Permanent periodic alimony is one debt that may never end until the payor dies. Today’s Court of Appeal’s decision in Fiddie v. Fiddie, 384 S.C. 120, 681 S.E.2d 42 (Ct.App. 2009) is an additional reminder of why payor spouses might want to offer generous lump sum alimony to avoid permanent periodic alimony.
The Fiddies’ twenty-eight year marriage ended in 1994 with Mr. Fiddie paying $250.00 a month in permanent periodic alimony, increasing to $400.00 per month when their youngest child finished college. This alimony increased by agreement to $675.00 per month in 2002. In 2005, Mr. Fiddie, believing his ex-wife was now living with a man with whom she was romantically involved, sought to terminate alimony. Ms. Fiddie, denying romantic cohabitation, and claiming increasingly poor health, sought an increase in alimony. After trial, the court increased Mr. Fiddie’s alimony obligation to $1,200.00 a month and he appealed.
The Court of Appeals affirmed. First it found that because Ms. Fiddie spent a few days each month living with her sister or a friend she did not meet the alimony-terminating requirements of cohabiting ninety consecutive days with a romantic companion. If further found Mr. Fiddie’s increased retirement income and Ms. Fiddie’s poor health and greatly diminished lifestyle (for a while she was homeless) justified the increase in alimony.
In a long term marriage, like the Fiddies’ 28 year one, permanent periodic alimony may not seem so harsh. However, in South Carolina permanent periodic alimony is the preferred form of alimony and is sometimes awarded on marriages of less than a decade length. I have represented men like Mr. Fiddie who start with a small alimony obligation only to see it grow over the years. For them the alimony obligation is a permanant itch that can never be relieved. Mr. Fiddie’s increased alimony obligation appears to be less than 15% of his gross income, which seems low given the length of the Fiddies’ marriage and his ex-wife’s poor health. Still, when Mr. Fiddie divorced in 1994 I doubt he thought his alimony would almost quintuple within fifteen years.
Mr. Fiddie now probably wishes for his ex-wife’s remarriage (unlikely to happen given her health and the length of time since the divorce in which she has remained unmarried). It seems likely that only one of their deaths will terminate his alimony obligation.