Rehabilitative Alimony In South Carolina: What is it and can it ever be modified?

Sometimes the facts of a divorce case may not support an award of periodic (permanent) alimony. Lawyers and mediators will often look to short term support solutions called “rehabilitative” alimony as a compromise.

As stated numerous times on this blog, SC has a preference for periodic (permanent) alimony. All other forms of alimony awarded by a judge are almost always struck down on appeal. If a Judge applies the facts of a case to the 13 statutory alimony factors and finds alimony should be awarded, the Judge is simply required to order periodic alimony. If things change in the future, the parties are permitted to come back and ask for a modification or termination.

But section 20-3-130 of our domestic relations law also permits an award of Rehabilitative Alimony. The purpose of Rehabilitative Alimony is to make “alimony payable for a short, but specific and terminable period of time, which will cease when the recipient is, in the exercise of reasonable efforts, in a position of self support” Coghlan v. CoghlanFurthermore, “[t]he record must demonstrate the self-sufficiency of the recipient at the expiration date of the ordered payments and that the supported spouse will match the prior standard of living accustomed to during the marriage.” Belton v. Belton.

But what if the supported spouse has not reached self sufficiency at the end of the term?

SC Law specifically provides that Rehabilitative Alimony is “…modifiable based upon unforeseen events frustrating the good faith efforts of the supported spouse to become self-supporting …” Given the rarity of Rehabilitative Alimony awards that are upheld on appeal in South Carolina, there is scant reported case law on modification requests of Rehabilitative Alimony awards. But the statute seem straightforward.

If a supported spouse goes back to school, studies hard and receives a degree (“good faith”) but at the end of the stated terms, he or she is not “self supporting”, that person appears to be permitted to go back to court and request a modification of the alimony award. But what is “self supporting”? Is living in Tent City  and eating canned food self supporting? In all likelihood “self supporting” will be more akin to the standard of living the parties enjoyed at the time of the marriage.

Our courts have noted the impracticality of meeting the “standard of living” requirement as justification for their resistance to upholding Rehabilitative Alimony awards. Rehabilitative Alimony “…seldom suffices to maintain the level of support the dependent spouse enjoyed as an incident to the marriage”. Ricigliano v. Ricigliano.

The bottom line is that an award of Rehabilitative Alimony will only be very rarely ordered by the Family Court. If it happens, or if an award of Rehabilitative Alimony is agreed to by way of a mediated settlement, there appears to be a good possibility for modification at the end of the alimony term should the supported spouse meet with “unforeseen circumstances” that prevent her from being self sufficient in a manner to which he or she was accustomed during the marriage.

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