The Effect of Harris v. Harris

August 21, 2019 § 1 Comment

Back in February, 2018, I posted about the MSSC’s ruling in Harris v. Harris, which overruled Spalding v. Spalding, regarding the impact of Social Security (SS) retirement benefits on alimony. Spalding had held that the alimony-paying party is entitled to a credit against alimony in the amount of the other party’s receipt of SS benefits derived from the alimony-paying party’s work record. Harris held that receipt of SS does not automatically trigger modification. Here is a link to my post.

In Alford v. Alford, a July 23, 2019, COA case about which I posted yesterday, Judge Greenlee wrote a specially concurring opinion raising some concerns about Harris and how it will be applied:

¶37. I concur with the majority. However, because I am concerned about the effect Harris v. Harris, 241 So. 3d 622 (Miss. 2018), may have in this case and other cases, I specially concur.

¶38. Our supreme court’s decision in Harris has the potential to greatly impact those in our population who are aging and under a court-ordered duty of support. For our citizens who earn their wages through compensation from work for others, there comes a time that many should at least consider retirement, if retirement is not required or decided for them. The litigants in this case, if not retired, are rapidly approaching retirement.

¶39. In such cases, the problem chancellors face is in reliably predicting the impact of retirement upon the earnings of the parties. Harris should not mean that once retirement occurs to one or both of the parties (although foreseeable at the time of the initial support order) that the parties are foreclosed from asking the court for a modification based on a material and substantial change in circumstances. See Plummer v. Plummer, 235 So. 3d 195, 199 (¶14) (Miss. Ct. App. 2017) (modification of alimony requires proof of a material and substantial change in circumstances since the date of the prior judgment). If the application of our law is to foreclose a litigant’s request for a modification of periodic alimony upon that party’s retirement, such could mean that in order to meet the amount required, that party must not retire. If that is the case, has our law not imposed a servitude upon a citizen until death? Retirement is a substantial change to an individual’s circumstances, and Harris should not be allowed to hinder such a change from being brought before the chancellor for consideration.

This is a conundrum I have never seen directly addressed by our appellate courts: retirement is reasonably foreseeable and even necessary at some age. Retirement almost always results in a downward shift in the retiree’s income. How does that foreseeability affect the right to request modification? I think Judge Greenlee makes a valid point.

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

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