In an opinion scheduled to be officially released on May 29th, 2012, the Connecticut Appellate Court has confirmed the notion that even time-limited alimony can be extended unless the decree of dissolution specifically says it can’t.
In 2001, Faith Whitehead was awarded alimony in the amount of $1500 per month that was to terminate the earlier of her remarriage, cohabitation, death, or her 60th birthday. In 2010 when she was about to turn 60, Ms Pite went back to court asking for an extension of the term beyond her 60th birthday. The reason? Her her interest in her ex-husband’s retirement — something awarded to her in original decree– had shrunk with the economy. This meant that her income from that source would no longer be what she originally hoped it would be.
While the trial court did reduce the amount she would receive each month, it nevertheless extended the term alimony indefinitely. The court said it did this in order to effectuate the original intent of the judgement. Otherwise, according to the court, Ms Pite would need to invade her assets in order to maintain her lifestyle, while her husband would not. The court noted, also, that Ms. Pite had not obtained full-time employment which was also part of the original plan.
At the same time Ms. Pite moved to extend her alimony, Mr. Pite sought to terminate his child support on the grounds he had been paying $46,000 in annual tuition for his child at a private boarding school in addition to paying $26,000 in court-ordered child support directly to Ms. Pite. The court did grant a small reduction in periodic child support but refused to terminate the order saying that the decision to send the child to boarding school had been voluntary and in the nature of a gift.
While the trial court did reduce the child support order, the reduction fell far short of offsetting the extra $46,000 Mr. Pite was reportedly paying in tuition.
As it so often does, the Appellate Court cited the very broad discretion enjoyed by trial judges in family matters and, by contrast, the limited scope of review afforded to the appellate court. On appeal, it is never enough that one or more of the appellate judges would have decided a case differently. Instead, in order to alter the results, the reviewing court must find either that the lower court did not correctly apply the law or that the court could not reasonably have concluded as it did.
The take-away lesson –especially for the vast majority of individuals who settle their cases short of trial — is this: It is not enough to say when alimony will end. Instead, your agreement, which will eventually become part of a court order, must also state in clear and unambiguous language that the term of alimony is to be non-modifiable. Otherwise it may someday be up to an individual judge to decide what you really meant when you scheduled a date for the final alimony check to change hands.
As always, we welcome your comments.