When Separate Maintenance Morphs into Alimony

December 8, 2015 § 2 Comments

After William Lane’s wife, Stella, obtained a Mississippi separate maintenance judgment, William moved to Texas and obtained a divorce from Stella there. He then petitioned the Mississippi court to terminate alimony because he was no longer married to Stella.

The chancellor refused William’s request, ruling apparently that the separate maintenance would continue as alimony, and William appealed. In Lane v. Lane, decided December 1, 2015, the COA affirmed. Judge Fair, writing for the majority, laid out the rationale:

¶8. “[A] divorce action involving one resident party and one foreign party may or may not be able to adjudicate personal rights, though it can sever a marriage as long as at least one party is a resident of that state.” [Lofton v. Lofton, 924 So.2d 596, 601 (Miss. App. 2006)]. William personally appeared before the Texas court. At the time the suit was filed, he had been a domiciliary of Texas for six months. Stella entered a general appearance through local counsel, ultimately signing the divorce decree along with William as to “form and substance.” The divorce decree specifically did not litigate the issues of support and property division. In fact, the decree declined jurisdiction over all but the divorce itself, deferring to the chancery court and its separate-maintenance judgment for “all issues involving the division of the property and debt of the parties.”

¶9. In Weiss v. Weiss, 579 So. 2d 539, 540-41 (Miss. 1991), the Mississippi Supreme Court reaffirmed that Mississippi law allows for separate litigation of divorce and alimony. Thomas and Barbara Weiss married in Mississippi. Id. at 540. Thomas later moved to Louisiana and filed for divorce. Id. That same year, Barbara filed a request for separate maintenance in Mississippi. Id. The Louisiana court granted the divorce but reserved the issue of alimony for the Mississippi court. Fn2 Id. Our supreme court held that the Mississippi court had jurisdiction to determine alimony because the parties’ foreign divorce decree did not litigate the issue of alimony. Id. at 541.

Fn2 Barbara’s claim for separate maintenance was no longer proper since a divorce had been granted but was convertible to a claim for alimony. Weiss, 579 So. 2d at 541. Separate maintenance and alimony may both result in payments for a short period of time or an extended period of time (the period of time for separate maintenance is more uncertain). Id. at 542.

¶10. The supreme court dealt with a similar issue in [Chapel v. Chapel, 876 So.2d 290 (Miss. 2004)]. In that case, the Jackson County Chancery Court awarded Grace Chapel separate maintenance in 1996. Id. at 292 (¶5). Mr. Chapel was granted a divorce in Virginia in 1997. Chapel, 876 So. 2d at 292 (¶6). The Mississippi chancellor modified the separate-maintenance agreement in 1998 and 2001. Id. at 294 (¶13). Grace argued that the chancellor lacked subject-matter jurisdiction because the Virginia divorce decree terminated the original separate-maintenance agreement. Id. at 293 (¶10). The supreme court held that “the . . . chancery court continues to have jurisdiction in what originally was the separate-maintenance case, but which converted to one for alimony and other claims compatible with divorce actions[] after the date of the foreign divorce.” Id. at 295 (¶15). Fn3 In her treatise, Bell on Mississippi Family Law (2d Edition 2011), Professor Deborah Bell refers to this as a “recharacterization” of separate maintenance as alimony.

Fn3 The supreme court also stated that because “neither party . . . made formal objections to the chancellor’s authority to modify the original separate-maintenance judgment after the Virginia divorce was granted, it is not necessary for the Court to reach the issue of whether . . . a foreign divorce decree[] terminates a domestic court’s order of separate maintenance.” Chapel, 876 So. 2d at 294 (¶11).

¶11. Like the divorce decree in Weiss, the Texas divorce decree in the present case expressly reserved Stella’s rights to enforce the separate-maintenance order. And, similar to the wife in Chapel, Stella was awarded separate maintenance prior to the entry of a foreign divorce decree, and the foreign decree did not address the issue of separate maintenance. We do not find, like the dissent, that Stella’s failure to expressly petition for alimony prohibits the chancellor’s sua sponte “recharacterization” of separate maintenance as alimony. As stated in Weiss, “‘[a]limony’ and ‘maintenance’ are merely different words used in differing situations to describe the same thing.” 579 So. 2d at 541 (citation and quotation omitted) (emphasis added). Mississippi law clearly provides that the chancery court retained jurisdiction over William and Stella’s separate-maintenance agreement, as acknowledged by the Texas court with the consent and agreement of the parties. [Emphasis in original]

It did not help William’s cause that the parties’ divorce agreement in Texas included language specifically acknowledging the continuing jurisdiction of the Mississippi court, and the Texas judgment afforded the Mississippi judgment full faith and credit and recognized its continuing jurisdiction. Any different language in Texas, however, would not have changed the outcome. Once Mississippi’s courts have acquired jurisdiction over the property and support (maintenance) issues, a subsequent divorce in another state is not effective to deprive the Mississippi court of jurisdiction over those issues.

The dissent would have held that by failing to request “recharacterization” of the separate maintenance award as alimony Stella deprived the chancellor of authority, making it erroneous for him to do so. The majority rejected that approach.

The MSSC dealt with a similar set of issues last year in Pierce v. Pierce, about which I posted here.

Oh, and before I leave the subject, here are three quotes you might find helpful next time you have to deal with an alimony case:

  • “Alimony — the ransom that the happy pay to the devil.”  —  H.L. Mencken
  • “Alimony is like buying oats for a dead horse.”  —  Arthur Baer
  • “Judges, as a class, display, in the matter of arranging alimony, that reckless generosity which is found only in men who are giving away someone else’s cash.” —  P.G. Wodehouse

Relief in a Vacuum

October 19, 2015 § Leave a comment

If the separate maintenance is denied, may the chancellor nonetheless order financial relief?

In Spotswood v. Spotswood, decided by the COA on September 1, 2015, the chancellor at trial ruled that Lori and Robert Spotswood were equally at fault in  the separation, and, therefore, that Lori was not entitled to separate maintenance. The chancellor ordered Robert to reimburse Lori for the monthly health insurance premium that she pays through her employment for his health insurance coverage, and to pay one-half of the mortgage on the marital residence.

On the face of it, the judge’s order makes some sense. Robert, after all, is benefitting from Lori maintaining his coverage under her health insurance at her expense. She may not be able to cancel that coverage while they are still married. Likewise, Robert is no longer living in the home, and Lori is stuck with 100% of a joint debt. It only seems fair that Robert should pay his fair share.

Robert appealed, though, complaining that the judge had no authority after he denied separate maintenance to order in this action that he make those payments. Judge Irving, writing for the court, agreed, reversing and rendering:

¶7. In Pool v. Pool, 989 So. 2d 920, 927 (¶¶20-21) (Miss. Ct. App. 2008) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted), this Court stated:

Separate maintenance is [a] court[-]created equitable relief based upon the marital relationship. The purpose of a decree for separate maintenance is to compel the husband to resume cohabitation with his wife or to provide for her separate maintenance. . . . The [chancery court] may award separate maintenance when (1) the parties have separated without [substantial] fault by the [requesting party;] and (2) the [nonrequesting party] has willfully abandoned the [requesting party] and [has] refused to [provide] support [therefor].

(Emphasis added).

¶8. For a chancery court to award separate maintenance, it must first find that the aforementioned requirements have been met. Once those requirements are met, then the court may, in its discretion, award support. However, if the court finds that separate maintenance is unwarranted, it cannot, in the name of equity, do an end-run around what the law forbids by ordering one spouse to undertake certain financial obligations for the benefit of the other spouse. In this case, because the chancery court found that Lori was not entitled to separate maintenance, the chancery court lacked the authority to order Robert to make the payments.

So, does this mean that Lori is stuck making Roberts’ health insurance premium payments and the entire mortgage payment? Not necessarily. The opinion continues:

¶9. To be clear, we do not address the issue of whether the chancery court erred in denying Lori separate maintenance, as that issue is not before this Court. Nor should anything in this opinion be interpreted as holding that Lori is required to continue to pay Robert’s insurance premiums or the entire mortgage payment without reimbursement from Robert. As to the latter, the mortgage contract dictates the obligations of the parties. We only hold that the chancery court erred as a matter of law in ordering Robert to make the payments after denying Lori’s request for separate maintenance. Accordingly, we reverse the chancery court’s judgment as to the payments and render judgment in favor of Robert.

In other words, Lori may maintain an action to recover from Robert, but not in this case, since all she sought was separate maintenance, which was denied. I think she might have achieved a different result had she pled in the alternative for either separate maintenance or for contribution from Robert for his share of the premiums and/or mortgage payments. You can join as many actions as you have against a party in the same complaint.

Attorney’s Fees in a Modification Case

March 10, 2014 § Leave a comment

As a general proposition, I think most family lawyers would agree that it’s out of the ordinary for there to be an award of attorney’s fees in a modification case absent a companion claim for contempt.

But it’s not unheard of, and it does happen.

Take, for instance, the recent COA decision in Collins v. Collins, handed down February 25, 2014. In that case, the chancellor had awarded Myra Collins $4,234.74 in attorney’s fees after she prevailed in her quest to obtain an upward modification of separate maintenance. Her ex, Arthur, appealed, arguing that it was erroneous for the chancellor to award attorney’s fees in a modification case when there was no allegation of contempt, and there was no finding of her inability to pay.

Judge Griffis addressed the issue for the court:

¶16. In Labella v. Labella, 722 So. 2d 472, 475 (¶12) (Miss. 1998), the supreme court found that one of the parties “clearly established an inability to pay because she was unemployed at the time of trial and her only income was in the form of unemployment benefits.” The court noted that “[t]he general rule is that if a party is financially able to pay his attorney’[s] fees[,] he should do so, though this is a matter which is entrusted to chancellor’s sound discretion.” Id. at (¶13) (quoting Anderson v. Anderson, 692 So. 2d 65, 74 (Miss. 1997)). Also, in Hammett v. Woods, 602 So. 2d 825, 830 (Miss. 1992), the supreme court ruled that “[w]here the record shows an inability to pay and a disparity in the relative financial positions of the parties, we find no error” in awarding attorney fees. Here, the lower court found that “[Myra] has proven that she has an inability to pay and that [Arthur] has the much, much greater ability to pay attorney’s fees, and therefore an award of fees is appropriate in this modification proceeding.”

 Does this open the door to an attorney’s fee award in every modification case? Probably not, for a couple of reasons. First, this is a separate maintenance case, and, if you think about it, separate maintenance is in effect an ongoing temporary divorce order. Since its purpose is to provide the wife with as close as possible to her reasonable standard of living without rendering the husband destitute, it stands to reason that her standard of living should not be further reduced by having to pay attorney’s fees to mantain that standard of living. To deny her attorney’s fees wouold defeat the purpose. Second, it has always been the law that, although an award of attorney’s fees is not favored in a modification case, it is appropriate where it would impose an unfair burden on the prevailing party, as where there is a clear inability to pay, or the lack of an award would impoverish children, etc.

This case is not an outlier. Rather, it demonstrates that the chancellor has considerable discretion both as to whether to award a fee, and as to its amount.

The Nexus Between Separate Maintenance and Desertion

December 10, 2013 § Leave a comment

Brenda Reeves left her husband Howard in February, 2008, and, soon after, Howard sued her for separate maintenance. Brenda responded with a motion to dismiss, and, after a hearing, the chancellor found that Howard’s abuse of alcohol, and his physical and emotional abuse of Brenda, were the proximate causes of her departure. He dismissed Howard’s complaint for separate maintenance following the trial, in February, 2010.

In March, 2010, Howard filed a Complaint for Divorce on the ground of desertion, which he shortly after dismissed.

In April, 2011, Howard filed another Complaint for Divorce on the ground of desertion. Brenda again filed a motion to dismiss, which the court denied. At trial in February, 2012, Brenda argued that Howard’s complaint should be dismissed because, under Mississippi law, if the plaintiff had previously filed an unsuccessful separate maintenance action, he must prove that he made a good-faith offer to reconcile with his spouse at least one year prior to filing the divorce complaint. The chancellor ruled that Howard had not submitted adequate proof to meet his burden, and he dismissed Howard’s complaint. Not at all happy with the outcome, Howard appealed.   

In the COA case of Reeves v. Reeves, decided December 3, 2013, the COA affirmed the trial judge’s ruling. This is case law of which you need to be aware. Here is how the COA, by Judge Ishee for a unanimous court, addressed it:

¶8. Howard asserts the chancery court erred in finding that he failed to meet the one-year requirement for seeking a divorce on the ground of desertion. As such, Howard also asserts that the chancery court erred in failing to grant him a desertion-based divorce. The supreme court has addressed divorce cases such as the instant case wherein a separate maintenance action has been adjudicated prior to the filing for divorce on the ground of desertion. See Day v. Day, 501 So. 2d 353, 354 (Miss. 1987). In Day, the supreme court summarized desertion as follows:

If either party, by reason of such conduct on the part of the other as would reasonably render the continuance of the marital relationship unendurable, or dangerous to life, health[,] or safety, is compelled to leave the home and seek safety, peace[,] and protection elsewhere, then the innocent one will ordinarily be justified in severing the marital relation and leaving the domicile of the other, so long as such conditions shall continue, and in such case the one so leaving will be not guilty of desertion. The one whose conduct caused the separation will be guilty of constructive desertion[,] and if the condition is persisted in for a period of one year, the other party will be entitled to a divorce.

Id. at 356 (citation omitted).

¶9. However, the determination of whether desertion exists is viewed differently in light of an adjudicated separate-maintenance order. Id. (citation omitted). The supreme court noted that if a plaintiff seeking divorce can show that, “since the judgment for separate maintenance in favor of the defendant, the conditions have changed and the plaintiff has made efforts of reconciliation with the defendant with no avail, [then] the defendant is now a deserter and the plaintiff is entitled to a divorce for desertion.” Id. (citation omitted). The proof must show that the plaintiff was “honest in his intention to remedy his fault, and that his offers of reconciliation and request to return were made in good faith, with honest intention to abide thereby, and that the defendant deliberately refused his offers.” Id. at 357 (quoting Rylee v. Rylee, 142 Miss. 832, 840-14, 108 So. 161, 163 (1926)).

¶10. The evidence before us fails to prove that Howard made a good-faith reconciliation offer at least one year prior to April 11, 2011, as required by Day and Rylee. Howard testified at trial that he called Brenda once a month asking to reconcile. Brenda disputes this fact and further asserts that Howard’s occasional generic request to reconcile did not include a promise that he would seek rehabilitation for his alcohol abuse, nor did his requests include repentance for his prior abusive actions toward Brenda or promises that the abuse would not occur again. The evidence shows that the only good-faith reconciliation offer acknowledged by both parties was made on or about June 7, 2011 — approximately two months after Howard filed his complaint for divorce on the ground of desertion.

¶11. This was reflected in the chancellor’s following comments made during his ruling:

It seems to me that after a separate[-]maintenance proceeding, in order for the time to start ticking under Day, it is incumbent upon Mr. Reeves to make a good[-]faith offer. . . . I don’t have proof that I think rises to a preponderance of the evidence to show that Mr. Reeves made an offer for Mrs. Reeves to return home, satisfying whatever concerns she may have had, that would have started the one year running as contemplated by Day. I’m going to decline to talk about the reasonableness or unreasonableness of these post[-]filing offers that have transpired between Mr. and Mrs. Reeves . . . .

We agree with the chancellor. The law is clear that, under these circumstances, Howard was required to make a good-faith reconciliation offer at least one year prior to filing a complaint for divorce on the ground of desertion. The evidence simply does not show that he did so. As such, the chancellor did not err in his determination that Howard failed to meet the one year requirement at issue. This issue is dispositive of Howard’s second claim on appeal that the chancery court erred in failing to grant him a divorce on the ground of desertion. These issues are meritless.

Two observations:

  • Notice in ¶10 that the COA finds from the record that Howard had neither (1) undergone rehabilitation for his alcohol abuse, nor (2) repented for his prior conduct. This is language that you can use when you have a separate maintenance case in which the payer claims to have had his offers to reconcile rejected. It seems that what the COA is saying is that the offeror must prove measures to reform, and must make amends with the offended party. “Generic” offers to return home won’t cut it.
  • Cases of this type were more common before irreconcilable differences divorces by consent became available. Every now and again one runs into a pleading and procedural scenario like the Reeves case presented, and you have to be prepared to meet it. Remember that it takes more to prove desertion than mere separation without fault for a year or more. Since a good-faith offer of reconciliation within the one-year period will stop its running, the offended party must prove that she or he would have been willing to reconcile within that first year if a bona fide offer to do so had been made, but none was made. 


June 10, 2013 § Leave a comment

Separate maintenance is that peculiar neverland of the marriage where one is neither quite in a marital relationship, nor quite out of a marital relationship. It’s like limbo.

We are all familiar with the old maxim that, “Separate maintenance is a judicial command to resume cohabitation or to provide support.” The focus in most separate maintenance trials is almost always on the (usually) husband’s adamant refusal to return home to the wife, and the wife’s need for financial help.

That was the focus of the chancellor in the case of Paul Jackson v. Linda Jackson. After the trial, the chancellor noted Paul’s testimony that he had no intention of returning to the marital relationship, primarily due to a subsequent relationship, and accordingly zapped Paul with $600 a month, use of a house and land, proceeds of an income-tax refund check, and “other relief.”

Paul appealed, and in the case of Jackson v. Jackson, handed down from the COA on May 28, 2013, the appellate court reversed. Paul’s complaints on appeal were several-fold, but the one that hit the bulls-eye is in the following language from Judge Carlton’s opinion:

¶11. The factual findings of the chancellor are reviewed to determine if the award is supported by substantial evidence or whether the decision reflects manifest error. Fore v. Fore, 109 So. 3d 137, 138 (¶6) (Miss. Ct. App. 2013); see also Rodgers v. Rodgers, 349 So.2d 540, 541 (Miss. 1977) (finding that where the wife’s course of conduct was a material factor in causing the separation at least equal to, if not great than, that of the husband, the decree of separate maintenance was erroneous); Tackett v. Tackett, 967 So. 2d 1264, 1266-67 (¶¶8-10) (Miss. Ct. App. 2007) (finding that the record supported the award of separate maintenance since evidence showed the wife’s conduct did not materially contribute to the material separation). Additionally and significant to our review of this case, the power of the court to grant the equitable relief of separate maintenance must be based on the requisites of a separation without material fault of the petitioner or requesting spouse and willful abandonment of her by the husband with refusal to support her. See Rodgers, 349 So. 2d at 541; Lynch v. Lynch, 616 So. 2d 294, 296 (Miss. 1993); Pool v. Pool, 989 So. 2d 920, 927 (¶¶20-21) (Miss. Ct. App. 2008). [Emphasis added]

All three prongs of separate maintenance must be present in order to prevail for the claiming party. There must be:

  1. Separation without material fault on the part of the requesting party, and
  2. Willful abandonment by the other party, and
  3. Refusal to support.

Until all three are met, there is no entitlement to separate maintenance.

In Jackson, the COA held that the chancellor had slid past the evidence of Linda’s fault, which the COA deemed considerable as well as material, and concentrated on Paul’s own misconduct and refusal to support. The COA found that Linda had failed to prove that she was without material fault:

¶16. We acknowledge that “[s]eparate maintenance is . . . court-created equitable relief based upon the marriage relationship and is a judicial command to the husband to resume cohabitation with his wife, or in default thereof, to provide suitable maintenance of her until such time as they may be reconciled to each other.” Forthner v. Forthner, 52 So. 3d 1212, 1219 (¶13) (Miss. Ct. App. 2010). Moreover, Linda bore the burden of proof to show more than Paul’s marital misconduct. “The granting of separate maintenance is premised upon the existence of a valid marriage contract” and premised upon a showing that “there is no significant conduct on the part of the requesting spouse that negatively impacts the enjoyment of the marriage contract.” Id. [Fn 4] An award of separate maintenance arises from equitable principles, and equity requires that, as the requesting spouse, Linda show no significant conduct on her part negatively impacted the marriage or contributed to the separation. Linda failed to meet the evidentiary burden required to sustain a separate-maintenance award. Linda also failed in her burden to show that Paul refused to support her, as reflected in the omissions in her Rule 8.05 financial statement. Linda failed to disclose her free residence, real-property remainder interest, business interests, and other assets. We now turn to address jurisprudence applicable to separate maintenance and to the facts of this case.

Fn 4. See also Robinson v. Robinson, 554 So.2d 300, 304 (Miss. 1989).

¶17. In Rodgers [v. Rodgers], 349 So. 2d at 541, the Mississippi Supreme Court explained that the jurisdictional basis of a separate-maintenance decree stems from equitable principles first laid down in Mississippi in Garland v. Garland, 50 Miss. 694 (1874). The very power of the court to grant separate maintenance was based upon the following two requirements: (1) a separation without fault on the part of the wife, and (b) the husband’s willful abandonment of her with refusal to provide support to her. [Fn 5] Rodgers, 349 So. 2d at 541. The Rodgers court explained that these two requirements must be satisfied in order for the court to possess the equitable power to order separate maintenance. Id. The court further explained that the law applicable to separate-maintenance awards includes no requirement that the requesting spouse be blameless. Id.

Fn 5. The application of equal-protection principles allows either spouse to seek the5 equitable remedy of separate maintenance. However, since Linda is the petitioner in this case claiming the entitlement, this opinion refers to the wife as the petitioner in its analysis.

¶18. As previously discussed, our jurisprudence establishes that in order for the court to equitably award separate maintenance, the misconduct of the abandoned spouse must not have materially contributed to the separation. See id. In Rodgers, the supreme court provided guidance explaining that the requesting spouse need not be blameless or without any fault before invoking the equity required for separate maintenance. Id. The supreme court explained that where a wife’s course of conduct is a material factor in the separation at least equal to, if not greater than, that of the husband, the decree of separate maintenance is erroneous. Id. The supreme court in Rodgers found such an award erroneous since the power of the chancery court to grant separate maintenance is based on a separation without fault on the wife’s part and willful abandonment of her by the husband with a refusal by him to support her. Id.

It’s simply not enough to show that the (in this case) husband has departed and won’t come home. The burden is on the requesting party to show that she was not materially at fault, and that he is refusing support. Without all three elements, the case fails.


May 27, 2011 § 5 Comments

Proving your case by proving certain factors is a fact of legal life in Mississippi.  I’ve referred to it as trial by checklist.  If you’re not putting on proof of the factors when they apply in your case, you are wasting your and the court’s time, as well as your client’s money, and you are committing malpractice to boot. 

Many lawyers have told me that they print out these checklists and use them at trial.  I encourage you to copy these checklists and use them in your trial notebooks.  And while you’re at it, you’re free to copy any post for your own personal use, but not for commercial use.  Lawyers have told me that they are building notebooks tabbed with various subjects and inserting copies of my posts (along with other useful material, I imagine).  Good.  If it improves practice and makes your (and my) job easier and more effective, I’m all for it. 

Here is an updated list of links to the checklists I’ve posted:

Attorney’s fees.

Attorney’s fees in an estate.

Adverse possession.

Child custody.

Closing an estate.

Doing an accounting in a probate matter.

Grandparent visitation.

Equitable distribution.

Income tax dependency exemption.

Modification of child support.

Periodic and rehabilitative alimony.

Lump sum alimony.

Separate maintenance.


December 15, 2010 § Leave a comment

Proving your case by proving certain factors is a fact of legal life in Mississippi.  I’ve referred to it as trial by checklist.

Here are the checklists I’ve posted (you can click on the links to get to them):

Attorney’s fees.

Adverse possession.

Child custody.

Grandparent visitation.

Equitable distribution.

Modification of child support.

Periodic and rehabilitative alimony.

Lump sum alimony.

Separate maintenance.

Income tax dependency exemption.

Those are all of the checklists of which I am aware.  If you know of others, please let me know and I will add them to the list.

I also posted a checklist for closing an estate, but it’s a procedural cheklist rather than a substantive checklist.


September 20, 2010 § 8 Comments

A practice tip about trial factors is here.

In the case of Shorter v. Shorter, 740 So.2d 352, 357 (Miss. 1999), the Mississippi Supreme Court stated that six criteria must be considered in setting awards of separate maintenance: 

  1. The health of the husband and the wife;
  2. Their combined earning capacity;
  3. The reasonable needs of the wife and children;
  4. The necessary living expenses of the husband;
  5. The fact that the wife has free use of the home and furnishings; and
  6. Other such facts and circumstances.

Also seeHonts v Honts, 690 So.2d 1151, 1153 (Miss. 1997).

While an award of separate maintenance should provide for the wife as if the couple were still cohabiting, the allowance should not “unduly deplete the husband’s estate.” Kennedy v. Kennedy, 662 So. 2d 179, 181 (Miss. 1995) (quoting Thompson v. Thompson, 527 So. 2d 617, 622 (Miss. 1988)).

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