Supreme Court At-a-Glance Contributor Ryan M. Borden, Practicing at Ford, McDonald, McPartlin & Borden in Portsmouth, NH with a focus on bankruptcy representation of trustees, creditors and debtors, corporate law and commercial litigation.

Nos. 2020-0029 and 2020-0313

January 5, 2022

Affirmed in part, reversed in part

 

  • Whether the trial court erred as a matter of law when it found that the 1983 version of RSA 458:19 did not terminate alimony in 1988 and found petitioner in contempt for discontinuing payments in 2018.
  • Whether the trial court erred in permitting respondent to file a motion to renew alimony in 2018

 

The parties divorced in 1985.  The final decree incorporated the parties’ settlement stipulation, which required petitioner to pay alimony in the amount of $400 per week until respondent turned 65 or died, and $200 per week after she turned 65 or the death of either petitioner or respondent.  In 2016, respondent filed a petition to bring forward for petitioner’s failure to pay alimony.  The parties stipulated to a settlement, which the trial court approved, and petitioner resumed payments until April 2018.  In June 2018, petitioner sought termination of alimony based upon a substantial decrease in income.  In July 2018, respondent filed a motion for contempt for petitioner’s failure to pay.

The trial court denied petitioner’s motion to terminate alimony and granted respondent’s motion for contempt.  The trial court observed that the 1983 version of RSA 458:19 applied, which limited alimony to three years unless “renewed, modified, or extended” for an additional three years.  The trial court construed the 2016 stipulation as an extension of alimony for three years from October 2016 to October 2019 and found that petitioner failed to satisfy his burden of proof to terminate alimony.

The trial court observed that respondent made an oral motion for renewed alimony at the August 2018 hearing, but it deferred ruling on the motion.  Respondent then filed a written motion for renewed alimony, and petitioner objected.  The trial court found that the 1983 version of RSA 458:19 applied and awarded her three years of renewed alimony, from October 2019 to October 2022 in the amount of $200 per week.   Petitioner appealed.

The Court first addressed petitioner’s argument that the trial court erred in denying his motion to terminate alimony and finding him in contempt.  The Court, reviewing prior case law, held that the 1983 version of the statute automatically terminated alimony after three years, regardless of any stipulation to the contrary.  The Court concluded that because the original alimony award entered in 1985, it expired by its terms in 1988.  The Court further found that the 2016 stipulation did not serve to renew or extend the 1985 award and rejected the trial court’s characterization of the 2016 stipulation as an extension of alimony.  The Court held that the stipulation was used to resolve respondent’s 2016 motion under an erroneous understanding that the original alimony award was still in effect.  Because alimony had expired, the Court found that petitioner could not have been in contempt or ordered to pay arrearages, and reversed the trial court’s award of attorney’s fees to respondent.

The Court denied petitioner’s request for reimbursement or credit of overpayment towards his future alimony obligations.  Because petitioner had no obligation to pay alimony after 1988, the Court held the payments were voluntary, and absent fraud, “money voluntarily paid under a mistake of law cannot be recovered.”  Harding v. Hewes, 87 N.H. 488.  The Court also held that the petitioner could not be credited for any payments made between 1988 and 2018 toward future alimony obligations, because, even assuming the trial court had discretion to allow such a credit, the trial court’s findings supported respondent’s continuing need for alimony.  A credit would not meet respondent’s needs, and the Court found that the trial court did not unsustainably exercise its discretion in declining to order reimbursement.

Finally, the Court addressed petitioner’s arguments that the trial court erred in permitting respondent to file a motion to renew alimony after the August 2018 hearing.  Finding petitioner’s procedural arguments unavailing on the grounds that the family division may waive the application of any rule except were prohibited by law, the Court held that the 1983 version of RSA 458:19 applied, which included no time limitation on motions to renew alimony.  The Court held that the trial court did not err in permitting the respondent to file a motion to renew alimony nearly twenty years after the alimony expired.  The Court also held that the parties’ circumstances supported the continuing alimony and upheld the trial court’s ruling.

 

Jonathan M. Flagg, Portsmouth, on the brief and orally, for the Petitioner. Devine, Millime & Branch, Manchester (Pamela A. Peterson, on the brief and orally), for the respondent.