Case Watch: For Mediators: Alimony is Not as Simple as it Seems
following case analysis is part of a regular series we publish to help you
broaden your knowledge of rulings of Georgia’s appellate courts that may
affect your practice. Remember: mediators should not give legal advice
Alimony, or spousal support, doesn’t come up often in divorces, even though a lot of parties believe they are entitled to it if there is any fault on the part of their spouse (i.e., allegations of adultery).
What does a simple alimony provision really mean? The case of Hardigree v. Smith looks at the law behind the language with two vastly different holdings of the courts. This case will help mediators emphasize to the parties to have all agreements – particularly those involving a lot of money – be reviewed by an attorney. It is also a reminder that short and simple may not always be so short and simple, and contingencies that are unforeseen, like remarriage, may affect the validity of agreements.
In Hardigree, the Husband agreed in the settlement to pay to his Wife, “Monthly alimony of $2,000 per month for 120 consecutive months, beginning on April 1, 2010.” There was no other language concerning this alimony. That’s a total of $240,000 that Wife was expecting to receive over 10 years.
When the Wife remarried a little more than a year after the divorce, Husband stopped making the alimony payments. His contention was that alimony stopped upon her remarriage. Wife filed a motion for contempt with the trial court. The legal argument centered on whether or not the alimony was a “lump sum” alimony obligation. Wife alleged that it was and Husband alleged that it wasn’t. Their settlement agreement didn’t say anything about it. What did the trial court say?
there was no additional language, the trial court agreed with the Husband
by interpreting the alimony provision as permanent periodic alimony that
terminated upon Wife’s remarriage. Had the Wife stopped there, she would
have been out about $212,000. Instead, she appealed to the Georgia
Supreme Court, which, lucky for her, disagreed with the trial court:
alimony provisions set forth in the trial court’s order states the exact
amount of each payment and the exact number of payments without other
limitations, conditions or statements of intent, the obligation is one for
lump sum alimony payable in installments rather than permanent alimony.
[t]here was no limitation or contingency, such as remarriage or death, upon the provision for [Husband’s] payment to [Wife] of the monthly payment of [$2,000] for a definite [ten]-year period. This monthly installment provision was clearly a lump sum alimony award, as opposed to periodic alimony, and thus did not terminate upon [Wife’s] remarriage.
The Supreme Court ruled that the trial court erred as a matter of law, and it sent the case back to the trial court for a proper consideration of Wife’s motion for contempt. Definitely a good decision by the Wife to appeal. Unfortunately, but for an unambiguous alimony provision, both she and her ex-husband spent a lot of money on legal fees that they could have used for more enjoyable pursuits.
Now we don’t know if this settlement agreement was the product of a mediation, and we don’t know if the parties were represented by counsel. What we do know is that the parties came away from the settlement with completely different interpretations of the alimony provisions. Georgia mediators need to be aware of the laws that govern various provisions of divorce agreements so they can raise critical issues – like what happens when one or both of the parties remarry – that will help parties to avoid these kinds of expensive misunderstandings.