Spalding is Reversed

February 12, 2018 § 2 Comments

Last summer we posted here about the COA’s decision in Harris v. Harris, in which the court affirmed the chancellor’s decision to reduce alimony based on the ex-wife’s receipt of Social Security benefits derived from those of her husband. You can read my post at this link, if you care to. The chancellor and the COA relied on Spalding v. Spalding as authority for the proposition that the chancellor is required to give the alimony payer credit for Social Security benefits derivative of the payer’s.

The MSSC granted cert, and in Harris v. Harris, decided February 1, 2018, the court reversed the COA and the trial court, overruling Spalding. Here’s what Justice Chamberlin wrote for the court en banc:

¶19. Today, we hold that … Social Security benefits derived from the other spouse’s income do not constitute a special circumstance triggering an automatic reduction in alimony. When a spouse receives Social Security benefits derived from the other spouse’s income, the trial court must weigh all the circumstances of both parties and find that an unforseen material change in circumstances occurred to modify alimony. See Ivison, 762 So. 2d at 334 (holding that the circumstances of both parties are considered to determine whether there was a material change); see also
Tingle, 573 So. 2d 1389, 1391 (Miss. 1990) (holding that change in circumstances must be after-arising and unanticipated). To the extent that Spalding states otherwise, it is overruled.

You can read the other 18 paragraphs reasoning their way through the law of Mississippi and other jurisdictions to get to this point. The court remanded the case to the chancellor to analyze it under Armstrong v. Armstrong, 618 So.2d 1278, 1280 (Miss. 1993) to determine whether modification was warranted, and, if so, how to modify.

Maybe it’s just me, but it seems that one of the murkiest areas of alimony law is what effect retirement has on the obligation. Retirement is, after all, a foreseeable event. Social Security benefits are foreseeable. What are we supposed to do? One of the easiest answers until this case was that Social Security benefits derived from the payer created a credit. Now that certainty is taken away. I think lawyers should spend more time negotiating over the future of retirement benefits. Clients absolutely do not want to think or talk about it until retirement is the 500-pound gorilla knocking at the front door. But this decision leaves your clients little choice but to deal with it now or engage in expensive and impoverishing litigation later.

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§ 2 Responses to Spalding is Reversed

  • Tom Setser says:

    I agree with your assertions concerning the foreseeability of retirement, and agree with some of the unknowns as written by Ms. Steffey. However, what about those situations where the parties just can’t agree and permit the Chancellor to decide or force the Chancellor to decide, what should a responsible Chancellor do given this new case law? Rehabilitative alimony that is reduced upon retirement of paying spouse. Or would it be periodic alimony that is reduced upon retirement of paying spouse??

  • susan steffey says:

    As always, sound advice Judge. Retirement is foreseeable, but the specifics of when, how much, etc. are often far off in the distance with too many unknowns to adequately address. Even when a spouse elects to take SS benefits and the effect that has on the benefit amount can be tricky to accurately gauge. Nonetheless, you are right. We have to address as much as possible. I’d love to see more of what lawyers and judges are doing to address retirement when these issues are still many years in the future.

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