Alimony Arrearages: A Matter of Contempt of Court and More

For some, the end of a marriage seemingly represents a never-ending saga. In some cases, disputes about children keep the friction going between formerly married couples. Meanwhile, alimony arrearages are yet another reason for post-divorce proceedings.

The Court of Appeals of Tennessee at Nashville’s ruling in Patricia Gay Patterson Lattimore v. James S. Lattimore, Jr. provides some valuable insight concerning noncompliance with making alimony payments. Unfortunately, the parties have returned to court on multiple occasions since they divorced in 1994.

When the trial court executed the divorce decree, it approved and incorporated the Marital Dissolution Agreement (“MDA”) signed by Patricia and James. The provision concerning alimony stated that James agreed to pay Patricia $4K monthly starting in June of 1996. (This represented an increase over the payments for the first couple of years.)

According to the MDA, the alimony payments would go directly to Patricia on the first of each month. They would stop if Patricia died or remarried.

It’s unknown how the payments progressed up until 2009. On June 5, 2009, Patricia filed a post-divorce petition seeking to hold James in criminal contempt. Although it wasn’t the only issue, James failed to make the May 2009 alimony payment.

Guilty of Criminal Contempt

On January 12, 2012, the trial court conducted a bench trial. The judge found that James had not paid alimony since April 2009. In fact, his failure to pay represented a willful action.

Additionally, the trial court determined that James engaged in other activities to avoid paying alimony such as transferring assets to his current wife, Joan Carol (Joey) Lattimore. Accordingly, the trial judge found James guilty of numerous counts of criminal contempt. Of them, thirty-three counts alone pertained to the failure to pay alimony.

On August 17, 2012, the trial judge sentenced James to jail. Additionally, the trial court granted a monetary judgment for $132,000 for the unpaid alimony payments. Patricia was also entitled to statutory interest for a total of $157,850.

Ultimately, James appealed the trial court’s 2012 decision. Although the Court of Appeals reversed sixty-seven of the criminal contempt convictions, three remained. Additionally, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s judgment for the unpaid alimony payments.

The story does not stop here, however. On June 19, 2014, Patricia was back in court with a new post-divorce action. This time she petitioned for a finding of civil contempt for judgment.

More Alimony Arrearages

According to Patricia, James had once again willfully failed to comply with the MDA’s provision regarding alimony payments. As of the date of filing the court action, James missed twenty-two monthly payments since September 2012.

Patricia asked the court to find James in civil contempt and award her an $88,000 monetary judgment, with an allowance for statutory interest and any additional arrearages that might accrue before the judgment was entered. She wanted to ““be able to use this judgment to execute upon [Husband’s] assets in the event [Husband] fails to purge himself of contempt.”

The trial court conducted a bench trial in 2016 and directed each party to submit proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law.  In March 2018, the trial court entered a Memorandum Order regarding hearings in 2016.

Although the trial court found that James failed to pay alimony and therefore violated the MDA, it found James did not have the ability to fulfill his obligation. The judge dismissed Patricia’s petition, finding that James nonpayment of spousal support was not willful. When Patricia’s petition was denied, she appealed.

Appeals Court Reviews Trial Court Decision on Alimony

On appeal, the Court disagreed that James’ failure to pay his alimony obligation was willful. In doing so, it referred back to the 2009 petition. At that time, evidence showed that James transferred assets to avoid support payments. He and his new wife also took trips to several countries and throughout the United States. Proceeds from the sale of his house were more than $1M.

Since the filing of the 2012 petition, the court noted that when James’ current wife bought her new car, she paid cash. Meanwhile, James speculated that the money came from an inheritance his wife received. Notwithstanding, he offered no proofs of the inheritance.

The court also questioned credit card statements showing payments of nearly $343K. James explained that he allowed a friend to use his credit cards and she made the payments.

When the trial court originally decided the 2012 petition, it reviewed James’ current income. Although he was previously worked as a CPA, his earnings dropped substantially. During the three years between 2012 and 2014, James’ annual income ranged from $8,200 to $15,639.

In the meantime, James also claimed that his medical conditions prevented him from working. However, he produced no medical testimony or documentation regarding his medical issues.

Based on the information regarding James’ earnings and his inability to work, the trial court found that James did not have sufficient income to pay his spousal support obligations. Although the trial court acknowledged that James had violated the MDA, it did not calculate the arrearages.

Upon review of the record and looking at the evidence, the Court of Appeals determined that James’ failure to comply with the MDA was willful. In fact, it termed it “intentional and voluntary.”

The Appeals Court remanded the matter to the trial court to grant Catherine’s petition for civil contempt and a judgment setting the alimony arrearages.

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