STATE OF MICHIGAN
COURT OF APPEALS

No. 204026

 

ROBERT WILLIAM STAPLE
Plaintiff-Appellee

v

MARCELLA ANN STAPLE
Defendant-Appellant

August 20, 1999
Dickinson Circuit Court

LC No. 90-006965 DM

Before: Whitbeck, P.J., and Markman and O'Connell, JJ.

PER CURIAM.

    Defendant Marcella Ann Staple appeals by leave granted an order denying her motion requesting an increase in the amount and term of alimony, arguing that the trial court clearly erred in determining that the award in the parties' consent judgment of divorce was nonmodifiable alimony "in gross." She argues that the consent judgment in fact provides for alimony subject to modification. But for MCR 7.215(H), we would reverse the trial court's decision. However, as we will discuss more fully in this opinion, MCR 7.215(H) requires us to affirm.

I Basic Facts And Procedural History

    The parties were married in February of 1969. In late June of 1990, Robert Staple filed for divorce after twenty-one years of marriage; at that time, Robert Staple was approximately forty-three-years-old while Marcella Staple was approximately forty-years-old. The parties had three children during their marriage, one of whom was an adult at the time of the divorce. In late March of 1990, Marcella Staple was severely injured in an automobile accident that left her a permanent paraplegic. Marcella Staple also suffered from thyroid cancer in the past and had been informed seven years earlier that this cancer could return within eight years.

    The parties reached a settlement regarding all issues relating to the divorce and apparently agreed to allow the minor children to choose the parent with whom they wished to reside and that Robert Staple would pay child support payments of $50 per week until all the children reached the age of majority, regardless of where they chose to reside. In addition, the parties apparently agreed that Marcella Staple would pay no child support regardless of where the children resided.

    With regard to the amount and term of alimony and child support, the parties agreed that Robert Staple was obligated to pay Marcella Staple: (1) $200 per week through the first year following the divorce; (2) $225 per week through the second and third years following the divorce; (3) $150 per week through the fourth year following the divorce; and (4) $75 per week through the fifth and sixth years following the divorce. (These payments included the $50 child support payments). The parties also agreed that Robert Staple's alimony payments would be reduced in the event that Marcella Staple obtained employment and her gross income from that employment exceeded $1,200 per month. Robert Staple's counsel explained that "for every dollar over $1,200 [Marcella Staple] receives, [Robert Staple] will get a reduction of 50 cents". The parties also agreed that Robert Staple's support obligations would end in the event that Marcella Staple either died or remarried. These terms were incorporated into the consent judgment. Robert Staple also agreed to maintain Marcella Staple "in full force and effect" on his health care insurance received through his employment.

    In mid-April, 1997, the trial court heard Marcella Staple's motion for an increase in the amount and term of the alimony award provided for in the consent judgment of divorce. Marcella Staple argued that the alimony award was periodic alimony and was subject to modification upon a showing of changed circumstances. Marcella Staple emphasized that there was no judicial intent with respect to whether it should be periodic alimony or alimony "in gross" because the parties had agreed to the award. Marcella Staple also noted that child support affected the amount of monthly payments and argued that there was no "sum specific" because it could be reduced if Marcella Staple were to begin earning more than $1,200 per month in income. In addition, Marcella Staple pointed out that there is no alimony "in gross" clause in the consent judgment. Marcella Staple also stressed that Robert Staple would no longer be required to pay alimony in the event of her death or remarriage. Robert Staple argued primarily that the alimony award was limited to a six-year duration and therefore represented an intent for alimony "in gross."

    The trial court ruled that the alimony provision contained in the consent judgment of divorce was nonmodifiable alimony "in gross." The trial court based its decision on Bonfiglio v Pring, 202 Mich App 61; 507 NW2d 759 (1993), noting that because

. . . [Bonfiglio holds] that the inclusion of a survivor or remarriage contingency in an alimony provision does not automatically or conclusively create modifiable alimony, the court should focus on the intentions of the parties in negotiating a settlement agreement and give effect to that intent.

The trial court considered: (1) that the alimony was to end upon the death or remarriage of Marcella Staple; (2) that it was taxable to Marcella Staple and deductible to Robert Staple; and (3) that there were "a number of contingencies" regarding the alimony provision. However, the trial court noted that these were "mathematically determinable" and that the alimony award had a fixed maximum. The trial court held that with the exception of some contingencies based on the occurrence of specific events, the six-year alimony award represented a sum certain and therefore constituted alimony "in gross." The trial court concluded by finding that Marcella Staple was not entitled to alimony beyond the six-year period specified in the consent judgment of divorce. Thus, as the trial court relied directly upon the reasoning and holding in Bonfiglio, supra, we are squarely presented with the question of whether that case was correctly decided.

II Standard Of Review

    We review factual findings of the trial court for clear error. Beason v Beason, 435 Mich 791, 805; 460 NW2d 207 (1990), after remand 204 Mich App 178; 514 NW2d 231, rev'd 447 Mich 1023 (1994). We initially presume factual findings to be correct, and it is the burden of the appellant to show that they are clearly erroneous. A finding is clearly erroneous if, after examining all the evidence, this Court is left with a definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been made. Id. If the trial court's factual findings are not clearly erroneous, then this Court must determine whether the trial court's dispositional ruling was fair and equitable in light of those factual findings. Spark v Sparks, 440 Mich 141, 152; 485 NW2d 893 (1992).

III Statutory Provisions And The Alimony In Gross Exception

    We begin our analysis with the observation that Michigan has had in effect since 1846 a statute that allows a trial court to revise and alter judgments of divorce. In particular, MCL 552.28; MSA 25.106, as in effect at the time of the parties' judgment of divorce, provided in pertinent part:

    After a judgment for alimony or other allowance, for either party and children, or any of them . . . the court may, from time to time, on the petition of either of the parties, revise and alter such judgment, respecting the amount of such alimony or allowance and the payment thereof . . ..[[1]]

In light of the plain language of MCL 552.28; MSA 25.106 and its predecessors, one might initially question why case law does not regard the circuit court as having the statutory authority to modify any award of alimony, regardless of whether it is classified alimony "in gross" or periodic alimony. Nevertheless, long ago (and while a predecessor version of the statute was in effect), the Michigan Supreme Court stated, "Where a gross or lump sum in money or in property is awarded as alimony to the wife, the power of the court is at an end and there then is no power to modify it later." Kutchai v Kutchai, 233 Mich 569, 575; 207 NW 818 (1926); accord, Edgar v Edgar, 366 Mich 580, 587; 115 NW2d 286 (1962). Thus, the somewhat anomalous situation in Michigan is that we appear to have a judicially-created exception to what would otherwise be the fairly clear statutory language that provides for revision of judgments of divorce "respecting the amount of such alimony or allowance," without the slightest distinction between alimony "in gross" and periodic alimony.

    However, since it is not the function of this Court to overrule binding precedent of the Michigan Supreme Court, one could conclude that we are faced here only with a question of whether the trial court properly categorized Robert Staple's alimony obligations as alimony "in gross." If we were to find that categorization to be accurate, in light of Kutchai, Edgar, and their progeny as well as Bonfiglio, one would then be forced to conclude that our inquiry would simply be at an end.

    We do not believe, however, that the inquiry is quite so simple. Rather, we believe that a proper consideration of the law in this area in Michigan should include an analysis of the concept of alimony "in gross" as similar to property.

IV Alimony "In Gross" As Similar To Property

    In Kutchai, supra at 573, the Michigan Supreme Court noted that "[with regard to] the division of the property between the parties, and the property which the husband is permitted to retain and as to which dower and all claims of the wife are barred, the decree is not subject to be modified or altered. It is final, at least as final as other decrees." Thus, the implicit rationale in Kutchai for regarding alimony "in gross" as nonmodifiable was that it may have been deemed part of the final property division between the parties. We observe that this is generally sensible as regards payments of a definite amount over a limited period of time because this involves a final determination of an amount of property, namely money, to be transferred from one party to the other. In this regard, alimony "in gross" is much like the express property settlement provisions of a judgment of divorce which "may not be set aside, modified, or altered in the absence of fraud, duress, or mutual mistake, or for such causes as any other final decree may be modified." Keeney v Keeney, 374 Mich 660, 663; 133 NW2d 199 (1965).

    Our view of the distinction between modifiable periodic alimony and alimony "in gross" is further supported by the following language in Pierson v Pierson, 351 Mich 637, 645; 88 NW2d 500 (1958):

    Under the provision of the statute, CL 1948, 552.28 (Stat Ann 1957 Rev 25.106) [a predecessor to the current MCL 552.28; MSA 25.106], the provisions of a divorce decree relating to alimony or other allowances for the support of the wife and children are subject to modification. Such provisions, however, do not apply to property settlements, including awards in lieu of dower. [Emphasis supplied.]

If payments of alimony "in gross" are regarded as being made to a party as part of that party's entitlement in the property division, then it is our view that such payments do not terminate on the recipient party's death because the recipient of such alimony "in gross" is able to pass those payments on to the recipient's heirs or beneficiaries as part of that recipient's property. Although this is somewhat counter-intuitive, we note that the Michigan Supreme Court in Hagerty v Hagerty, 222 Mich 166, 168-169; 192 NW 553 (1923), held that the obligation to pay an award of alimony "in gross" was not affected by the death of the recipient spouse. Similarly, citing Hagerty, this Court had noted, prior to Bonfiglio, supra, that "the obligation to pay alimony in gross is not affected by the death of either party." Hall v Hall, 157 Mich App 239, 242; 403 NW2d 530 (1987). Accordingly, the Hall panel concluded that an award of alimony that was provided to terminate on the death of the recipient spouse constituted modifiable periodic alimony rather than alimony "in gross." Id. at 242-243. The Hall panel also observed more generally that "if the obligation is terminable upon the occurrence of a contingency, then the alimony is not in gross, but is permanent periodic alimony subject to modification." Id. at 241.[2]

    Thus, it is our view that the inclusion of a provision in a judgment of divorce that payment of alimony ceases on the death or remarriage of the recipient party, as in the judgment in Bonfiglio and in the judgment in the case at hand, means that the alimony award should not be considered alimony "in gross," as it is not being treated as akin to the property that passes through the recipient's estate. Rather, alimony that terminates on the death or remarriage of the recipient party is periodic alimony and should therefore be modifiable pursuant to MCL 552.28; MSA 25.106.

    Simply put, therefore, it is our view that alimony "in gross" is not modifiable because it is not truly alimony but is, rather, similar to property while periodic alimony is modifiable, under the statute, because it is in fact alimony. The inclusion of language that terminates the payment of alimony upon the death or remarriage of the recipient would, under this view, conclusively establish that such alimony was periodic alimony because, self-evidently, such payment would not be treated as similar to the property in the recipient's estate. Conversely, language that provides for continued payment without regard to contingencies-or the absence of language providing for termination of payment upon any contingencies-would conclusively establish that such alimony was not in fact alimony at all but was similar to property and therefore nonmodifiable.

    We also note that the inclusion of contingencies, as in the judgment in Bonfiglio and in the judgment in the case at hand, inherently reflects that the award of alimony is in substantial part an allowance for support of the recipient spouse because the contingencies relate to events that eliminate or reduce the need for such support. By the very inclusion of such contingencies, the alimony award is not akin to property that can be characterized as alimony "in gross." In sum, if Bonfiglio did not require a contrary result, we would conclude that the alimony provided for by the judgment in the case at hand is "alimony" within the meaning of MCL 552.28; MSA 25.106 because it is an "allowance" for Marcella Staple and thus it is modifiable pursuant to statute.

V Bonfiglio

    Bonfiglio, however, compels the opposite result. In Bonfiglio, the panel noted that a conflict existed in the pre-1990 decisions of this Court regarding whether contingency provisions for the termination of alimony on death or remarriage make the alimony amount unascertainable and thus modifiable periodic alimony. Citing Hall, supra, for the "bright-line" approach, the Bonfiglio panel stated that this approach:

    . . . distinguish[es] periodic alimony from alimony in gross and conclude[s] that if the alimony provision contains a contingency for termination in the event of the death of the recipient, then the alimony is deemed to be periodic alimony which is subject to modification. [Bonfiglio, supra at 63-64][[3]]

The Bonfiglio panel contrasted this "bright-line" approach with cases that have "endorsed an approach that focuses on the intent behind the alimony provision, regardless of a remarriage or a survivorship contingency.'' Id.[4]

    Much of the reasoning of the "intent" cases cited favorably by Bonfiglio, supra at 64-65, essentially rests on a policy perspective that parties to a divorce should be able to contract as to settlement of their cases, including with regard to whether an award of alimony will be nonmodifiable or modifiable. Under this approach, the classification of alimony payments as nonmodifiable alimony "in gross" or as periodic modifiable alimony depends on the intent of the parties with regard to modifiability regardless of whether there are contingencies.. However, whatever the merits of such policy considerations, we are of the view that they do not justify departing from the statutory language of MCL 552.28; MSA 25.106 providing that alimony in the form of an allowance for a party is subject to modification by the circuit court.

    Where provisions for the payment of alimony include contingencies related to the recipient spouse's relative need for support, we believe that the alimony in Bonfiglio (and the alimony at issue here) are not within the scope of alimony "in gross" as contemplated by Michigan Supreme Court precedent and, further, that a proper application of MCL 552.28; MSA 25.106 requires that such alimony be considered modifiable periodic alimony under that statute. For these reasons, we conclude that Bonfiglio was wrongly decided in holding that an award of alimony that contains contingencies based on the death or remarriage of the recipient spouse can ever constitute alimony "in gross." Rather, such an award of alimony should be considered always to constitute periodic alimony subject to modification by the circuit court under the authority granted by MCL 552.28; MSA 25.106.

    However, there is no question that Bonfiglio applies and controls here and that the trial court correctly applied the holding in Bonfiglio to the circumstances of this case. Therefore, pursuant to MCR 7.215(H), we must follow and apply the holding of the opinion in Bonfiglio, supra, that compels us, reluctantly, to affirm. But for the holding of the opinion in Bonfiglio, we would reverse on the grounds that the alimony at issue here was not akin to property and was therefore modifiable periodic alimony, an approach that we believes harmonizes the provisions of MCL 552.28; MSA 25.106 with precedent of the Michigan Supreme Court with respect to alimony "in gross."

VI Rickner

    In her supplemental authority and at oral argument, Marcella Staple cited the recently decided case of Rickner v Frederick, 459 Mich 371; 590 NW2d 288 (1999), for the proposition that a trial court, on the petition of either party, may modify any award of alimony at any time regardless of whether the award is classified as alimony "in gross" or periodic alimony.

    Certain language in Rickner directly supports the position that we would adopt, but for Bonfiglio, here. In particular, the Court stated:

    In this instance, we are faced with a statute that simply provides that "[o]n petition of either party, after a judgment for alimony . . . the court may revise and alter the judgment, respecting the amount or payment of the alimony . . . , and may make any judgment respecting any of the matters that the court might have made in the original action." This is a case in which the court originally provided alimony, and thus continuing jurisdiction is plainly provided by the statute.

    This conclusion is buttressed by the absence of a prior Michigan appellate decision holding that the statutory power to modify is extinguished if it is once exercised to eliminate alimony. Further, the statutory power to modify is not dependent on triggering language in the judgment. Butler v Butler, [356 Mich 607, 616-617; 97 NW2d 67 (1959).

    For these reasons, we are persuaded that the proper reading of the statute is that the Legislature intends, in cases in which alimony is initially ordered, that the court retain the power to make necessary modifications in appropriate circumstances. [Rickner, supra at 378-379; emphasis supplied; footnotes omitted.]

    Clearly, the Court's reading of MCL 552.28; MSA 25.106 accords with the view we have set out above. However, the facts of Rickner involved an initial award of periodic alimony, with an explicit reservation of continuing jurisdiction in the trial court, that was subsequently canceled as to alimony charges accruing after September 16. 1992, with a subsequent order by the trial court that "[t]he file is to be closed." Rickner, supra at 372-375. Thus, the Court did not consider the view that alimony "in gross" is actually part of the property settlement and therefore not subject to MCL 552.28; MSA 25.106, nor did it revisit the issue of the various contingencies that may serve to make an alimony award periodic alimony that is modifiable under the statute. Indeed, in footnote 2, the Court stated:

    In the course of this litigation, both parties have sought to modify the alimony (the defendant by motion and the plaintiff by request to the Friend of the Court). Thus, it is apparent that both accept that the original award was subject to modification. Accordingly, as in Stroud v Stroud, 450 Mich 542, 548, n 3; 542 NW2d 582 (1995), we have no occasion to revisit the principles governing when alimony is subject to modification and when it is not. [Rickner, supra at 373, n 2; emphasis supplied.]

Here, we have revisited the principles governing when alimony is subject to modification and when it is not. Rickner, therefore-although its comments concerning the applicability of MCL 552.28; MSA 25.106 are certainly enlightening and in accord with our views here-cannot be read as controlling the case before us.

VII Conclusion

    We conclude that, in light of the plain language of MCL 552.28; MSA 25.106 and its predecessors, a trial court has the statutory authority to modify any true award of alimony. If alimony "in gross" is not a true award of alimony, then we think, in line with the language of the Michigan Supreme Court decisions that we have cited above and in light of the fact that such alimony "in gross" can pass through a decedent recipient's estate and can continue upon the remarriage of a recipient, that such alimony "in gross" can be correctly viewed as analogous to property. We believe that this view harmonizes the provisions of the statute with the applicable precedents of the Michigan Supreme Court.

    It is our further view that the inclusion of language that terminates the payment of alimony upon the death or remarriage of the recipient conclusively establishes that such alimony was periodic alimony because such payment is not part of the property in the recipient's estate. Conversely, language that provides for continued payment regardless of any contingencies-or the absence of language providing for termination of payment upon any contingencies-conclusively establishes that such alimony was not in fact alimony at all but was akin to property and therefore nonmodifiable.

    We recognize that these views are in conflict with Bonfiglio. We therefore affirm as required by MCR 7.215(H) and hold that the alimony in question was nonmodifiable. But for Bonfiglio, we would reverse and hold the alimony to be modifiable.

/s/ William C. Whitbeck

/s/ Stephen J. Markman

/s/ Peter D. O'Connell


FOOTNOTES

1 While this statutory provision was thereafter amended, effective January 1, 1993, the current version is in pertinent part substantively identical to the above version.

2 We note our concern with respect to the need for certainty in this complex area of practice. We are of the view, however, that return to a "bright line" rule (i.e. that provisions that state that the alimony in question will terminate upon the death or remarriage of the recipient conclusively establish that the alimony is periodic alimony while, conversely, language that provides for continued payment regardless of any contingencies-or the absence of language providing for termination of payment upon contingencies-conclusively establishes that the alimony is alimony "in gross") would produce more rather than less certainty in this area of the law. Thus, for example, if the parties to a divorce settlement include language providing for the termination of alimony upon the death or remarriage of the recipient, they would know that they are providing for alimony that is modifiable in the future but that is also taxable to the party receiving the payment and deductible by the party making the payment. This knowledge, we believe, would heighten rather than diminish the parties' ability to deal with the practical considerations inherent in most divorces, including the tax consequences.

We emphasize that we have no occasion to revisit the process concerning how spousal support and property are awarded. In particular, while we view alimony "in gross" as akin to property, we recognize that, in practice, it has often been viewed as an element of spousal support. The "bright line" approach that we would, but for Bonfiglio, adopt to harmonize the provisions of the statute with the decisions of the Supreme Court would, we believe, bring a degree of certainty to the negotiations that commonly take place in divorce actions, including negotiations over the award of spousal support and the property settlement.

3 The Bonfiglio panel also cited to Van Houten v Van Houten, 159 Mich App 713; 407 NW2d 69 (1987) and Oknaian v Oknaian, 90 Mich App 28; 282 NW2d 230 (1979) (alimony contingent upon remarriage was not alimony in gross); Firnschild v Firnschild, 67 Mich App 327; 240 NW2d 790 (1976) (alimony contingent upon sale of the marital residence, graduation from high school of the youngest child, and remarriage of the recipient was not alimony in gross); and Couzens v Couzens, 140 Mich App 423; 364 NW2d 340 (1985) (while alimony contingent upon remarriage was not alimony in gross, the "provision for termination of alimony on death of the [recipient] does not bear upon the gross alimony issue") for the proposition that if the "continuation of monthly payments is subject to a contingency, the actual amount of the obligation is not ascertainable and thus cannot be considered alimony in gross." Bonfiglio, supra at 64.

4 The Bonfiglio panel cited to Pierce v Pierce, 166 Mich App 579; 420 NW2d 855 (1988); Macoit v Macoit, 165 Mich App 579; 418 NW2d 476 (1988); Turner v Turner, 180 Mich App 170; 446 NW2d 608 (1989); Blake v Blake, 178 Mich App 315; 443 NW2d 408 (1989) as well as Tomblinson v Tomblinson, 183 Mich App 589; 455 NW2d 346 (1990); Flager v Flager, 190 Mich App 35; 475 NW2d 411 (1991) (decree providing alimony until further order of the court shows parties intended modifiable periodic alimony); and Goldberg v Goldberg, 171 Mich App 643; 430 NW2d 926 (1988) (condition regarding tax consequences was not sufficient to defeat parties' intent to create alimony in gross). Bonfiglio, supra at 64-65.