The August 19, 2009 Court of Appeals decision in Butler v. Butler, 385 S.C. 328, 684 S.E.2d 191 (Ct.App. 2009) offers the family court bar much guidance in the factors to consider in alimony reduction cases. Many of the factors considered in this opinion have never been addressed in prior published opinions.
Butler was an appeal from a family court alimony reduction case in which the family court reduced ex-husband’s alimony obligation from the previously agreed upon amount of $7,500 a month to $5,000 a month. The family court based this reduction solely on the fact that ex-wife inheritance from her father and the appreciation of her share of the marital estate provided income that reduced her need for alimony to support her lifestyle. Ex-husband believed this reduction was insufficient and appealed.
The Court of Appeals affirmed the amount of reduction and did not reduce alimony further. Among the important factors the Court of Appeals analyzed in deciding not to reduce alimony further were:
● Ex-wife’s “usufruct” [Louisiana’s equivalent to a life estate] interest in her deceased mother’s estate for which she had yet to receive any income was not a change of circumstance to reduce her alimony because ex-wife had yet to receive any income from that interest.
● Even where ex-husband based his reduction action solely on ex-wife’s alleged lack of need for further alimony, it was still appropriate for the family court to look at his ability to pay alimony in deciding how much alimony to award.
● Where termination of ex-wife’s mortgage payment, child support obligation, and North Carolina property expenses were in the parties’ contemplation when they divorced, it was not a change of circumstances to justify a reduction in alimony when these expenses were now terminated.
● Ex-wife’s expenses, including charitable donations, contributions to their son’s medical school tuition, fresh flowers and houseplants, household maintenance, and major home repairs, were not excessive in light of the fact that such expenses were part of the marital lifestyle. Alimony to cover these expenses was justified when the parties established a certain standard of living during their marriage.
● Despite ex-wife’s net worth of at least $4.3 million, further reduction in alimony was not justified. The Court of Appeals held that ex-wife should not be required to change investment strategies or invade her principal so that ex-husband could terminate or further reduce his alimony payments. Ex-wife was not required to exhaust her assets over the course of her lifetime to maintain her standard of living so that ex-husband can reduce his alimony payments. This was especially true given that ex-wife had invested her assets conservatively and practiced never to invade principal.
As noted in a previous blog, alimony awards are hard to reduce and, absent cohabitation or remarriage, extremely hard to terminate. Butler provides additional information on factors the court can consider when deciding whether to reduce alimony.