South Carolina Lawyer
SC Lawyer, March 2006, #1.
South Carolina Lawyer March 2006 Alimony Termination By J. Mark Taylor The set-up
There was a French-accented client who inquired about "de termination ov de alimony." His lawyer explained that alimony was intended to provide a separated or ex-spouse a substitution for the support incident to the former marital relationship based primarily on financial need and 13 statutory factors the court must weigh for "determination" of alimony. Croom v. Croom, 305 SC 158, 406 S.E.2d 381 (Ct.App. 1991), S.C. Code Ann. § 20-3-130(C). He said, "Oh no, no; I mean if de ex-wife live with other guy like married, and still get my money, tell me if I get to termination de alimony."
Men generally do not like paying alimony or spousal attorney's fees. "Men" is the spousal equivalent and linguistically interchangeable with "women" since gender neutrality is intended (see Orr v. Orr, 440 U.S. 268 (1979), but for purposes of this article, statically far more men pay alimony. These big "A"s rank right up there with the Hester Prynne scarlet letter in family law cases. Why? A primary hypothesis has been that a payor spouse (traditionally the husband) does not want to address alimony or attorney's fees because each issue is related solely for the benefit of the recipient (typically the wife) to whom he no longer wants to be responsible for or indexed to.
Psychology notwithstanding, alimony remains alive and well in family court across South Carolina and maintains its rightful place in need-based cases. The law also provides that changed conditions may warrant a modification or termination of alimony. S.C. Code Ann. § 20-3-170.
Tommy Manville once said, "She cried, and the judge wiped away her tears with my checkbook." The evolution of law related to alimony has been constructed and refined in important ways since 2001. Three cases and the establishment of a statute provide a definitive roadmap to facts and circumstances that may or may not lead to termination of alimony obligations. Termination scenarios, as with many other areas of family law, promote the concept that questions concerning alimony rest within the sound discretion of the family court. Bannen v. Bannen, 286 S.C. 24, 331 S.E.2d 379 (Ct. App. 1985). It has become even clearer, when discretion constitutes a key ingredient, that the family court will analyze the facts surrounding whether alimony should terminate or not on a case-by-case basis. One of the most alluring parts of our profession is that nothing is static. The law is ever evolving. A chronological examination of the three leading cases and the amended statute codified in § 20-3-150 should illuminate the bar and judiciary when confronted with a potential termination case.
The seminal case of Bryson v. Bryson provides a classic example of client persistence. 347 S.C. 221, 553 S.E.2d 493 (Ct. App. 2001). The Brysons were married for 22 years. The family court approved a settlement agreement at the time of the divorce wherein Mr. Bryson agreed to pay alimony on a periodic basis. The family court increased the alimony obligation by subsequent action after Mr. Bryson's child support obligation was terminated. Mr. Bryson brought an action in 1991 seeking to terminate alimony on grounds that Ms. Bryson was involved in a relationship alleged to be "tantamount to marriage" involving a significant other the ex-wife had been living with for approximately three years. The family court held that the relationship was not tantamount to marriage, but was one of "mutual financial assistance and companionship," and therefore refused to terminate alimony. The Court of Appeals, in an unpublished opinion, upheld the family court's decision in 1993, and the Supreme Court denied certiorari in 1994.
Mr. Bryson was discouraged by the first rulings but was determined to pursue justice as he strongly believed it to be from his end of the moral...