Lump-Sum Alimony = Alimony?

December 1, 2014 § Leave a comment

Most of us tend to think in the 21st century that lump-sum alimony is a tool for equitable distribution; however, it does retain a small role in alimony itself, as the court’s analysis in a recent case illustrates.

In the November 6, 2014, MSSC case, Davenport v. Davenport, the chancellor had conducted a Ferguson analysis, and ordered Tammy Davenport to pay her ex, Richard, lump-sum alimony in the sum of $1,515,914.33, payable in monthly installments of $8,421.75 over 180 months. Tammy appealed, arguing on this point that the chancellor had erred by not making on-the-record findings of Tammy’s ability to pay applying the Armstrong factors.

Justice Randolph addressed the argument:

¶30. Lump-sum alimony can serve two distinct purposes. The first purpose is to aid the chancellor in equitably dividing the marital estate under the Ferguson factors. See Haney, 907 So. 2d 948. The second purpose is to aid the chancellor in correcting an equitable deficit, resulting from the equitable distribution of the marital estate under the Armstrong factors. See Rogillio v. Rogillio, 57 So. 3d 1246, 1249 (Miss. 2011).

Let’s pause right there and look at that second stated purpose. Lump-sum alimony has also been used as a replacement or supplement for permanent or rehabilitative spousal support, and to award a spouse’s substantial contribution to asset accumulation. See Bell on Mississippi Family Law, 2d Ed., § 9.02[2][b][ii]-[v], pp. 244-245. So it does retain a role in the award of alimony.

The analyses of equitable distribution and alimony pass through two entirely different filters. Equitable distribution is conducted applying the Ferguson factors. Alimony requires analysis of the Armstrong factors. Only if the equitable distribution leaves a deficit for one spouse may the court then proceed to consider alimony.

The Davenport decision continues, explaining the factors applicable to lump-sum alimony, and how they fit into the picture:

¶31. In Haney v. Haney, this Court found that the chancellor’s award of lump-sum alimony was allocated to equitably distribute the marital assets. Haney, 907 So. 2d at 952. This Court discussed how, prior to Ferguson, lump-sum alimony was the central mechanism through which marital property was divided. Haney, 907 So. 2d at 952. In Cheatham v. Cheatham, the Court set out factors to be taken into account when considering an award of lump-sum alimony. Cheatham v. Cheatham, 537 So. 2d 435, 438 (Miss. 1988). Based on the factors later presented in Ferguson, this Court stated:

Clearly, the Cheatham factors were simply an earlier attempt by this Court to provide a chancellor with guidelines for awarding what today is called an equitable distribution of marital assets, under appropriate circumstances. Indeed, we see no Ferguson factor which would be inappropriate in evaluating lump sum alimony. Although we continue to refer to certain payments as “lump sum alimony,” these payments are really no more than equitable distribution in the form of lump sum cash, rather than an equitable portion of certain property which cannot be divided equitably.

Haney, 907 So. 2d at 955.

¶32. This Court later considered an award of lump-sum alimony and reiterated that ” . . . the chancery court was obligated to apply the appropriate factors . . . the Cheatham-Ferguson factors. Yelverton v. Yelverton, 961 So. 2d 19, 25 (Miss. 2007). See also Dickerson v. Dickerson, 34 So. 3d 637, 647-48 (Miss. Ct. App. 2010) (After reviewing Haney and Yelverton, the court concluded that chancellors should consider lump-sum alimony under the Ferguson factors; however, an analysis under Cheatham is not reversible error.); George v. George, 22 So. 3d 424, 427-30 (Miss. Ct. App. 2009) (Lump-sum alimony was analyzed under this Court’s ruling in Haney, considering the Cheatham factors, while periodic alimony was analyzed under the factors set forth in Armstrong.); Dunn v. Dunn, 911 So. 2d 591 n.4 (Miss. Ct. App. 2005) (acknowledging that, pursuant to Haney, the Ferguson factors should be considered when determining an award of lump-sum alimony).

¶33. In Lauro v. Lauro, this Court described alimony as something which is contemplated subsequent to the equitable division of marital property. Lauro v. Lauro, 847 So. 2d 843, 848 (Miss. 2003). Lauro relies on the language set forth in Johnson v. Johnson, quoting:

If there are sufficient marital assets which, when equitably divided and considered with each spouse’s non-marital assets, will adequately provide for both parties, no more need be done. If the situation is such that an equitable division of marital property, considered with each party’s non-marital assets, leaves a deficit for one party, then alimony based on the value of non-marital assets should be considered.

Lauro, 847 So. 2d at 848 (emphasis original) (quoting Johnson v. Johnson, 650 So. 2d 1281, 1287 (Miss. 1994)). Lauro further explains that the Armstrong factors must be considered when awarding alimony. Lauro, 847 So. 2d at 848. See Lowrey, 25 So. 3d at 280. (“Failure to make an on-the-record . . . analysis is manifest error.”).

¶34. If lump-sum alimony is awarded as a mechanism to equitably divide the marital assets, then chancellors may conduct their analysis under the Ferguson factors. Haney, 907 So. 2d at 955. However, if the alimony, lump-sum or otherwise, is awarded subsequent to the equitable distribution of the marital assets, then chancellors must conduct their analysis under the Armstrong factors. Lauro, 847 So. 2d at 848.

¶35. In the instant case, the chancellor fully considered the award of lump-sum alimony under the Ferguson factors because the award served as a means to equitably divide the marital property. Therefore, the chancellor appropriately conducted a Ferguson analysis in the findings of facts and conclusions of law incorporated it into the final decree; thus, the chancellor did not fail to adequately consider Tammy’s ability to pay the award. This issue is without merit. [Emphasis added]

I think it would simplify everything if we would:

  1. Leave the term “lump-sum alimony” exclusively to describe that post-Armstrong-analysis use of a lump-sum payment to supplement or replace true alimony or to reward substantial contribution to accumulation of assets; and
  2. Use the term “equalizing payment” or some similar phrase to apply to payments ordered under a Ferguson analysis to balance out the equitable division.

To continue to call something alimony that we all know has nothing to do with an Armstrong analysis invites confusion and the continued need to explain and clarify it in our case law, for no good reason. Lump-sum alimony was judicially created in 1856 to address a void in the law of alimony. It was created to allow lump-sum payments of true alimony in lieu of periodic payments. In the pre-Ferguson days, the court looked for a way to adjust equities around our title rules, and transmuted lump sum alimony into a tool to do that. Ferguson, however, changed this area of the law, yet the old terminology has remained confusingly in place. With the change ushered in by Ferguson, it’s appropriate that we should change our nomenclature.  

Separate Property and Family Use

October 29, 2014 § 2 Comments

It’s no secret that family use of an asset during the marriage can convert it from separate property to marital property.

Steve Cupp tried to argue that his Lake Cormorant house was separate property, not subject to equitable distribution, because: (1) he acquired the property before his ten-month marriage to his wife, Jenny; (2) he titled it in his sole name; (3) he made all of the mortgage payments from his separate account; and (did I already mention this?) (4) he and Jenny lived together only ten months before they separated.

The chancellor agreed with Jenny that family use had converted the property from separate to marital, and included it in the equitable distribution. Steve appealed.

The COA affirmed in Cupp v. Cupp, handed down October 8, 2013. Judge Maxwell’s opinion explained:

¶16. We first address Steve’s argument that the chancellor erred in classifying the Lake Cormorant property as marital, and, therefore, the property should not have been included in the division of marital assets. Steve asserts that because he acquired the property prior to the marriage, titled the property solely in his name, and made mortgage payments from his separate account, that the property is not marital in nature. Jenny counters Steve’s claims by noting that she lived in the home with her son and Steve before Steve moved to Sevierville. At that time, Jenny contributed domestically to all maintenance on the home for a number of months until she joined Steve in Sevierville.

¶17. Mississippi employs the family-use doctrine when determining whether a couple’s separate property has become marital due to the family’s use of the property. See, e.g., Stewart v. Stewart, 864 So. 2d 934, 937-38 (¶13) (Miss. 2003); Rhodes v. Rhodes, 52 So. 3d 430, 438 (¶¶25-26) (Miss. Ct. App. 2011); Brame v. Brame, 98-CA-00502-COA (¶20) (Miss. Ct. App. Mar. 28, 2000), rev’d in part on other grounds, 796 So. 2d 970 (Miss. 2001). Property that was acquired prior to the marriage by one of the parties can become marital property when used by the family. See id. Furthermore, a party’s contribution to the maintenance of a family home, whether monetary or physical, is considered when dividing the home equitably. See, e.g., Ferguson, 639 So. 2d at 928; Hemsley v. Hemsley, 639 So. 2d 909, 915 (Miss. 1994); Tatum v. Tatum, 54 So. 3d 855, 861 (¶21) (Miss. Ct. App. 2010).

It seems to me that the only way to avoid having property succumb to the family use doctrine is to do everything that Steve did here, except to allow his wife to set foot on the property. Ever. He should have kept it padlocked and given her a letter informing her that if she entered the property she would be prosecuted for trespass.

Of course, I am being facetious. But only in part. What else must one do to keep property separate? It seems that the so-called family-use doctrine can have a decidedly un-family-friendly whipsaw to it. Imagine telling your wife she can’t set foot on your lake property because you want to keep it separate. Imagine telling your child that you can’t take her fishing there because it’s separate. Imagine telling your musically-gifted son he can not practice on the grand piano you keep locked up in a warehouse because you promised grandma that you would keep it in the family.

In my opinion, it would be better to say in a case like this that it is separate property, the value of which causes a disparity in the financial situations of the parties, opening the possibility for time-limited alimony for Jenny.

¶18. The record reflects that the chancellor determined that the property in question was converted to a marital asset by means of the family-use doctrine. The chancellor also noted “that while [Steve] made the primary financial contributions to the accumulation of marital assets, [Jenny] made significant domestic contributions to the marriage.” We agree. Steve, Jenny, and Jenny’s son all lived in the home for some time prior to their move to Sevierville. Jenny also physically maintained the home by herself for several months after Steve moved. We cannot find manifest error in the chancellor’s determination that the Lake Cormorant property was part of the marital estate. This issue is meritless.

A Few Interesting points in an ID Divorce

October 6, 2014 § Leave a comment

The COA case of Massey v. Massey, handed down September 30, 2014, is a routine case for the most part, but it includes some interesting wrinkles that you might want to note.

Jennifer and Stephen Massey filed a joint complaint for divorce on the sole ground of irreconcilable differences. Later they entered into a written consent that settled a few issues and spelled out issues for adjudication by the court.

When they appeared for trial, they announced that certain of the contested issues had been settled. They agreed to joint legal and physical custody of two of their children, and to legal custody of the third, but physical custody of him, as well as support for all three children, was left for the court to decide. Attorney’s fees were also agreed, but all other contested issues were left to the court.

Following a trial, the court adopted the parties’ agreement, and awarded Stephen custody of one child. He ordered Stephen to pay child support for the children in Jennifer’s custody, but ordered no child support for the child in Stephen’s care (she was to turn 21 within six months of the judgment). The chancellor divided the marital estate so that each party got an equal share, each in excess of $750,000. He awarded no alimony to Jennifer.

Jennifer appealed. The COA affirmed.

  • One of the questions that arises often is whether a written consent in an ID divorce may be amended via an announcement on the record, as was done in this case. I have heard the question in my court, and I have heard it among judges at study meetings. The problem is that there are plenty of cases that hew strictly to the line that the consent and any PSA emphatically must be in writing, yet it is quite familiar and common practice for parties to amend their pleadings verbally at trial (e.g., “My client withdraws her claim in her complaint for custody and will proceed only on her claim for visitation, your honor”). It is interesting that no one raised the verbal amendment issue here. I am thinking that the COA has raised that sua sponte in other cases. So, does this case signal that it is okay to make a verbal amendment to a consent at trial? I am doubtful. I think I’ll continue my practice of requiring the lawyers to reduce the agreement to writing and make it part of the record; making it meet the requirements of a codicil is even better.
  • This is another of many cases in which the hoary Lauro rule applies: Alimony should be awarded if a spouse is left with a deficit after equitable division. If there is no deficit found by the court, alimony is inappropriate. Here, the chancellor found expressly that Jennifer’s award of around $750,000 would do to eliminate any deficit, and the COA found that to be within the chancellor’s discretion.
  • Jennifer tried to argue on appeal that the award of child support was inadequate and erroneous. The COA held that since Jennifer did not raise the issue specifically by way of objection at trial, or in a post-trial motion, she was precluded from raising it on appeal. I find this confusing. Was this not a contested issue at trial? When a contested issue is tried with substantial proof what objection does the party have to make at trial? Object to what? And if the issue is fully developed at a bench trial, where in MRCP 59 does it require that the issue be raised again in a post-trial motion? I think R59 does not require it. See, Kiddy v. Lipscomb, 628 So.2d 1355, 1359 (Miss. 1993) [cited in the MRCP Advisory Committee Notes]. This is an issue that I wish the MSSC would address and clarify. If lawyers trying cases to a judge, without a jury, are required in essence to raise every possible issue that might be appealed in a R59 motion, despite the language of the rule, I think it is incumbent on the MSSC to tell lawyers so.
  • Jennifer argued that the chancellor erred in not finding that her husband’s payment of $30,000 to settle a sexual harassment claim against him was dissipation of marital assets. The COA did not consider it because she cited no authority. That’s unfortunate for her, because I think there’s a good argument to be made there that it was dissipation. BUT … I think the chancellor was within his discretion to find that it was not, based on the fact that it was a mere settlement, and not payment of a judgment; the settlement could be construed to be protective of the rest of the assets, and not in dissipation of them.

Those are my thoughts that percolate out of this case. Sometimes it’s helpful to read appellate court decisions critically, looking for loopholes in the arguments and reasoning of the courts (trial and appellate). That process stretches your critical-thinking processes, and adds to your ability to represent your clients.

The Bite of Draftsmanship

September 15, 2014 § Leave a comment

How you draft your legal instruments can have a huge impact on your clients’ future.

Take, for instance, the parties’ property settlement agreement (PSA) in the case of Aaron v. Aaron, a COA case handed down September 9, 2014. George and Annie Aaron were divorced in 2002 on the ground of irreconcilable differences. At the time, George was employed with the Amory Police Department, and was a participant in PERS. We don’t know from the court’s opinion the exact language of the parties’ agreement, but we know this much from ¶ 1:

As part of the divorce, George agreed to pay Annie one-half of his retirement funds acquired during the marriage. The judgment stated the funds would be transferred through a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO). At the time the judgment was entered, George was not receiving any retirement benefits. The judgment did not state which party was responsible for entering the QDRO.

We also can divine from the opinion that: the language of the PSA did not specify whether Annie was to receive 1/2 of the retirement accumulated during the marriage, or 1/2 of all George’s retirement, a significant portion of which would be earned after the divorce; it did not spell out what consideration would be given to future pay increases on George’s ultimate obligation to Annie; it also did not settle the question whether the payments were intended to be paid out in a lump sum as property settlement or whether they were intended to be paid monthly as benefits were paid out to George, in the nature of alimony.

The legal considerations that remained unaddressed in the parties’ agreement were, at least, the following:

  • PERS takes the position that federal ERISA and Mississippi law do not allow division of PERS benefits by QDRO. The agreement should have provided that it would be divided by payment, unless George left PERS employment and withdrew his account, at which time it would be divided by specified percentages between them.  No mention should have been made of a QDRO vis a vis the PERS benefits. Also, whose responsibility it was to trigger the payment of benefits should have been specified in the agreement.
  • Final calculation of the PERS benefit is based on the highest four years of earnings. Since George was not a retirement age at the time of the divorce (he did not retire until 2011), the parties should have negotiated and included in their agreement how Annie’s 1/2 benefit would be calculated, taking into account the probability of George’s future pay increases.
  • PERS benefits can not be paid out in a lump sum unless the employee leaves PERS employment. As mentioned above, this obvious point should have been addressed in the parties’ agreement. In essence, these parties had no choice but to have Annie’s share paid out over time. That is what the chancellor in Pruitt v. Pruitt tried to do, but was reversed by the COA. The problem, based on Pruitt, seems easy to address in a rational way, but is in reality deceptively difficult to resolve.

Every one of the foregoing deficiencies came back to bite these parties in the proverbial nether regions. Annie brought a contempt action against George because he did not initiate a QDRO, and for her unpaid benefits. George countered that he owed nothing, since PERS could not be divided by QDRO. The chancellor calculated what she concluded was Annie’s portion, and ordered that Annie receive that from George’s retirement payments as paid, and she awarded Annie a judgment with modest interest for the benefits that he had received and not shared with Annie. She died not find George in contempt.

George appealed, raising all of the points above. The COA affirmed.

It would have saved everyone involved a lot of legal fees, costs, aggravation, anxiety, and time if only some more attention and effort had been put into the drafting of the PSA in the first place. Yes, it would have required more time for negotiation and drafting, but it would have settled the issue as early as 2011 without the need for further litigation. It’s called draftsmanship.


Social Security and Reduction of Alimony

June 4, 2014 § 1 Comment

May a chancellor grant a downward modification of alimony based on the ex-wife’s post-divorce receipt of Social Security benefits that are derived from the ex-husband’s earnings record?

That was a key issue in the case of Cockrell v. Cockrell, handed down by the COA on May 25, 2014. In that case, the chancellor had found a material change in circumstances based on the husband’s serious deterioration in health, and reduced his alimony by $557 a month, which was the amount of the ex-wife’s Social Security benefits that she qualified for based on the ex-husband’s earnings record. The COA affirmed. Judge Fair’s opinion, for the majority, based its holding on the case of Spalding v. Spalding, 691 So.2d 435 (Miss. 1997).

In Spalding, the ex-wife had filed an action to enforce the alimony provisions of a foreign divorce judgment, and the trial judge allowed the ex-husband a credit for Social Security benefits received by the ex-wife based on the ex-husband’s earnings record. It’s not exactly the same scenario as that in Cockrell, but it’s close enough to decide the issue. 

Here is how the Spalding court addressed the issue, beginning at page 438: 

In ruling that the use of Social Security payments may be an alternative source of satisfying alimony obligations, the chancellor relied upon this Court’s earlier decisions of Mooneyham v. Mooneyham, 420 So.2d 1072 (Miss.1982), and Bradley v. Holmes, 561 So.2d 1034 (Miss.1990). In Mooneyham, this Court weighed decisions from a number of other jurisdictions and held that Social Security payments derivative from the child support payor should be credited against child support. The Court cited with approval the Georgia case of Horton v. Horton, 219 Ga. 177, 132 S.E.2d 200 (1963), which stated the basic policy:

Social Security disability payments represent money which an employee has earned during his employment and also that which his employer had paid for his benefit into a common trust fund under the Social Security Act. 42 U.S.C. § 301, et seq. These payments are for the purpose of replacing income lost because of the employee’s inability to work upon becoming disabled. Thus, these payments substitute for income. Since the amount of alimony required to be paid is determined largely by income, we see no reason why, in discharging the obligation to pay the alimony, Social Security disability benefits should not be credited.

Mooneyham, 420 So.2d at 1074. This Court stated that the decisions considered from other jurisdictions “appear to be unanimous in holding the social security payments to the minor … should be credited on the amount of support ordered by the court.” Id. at 1073.

Eight years later, this Court followed the logic and holding of Mooneyham in deciding Bradley. Bradley held that a retired father’s child support commitment would be credited for Social Security payments the minor child was eligible to receive premised upon the father’s income record, even though the child’s mother chose to receive Social Security benefits based on the income history of the child’s retired stepfather. Bradley, 561 So.2d at 1035–36. This Court stated that “[e]quity suggests that child support obligations are to be off-set, not only to the extent of payments actually received under the Social Security Act, but also for payments the child was entitled to receive, based on the parent’s retirement.” Bradley, 561 So.2d at 1036 (citation omitted).

This Court’s holdings in Mooneyham and Bradley aligned Mississippi with the majority of jurisdictions which have examined this issue. See Pontbriand v. Pontbriand, 622 A.2d 482, 484 (R.I.1993), which stated that the “overwhelming majority of states that have considered this issue allow a credit for Social Security benefits paid to dependent children.”

The issue raised here on appeal has not been previously presented to this Court. However, in the cases of Frazier v. Frazier, 455 So.2d 883 (Ala.Civ.App.1984), and Brewer v. Brewer, 613 So.2d 1292 (Ala.Civ.App.1992), Alabama has considered this issue and extended the principle of derivative Social Security benefits satisfying child support obligations to cases involving alimony claims. In Frazier, the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals held that the trial court erred in not allowing Social Security benefits which the wife received and which were derived from her husband’s Social Security account as credit against his alimony arrearage. Frazier, 455 So.2d at 885. In discussing whether or not to extend derivative Social Security benefits *439 to alimony claims, the court in Frazier remarked:

[w]e cannot fathom any valid reason or reasonable logic as to why the rule of law in the Binns [v. Maddox, 57 Ala.App. 230, 327 So.2d 726 (1976)] and Bowden [v. Bowden, 426 So.2d 448 (1983) ] cases, supra, should not apply to periodic alimony as well as to child support. One of the obvious purposes of Social Security benefits is to partially replace income which is lost because of the retirement of an employee because of age or disability. The payments substitute for income.

Frazier, 455 So.2d at 885.

Appellant contends that the instant case can be distinguished from the Mooneyham case because it deals with retirement benefits rather than disability benefits. This Court, in Bradley, applied the Mooneyham rule to a situation dealing with derivative Social Security retirement benefits, evidently finding no reason to distinguish between Social Security benefits premised on retirement as opposed to disability.

Appellant asserts that Congress did not intend to permit Social Security payments to be an alternate source of income for the satisfaction of an alimony obligation. No cases were cited by Appellant to sustain this conclusion. This Court has held that it will not consider an assertion of error for which there is no authority cited. Armstrong v. Armstrong, 618 So.2d 1278, 1282 (Miss.1993); Smith v. Dorsey, 599 So.2d 529, 532 (Miss.1992); R.C. Petroleum, Inc. v. Hernandez, 555 So.2d 1017, 1023 (Miss.1990).

Appellant insists that the decision of the chancellor to credit derivative Social Security benefits against alimony represented a downward modification of the alimony granted to Betty Spalding, asserting that William failed to meet his burden of proof regarding a material change in circumstances. This Court, in Mooneyham, applied derivative Social Security benefits as credit against child support obligations. Mooneyham, 420 So.2d at 1074–75. Here, we indicated that derivative Social Security payments credited against child support obligations are to be considered as substitute income. Mooneyham, 420 So.2d at 1074. The chancellor in the instant case applied that same logic to derivative Social Security benefits with respect to alimony, and treated the credit against alimony as an alternate source of income out of which alimony obligations are permitted be satisfied.

The chancellor arrived at the same conclusion as did the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals in Frazier, supra, i.e., no valid reason exists to treat derivative Social Security benefits differently with respect to alimony or child support. In the instant case, Betty Spalding’s Social Security benefits are derived in large part from William’s work history and income record. The monies paid into the Social Security fund by William and his employers for the duration of the marriage and the time following the divorce generated the source from which Betty Spalding’s benefits are paid.

The chancellor applied the holding in Mooneyham concerning derivative Social Security benefits as credit against child support obligations to analogous circumstances in an alimony claim. Ample evidence in support of his ruling is found in both Mississippi law and the law of our sister state of Alabama. The chancellor applied the correct legal standard, did not abuse his discretion, and did not commit manifest error. Accordingly, this assignment of error is without merit.

If this rule applies in modification and contempts, it should apply as well in original proceedings where an alimony obligation is being calculated. You might be able to come up with formulations based on the Social Security website calculators that a judge might find helpful in crafting an alimony provision.


Alimony is not Forever, but Almost

April 14, 2014 § Leave a comment

We’ve visited the issue of modification of alimony in a previous post dealing with the COA case of Peterson v. Peterson, decided last year.

Peterson highlighted how difficult it can be, once alimony is ordered by the court, to terminate or reduce it.

That’s because the competing equities on both sides can be pretty strong.

The latest case dealing with similar issues is Cook v. Cook, handed down by the COA on March 24, 2014.

Cook, as is true with all of these cases, is quite fact intensive. I’m not going to rehash all of those facts here, but when you read Judge Carlton’s opinion affirming the chancellor’s decision to grant a 25% reduction in alimony, note how the trial judge, and then Judge Carlton following the chancellor’s analysis, seesawed their way down the factors, first favoring modification, and then not favoring, and then back, and then forth. It’s fairly representive of the way the judge has to weigh these matters.

The best way to avoid having to modify alimony is to avoid it in the first place. That can be difficult when there is a great discrepancy in income and ability to establish a decent earning capacity. Don’t forget that as equitable distribution expands, the entitlement to alimony contracts. So, given significant resources, you can advise your client to give more — sometimes much more — in equitable distribution so as to eliminate the need for alimony. It’s a strategy I used successfully when I practiced, and had used against me, too.

Cook also highlights the boomerang effect your client can suffer in asking for modification. Based on the principle that the best defense is a good offense, your petition to modify can be met with a counterclaim for contempt and upward modification. If the alimony was rehabilitative, you might even stir up a counterclaim to convert it to permanent periodic alimony. Oster v. Oster, 876 So.2d 428, 430-431 (Miss. App. 2004).

How Much Life Insurance is Enough? Or Too Much?

February 20, 2014 § 6 Comments

The chancellor ordered Bill Coggins to pay his ex, Alicia, $540 a month in periodic alimony. He also ordered Bill to make Alicia the beneficiary of $175,000 in life insurance on Bill’s life ” … to insure the payment of alimony in order to compensate [Alicia] and allow her to to survive …” if Bill should predecease her.

Bill appealed, complaining that the life insurance requirement was “excessive considering its purpose,” as in Johnson v. Pogue, 716 So.2d 1123, 1134 (¶41) (Miss.App. 1998).

In Coggins v. Coggins, decided Febarary 11, 2014, the COA agreed and reversed the chancellor’s ruling. Judge Maxwell wrote for the majority:

¶35. 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.” Bell, Mississippi Family Law § 9.08[4][c] (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.” ¶36. 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, 618 So. 2d at 1281; 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.

¶37. 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. Pogue, 716 So. 2d at 1134 (¶41); 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).

¶38. How much more excessive then is the requirement that Bill designate Alicia as the beneficiary to $175,000 in life-insurance proceeds to protect against Bill defaulting on his $504-per-month alimony payments and then dying before curing the default. This amount of insurance—the equivalent of thirty years worth of alimony payments—assumes not only that Bill may fall behind for three decades but also that Alicia will experience no material change of circumstances altering or terminating her need for alimony. Such an amount is unreasonable. Even when we factor in the unpaid portion of the $25,000 hybrid property settlement/lump-sum alimony obligation that has vested to Alicia, we find requiring Bill designate Alicia receive seven times that amount upon his death is still excessive.

¶39. We remand for the chancellor to consider whether requiring Bill to designate Alicia as a beneficiary is necessary to protect against the alimony obligations that may survive Bill’s death. If the chancellor determines the designation is necessary, he should require Bill to designate Alicia as beneficiary to a portion commensurate to those potential obligations.

There must be proportionality between the amount of alimony reasonably expected to come due and the amount of life insurance to protect that amount. The only guide we have from the case law, however, is that for $500 monthly alimony $75,000 is too much, and $175,000 is ‘way too much.

Do you always include a prayer in your divorce pleadings for life insurance to secure child support, alimony, and other obligations? And do you have your client and possibly other witnesses testify about the need for it? If you don’t do either or both, you should start.

And don’t overlook marshalling some proof about what the cost of the life insurance will be. I have denied that prayer for relief because I had no idea from the evidence in the record what the premiums would cost the paying party.

Another Deference Decision with an Appellate Attorney’s Fees Point

February 5, 2014 § 2 Comments

The COA’s decision in Proctor v. Proctor, handed down January 28, 2014, is one of those cases where the appellate court deferred to the chancellor’s discretion, both on application of the Ferguson factors in equitable distribution, and on the Armstrong factors vis a vis alimony.

I talked about deference in a previous post. Proctor is an illustration of how stout the trial judge’s judgment can be when she invokes the applicable factors and her decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record. You might want to pay particular attention to Judge Barnes’ opinion at ¶ 19, where she points out that equitable division need only be equitable, not equal. That seems to be a concept that many lawyers and litigants do not grasp.

Another point that bears mention is at ¶ 36, where Judge Barnes addresses Ms. Proctor’s request for an award of attorney’s fees on appeal:

Donna makes a cursory request that this Court award her attorney’s fees on her appeal, in an amount equal to one-half of the amount that was awarded by the chancery court, according to Grant v. Grant, 765 So. 2d 1263, 1268 (¶19) (Miss. 2000), and Durr v. Durr, 912 So. 2d 1033, 1041 (¶30) (Miss. Ct. App. 2005). The distinguishing feature of these cases, however, is that the appellee was requesting attorney’s fees for defending the case on appeal, not the appellant prosecuting the appeal, unsuccessfully. Therefore, we deny Donna’s request. 

Seeking Relief from Alimony Can be a Travail

December 3, 2013 § 2 Comments

When their 33-year marriage ended in divorce in 2005, Richard Peterson was ordered to pay his ex-wife, Josephine, $2,500 a month in periodic alimony. At the time, Richard, who was then 58, intended to continue his employment with the US Army Corps of Engineers in Vicksburg until age 75.

But things began to fall apart for Richard, or, more accurately, Richard began to fall apart. Within five years of the divorce, he suffered a series of physical injuries that affected his ability to work. He fell and broke his patella, and had to have two knee surgeries. He also suffered multiple joint injuries, and developed degenerative arthritis in both hips, both knees, and his left shoulder. To add to his misery, he tore a bicep, developed spinal stenosis in his lower back, underwent a total hip replacement, and had rotator-cuff surgery. We don’t know what his job entailed, but there are NFL players who do not suffer that many physical catastrophes in an entire career. Richard was placed on disability retirement due to the combination of woes that caused him intense pain, forced him to use a cane to walk, and disabled him from further employment.

Richard filed a petition to modify the alimony in 2010, and after a trial, the chancellor ruled that he had proven a material change in circumstances justifying a downward modification, and she reduced the alimony from $2,500 to $1,800.

Richard appealed, complaining that the reduction was not enough, since it left him with a monthly deficit of nearly $1,000. Josephine cross-appealed, contending that the retirement was foreseeable.

The COA addressed both appeals in the case of Peterson v. Peterson, handed down November 19, 2013. On the issue of modification, Judge Maxwell’s opinion set out the law applicable to modification of alimony: 

¶7. With respect to requests for modification of a previously ordered alimony award, chancellors are vested with general statutory authority to modify divorce decrees and make “new decrees as the case may require.” Miss. Code Ann. § 93-5-23 (Rev. 2013). Within this broad authority is the more specific power to increase, decrease, or terminate periodic alimony payments. Hubbard v. Hubbard, 656 So. 2d 124, 129 (Miss. 1995). When asked to modify periodic alimony awards, chancellors must first determine if an unforeseeable and material change in circumstances occurred since entry of the initial divorce decree. Holcombe v. Holcombe, 813 So. 2d 700, 703 (¶11) (Miss. 2002). If not, modification is not permitted.

¶8. However, if a substantial unanticipated change has in fact occurred, the chancellor should then consider the Armstrong [footnote omitted] factors to determine the appropriate amount of alimony. Holcombe, 813 So. 2d at 703 (¶12) (citing Armstrong, 618 So. 2d at 1280). In evaluating these factors when “deciding whether to modify periodic alimony,” chancellors should “compar[e] the relative positions of the parties at the time of the request for modification in relation to their positions at the time of the divorce decree.” Steiner v. Steiner, 788 So. 2d 771, 776 (¶16) (Miss. 2001) (citing Anderson v. Anderson, 692 So. 2d 65, 72 (Miss. 1997); Tilley v. Tilley, 610 So. 2d 348, 353-54 (Miss. 1992); Armstrong, 618 So. 2d at 1280). As with any alimony consideration, the chancellor must consider the wife’s accustomed standard of living, less her own resources, as well as the husband’s ability to pay. Gray, 562 So. 2d at 83.

The opinion goes on to evaluate the evidence, and concludes that Richard’s disability was, indeed, unforeseeable at the time of the divorce and the circumstances giving rise to it took place after the divorce. Josephine’s argument was that Richard had intended to retire at some point, so retirement was foreseeable and anticipated at the time of the divorce, and, therefore, modification should not lie. The COA pointed out that the case law did not support her argument:

¶12. We have previously held that a payor’s retirement due to unforeseeable health issues constituted a material change sufficient to modify an alimony award. See Broome v. Broome, 75 So. 3d 1132, 1140-41 (¶¶26-28) (Miss. Ct. App. 2011); Clower v. Clower, 988 So. 2d 441, 444-45 (¶9) (Miss. Ct. App. 2008) (holding that husband’s retirement due to health problems and loss of income constituted a material change in circumstance, justifying a reduction in alimony). Because there is record support that Richard’s later-arising injuries forced his retirement, the chancellor did not abuse her discretion in finding that a material, unanticipated change in Richard’s circumstances had occurred since the divorce.

As for the issue of alimony reduction, the opinion addressed it this way:

¶14. Permanent periodic alimony is “a substitute for the marital-support obligation.” Deborah H. Bell, Mississippi Family Law § 9.02[1] (2005). It arises from the duty of the husband to support his wife. McDonald v. McDonald, 683 So. 2d 929, 931 (Miss. 1996). “Consistent with Armstrong, a financially independent spouse may be required to support the financially dependent spouse in the manner in which the dependent spouse was supported during the marriage, subject to a material change in circumstances.” Rogillio v. Rogillio, 57 So. 3d 1246, 1250 (¶11) (Miss. 2011). But “alimony awards in excess [of] a spouse’s ability to pay are ‘per se unreasonable.’” Sheffield v. Sheffield, 55 So. 3d 1142, 1145 (¶9) (Miss. Ct. App. 2011) (quoting Yelverton v. Yelverton, 961 So. 2d 19, 28 (¶18) (Miss. 2007)).

¶15. Having found a material change, the chancellor correctly moved to the next step and considered the Armstrong factors, comparing the parties’ financial positions at the time of the modification request to their former positions when divorced. See Steiner, 788 So. 2d at 776 (¶16). But the chancellor did not make any findings about Richard’s ability to pay. And on appeal, Richard suggests that even after the $700 alimony reduction, he still endures a monthly deficit and is unable to pay the reduced award.

¶16. From our review, it is obvious the chancellor performed a detailed financial analysis of the parties’ incomes and expenses, health and earning capacities, needs, assets, and tax consequences, as required. However, considering these unchallenged figures, it is not apparent from the record that Richard was financially able to pay the reduced alimony obligation.

The court went on to do its own analysis of the financial proof, and found lacking any analysis of Richard’s ability to pay even the reduced sum. The opinion concluded:

 ¶26. Because “alimony awards in excess [of] a spouse’s ability to pay are ‘per se unreasonable,’” Sheffield, 55 So. 3d at 1145 (¶9), we remand for the chancellor to consider Richard’s ability to pay this amount, or any amount of alimony, while maintaining as normal a life as possible with a decent standard of living. See Brendel v. Brendel, 566 So. 2d 1269, 1272 (Miss. 1990).

So Richard turns once again to the trial court, slogging his way toward what he surely hopes will be a more satisfactory outcome.

Balancing the needs of one party against the resources of the other is a devilishly difficult task for a chancellor that requires deft juggling of many competing factors.

Where Do the Children’s Vehicles Go?

August 28, 2013 § 4 Comments

The parties have complied with the court’s order to produce at trial a consolidated list of all the marital assets. There, among all the end tables, pots, pans, what-nots, and nick-nacks, is the 1994 Honda auto — worth $15,275 — that was purchased for the daughter to transport herself to and from college. Husband says wife should get it in equitable distribution, and wife says husband should get it. Whoever winds up with it gets a $15,275 bump in the asset column.

Those were the essential facts in the COA case of Terrell v. Terrell, decided July 16, 2013.

In that case, Robert Terrell had purchased the car for his daughter, Catherine, titled it in her name, and transferred ownership to her.  The chancellor nonetheless included the vehicle in wife Mary Terrell’s share of equitable distribution. Mary appealed, arguing that the asset value of the car erroneously inflated her allocation of the marital estate.

The COA agreed with Mary, reversing and rendering:

¶17. We agree that the vehicle should not have been deemed a part of the marital estate. While it was purchased during the course of the marriage, it is not marital property, nor is it separate property. Rather, it was a gift from Robert and Mary to Catherine, who was a third-party recipient. Catherine has retained physical custody of the vehicle and has been the legal title holder of the vehicle since it was purchased. It was not an asset of Robert or Mary either jointly or separately. Accordingly, we reverse and render this issue specifically for the elimination of Catherine’s automobile from the marital estate.

The outcome here is pretty clear, but there are all kinds of permutations of this fact scenario, in my experience. Robert could have kept the car titled in his name, for insurance purposes. Or the car could have been titled in Mary for the same reason. Some parents want the car titled in either or both names solely as a control mechanism. Sometimes the car is titled in one parent’s name until the child pays some consideration for it. The possibilities are limited only by one’s imagination.

I have put the child’s auto in the column of a parent who testified that he had the car titled in his name, and did not know whether he would continue to provide the child with a vehicle. It seems to me that where the car goes depends on the particular facts of the case. In general, however, I think it’s safe to say that if the car is clearly going to stay with the child, it should be kept out of equitable distribution, and if it is really only a chattel that a parent is going to exercise control over, it should go with that parent.

I do the same with the children’s furniture and moveables.

One final point. There is plenty of case law that says if one part of the determination of assets-equitable distribution-alimony triangle is disturbed, the chancellor must look at it again and redo the whole ball of wax. Here, the appeal result is to reduce Mary’s distribution by $15,275, a not inconsiderable chunk of change. I just wonder why this was rendered and not remanded.

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