Alimony & Spousal Support


Trial court abused its discretion in failing to apply unclean hands doctrine to deny husband’s petition to modify alimony where husband, an attorney, over the course of several years willfully submitted false documentation and testimony concerning his income.

The parties cross-appealed from the trial court’s order reducing husband’s alimony obligation; husband further appealed the denial of his motion to strike that order. During the parties’ marriage, husband obtained several advanced degrees; at the time of the parties’ separation, husband earned a salary of $144,000. During the divorce proceedings, the parties entered a marital settlement agreement requiring husband to pay wife monthly alimony of $5000 until at least June 2007; thereafter, either party could petition for modification of alimony provided that the trial court could not reduce alimony below $1000 until after June 2007.

In December 2007, the trial court granted husband’s petition to reduce his alimony obligation to $1000 per month. The court ordered a limited remand for the trial court to make a finding that husband demonstrated “a substantial change in circumstances that justify reducing the award”. Upon rehearing, the trial court again ordered reduction in alimony to $1000 per month. Wife appealed again.

During the pendency of the appeal, wife discovered that husband intentionally produced false documentation and testimony concerning his income. Wife accordingly petitioned to modify alimony based on husband’s fraud and sought an award of counsel’s fees. Although the trial court acknowledged husband’s willful fraud as “despicable”, it determined that reduction of alimony to $1000 per month was still dictated by the statutory factors. However, the court ordered husband to reimburse wife for 75 percent of the counsel fees she incurred following her discovery of husband’s fraud upon the court.

On appeal, the court vacated the trial court’s orders and remanded for further proceedings. The court first ruled that the trial court erred in not applying the doctrine of unclean hands to deny husband’s petition to reduce alimony obligation, even after the trial court concluded that husband’s conduct fell within the doctrine. The court ruled that husband’s conduct fell squarely within the doctrine, which empower courts to deny relief to a party whose conduct shocked the sensibilities of the court.

The court disagreed with the trial court that application of the doctrine would lead to an inequitable result, noting that husband’s fraudulent activity spanned a four-year period. The court also noted that husband was an attorney and therefore had a professional obligation not to “knowingly make a false statement of material fact or law to a tribunal”. The court held that application of unclean hands would not be inequitable given the years-long litigation wife was required to undergo to oppose husband’s petition.

Finally, the court ruled that the trial court abused its discretion in failing to award wife the full amount of her counsel fees incurred from the inception of husband’s fraud. The court held that husband’s fraud was the sole cause of the proceedings resulting in the counsel fees sought by wife, which husband stipulated to be as reasonable.

Judge Strassburger concurred calling for husband to be referred to the district attorney and the bar disciplinary board.

Reference: Digest of Recent Opinions, Pennsylvania Law Weekly, 41 PLW 764 Tuesday, August 14, 2018, Morgan v. Morgan, PICS Case No. 18-0952 (Pa. Super. July 20, 2018) Dubow, J.

Kindly visit our Family Law and Alimony/Spousal Support websites or contact one of our Family Law Attorneys, Philadelphia or Divorce Attorneys, Philadelphia at 215-977-8200 for more information on this topic.