Archaic alimony cases

Posted Thursday, March 4th, 2010 by Gregory Forman
Filed under Alimony/Spousal Support, Law and Culture, Of Interest to Family Law Attorneys, Of Interest to General Public, South Carolina Specific

Trying (unsuccessfully) to locate a case referenced by Professor Roy T.  Stuckey dealing with connivance from the days before South Carolina allowed divorce (1949-50), I ended up reviewing alimony cases of the early 20th century.  It was interesting seeing what behaviors riled spouses, or the South Carolina Supreme Court, a century ago.  Before South Carolina authorized divorce a wife’s only option for a husband’s intolerable behavior was to leave the home and sue for alimony.  Generally, in order to obtain alimony “the conduct of the wife must be blameless.” Nicholson v. Nicholson, 115 S.C. 326, 105 S.E. 700 (1921).  Few humans could meet this standard and, at least from a review of the Supreme Court opinions of this era, few women were being awarded alimony from the circuit courts (there was no family court then)–and sometimes these alimony awards would be reversed by the Supreme Court (there was no Court of Appeals either).

In Wise v. Wise, 60 S.C. 426, 38 S.E. 794 (1901), the Supreme Court denied wife her requested alimony, finding her complaints simply didn’t justify her leaving.  For example:

[T]he alleged refusal by the husband to allow his wife to put a clean tablecloth on the table, and upon another occasion requiring her to use a carpet as a tablecloth; which, if true, are very reprehensible, but they certainly do not amount to legal cruelty.

Id., 38 S.E at 805.  Further:

[W]here the husband “practices such obscene and revolting indecencies in the family circle, and so outrages all the sentiments of delicacy and refinement characteristic of the sex, that a modest and pure-minded woman would find these grievances more dreadful and intolerable to be borne than the most cruel inflictions upon her person.”  It will be observed that the word used is “practices,” which implies the doing of some act, and does not include mere language, however indecent it may be; and this is fully shown by the language used by Dargan, Ch., in delivering the opinion of the court in the same case (Hair v. Hair, supra) from which the above quotation is taken, where he says “that no words of reproach and insult amount to legal cruelty; no affront and indignity, no torture of the feelings and sensibilities, however severe and grievous to be borne, unaccompanied by bodily injury, or a well-grounded apprehension of such, will authorize the wife to leave the bed and board of her husband, and to claim thereupon from this court a decree for alimony.”

Id.  The Supreme Court is too decorous to list the “obscene and revolting indecencies” that led Mrs. Wise to leave her husband.  It was enough to note that his language did not amount to threats of bodily injury.  Justice Pope dissented, finding husband’s behavior too intolerable for wife to accept and believing she was entitled to alimony.

Over a century later I feel for Mrs. Wise; her situation is both sad and funny.  Her husband has a nasty disposition and she sits down to every meal with a dirty tablecloth or even a piece of carpet.  There’s no marriage counselor to help her husband learn to respect her dignity, no Oprah to empower her.  Her friends are probably equally cowed by domineering husbands and cannot offer support.  Divorce isn’t an option.  Few women were educated at that time and few good career paths were open to them.  Antidepressant medication won’t be invented for another eighty-plus years.  She is merely expected to suffer.  Was Justice Pope a softy or the most enlightened man in South Carolina in 1901 (or both)?  Yet Mrs. Wise’s situation remains funny because I can see contemporary spouses having the exact same dumb arguments over tablecloths that consumed the Wise family a century ago.  Our culture changes quickly; humans less so.

A few years later, in Levin v. Levin, 68 S.C. 123, 46 S.E. 945, 948 (1904), the Supreme Court, while reversing and remanding a circuit court decision denying Mrs. Levin alimony, noted the following factors that lead to a denial of alimony:

If she elopes, or commits adultery, or violates or omits to discharge any of the important hymeneal obligations which she has assumed upon herself, the husband may abandon her without providing for her support.

I suspect, but am by no means certain, I know what “important hymeneal obligations” are.  I handled an appeal in 1999 in which a wife’s lack of marital intimacies was treated as one reason to deny her alimony. That decision was affirmed in an unpublished opinion and the section discussing this issue cited no legal authority.  Perhaps Levin is the legal authority.  I look forward to litigating alimony claims in which a wife’s failure to discharge “important hymeneal obligations” is raised as a defense.  Further is Levin subject to an equal protection argument because there are no “important hymeneal obligations” for a husband to discharge?

A final interesting case I located was Lynch v. Lynch, 138 S.C. 1, 136 S.E. 25, 27 (1926), in which the Supreme Court notes:

That the husband lived in adultery with another woman is a circumstance entitling the wife whom he has abandoned to a large share of his income.

This much has not changed in the past eighty-four years.

One thought on Archaic alimony cases

  1. Paul D. Schwartz says:

    Greg, maybe Viagra would now empower such a husband to discharge his “important hymeneal obligations” to avoid such a defense.

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