On October 5th of this year, the Superior Court disposed of an alimony modification request that was decided by the trial court in October, 2014. The facts and the ruling present a tale of how divorce practitioners need to pay heed to language when modifying an order of alimony.
Egan v. Egan, 2015 Pa. Super. 2013 was decided in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania but began as a divorce in Montgomery County, Maryland. In 2002, the Maryland Court issued a divorce decree with an alimony order providing for one year of alimony at $4,000 per month and then alimony of $3,000 per month “thereafter.” In 2004 the former husband filed to register the alimony award in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania and in April 2005, the parties formed a stipulation that transferred both the alimony and child support to Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania order made several modifications to alimony, child support and arrearages. The Pennsylvania Order contained a provision that should father succeed in reducing his child support, his alimony obligation would have a corresponding increase. We have seen these kinds of arrangements in agreements for many years, but this is the first time we have seen this discussed in an appellate case. If Father petitioned to decrease child support, the agreed upon increase in alimony was also to render the revised alimony number, non-modifiable. This agreement was made an order of court in April, 2005 in Pennsylvania.
In February, 2013 Husband/Father filed in Pennsylvania to modify the alimony. Wife/Mother countered that the alimony was non-modifiable because what was submitted in 2005 was a stipulation or “agreement”. In a ruling made without a hearing, the trial court ruled as a matter of law that the 2005 document was an agreement under Section 3105 of the Divorce Code and therefor was not subject to modification. It also held a hearing on Wife’s counterclaim and held Husband in contempt for failure to comply with the 2005 stipulation. Husband or rather ex-husband appealed.
Because the Maryland divorce decree mandated payment of indefinite alimony, it appears that the Pennsylvania court viewed the alimony award as modifiable as registered here in 2004. But the “agreement” to modify the alimony and child support provisions of the Maryland decree after registration in Pennsylvania was “agreed”. The Superior Court ruling is a determination that in resolving the modification of alimony by “agreement”, the parties took an order that otherwise was subject to modification under Section 3701(e) and converted it to an agreement under Section 3105(c).
Section 3105 (c) states that an agreement regarding disposition of existing alimony shall not be subject to modification absent “a specific provision to the contrary.” In this case, husband argued that Section 3105 governed only those cases where there was a comprehensive agreement. The Superior Court rejected the argument that agreements under Section 3105 need to be comprehensive, holding instead that if he wanted his 2015 modification to continue to permit further modification, that language needed to be written into the modification instrument. His argument that alimony was modifiable because he never did seek a modification in child support was rejected for similar reasons. By reaching the agreement embodied in the 2005 stipulation, husband took an otherwise modifiable alimony order and transformed it into a non-modifiable agreement.
The opinion discussed at length the policy reasons behind the difference in modifiability between Court ordered and agreed alimony. In a word, the view expressed is that parties to an agreement understand that non-modifiable alimony under Section 3105 is a fundamentally different animal than agreed alimony under Section 3105, and that the parties have to understand that when they negotiate agreements.
The net of the ruling is that a party seeking to modify judicially ordered alimony needs to understand that unless the right to modify again is clearly enunciated, the right is lost where an agreement is reached. This might be said to have a chilling effect upon such agreements, but the Superior Court found the statutes in controversy to be unambiguous. It also found the argument that the unmodifiable alimony obligation was onerous (62% of payor’s net monthly income) to be unworthy of consideration.
To the practitioner, the lesson is to draft alimony modifications with great care. To the layperson, the lesson is, do not try to modify your own alimony orders without someone with experience looking at your modification documents.