Social Security payments derivative from the child[-]support payor should be credited against the child support,” it could not “fathom any valid reason or reasonable logic” as to why the rule of law would be any different with respect to periodic alimony rather than child support. Spalding, 691 So. 2d at 439 (citations omitted).

¶10. We agree with Leon that Spalding is dispositive of the issue presented. Therefore, we affirm the decision of the chancellor. The Agreement between Leon and Susan did not specify or qualify the source of income for payment of the alimony obligation. It simply required that Leon pay the amount to Susan. Crediting Social Security payments derivative from Leon against his alimony obligation, as set forth in the Agreement, is not a breach of the terms of that Agreement. As Leon points out, Susan is receiving the same amount of alimony that she is entitled to under the Agreement, and she would not be receiving the Social Security payments unhinged from Leon’s Social Security earnings record. Thus, we find that the chancellor did not abuse his discretion in failing to require Leon to show a material change in circumstances because Leon’s obligation to pay alimony in the amount set forth in the Agreement remains the same.

I agree that Spalding is dispositive for the reasons stated.

I wonder, though, at the statement in ¶8 that Leon argued that he “was not attempting to modify his alimony payment; rather, he maintains that he was only seeking clarification from the court as to how to make his alimony payment, because the Agreement is devoid of language specifying from which source those payments may be derived.” That does not seem to square with the very first sentence of Judge Irving’s opinion that “Thomas L. Harris (Leon) — alleging that a material change in circumstances had occurred since the judgment of divorce from his former spouse, Susan Harris — filed a complaint …” That sounds like modification language, not clarification language.

At any rate, I think both the chancellor and the COA were on the right track in this case. Spalding controls.

Pointer: It seems that older couples are getting divorced at a greater frequency. You would do well to explore the effect Social Security will have on the parties’ post-divorce standard of living. If Susan wants her retirement benefit excluded or to allow only partial credit, the agreement should say so.

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