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A recent decision handed down by the Mississippi Supreme Court is a clear warning for any ex-spouse unilaterally deciding to reduce his court ordered periodic alimony payments due to financial hardship.

The facts of the case are fairly straightforward. Leslie and Katarina Shumake divorced in February 2009. In the Divorce Judgment, the Chancellor ordered Leslie to pay $5,750 in periodic alimony. However, Leslie only paid $650.00 a week and at some point filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy.  Katarina was apparently not in agreement with this unilateral reduction and asked the Chancellor to hold Leslie in contempt. In response, Leslie claimed that he was unable to pay the full $5,750.00 a month and belatedly asked for a modification. After several hearings, the Chancellor declined to hold Leslie in contempt but concluded that Leslie owed Katarina $58,550 plus interest.

On appeal the Mississippi Supreme Court stated that “[p]eriodic alimony is subject to modification; a party, however, may not modify on his own.” The Court went on to explain that periodic alimony vests on the date each payment becomes due.  Therefore, a court cannot give any relief from civil liability for any payments that have already accrued.

As for the bankruptcy filing, the Mississippi Supreme Court stated that it was “without legal effect.”  So if you are under an order to pay periodic alimony, it is critical that you seek a modification order as soon as you realize that there is a problem making the required payments.

To read the full opinion click here Leslie B. Shumake, Jr. v. Katarina Sitton Shumake.