Family Law Prof Blog

Editor: Margaret Ryznar
Indiana University
Robert H. McKinney School of Law

Friday, April 28, 2006

Case Law Development: Retroactive Application of Family Law Decisions Regarding Alimony Agreements

The Georgia Supreme Court considered the retroactive application of family law rulings in a case in which the question was whether alimony obligations survive the death of the obligor parent.  The court affirmed the trial court's decision that husband's estate could not be held in contempt for failing to continue to pay the alimony obligation.  The trial court had concluded that the normal rule that death of the obligor terminates the agreement should apply because the settlement agreement's provision that Wife was entitled to alimony until she remarried or died did not evidence a manifest intention to reverse that rule. 

The issue for the Supreme Court was whether that rule, drawn from a 1981 Georgia Supreme Court decision, should be applied retroactively to the couples' incorporated settlement agreement entered in 1975.   The court concluded that it would apply the general rule that "a judicial decision announcing a new rule is retroactive unless the decision itself expressly makes it a matter of pure or selective prospectivity or, after examining whether retroactive application would adversely affect operation of the new rule and weighing the inequity imposed by retroactive application, we subsequently conclude application of the new rule would cause unjust results to those who justifiably relied on the former state of the law." Applying that rule to this case, the court noted that there had been conflicting authority on the issue of whether alimony terminates upon death of the obligor.  The authority wife argued supported her position was a narrowly drawn case and a plurality opinion which set itself out as an exception to the general rule that a recipient spouse's claim for alimony terminated upon the death of the obligor spouse.  A subsequent decision that overruled that authority did not indicate that it should be applied prospectivity only.  Accordingly the court concluded that retroactive application would not result in "substantial inequitable results that amounts to the injustice or hardship that would authorize a holding of nonretroactivity."

Findley v. Findley, 2006 Ga. LEXIS 254 (April 25, 2006)
Opinion on the web (last visited April 28, 2006 bgf)

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