April 28, 2020 § Leave a comment
Most of the cases that come stumbling through my court involve people living literally on the brink of financial catastrophe. Minimal income and maximal debt.
That was the situation of Morgan and Melanie Ewing when they appeared before the chancellor in 2015. The chancellor proceeded through equitable distribution and, notwithstanding their financial straits, ordered Morgan to pay Melanie child support and alimony. Morgan appealed, and the COA reversed and remanded to require Ferguson findings, which necessitated a review of the other financial awards as well.
On remand the chancellor at first rendered an order making Ferguson findings and reinstating the original awards. Morgan filed what must have been a R59 motion (the COA refers to it as “a motion for reconsideration, a motion to set aside the judgment …”), which the chancellor granted, setting the matter for a full hearing. Following the hearing, the chancellor entered his judgment essentially identical to what he had done before. Unhappy with the outcome, Morgan again appealed.
¶9. In the prior appeal, this Court “affirmed as to the finding of a need for periodic alimony” but remanded for reconsideration of the amount in light of Morgan’s standard of living. Ewing, 203 So. 3d at 715-16 (¶¶29-30). On remand, the chancery court upheld the award of periodic alimony, concluding that “the award of $500.00 per month in periodic alimony is proper after analyzing Morgan’s other financial obligations and his ability to maintain a decent standard of living.” The chancery court specifically determined that even after Morgan paid child support, alimony, and the monthly installment for attorney’s fees, he “would still net $1,629.52 each month based upon his current income, which is sufficient considering Melanie has [four] children living with her and he only has himself.” [Fn 5] Morgan argues that the chancery court’s award of permanent periodic alimony to Melanie “was
unreasonable in light of [his] inability to pay and the income of Melanie.”
[Fn 5] Although Morgan notes the chancery court’s error in the order regarding the number of children (i.e., four versus five children), we agree with Melanie that because child support was not calculated based on five minor children, this is simply a scrivener’s error that has no substantive effect on either party. While not affecting our analysis of this issue, we have noted a minor discrepancy in the court’s calculation of Morgan’s net monthly income, which we will address further when we address the award of attorney’s fees.
¶10. As with other domestic-relation matters, a chancery court’s award of alimony is discretionary and will not be reversed on appeal absent a determination that the court’s findings of fact were manifestly in error and an abuse of discretion. Armstrong v. Armstrong, 618 So. 2d 1278, 1280 (Miss. 1993). “A chancellor’s decision to award permanent alimony must consider both need and ability to pay.” Rogillio v. Rogillio, 57 So. 3d 1246, 1252 (¶24)
(Miss. 2011). “In making that decision, the chancellor considers, in relevant part, the reasonable net income and expenses of both spouses.” Id. (citing Box v. Box, 622 So. 2d 284, 288 (Miss. 1993)). “Alimony is considered only after the marital property has been equitably divided and the chancellor determines one spouse has suffered a deficit.” Castle v. Castle, 266 So. 3d 1042, 1053 (¶43) (Miss. Ct. App. 2018) (quoting Lauro v. Lauro, 847 So. 2d 843, 848 (¶13) (Miss. 2003)), cert. denied, 267 So. 3d 278 (Miss. 2019).
¶11. Arguing that the chancery court failed to “balance [Melanie’s] needs with [his] inability to pay” in awarding periodic alimony, Morgan contends that Melanie “received over $44,000.00 in assets, [had] no debts, had all of her expenses paid for several years under the temporary order, and currently is a homeowner with over $44,000.00 in separate equity in her home over and above the property division.” In contrast, Morgan states that he has a negative estate with approximately $50,000 in debt. He also claims Melanie now earns more than he does.
¶12. Morgan argues that the chancery court was required to examine the financial positions of the parties both at the time of trial and the time of remand, citing Yelverton v. Yelverton, 26 So. 3d 1053 (Miss. 2010). Specifically, Morgan claims that while the chancery court addressed his financial position at the time of remand, the court failed to consider Melanie’s current financial position. His main point of contention is that Melanie’s salary had
increased since 2015, and she now earns more in net monthly income than he does. In Yelverton, the chancery court issued a seventeen-page judgment without a hearing and upheld awards of alimony and child support. Id. at 1056 (¶6). The chancellor “based his decision on testimony and exhibits received at the hearings conducted prior to the original 2004 judgment.” Id. The appellant claimed the court should have held an evidentiary hearing to consider changes occurring since its original 2004 judgment. Id. at (¶10). The Mississippi Supreme Court agreed and reversed and remanded with instructions to the court to “conduct an evidentiary hearing” in order to determine the following: (1) the value of marital assets no later than the date of divorce and based on evidence presented at the remand hearing; (2) “the amount of periodic alimony and child support due up until the time of the
remand hearing” based on circumstances up until the remand hearing; and (3) “the amount of periodic alimony and child support going forward from the time of the remand hearing, which shall be determined based on the circumstances existing at the time of the remand hearing.” Id. at 1057 (¶13).
¶13. Unlike Yelverton, the chancery court in this case determined that the periodic alimony award of $500 was appropriate after conducting an evidentiary hearing and considering the parties’ incomes and expenses at trial and up to remand. The chancery court noted in its order that Melanie’s net monthly income, as of February 18, 2015, was $851.70, while her net expenses were $2,830.00, and that she “lost approximately $2,000 per month simply
paying her bills.” Morgan’s monthly net income, as of February 2015, was $2,579.35, while his net expenses were $2,329.39 before the child-support payment.
¶14. With regard to the parties’ finances up to remand, the chancery court’s order admittedly failed to mention Melanie’s more recent Rule 8.05 financial declaration dated June 2018, which showed her net monthly income had increased to $2,991.32.6 However, the chancery court found that both parties “essentially live paycheck to paycheck with their current living expenses.” (Emphasis added). This finding is supported by the evidence. Melanie’s combined total expenses from her 2018 Rule 8.05 financial declaration were $3,840.53, still leaving her with a significant deficit. Furthermore, although Melanie’s salary and wages significantly increased to $3,114 in 2018, she still earns less than Morgan. According to his financial declarations, Morgan’s salary and wages increased from $3,620 in 2015 to $4,752.80 in 2018.
¶15. Accordingly, we do not find that the court’s award of periodic alimony was manifestly in error or an abuse of discretion, and we affirm on this issue.
This case illustrates what a chancellor can do when both parties live “paycheck to paycheck,” and how the COA is likely to view it, even when the alimony will have to be conjured up from thin air, or seem to. It seems to me that the appellate courts could go either way in a close case such as this (as the chancellor could, as well), the tipping point being one party’s greater — even slightly greater — need. When you try one of these quite typical scenarios, think about that tipping point. Give your chancellor the evidence she needs to tip the case your client’s way.