Court of Appeals refuses to reduce Husband’s alimony obligation despite Wife’s greatly increased earnings

Posted Sunday, September 12th, 2021 by Gregory Forman
Filed under Alimony/Spousal Support, Jurisprudence, Of Interest to Family Court Litigants, Of Interest to Family Law Attorneys, South Carolina Appellate Decisions, South Carolina Specific

The August 18, 2021, Court of Appeals opinion in Weller v. Weller finds that court affirming the family court’s refusal to reduce Husband’s alimony despite Wife’s greatly increased income. Given the factual circumstances of this case, that refusal is explicable but one of the court’s rationales is troubling.

The parties were divorced in 2004 with Husband agreeing to pay Wife $2,000 per month in permanent periodic alimony and $1,500 per month in child support. As part of that agreement, “it was announced that the Agreement of the parties was based on the wife’s income of $281.00 per month . . . . The wife’s monthly income and basis of the terms of this Agreement for any future actions between the husband and wife regarding the wife’s income is income of $281.00 per month and no other income, or projected income.”

In 2017, with the children now emancipated, and Wife working as a school teacher, Husband filed to terminate his alimony obligation based Wife’s increased income. At trial, the family court denied Husband’s request, finding he had failed to show Wife’s circumstances had changed substantially or materially to warrant termination or a reduction of alimony. The family court specifically found the parties contemplated that Wife would return to full-time employment “because she . . . was employed at the time of the [2004 Decree].” The family court ordered Husband to pay $3,000 in Wife’s attorney’s fees. After his post trial motions were denied, Husband appealed.

The Court of Appeals affirmed. While I believe both the family court and Court of Appeals erred in finding that the 2004 agreement contemplated Wife going back to work, the circumstances of this case justify the denied alimony reduction. Wife’s expenses has decreased between 2004 and 2018 by an amount substantially equal to the amount of child support she was no longer receiving. Further, given the elimination of Husband’s child support obligation, Wife’s monthly income had only increased from $5,620 to $5,987.83. Meanwhile, Husband’s monthly income had increased from $13,080 in 2004 to $21,770.69, his assets had increased from $252,325 in 2004 to $3,860,135.76, and Husband’s new wife was contributing substantially to his household expenses. Husband even stipulated he had the ability to pay his agreed-upon alimony amount. Further Wife’s initial alimony award reflected Husband’s adultery and Wife’s relocations for Husband’s career–factors the Court of Appeals found relevant under the alimony statute to his modification request.

In affirming the family court, the Court of Appeals noted:

We find Wife has a need for $2,000 per month in alimony to enjoy life as she would have if she and Husband remained married because (1) Wife’s income has remained relatively stable; (2) her expenses have not decreased outside those associated with raising two daughters; and, (3) her standard of living has remained relatively constant since 2004. Therefore, even though the parties stipulated that Wife’s income would be $281 for any future action, we find the increase in Wife’s income over the amount in the stipulation and all other changes in the parties’ circumstances are not so substantial or material as to warrant the termination or modification of alimony.

Citations omitted

However, in affirming the family court, the Court of Appeals appears to have looked behind the parties’ 2004 stipulation on Wife’s income:

In the present case, the parties’ 2004 stipulation of $281 as Wife’s income does not provide a complete portrayal of Wife’s 2004 financial circumstances or accurately reflect her pecuniary needs considered by the court at that time. After the parties’ divorce, Wife continued to teach part-time, with her employment eventually evolving into a full-time position. Wife worked two jobs at the time of the divorce in addition to receiving child support and alimony to maintain financial stability. She continues to work full-time to support a financially stable lifestyle; one similar to her lifestyle at the time of the parties’ divorce. Wife’s overall standard of living has remained relatively constant since 2004, even after considering the income she has recognized over her stipulated income of $281. This increase in income, when compared to Wife’s current circumstances, is insufficient to justify a modification or termination of alimony.

I believe this finding to be in err but immaterial. The parties’ 2018 financial circumstances clearly justified the continuation of Husband’s alimony obligation. However, going behind the parties ’ 2004 stipulation is simply bad jurisprudence. Husband likely offered $2,000 per month in alimony in 2004, in part, because Wife stipulated to a very low baseline income for purposes of modification. Undermining that stipulation by looking at the actual circumstances undermines such agreements. Where an opposing parties’ income is in dispute, I often will have a client agree to a support figure based upon a stipulation of the low end of the other parties’ income–especially if I expect support to be modified shortly. Often such stipulations are more cost effective than litigating the issue of a party’s income. If the courts go behind such stipulations by attempting to determine a different income figure, it reduces the incentive to resolve such cases by agreement.

While the Weller court’s refusal to reduce Husband’s alimony obligation is justified, it should not have gone behind the parties’ stipulation.

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