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No Retroactive Modifications
In Georgia, it is quite common for one or both parties of a divorce to seek the upward or downward modification of alimony or child support due to a substantial change in one or both of the parties’ financial circumstances. As the alimony modification process in Georgia tends to be a relatively long process, some litigants, especially those who have brought an alimony modification action to reduce their original alimony obligation, seek an award retroactively modifying alimony to the time the petition for modification was initially filed. However, as those litigants ultimately discover, Georgia law does not allow for the retroactive modification of alimony in any case.
The topic of retroactive alimony modification is fairly complex, but a recent Georgia Supreme Court case may help elucidate this topic and Georgia law concerning this topic. In the case styled Branham v. Branham, husband and wife were divorced in June 2009. In the divorce, husband was ordered to pay alimony to wife “in 120 monthly installments unless and until Wife die[d], remarrie[d], or cohabitate[d] with someone else in a meretricious relationship.” Branham v. Branham, 290 Ga. 349 2012. Subsequently, husband fell behind on his alimony obligation and filed a motion to modify his alimony obligation in February 2010 based on wife having engaged in a meretricious relationship (otherwise referred to as the live-in-lover law). After a trial on the matter, the court presiding over the modification action entered an order denying husband’s modification action. However, even though the trial court denied husband’s motion to modify, the “trial court nevertheless reduced Husband's obligation for unpaid periodic alimony that had accrued from July 1, 2009 through February 2011 to zero.” Id. Essentially, the trial court extinguished husband’s obligation for unpaid alimony that had accrued prior to the date of the trial. Put another way, the trial court retroactively modified husband’s alimony modification to zero.
On appeal, the wife argued that the trial court’s ruling was in contravention of Georgia law regarding retroactive modification of alimony. The Georgia Supreme Court agreed. In its decision, reversing the lower court’s order, the Georgia Supreme Court quoted another Georgia case concerning retroactive alimony modification: “Retroactive modification of an alimony obligation would vitiate the finality of the judgment obtained as to each past due installment. [A] judgment modifying an alimony obligation is effective no earlier than the date of the judgment.” Hendrix v. Stone, 261 Ga. 874, 875 (1992). Thus in Georgia alimony modification cases, if a party is successful in obtaining a modification of their alimony obligation or award, only future alimony installments will be affected by the court’s modification order.
As the Georgia case law cited and discussed above show, it is a well-established principle of Georgia law that no Georgia court has the authority to retroactively modify an alimony order.