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Alimony for alcoholics

In South Carolina only adultery acts as an absolute bar to alimony. S.C. Code § 20-3-130(A). Yet, since the implementation of South Carolina’s alimony statute in 1990, there have been no reported decisions on awarding alimony to an alcoholic spouse.

Prior to 1990 the trend was clear: an alcoholic wife was going to get minimal, and likely only temporary, alimony.  The three most recent reported cases on this issue are: Lee v. Lee, 282 S.C. 76, 316 S.E.2d 435 (Ct.App.1984), Murray v. Murray, 271 S.C. 62, 244 S.E.2d 538 (1978) and Herbert v. Herbert, 260 S.C. 86, 194 S.E.2d 238 (1973).  In Lee the trial court awarded, and the Court of Appeals affirmed, $150 per month alimony for six months.  In Murray [where the courts note wife’s misconduct without describing it though it does not appear to be physical cruelty or adultery] the trial court awarded, and the Supreme Court affirmed, $400 per month in alimony for six months.  In Herbert the trial court awarded, and the Supreme Court affirmed, $75 per week in permanent alimony.

Under the 1990 alimony statute fault is one of the factors the court considers in setting alimony, with S.C. Code § 20-3-130(C)(10) requiring:

[T]he court must consider and give weight in such proportion as it finds appropriate …. marital misconduct or fault of either or both parties, whether or not used as a basis for a divorce or separate maintenance decree if the misconduct affects or has affected the economic circumstances of the parties, or contributed to the breakup of the marriage…

However not since 1988, in the case of Bryan v. Bryan, 296 S.C. 305, 372 S.E.2d 116, 119 (Ct.App. 1988), have our appellate courts affirmed an award of rehabilitative alimony when the supported spouse requested permanent alimony.

Case law since 1990 is clear that adultery bars alimony.  However there are no reported cases discussing how the two other fault grounds (habitual intoxication and physical cruelty) impact the alimony award for an at-fault supported spouse.  Pre-1990 case law suggests such awards will be small and likely temporary.  Post-1990 case law disfavors temporary alimony and favors permanent alimony.  It is unknowable which of these two trends the appellate courts will favor when an alcoholic seeks alimony.

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