The Legal Intelligencer: Practitioners: Contractual Alimony Is Not an Alimony Award

December 13, 2022

In an article published in The Legal Intelligencer on December 13, 2022, partner and co-chair of the family law group, Michael Bertin, discusses marital settlement agreements. In the article, titled “Practitioners: Contractual Alimony Is Not an Alimony Award,” Michael analyzed the recent case of Long v. Long, 282 A.3d 694 (Pa. Super. 2022), which addresses the issue of contractual alimony and its intersection with the Divorce Code.

In the Long case, the parties entered into a marriage settlement agreement in June 2018 and the trial court issued a divorce decree two months thereafter. The parties’ marriage settlement agreement did not provide language that stated that alimony would terminate in the event of remarriage. The only language in the agreement pertaining to the termination of alimony was that it “shall cease after June 2024.”

The husband petitioned to modify child support in fall 2020, because the parties began sharing physical custody of the remaining minor child and the wife remarried. The husband argued that the wife was barred from receiving alimony due to her remarriage and his child support should be modified downwardly because the wife was not entitled to alimony. The wife argued that her remarriage was not a bar to alimony. The trial court denied the husband’s petition and the husband thereafter appealed.

As stated by the Superior Court in the opinion of the Long case, “it is well settled that under contract law, the court must ascertain the intent of the parties when interpreting an agreement.”

The Superior Court vacated and remanded the case: “insofar as it prohibited the husband from seeking a formal allocation of his child support and alimony obligations, totaling $1,800 per month.” However, the Superior Court found that the trial court “ultimately did not err when it denied the husband’s request to terminate his obligation to pay alimony upon a child support reduction.” The Superior Court further held: “in our de novo review of the marriage settlement agreement, we conclude that the agreement was not ambiguous, and that in the absence of a provision to the contrary, the wife was not barred from receiving alimony upon remarriage.”

This case is very important for family law practitioners. It serves as a reminder of the importance of the detail that is required in marital settlement agreements. If there is an alimony provision in the agreement, it is imperative that language is included regarding modifiability and termination. If the agreement does not provide any language regarding the same, because the agreement is a contract, the wording of the contract will control. As was the case in Long, the lack of such language foreclosed the husband from being successful in terminating alimony upon the remarriage of the payee-wife. This case is also important as it provides a reminder of the difference between alimony awards and contractual alimony by private agreement.

Read the full article here