Comments on Bankruptcy and Equitable Distribution

August 8, 2017 § 3 Comments

Yesterday I posted about the Powell bankruptcy case and how it addressed the handling of equitable distribution in divorce when there is a pending bankruptcy proceeding. As promised, here are my thoughts:

  • I have heard it said that Powell is a big change fraught with implications for family law practitioners, but I don’t see that. The language cited from Professor Bell clearly states what the law has been. Powell does not change that.
  • Some may have misinterpreted the federal domestic relations exception barring federal courts from exercising jurisdiction over divorce to mean that all matters incidental to a divorce are included. The US Supreme Court, however, has made it clear that it is the granting of the divorce itself that is barred. Any matters pertaining to the property of the bankruptcy debtor are subject to bankruptcy jurisdiction.
  • The only way that a chancellor may proceed in divorce after bankruptcy is filed is for you to lift the automatic stay. You have to petition the bankruptcy court to remand all of the issues, as Jessica Powell did, even knowing that some will not be remanded.
  • Only problem is, per Heigle, cited in the Powell opinion, our supreme court has made it clear that the chancery court should stay all proceedings before it until the bankruptcy is concluded.
  • Even without Heigle to stop you from going forward, it’s obvious that if the bankruptcy estate is taken away, equitable distribution is impossible. If equitable distribution is impossible, alimony is impossible, since you can’t get to alimony without going through equitable distribution. If most of the assets are in the bankruptcy estate, that may well limit or even eliminate child support.
  • As I mentioned yesterday, I am no bankruptcy expert, but it appears that if you represent the other spouse (not the debtor), you had better file a claim for him or her in bankruptcy court right away to protect that client’s rights. You need to ask a bankruptcy expert about this.

Life Insurance to Secure the Award

July 18, 2017 § 1 Comment

In 2015, Ronnie and Amy Ali were divorced in an acrimonious proceeding that featured over 200 docket entries. Amy was granted the divorce on HCIT, and was awarded custody, child support, equitable distribution, alimony, and attorney’s fees. To secure the financial award, the chancellor ordered Ronnie to maintain a $2 million life insurance policy. Ronnie appealed on several issues, including the life insurance.

In Ali v. Ali, handed down June 13, 2017, the COA reversed and remanded on the life insurance issue. Since the opinion is a concise statement of the law on the point, I am including that portion. Judge Fair wrote for a 6-4 court:

¶22. The chancellor ordered Ronnie to maintain a life insurance policy valued at $2 million, with Amy to receive $1.5 million and the minor daughter to receive $500,000 in the event of Ronnie’s death. On appeal, Ronnie argues that the policy amounts required for Amy are excessive in light of the permissible purposes of such awards. We agree.

¶23. In Coggins v. Coggins, 132 So. 3d 636, 644-45 (¶¶35-37) (Miss. Ct. App. 2014), this Court explained:

An alimony payor “may be required to maintain life insurance in an amount sufficient to satisfy payment of alimony obligations that survive the payor’s death.” [Deborah H.] Bell, Mississippi Family Law § 9.08[4][c] [(2005)] (citing In re Estate of Hodges, 807 So. 2d 438, 442-44 (¶¶14-23) (Miss. 2002)). The key phrase is “alimony obligations that survive the payor’s death.”

Periodic alimony is an obligation that “terminates automatically” upon the payor’s death and cannot be imposed upon the payor’s estate, absent an express agreement. Armstrong [v. Armstrong, 618 So. 2d 1278, 1281 (Miss. 1993)]; see In re Hodges, 807 So. 2d at 443 (¶19). While lump-sum alimony fully vests at the time of the divorce judgment, periodic alimony only vests on the date each payment becomes due. In re Hodges, 807 So. 2d at 442 (¶17). So when the payor dies, the only alimony obligations that survive—and the only obligations that may be insured—are unpaid lump-sum alimony and unpaid periodic-alimony payments that have already vested.

Recognizing the possibility that an alimony payor may fall behind in periodic-alimony payments and then die leaving those vested payments unsatisfied, this court has acknowledged the chancellor’s authority to require the alimony payor to maintain a life-insurance policy to protect the recipient spouse against such a contingency. [Johnson v. Pogue, 716 So. 2d 1123, 1134 (¶41) (Miss. Ct. App. 1998)]; see also Beezley v. Beezley, 917 So. 2d 803, 808 (¶17) (Miss. Ct. App. 2005). But in Pogue, this court found that requiring the payor to maintain a $75,000 life-insurance policy to protect against the potential failure to make $500-per-month alimony payments was “excessive.” Pogue, 716 So. 2d at 1134 (¶41).

¶24. Given the standard we have just recited, it is impossible to say that a life insurance policy of $1.5 million is necessary to guard against the potential failure to make $5,500 monthly alimony payments and to repay approximately $376,500 in marital debt. On remand, the chancery court should determine an appropriate award in light of the authorities we have just discussed.

I posted about Coggins at this link.

Several points:

  • I think most attorneys have thought about life insurance as a replacement for future years of alimony that will not be paid in the event of the payer’s untimely death. Coggins, however, makes it clear that what is insured is any unpaid arrearage existing at the time of death, since periodic alimony payments cease at the death of the payer.
  • Does the same rule apply to child support? In the absence of an agreement to the contrary, the child support obligation ceases at the death of the payer, and the estate of the decedent is not liable for future support. It would appear, then, that child support would be subject to the same considerations as alimony.
  • One failing of most attorneys is to offer any proof of the cost of life insurance. I refuse to award it without some testimony of the projected cost.

Social Security and its Impact on Alimony

June 22, 2017 § 1 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.

Hybrid Alimony With a Bite

June 13, 2017 § Leave a comment

Brian and Ruth’e Korelitz were in negotiations to settle their divorce case in 2006. When it came time to address the alimony issue, one of them produced a proposed provision that required Brian to pay Ruth’e periodic alimony in reducing amounts in three-year increments until Brian’s retirement. In the course of negotiations, however, the parties agreed to some handwritten deletions and insertions so that the alimony provision ended up looking like this:

A. Periodic Alimony. [Brian] agrees to pay unto [Ruth’e] as periodic alimony  the monthly sum of $2,850.00 per month, beginning the first day of the month immediately following execution of this Agreement for a period of thirty-six (36) months, reducing to $2,600.00 for a period of thirty-six (36) months, [and] reducing to $2,100.00 for a period of thirty-six (36) months. Periodic [A]limony shall then reduce to $1,750.00 until September 1, 2019, or [Brian’s] retirement, whichever occurs later, whereupon periodic alimony shall cease. Said periodic alimony shall be payable one-half on the 1st and one-half on the 15th of each month. In addition, such periodic alimony shall cease upon the remarriage of [Ruth’e] or upon the death of either party[,] whichever occurs first. The payments shall be deductible by [Brian] and includable as income by [Ruth’e], both for state and federal income tax purposes. [Handwritten addition as follows:] Said payments are further non-modifiable, except as set forth herein above.

All of the strikeouts and handwritten language were initialed by the parties. The agreement was approved by the court, and the parties were divorced.

In 2014, after Ruth’e had taken up with another man, Brian filed for modification to terminate based on the relationship. He also contended that he had suffered a reduction in income.

It should not surprise you that the chancellor denied his request, concluding that the agreement not only prohibited modification on its face, but also that it created a form of lump-sum alimony, which is unmodifiable anyway, so that neither Ruth’e’s relationship nor Brian’s income were relevant.

Brian appealed, and it should not surprise you that the COA affirmed. You can read Judge Ishee’s opinion in the case of Korelitz v. Korelitz at the link.

This case highlights several points:

  • Hybrid alimony can be a tricky thing. The language above, with its edits, clearly shows the parties’ intent that these payments were not intended as periodic alimony, even though they were to cease on remarriage or death, and were deductible to Brian and income to Ruth’e. Often, though, the intent is not so clear, and if you leave it murky you are putting it into the hands of a judge who might not see it the same way you and your client did. A case in point is at this link.
  • Keep in mind that the default setting for alimony is periodic. In other words, if the court can’t make out what kind of creature was intended, it must consider it to be periodic.
  • I wonder whether Brian understood, when he initialed that handwritten language, that he was signing away his right to ask the court to do the very thing he took Ruth’e back to court to do? I’m sure the lawyer has a letter from Brian in her file documenting that she explained it thoroughly to him before he signed, and that she advised him not to agree to it.
  • I guess Brian’s argument at trial was that the agreement does say that the alimony was terminable on Ruth’e’s remarriage, so if the relationship is tantamount to marriage, then that clause should be invoked. Once the judge determined that it was lump-sum alimony, however, that boat sank.

Lump-Sum Alimony Without a Lump

March 7, 2017 § Leave a comment

In the divorce judgment between Herman and Lillie Scott, the chancellor equitably divided the marital estate, awarding Herman most of the unencumbered real property and one small debt, and awarding Lillie the encumbered real property and the bulk of the marital debt. There was a large disparity in income in favor of Lillie.

In his judgment the chancellor said:

“All of the Armstrong factors mentioned above which suggest the appropriateness of an award of alimony to Herman have been considered by the Court to entitle him to a modest award of lump sum alimony. The Court considers that the division of the marital estate outlined below incorporates an equitable division of the estate and an award of such lump sum alimony.”

The chancellor’s ruling, however, did not state an amount or otherwise describe of what the lump-sum award consisted.

Herman appealed, complaining that the chancellor erred in not awarding him periodic alimony. In Scott v. Scott, handed down December 13, 2016, the COA affirmed with an opinion by Judge Greenlee. It’s a routine opinion that you will not likely find very useful.

The special concurring opinion by Judge Lee, however, makes some good points about how a trial judge should address alimony:

¶17. I concur in result with the majority’s decision to affirm; however, I find that the chancellor’s decision to categorize a portion of the equitable division of the marital assets as lump-sum alimony was incorrect.

¶18. First, the chancellor did not provide for a specific amount of lump-sum alimony. Whether lump-sum alimony is “used either as alimony or as part of property division,” it must be a “fixed and irrevocable sum.” Beezley v. Beezley, 917 So. 2d 803, 806 (¶10) (Miss. Ct. App. 2005) (citing Wray v. Wray, 394 So. 2d 1341, 1345 (Miss. 1981)). The chancellor did not designate a specific amount of lump-sum alimony; rather, he divided the marital assets, giving Herman the majority of the unencumbered assets. The chancellor simply stated that “the division of the marital estate . . . incorporates an equitable division of the estate and an award of such lump sum alimony.”

¶19. Second, the nature of the award is, in reality, equitable distribution. This Court in East v. East, 775 So. 2d 741, 745 (¶9) (Miss. Ct. App. 2000), determined that the chancellor incorrectly labeled an equity transfer from the husband to the wife as lump-sum alimony, when, “in effect, it is a portion of the . . . equitable distribution of the estate.” We affirmed the transfer but corrected the labeling error. Id. Here, I would affirm the equitable distribution award but decline to accept the chancellor’s decision to label any amount thereof as lump-sum alimony.

Judge Lee’s opinion was joined by Judge Wilson and by Judge Fair, who is the sole former chancellor on the court.

Lump Sum Alimony and Child Support

February 13, 2017 § Leave a comment

When Suzann and Greg Davis went to court on modification issues, the chancellor ruled that Suzann had to pay Greg a sum of child support. In calculating the amount, the chancellor included lump-sum alimony payments she was receiving as part of her adjusted gross income. Suzann appealed.

In the case of Davis v. Davis, decided January 24, 2017, the COA affirmed.

¶13. Suzann also argues that the chancellor erred in including lump-sum alimony as part of her income when calculating her child-support obligation, because lump-sum alimony is not the type of alimony contemplated in the statute. [Fn 1] She points to Neville v. Neville, 734 So. 2d 352 (Miss. Ct. App. 1999), and Dickerson v. Dickerson, 34 So. 3d 637 (Miss. Ct. App. 2010), to support her argument. In Neville, this Court held that lump-sum alimony payable in installments is not “‘alimony’ necessarily includable” when calculating a parent’s adjusted gross income. Neville, 734 So. 3d at 359 (¶31). In Dickerson, this Court simply detailed the connection between lump-sum alimony and the division of property. Dickerson, 34 So. 3d at 645 (¶32). Neither of these cases prohibits a chancellor from considering lump-sum alimony as income under section 43-19-101(3)(a). Thus, we find that a chancellor retains the discretion to classify lump-sum alimony as income when calculating child support. We find no abuse of discretion in the present case.

[Fn 1] Section 43-19-101(3)(a) provides that alimony is a potential source of income that may be considered when determining a parent’s adjusted gross income.

Not much to comment on. I thought this was something useful to have in your arsenal when you have a similar case.

Can You Garnish SS Benefits for Child Support and Alimony?

January 5, 2017 § 7 Comments

Conventional wisdom is what is generally accepted as the truth when no one has bothered to research the actual truth. Conventional wisdom has long dictated that you can’t garnish Social Security benefits to collect child support or alimony.

But here’s a direct quote from the Social Security Administration (SSA) FAQ site on the point:

Can my Social Security benefits be garnished for alimony, child support or restitution?

We can withhold Social Security benefits to enforce your legal obligation to pay child support, alimony or restitution. State laws determine a valid garnishment order. By law, we garnish current and continuing monthly benefits. We do not make retroactive adjustments.

You cannot appeal to Social Security for implementing garnishment orders. If you disagree with the garnishment, contact an attorney or representative where the court issued the order.

From that, I take it that: (1) the garnishment is limited to current benefits, and lump-sum payments for past benefits are apparently not garnishable; (2) the garnishment is done according to state law, and is subject to the federally-imposed limits (which are high for child support, as pointed out below); and (3) if you think the garnishment order is wrong procedurally or substantively, your remedy is in the state court that issued it, and Social Security will decline to help you with that.

Side note: I wonder whether a lump-sum benefit expected but not yet received is subject to garnishment? In other words, SSA will not reach back and retroactively “adjust” a lump-sum benefit already paid, which is understandable; but if that lump-sum payment is in process but has not yet been paid, may it, too, be garnished?

It’s not stated above, but I understand that neither alimony nor child support may be taken from an SSI check.

Federal law limits garnishment in most cases to 25% of disposable income. When it comes to child support, though, garnishment may be as much as 50-60%. A previous post discussing child-support garnishment is at this link.

In a recent case in another district, the ex-husband did not appear for his divorce hearing, and was ordered by the chancellor in the divorce judgment to pay $200 a month alimony to his ex. The wife’s attorney had the court enter an “Order for Withholding” contemporaneously with the judgment. The withholding order specifically directed that the alimony be withheld from the husband’s SS benefits. It also directed withholding by “any payer of the obligor.” A certified copy of the order was sent to SSA.

Two weeks later SSA sent a letter to the attorney documenting that the amount directed was to be withheld from the husband’s SS benefits, effective in the following month. Although the SSA did agree to withhold the amount directed by the court, it did point out that the amount withheld is limited by federal law. What that means to you is that the 25% limitation for alimony, and 50-60% limitation for child support, may mean a smaller recovery for you in relatively big-dollar cases.

Note that the lawyer in this case prepared and presented a withholding order rather than a formal writ of garnishment, and SSA honored it. That tells me that if you obtain a court-ordered withholding order in any form SSA will honor it. It’s up to the obligor to complain to the state court about the procedure that was used.

Oh, and for those of you who haven’t dealt with SSA recently, their response time in my experience is lightning-fast in all but disability cases, and accurate. It’s a far cry from even 10 years ago when SSA took forever to respond with inaccurate and confusing information that would take months to correct. Your experience may vary.

Here is yet another avenue available to you to make your clients happy. Remember: when you save or make your clients money, they love you; when you cost them money, they hate you. Whether they love or hate you, they will tell all their friends and relatives about it. You get to decide what kind of news they spread around about you.

Thanks to Attorney Christopher Tabb of Brandon for the factual information; the editorial comments are my own

When Alimony is Like an Elephant

November 28, 2016 § Leave a comment

Most of you, I am sure, are familiar with the fable of the blind men and the elephant. Six different blind men, for some reason, are asked to feel an elephant and to describe what the creature is like based on their experience. Of course, each one can offer a description based only on his limited groping. One surmises a rope-like creature based on feeling the trunk, another guesses a tree-like creature after feeling the leg, and yet another posits an umbrella-like critter from feeling the ear. And so on. The point being that perception based on limited evidence can be misleading and incomplete.

That takes us to the COA’s decision in Kittrell v. Kittrell, decided October 4, 2016, in which the court was called upon to determine whether the special chancellor erred in concluding that an alimony provision in a PSA was periodic. To set the stage, Judge Lee recited the legal standard and went on to describe the court’s chore:

¶9. “Although a court order imposing alimony must, in general, clearly identify what type of alimony is being awarded and adhere to its traditional characteristics, our ‘Supreme Court has not required consensual support agreements to follow the same terms as for court imposed alimony.’” Id. at 918 (¶30) (quoting Elliott v. Rogers, 775 So. 2d 1285, 1289 (¶15) (Miss. Ct. App. 2000)). “Rather, the Supreme Court has emphasized divorcing parties’ freedom and ‘broad latitude’ to settle the financial aspects of their separation by contract as they see fit[.]” Id.

¶10. It is because of this broad latitude that this Court is faced with the hopeless task of determining whether the alimony provision in Stan and Stephanie’s property-settlement agreement provided for lump-sum or periodic alimony. [Emphasis added]

Hopeless task? Hyperbole, you think? Well, judge for yourself; here’s the PSA provision in question:

Both parties do hereby agree that Stan Kittrell each month shall deposit his monthly retirement check from the Public Employees Retirement System (PERS) into Stephanie Kittrell’s bank account via direct deposit with the monthly amount of $250.00 considered child support and the remainder as alimony. The child support will continue to be deposited monthly until the child’s [twenty-first] birthday or until the child no longer lives with the mother. The remainder of the check shall be considered alimony and shall continue to be paid until the child reaches the age of [twenty-one] or until Stephanie Kittrell remarries. Stan Kittrell shall receive sixty percent (60%) of the [thirteenth] PERS check and Stephanie Kittrell shall receive forty-percent (40%) of the same until such time as the child reaches the age of [twenty-one] or until the child no longer lives with the mother. Stephanie Kittrell by signing this document agrees to pay the house note on the marital home out of the PERS money she receives from Stan Kittrell.

Stan Kittrell hereby relinquishes all rights and benefits to Stephanie Kittrell’s 401k retirement funds. Both parties relinquish any right to bonuses, rewards, or financial settlements of any kind.

Hyperbole? I think not. Here’s how the COA addressed it:

¶18. We also reverse the chancery court’s finding that the alimony provision in Stan and Stephanie’s property-settlement agreement provided for periodic alimony. The alimony provision does not strictly adhere to the traditional characteristics of either periodic or lump sum alimony. See Lowrey [v. Simmons], 186 So. 3d [907] at 919 (¶33) [(Miss. App. 2000)]. Accordingly, we will enforce the provision as it is written. See id. Because Stephanie did not remarry, Stan was obligated to pay alimony until Dylan reached the age of twenty-one on September 17, 2014. And Stan’s thirteenth PERS check would have terminated when Stan was granted custody of Dylan. We remand this case to the chancery court for a calculation of the specific amount of alimony owed as well as costs and attorney’s fees.

I am guessing that this was not the outcome Stan expected when he signed that PSA back in 2005.

When you draft an agreement such as a PSA, keep in mind that it not only has to reflect the parties’ agreement and make sense to them and counsel involved, it most importantly must be clear enough to make sense to others not involved, and particularly to any judge who will later be called upon to construe it. Again : Draft it, and set it aside for a day or so. Then pick it up and read it over again carefully. Does it say what needs to be said? Then re-read it pretending that you know nothing about the negotiations (like a judge has to do). Is it clear from its plain language just what is intended and what is to occur? If it is intended to be periodic alimony, then say so in plain, unmistakable terms. When you leave it to a judge to figure it out later, your client might not get what she thought she bargained for.

This case also involved a claim for termination of alimony for cohabitation. That’s for another day.

Cohabitation and Termination of Alimony

July 5, 2016 § 2 Comments

If you have been looking for a history of Mississippi law on termination of alimony due to cohabitation, you need look no further than the MSSC’s decision in Heiter v. Heiter, by Sheffield, handed down June 9, 2016.

Patrick and Lindalyn Heiter were divorced in 2001. At the time of the divorce, Lindalyn had been diagnosed with several cognitive conditions that impaired her ability to perform simple tasks such as counting money or writing checks. Her ability to hold a job was impacted by her inability to coordinate or manage time properly. She could complete small tasks, but lacked organizational skills. Dr. Koch, a professional who examined her, opined that she would need to reside in an assisted-living situation; she had attempted living on her own after the separation, but those attempts ended poorly. Patrick agreed to pay Lindalyn $650 a month in periodic alimony.

Soon after the divorce, the court appointed co-guardians, one for her person, and the other for her estate. Sheffield, an attorney whose name appears in the style of the case, was appointed guardian of her estate, and Stepro was appointed guardian of the person.

In 2007, Patrick filed a petition for modification to terminate alimony, alleging that Lindlyn was cohabiting with a male, Curtis Cole. Patrick also claimed that she was receiving SSI, but that proved to be untrue.

Following a trial, the chancellor found that Lindalyn’s only income was the $650 alimony, and that she was drawing down some retirement funds she received in the divorce to make up the nearly $300 deficit between those sums and her expenses. The chancellor also found:

. . . [I]t is clear that Lindalyn is also unable to maintain employment. . . .

There is ample evidence that both Curtis and Lindalyn are supporting each other financially, and that Lindalyn would not be able to survive if she did not share finances with him. . . . Lindalyn only pays half of the rent and utilities on the house, while Curtis picks up the remaining expenses. . . . Curtis is currently on disability and does not work. . . .

The chancellor denied Patrick’s request to terminate alimony, and he appealed.

Justice Randolph addressed Patrick’s for a unanimous court:

¶5. Patrick sought to be relieved from paying alimony to Lindalyn. Patrick alleged that Lindalyn was cohabiting with a male and was receiving SSI benefits. Patrick further averred that there had been “a substantial and material change in circumstances since the original decree was entered,” and that the original decree should be modified to terminate or reduce his alimony obligation. Traditionally, alimony payments cease only if the receiving party remarries or either party dies. McDonald v. McDonald, 683 So. 2d 929, 931 (Miss. 1996). However, a chancellor has authority to modify alimony “upon a finding of a substantial change in circumstances, regardless of any intent expressed by the parties to the contrary.” Id.

¶6. In 1961, this Court was first faced with whether “a chancery court [could] divest a wife of future alimony payments on the ground of misconduct of the wife after the divorce.” Rubisoff v. Rubisoff, 242 Miss. 225, 233, 133 So. 2d 534, 536 (1961). Citing Bunkley and Morse’s Amis on Divorce and Separation in Mississippi [Fn 4] and 17 American Jurisprudence, Divorce and Separation, the Rubisoff Court concluded that a chancery court could exercise its powers by modifying or revoking its prior alimony award. Rubisoff, 242 Miss. at 236, 133 So. 2d at 538. The Court further determined that “it was the duty of the trier of facts to determine whether or not the alleged misconduct . . . was of such nature as to forfeit [the] right to future alimony.” Rubisoff, 242 Miss. at 236, 133 So. 2d at 538.

[Fn 4] 4 J.W. Bunkley Jr. & W.E. Morse, Bunkley and Morse’s Amis on Divorce and Separation in Mississippi, § 6.12 (1957); 17 Am. Jur. Divorce and Separation, § 755.

¶7. Twenty years later, the issue arose again in McRae v. McRae, 381 So. 2d 1052 (Miss. 1980). The Court held that “[n]o hard and fast rule or mold may be laid down to fit at once all of the spectrum of misconduct. The question must be faced and determined on a case-by-case basis.” McRae, 381 So. 2d at 1055.

¶8. Relying on Rubisoff and McRae, the Court later affirmed the judgment of a chancellor who found that a recipient spouse “had forfeited her right to future support from appellee because her admitted adultery during the period following her divorce was of sufficient duration and frequency to justify the holding of the chancellor.” McHann v. McHann, 383 So. 2d 823, 826 (Miss. 1980). The Court stated that “[t]o hold otherwise would be to condone adultery and in effect would penalize a divorcee for marrying but reward her for cohabitation without benefit of marriage.” Id.

¶9. Our law further evolved in Hammonds v. Hammonds, 641 So. 2d 1211 (Miss. 1994), in which the Court held that Rubisoff and its progeny “clearly reflect a moral judgment that a divorced woman should not engage in sexual relations; the penalty for such activity is forfeiture of her right to support from her ex-husband.” Hammonds, 641 So. 2d at 1216. The Hammonds Court departed from the prior line of cases and remanded the case for the chancellor to consider the “financial, rather than moral aspect[] of cohabitation” and further held there is a “presumption that the divorced woman’s partner/cohabitant is providing financial support, thereby eliminating or reducing her need for support from her ex-husband” unless the unique facts of the case direct otherwise. Id. at 1216-17. The Hammonds Court adopted a two-prong test which requires chancellors to consider whether a third party provides support to the recipient spouse and whether the recipient spouse contributes to the support of the third party. Id.

¶10. In Ellis v. Ellis, 651 So. 2d 1068 (Miss. 1995), the Court again remanded a case for a chancellor to determine (1) if there was cohabitation, (2) if the ex-wife was being supported by or was supporting her suitor, and (3) if her financial needs had changed due to the cohabitation and/or support. Ellis, 651 So. 2d at 1074. The Ellis Court cited a Florida [Fn 5]case which stated that cohabitation will raise a presumption of a material change in circumstances, but cohabitation alone does not require an automatic reduction or termination of alimony. Id. at 1072.

[Fn 5] DePoorter v. DePoorter, 509 So. 2d 1141 (Fla. App. 1 Dist.1987).

¶11. In Scharwath, this Court officially adopted the Florida rule and held “that proof of cohabitation creates a presumption that a material change in circumstances has occurred.” Scharwath v. Scharwath, 702 So. 2d 1210, 1211 (Miss. 1997). This presumption shifts the burden to the recipient spouse to produce evidence contradicting mutual financial support. Id. However, the paying spouse still must show that the cohabitation results in “a situation of mutual support between the recipient spouse and another individual which alters the recipient spouse’s financial needs” before alimony can be modified. Id.

¶12. At the conclusion of the presentation of evidence by Patrick, the chancellor denied Lindalyn’s motion to dismiss, satisfied that Patrick had offered sufficient evidence of cohabitation and mutual support, which required Lindalyn to offer evidence related to mutual financial support. Lindalyn admitted that she lived with Curtis, but without sexual relations, and that they mutually supported one another. However, she denied that her financial needs had been altered due to the cohabitation and mutual support. After the parties concluded presentation of their proof, the chancellor announced she would take the case under advisement and would issue a written opinion.

¶13. The chancellor reviewed the evidence, considered the law, and issued an extensive, nine-page Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law. The chancellor found that Patrick had failed to prove that Lindalyn’s financial needs were altered by her cohabitation with Curtis or the mutual support provided by Curtis. The chancellor found that there was no doubt that Lindalyn was receiving mutual financial support from Curtis. However, the chancellor noted that this was a “factually unique scenario . . . in which [Lindalyn] has no choice but to cohabit[] with another individual in order to survive.” The testimony presented by Brenda Stepro and Haidee Sheffield, Dr. Koch’s psychological report, and evidence of Lindalyn’s prior living arrangements all support the chancellor’s finding that Lindalyn must live with another person.

¶14. The chancellor held that “[w]ithout the $650.00 she receives from Patrick, Lindalyn would not be able to meet her financial obligations each month without accruing . . . penalties from withdrawals on the retirement account.” Reviewing the evidence submitted to the chancellor, there is sufficient proof that the support provided by Curtis to Lindalyn was not enough to justify eliminating or reducing Lindalyn’s support from Patrick. We find that the chancellor did not abuse her discretion in denying Patrick’s motion to terminate or modify alimony.

That’s about as concise a statement as you will find on the evolution of Mississippi law in this area.

Oh, and the court also affirmed the chancellor’s award of an attorney’s fee to Lindlyn based on testimony of her inability to pay. That’s some authority you might want to file away for future use, because getting an award of attorney’s fees in a modification such as this is not something you see every day.

Periodic or Lump-sum?

June 22, 2016 § Leave a comment

When Denise and Andrew Von Herrmann were divorced in 2012, their agreement incorporated into the divorce judgment included the following language:

“Wife shall pay husband periodic alimony as follows: On or before the 15th day of each month beginning August 15, 2012, $1,450 per month through March 16, 2016. Beginning April 15, 2016, and continuing through September 15, 2022, wife’s periodic alimony to husband shall be reduced to $500 per month, with the final periodic payment of $500 due on September 15, 2022. All alimony payments shall otherwise cease 1) upon the demise of the wife or husband or 2) upon husband’s remarriage or commencement of regular cohabitation with another woman.”

Denise filed a petition to modify in 2013, claiming a reduction in income from $180,000 to $85,000 a year. Denise had remarried or had her name restored to Runge at the time she filed.

Following a trial, the chancellor ruled that the payments were unmodifiable lump-sum alimony “due to the fixed amount and the definitive ending date. Denise appealed.

In the case of Runge v. Herrmann, decided May 31, 2016, the COA reversed. Judge Irving, for the court, analyzed the case law that goes in both directions on how to construe “hybrid alimony” provisions such as this. Instead of relying on those decisions, though, the court applied contract construction principles and concluded that it was the intent of the parties was that the payments were to supplement Andrew’s income and, therefore, they were in the nature of alimony, and not property division; thus, it was error for the chancellor to conclude that they were lump-sum alimony, which is a property-division tool. The case was remanded for further proceedings consistent with the opinion.

Some observations:

  • Ever since the MSSC began permitting so-called “hybrid alimony” that mixed and matched various features of the three major genres of alimony (i.e., periodic, periodic rehabilitative, and lump-sum), the cases are quite fact-specific. It is hard to draw any hard and fast conclusions about what language to use to protect your client’s interests.
  • As both sides argued here, the label you smack on the alimony arrangement you draft will not necessarily be controlling. Rather, the court must look to the substance of the parties’ agreement.
  • In this case, it might have helped if it had been specifically stated in the agreement that the parties agreed that the arrangement was to supplement income, and was specifically not intended to be any form of property division or lump-sum alimony.
  • Mention of the tax treatment in the agreement would probably have been dispositive. True alimony is taxable income to the recipient and deductible by the payer, unless some other agreed tax treatment is expressly stated. Lump-sum alimony, which is property division and not really alimony, is neither taxable nor deductible.
  • As I have said here before, I really wish the MSSC would do away with the term “lump-sum alimony” as it applies to property division. Its original meaning, ‘way back in 1856 when it was concocted by the court, was to allow payment of the entire amount of alimony that would be payable under the decree to be paid in one, or several payments. (That was back before there was an IRS that frowned on front-loading). Over time, the court expanded the meaning to include payments to equalize the parties’ estates in divorce. That fiction was necessary at the time to get around the principle that title controlled, and the court could not divide separately-titled property, but it could award “alimony.” The necessity for that fiction, however, went away with Ferguson and its progeny. Post-Ferguson, we understand that an equalizing payment may be necessary to divide the equities in divorce, regardless of title. So why don’t we call it an “equalizing payment” or something similar, and limit use of the term “alimony” to payments intended to replace or supplement income?

 

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