Published on March 6th, 2015 | by Millennium Magazine Staff0
Is it time to change South Carolina’s alimony laws?
“Till death do us part.”
The common marriage vow suggests a lifelong connection. But what happens when the connection fades?
Many go through rounds of marriage counseling followed by a trial separation before filing for divorce and ultimately facing the discussion of child support and alimony.
In South Carolina, the topic of alimony is heating up as the state’s alimony laws are being challenged by South Carolina Alimony Reform, an organization formed in 2011.
Led by Wyman Oxner, an Orangeburg resident whose 21-year marriage ended in 2000, the group is lobbying for alimony reform.
Working with Oxner, Rep. Jerry Govan, D-Orangeburg, introduced a bill to create an alimony reform study committee composed of three House members, three Senate members and four others appointed by state officials.
Under a second bill, introduced by Rep. Cezar McKnight, D-Williamsburg, and Rep. Doug Brannon, R-Spartanburg, alimony would be limited to marriages lasting 10 or more years.
Deciding whether either spouse will receive alimony is one of the first steps in the divorce process.
Then, a form of alimony must be chosen. Judges, who are the final arbiter of all alimony decisions, can choose from a variety of payment options. A lump-sum arrangement pays a set amount of money at once or periodically; the rehabilitative option provides a set amount to help with job training and education when a spouse proves they can be self-supporting within a certain time frame. A third option is the reimbursement approach, which pays back a spouse for anything spent on behalf of the soon-to-be former spouse, such as when one spouse supports the other while they obtain a professional degree or start a business.
For many, though, judges tend to choose something called permanent periodic alimony, according to several Columbia family law attorneys.
Permanent periodic alimony ends only with the death of either spouse or the remarriage of the person receiving the alimony, said Shawn Reeves, a Columbia family lawyer who handles alimony cases regularly. The money is paid on a periodic basis, usually monthly.
Oxner, who said his group has topped 200 members in part because of billboards and radio advertisements around the state, argues that the state’s alimony laws are outdated. He said that women work more often and that men are much less likely to be the family’s sole breadwinner.
That idea gets pushback from Reeves, though.
“That’s a very simplistic way of viewing it,” Reeves said, adding that a lot of families still rely solely on the income of one person, whether it be the husband or wife.
South Carolina law does not set strict calculations for determining alimony but does offer judges a set of guidelines to follow, such as the physical and emotional condition of each spouse and each spouse’s employment history and earning potential.
“We have child support guidelines that are very specific, but the alimony is left up to the judge’s discretion,” Reeves said.
Columbia family attorney Dan Sullivan said change is likely to come but probably not entirely the way S.C. Alimony Reform hopes.
“Maybe put a limit on the time, but all other statutes and laws on the books are working fine,” Sullivan said.
He said when he argues on the side of the alimony payer, he generally tries to negotiate a set amount of time for the alimony to last.
Oxner said his group suggests stopping at half the length of the marriage.
“At the very least, it should end at age 65 or 66 or whatever full retirement age is,” Oxner said.
Alimony is always modifiable, though, and the fact that the court can revisit it is a good thing, Reeves said.
“What a lot of people want to say is enough is enough,” said Marcia Zug, a family law professor at the University of South Carolina.
But she said without a change in the alimony payer’s financial capability to pay or other change in circumstance, modifications are not likely.
Making modifications means going back to court and that requires spending more money to hire a lawyer.
When Oxner took his case to the South Carolina Court of Appeals, he said he realized a modification was not likely until his ex-wife retired.
“Nobody should have to pay somebody else for the rest of their life because their marriage failed,” Oxner said.
In an ideal world, everyone could earn a living wage, but disparities are inevitable, Reeves said.
Oxner said he hopes to find a solution that pleases everyone, but Reeves said that’s not always as easy as it seems.
“Anytime there are blanket rules, someone comes out better and someone comes out worse,” Reeves said.
Deborah Swearingen is with the University of South Carolina School of Journalism.