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Harris v. Harris

Supreme Court of Mississippi, En Banc

February 1, 2018

SUSAN HARRIS
v.
THOMAS L. HARRIS

          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 03/16/2016

         NEWTON COUNTY CHANCERY COURT TRIAL JUDGE: HON. H. DAVID CLARK, II

          TRIAL COURT ATTORNEYS: THOMAS L. TULLOS WILLIAM B. JACOB

          ATTORNEY FOR APPELLANT: THOMAS L. TULLOS

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEE: WILLIAM B. JACOB JOSEPH A. KIERONSKI, JR. DANIEL P. SELF, JR.

          CHAMBERLIN, JUSTICE

         ¶1. Thomas Leon Harris sought a reduction in the alimony award he paid to Susan Harris, due to the Social Security benefits she was receiving that were based on his income. After review of the applicable law in Mississippi and in other states, we overrule Spalding v. Spalding, 691 So.2d 435 (Miss. 1997), to the extent that it holds an alimony reduction to be automatic for Social Security benefits derived from the alimony-paying spouse's income. Further, we fully reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals and remand for the trial court to perform the proper analysis under Armstrong v. Armstrong, 618 So.2d 1278 (Miss. 1993), and our alimony-modification caselaw in light of the instant holding.

         STATEMENT OF THE FACTS

         ¶2. Susan Harris (Susan) and Thomas Leon Harris (Leon) were married on July 14, 1979. On the grounds of irreconcilable differences, they were divorced on February 25, 2011. At the time of divorce, Leon was sixty-one years old, and Susan was sixty years old. In the Property Settlement Agreement, Leon agreed to pay $2, 755 per month to Susan as periodic alimony. The Property Settlement Agreement did not address any contingency with respect to the alimony other than that it would end at Susan's remarriage or death. After the divorce, when Susan became eligible for Social Security, she filed for and obtained derivative Social Security retirement benefits in the amount of $1, 035 per month, based on Leon's income record with the Social Security Administration.

         ¶3. In 2015, Susan filed a complaint to review the health provision of the Property Settlement Agreement. Leon answered, filing a Motion to Dismiss Susan's complaint under Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), and he filed a counterclaim to reduce or terminate his alimony payments in light of the fact that Susan had begun drawing Social Security benefits based on his earnings record. Leon maintained that he should be required to pay Susan only an additional $1, 720 per month, since she was already drawing $1, 035 per month from Social Security as a result of his earnings record.

         ¶4. The trial court granted Leon's Rule 12(b)(6) Motion to Dismiss, and the trial court entered a judgment modifying the Property Settlement Agreement by lowering Leon's alimony payments from $2, 755 to $1, 720 a month, stating, without explanation, that there had been a material change in circumstances. Susan appealed on the sole issue of the trial court's modification of the Property Settlement Agreement. The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court's decision, holding that a material change in circumstances need not be shown and assessing all costs of the appeal to Susan. Susan sought rehearing, which was denied, but we granted certiorari.

         STATEMENT OF THE ISSUES

         ¶5. Certiorari was granted on two issues. Stated verbatim, the two issues are:

(1) The lower court erred when it granted Leon credit for the Social Security ...

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