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Viles v. Viles.

March 21, 1963


Author: Hastie

Before MARIS, WOODBURY and HASTIE, Circuit Judges.

HASTIE, Circuit Judge.

This is an appeal from an order of the District Court of the Virgin Islands, entered on November 20, 1961, granting the appellee's motion to reduce the support payments required of him under the alimony provision of a divorce decree entered against him on December 8, 1951. The original decree required the appellee to pay the appellant for her support, in equal monthly installments, $5,500 per year so long as the husband's total annual income should be $17,500 or more, with provision for reduction of annual payments "proportionately" to not less than $3,600 whenever the husband's income should fall below $17,500.*fn1 The order appealed from abrogates the sliding scale and reduces the appellee's obligation to a flat $2,500 per year. It was entered after a hearing at which evidence was introduced. However, the court made no findings and did not disclose the reasoning upon which its decision was based.

The appellant contends that the district court could not lawfully modify an order awarding alimony where, as here, the order was based on an agreement of the parties. In the alternative, the appellant contends that the district court abused its discretion in the present instance.

The appellant's first contention is without merit. Section 13 of the Divorce Law of the Virgin Islands, 1944, 16 V.I.C. § 110, expressly grants the district court power to "set aside, alter or modify so much of the judgment as may provide alimony * * * or the maintenance of either party in the action". This power is a normal concomitant of the power to enforce an alimony decree by summary contempt proceedings. See Goldman v. Goldman, 1940, 282 N.Y. 296, 26 N.E.2d 265; Ex Parte Jeter, 1940, 193 S.C. 278, 8 S.E.2d 490; Comment, 1940, 39 Mich.L.Rev. 120, 128.

The fact that the decree in the present case was drawn with reference to a separation agreement does not limit the court's power under section 13. Alimony is a creature of statute, reflecting public concern that dissolution of the marital contract be accomplished without unnecessary hardship to either spouse. The parties cannot oust the court of its jurisdiction to make an award of alimony as the equities of the case may dictate. A separation agreement between the parties may be helpful to the court in arriving at appropriate terms for an alimony award, but the court is not bound to accept the judgment of the parties on this issue. See 2 Nelson, Divorce and Annulment, 2d ed. Henderson 1945, § 14.36. The fact that an award of alimony has been based on a separation agreement may provide a sound reason for judicial reluctance to modify the original decree. Botkin v. Botkin, 1956, 247 Minn. 25, 77 N.W.2d 172. But when it is clear that circumstances have changed to such an extent that the decree and the agreement on which it is based are no longer serving the purposes for which alimony is awarded, then the court may ignore the agreement and modify the decree according to the necessities of the case. Simpson v. Superior Court, 1960, 87 Ariz. 350, 351 P.2d 179; Scanlon v. Scanlon, 1955, 60 N.M. 43, 287 P.2d 238; Goldman v. Goldman, supra; Briggs v. Briggs, 1946, 178 Ore. 193, 165 P.2d 772, 166 A.L.R. 666; Ex Parte Jeter, supra; Miner v. Miner, 1960, 10 Wis.2d 438, 103 N.W.2d 4; Buchler v. Buchler, 1949, 65 Wyo. 452, 202 P.2d 670.*fn2

It is particularly significant that in Goggans v. Osborn, 9th Cir. 1956, 237 F.2d 186, 189, 16 Alaska 451, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit took this view of judicial power in applying the section of the Alaska divorce statute on which section 13 of the Virgin Islands law is based. The court said:

"* * * Although parties may contract as between themselves concerning the amount of alimony the allowance of alimony is incidental to the divorce procedure and requires the court's intervention to give it validity.

"A decree providing for alimony, whether or not based upon a contract, may be modified or terminated upon the death of the husband, the remarriage of the wife or a change in the financial condition of the parties. * * *

"These consequences flow from a decree for the payment of alimony because the duty to pay alimony, as well as support money for children, is public in nature. The community as a whole is vitally concerned * * *." [Footnotes omitted.]

Finally, the existence of judicial power in this jurisdiction to modify an alimony award based upon earlier agreements of the parties was presupposed in Crawford v. Crawford, 3d Cir. 1958, 254 F.2d 113. In that case, the original decree incorporated, without reference, the substance of support provisions contained in an earlier separation agreement between the parties. This court affirmed an order of the District Court of the Virgin Islands modifying the terms of the decree so as to make express provision for an eventuality which had not been clearly covered by either the agreement or the original decree. The only question raised was whether the court should have made even more drastic changes. We now make explicit what that decision necessarily implied, that the District Court of the Virgin Islands has power to modify a decree such as that originally entered in the instant case.

Appellant's second contention involves different considerations. Both section 12 of the divorce law, 16 V.I.C. § 109, permitting an award of alimony, and section 13, 16 V.I.C. § 110, permitting modification of the original award, confer a discretionary power on the court. In Burch v. Burch, 3d Cir. 1952, 195 F.2d 799, 812, we pointed out that the discretion to award alimony in the first place should be exercised with due regard "to the conduct of both parties, the amount of property of each and all the other circumstances of the case". Cf. Burch v. Burch, 3d Cir. 1953, 205 F.2d 115. We must now discuss the considerations which should control the court's exercise of its discretionary power to modify an award of alimony.

Obviously there must be some self-imposed limitations upon the court's exercise of this power. If either party to a divorce were permitted to invoke at will a full hearing and de novo adjudication of the fair amount of alimony, section 13 of the divorce law would become a potential vehicle for harassment and a source of wasteful litigation. Marriott v. Marriott, 1952, 347 Ill.App. 372, 106 N.E.2d 876. The courts in almost every American jurisdiction have recognized this problem and met it by holding that a party seeking modification of an alimony decree must allege such a substantial and continuing change of circumstances since the entry of the original decree as to make continued enforcement of that decree unfair. See Nelson, op. cit., § 17.07. A large number of cases so holding are collected in Annot., 1951, 18 A.L.R. 2d 10. This requirement has almost always been imposed without the benefit of express language in the controlling statute. See 2 Vernier, American Family Laws, 1932, Table LIV, at 277-82. In furtherance of this requirement, the original decree should be treated as a final adjudication of the rights of the parties at the time it is entered, and the court which entered it should be presumed, in the absence of a direct appeal, to have given appropriate consideration to the circumstances which should have affected its judgment. Sherman v. Kent, 1923, 223 Mich. 200, 193 N.W. 795. Moreover, it is quite proper for the court in framing the original decree to anticipate future changes in circumstances of the parties and to provide specific adjustments of the postmarital rights and duties of the parties which will be made in the event that the circumstances do change as anticipated. Condy v. Condy, 1946, 328 Ill.App. 8, 65 N.E.2d 219; Scheldrup v. Gaffney, 1952, 243 Iowa 1297, 55 N.W.2d 272; Raymond v. Raymond, 1956, 39 N.J.Super. 24, 120 A.2d 270. When it is clear that the court which entered the original decree has considered and provided for future eventualities, the party seeking a modification of his obligation should be required to prove more than that the events anticipated have actually occurred. See, e.g., Grant v. Grant, 1954, 223 Ark. 757, 268 S.W.2d 617; Keyser v. Keyser, 1922, 193 Iowa 16, 186 N.W. 438.

In this case, appellee's motion and the showing made in support of it established no significant change in circumstances beyond what had been anticipated and provided for in the original decree. In effect, that decree, by requiring support payments of $5,500 per year so long as appellee's annual income should be at least $17,500, fixed 11/35 as an equitable maximum ratio of alimony to appellant's income. The provision for "proportionate" reduction of payments to $3,600 per year permitted maintenance of that ratio so long as the husband's income did not fall below $11,455. Thus, the original decree was a considered adjudication of what adjustments in alimony ...

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