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THE BLUE JEAN LAWYER – Alimony as Punishment

by J. Tyler Cox

Probably the most common misconception about alimony is that it is a punishment for the person who has been ordered to pay it. Some believe that if their spouse has cheated on them, or has engaged in any type of misconduct, that they are entitled to alimony simply based on fault. This is simply not true. Basing alimony wholly on whether the other party is at fault would basically make alimony an award for punitive damages, which is a totally different beast altogether. Although fault is a factor when considering alimony, the main hurdle in any alimony dispute is need. Punitive damages are damages that exceed simple compensation and are awarded to punish a defendant.

Punitive damages do not take into account the need or income of the person being awarded those damages, but rather serve as a warning or discouraging measure to make sure that other people do not engage in similar behavior. For example, punitive damages are commonly used in torts cases where a court punishes a company for a misdeed in order to stop it from doing the misdeed again and to dissuade other parties from doing the same. Punitive damages are responsible for the TV commercials and billboards that speak of large awards won for clients.

The purpose of alimony is to offer support for a spouse who is financially-dependent on the other. Even though fault is a factor that a court will consider, a court will focus primarily on the need of the spouse seeking alimony. In other words, alimony can be awarded to a spouse if that spouse is in need of support because they are not equipped to maintain the level of lifestyle that they have grown accustomed to while being married. For example, if a wife never had a job while married and now is getting a divorce, a court may award her with alimony so that she may begin to get back on her feet since the main income earner in her household is no longer present.

There are four types of alimony: (1) Periodic Alimony, the more traditional type, with no set termination date and allocated month to month based on need; (2) Lump Sum Alimony, awarded as a fixed sum that can be paid all at once or in installments; (3) Rehabilitative alimony, developed to assist a spouse when reentering the workforce after their marriage; and (4) Reimbursement Alimony, awarded to a spouse who supported the other spouse through undergraduate, graduate, or professional school. A court may award just one type of alimony or a combination of the types.

While alimony and punitive damages may seem the same, they serve two totally different purposes. Punitive damages are a punishment payment made out to the other party, and while people who are ordered to pay alimony may see it as a punishment, alimony is actually just based on the need of the other party. There are two totally different criteria when awarding both punitive damages and alimony. Courts in Mississippi will in fact look at fault when awarding alimony, but only after an intense need-based analysis by the chancellor to determine how much and what type should and will be awarded. Confusing these two are very common among people who come into our office, and we are well equipped to answer any questions that may arise when dealing with these issues. Contact our office if you or anyone you know have any questions about alimony, awarding alimony, or any other questions please do not hesitate to ask.

Please call at (228)224-6781 or editor@thegazebogazette.com if you have any legal concerns or comments and we’ll get back to you.

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