In 1961, the Supreme Court of Georgia heard an appeal regarding the case my Grandfather James McClinton filed for a downward modification of the alimony he was ordered to pay his ex-wife, Juanita. At that time, he was paying her $400 per month, and when he filed his petition, he asserted that he’d had a substantial reduction in his income warranting a reduction of his alimony payments. Juanita disagreed, and even counterclaimed for an increase in alimony and attorney’s fees. The trial court dismissed Juanita’s counterclaim, which formed part of the basis for the appeal.
The Supreme Court of Georgia gives some great information, still relevant today, about modifying alimony. A lot of the same rules still apply: modifications will be granted upon a showing of a change in the income and financial status of the party responsible for making the payments. Well, let me take that back. The actual rule statement cited by the Supreme Court of Georgia is “showing a change in the income and financial status of the husband”. So, the implication being that only women could receive alimony at that time.
In his case, my Grandfather’s argument was that his income had reduced. What’s interesting, though, is that the same documents he produced showing his reduction in income also tended to show a substantial increase in his net worth. Hmmm. He went on to argue that you don’t have to have a change in both the income and financial status to get a modification, just one or the other. However, the Supreme Court of Georgia disagreed, stating that financial status is comprehensive enough to encompass income, as well as property, and that the alimony obligation concerns an “ability to pay”.
Unfortunately for Grandpa, he’d transferred some property to my Uncle during the pendency of his divorce and then had the property reconveyed to him afterwards, when he was obligated to pay alimony. This is unfortunate because at the time of his divorce, he’d had property and income at a much lower level than he did when he filed for the modification, because of his reconveyed property. And then, using the all-encompassing and comprehensive “financial status” analysis, the Court found that Grandpa “by his [own] petition”, shows “that his financial condition was better at the time of filing the petition for modification than it was at the time judgment was rendered”. Meaning, to put it bluntly, that Grandpa lost his modification case.
My dad had told me before that Grandpa had a case in the Supreme Court of Georgia that was published. I never really thought about it again until after I’d graduated law school. And then, while doing some research for a client a week or so ago, I came across the citation for the case in the family law bible, "Georgia Divorce, Alimony and Child Custody." by Dan E. McConaughey. I decided to read the opinion again, and it took on a much more vibrant life for me since I’ve been practicing family law. I mean this not only in the feelsy “that’s my family” way, but also in my understanding of the law. Financial status being more comprehensive than and inclusive of income is an interesting perspective.
It reminds me to ask lots of questions of my clients when we talk about modifications, because “income” is really just a part of the whole picture. And on a more practical point, it reminds me, to quote Stephen King, that “Ka is a wheel”, or in muggle terms, that destiny and future actions are predicated on past actions and everything comes full circle: Grandpa’s shady conveyance of property during the divorce ended up biting him later when he tried to modify.
Justice will out!
If you’d like to check out the case, look it up here: McClinton v. McClinton, 217 Ga. 283 (1961).