South Carolina family law’s approach to alimony continues to reflect an antiquated view of gender roles. South Carolina is the only state in which a spouse’s adultery will bar alimony–a punishment for “bad” spouses, typically “bad” wives. Yet, although the alimony statute is gender neutral, I rarely see the family courts awarding husbands alimony–even when wives substantially out-earn them and are at fault for the breakup of the marriage. Even more confounding are those cases in which wives out-earn their husband yet are still awarded alimony. By what reckoning are such wives “supported spouses”?
An unpublished March 5, 2014 Court of Appeals opinion in Lake v. Lake is a corrective to the family court’s approach, reversing an award of alimony to a wife who out-earned her husband and showed no need. The family court, placing great weight on Husband’s adultery, awarded Wife $350 per month in permanent periodic alimony. The Court of Appeals reversed, finding Wife had not demonstrated any need for it. The opinion provides the following income and expense calculation:
|Monthly earnings||$ 9,998||$ 9,923|
|Child Support||1,004||– 1,004|
|Payroll deductions||– 4,155||– 3,074|
|Expenses||– 5,826||– 4,858|
|Net monthly surplus||$ 1,021||$ 987|
South Carolina family court judges make husbands’ adultery a huge factor in awarding wives alimony. In contrast, marital fault is a limited or irrelevant consideration for alimony in most other states. Further, the South Carolina family court treats adultery as the fault in the breakup of the marriage when it wants to punish some spouse but treats it as a symptom of a marriage-gone-bad when it doesn’t. Moreover, alimony is supposed to be based upon need and is supposed to be awarded to a supported spouse. How a higher income spouse can be a “supported spouse” and how a spouse with a net surplus of $1,021 has a need for alimony are questions I see our family court judges often glossing over in an effort to punish “cheating” husbands.
The Lake reversal is an all-too-infrequent corrective to this vindictive approach. However I wouldn’t be surprised to see our Supreme Court take certiorari and reverse the Court of Appeals: bad husbands must be punished and innocent wives must get alimony.