196 U.S. 68 (1904), 56, Wetmore v. Markoe

Docket NºNo. 56
Citation196 U.S. 68, 25 S.Ct. 172, 49 L.Ed. 390
Party NameWetmore v. Markoe
Case DateDecember 19, 1904
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

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196 U.S. 68 (1904)

25 S.Ct. 172, 49 L.Ed. 390




No. 56

United States Supreme Court

December 19, 1904

Argued November 9-10, 1904




A husband owes the duty of supporting his wife and children not because of contractual relations with the wife, but because of the policy of the law which will enforce the duty if necessary, and the Bankruptcy Act was not intended to be a means of avoiding this obligation.

Arrears of alimony awarded to a wife against her husband for the support of herself and their minor children, under a final decree of absolute divorce, is not a provable debt barred by a discharge in bankruptcy, nor does the fact that there is no reservation in the decree of the right to alter or modify it deprive the debt of its character of being for the support of the bankrupt's wife and children.

The amendment of February 5, 1903, excepting decrees of alimony from the discharge in bankruptcy was not new legislation creating a presumption that such decrees were not excepted prior thereto, but was merely declaratory of the true meaning and sense of the statute as originally enacted.

On June 12, 1890, an action for divorce and alimony was begun by Annette B. W. Wetmore, wife of the plaintiff in error, in the Supreme Court of the State of New York, and on April 1, 1892 at special term, the plaintiff in error was found guilty of adultery as charged in the complaint, and a divorce was granted upon that ground to the defendant in error. The divorce was absolute, and awarded to the wife the custody and care of the three minor children of the marriage, and also, as alimony, the sum of $3,000 per annum so long as she should live, to be paid in quarterly installments of $750 each on the first day of the months of July, October, January, and April of each year. There was also granted to the wife the sum of $3,000 annually, being $1,000 for the education and maintenance of each of the three minor children, to be paid in quarterly installments, until such children should arrive at the age of twenty-one years respectively. Plaintiff in error was also required

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to give security for the payment of the alimony awarded. The decree did not reserve any right of subsequent modification or amendment. On January 13, 1899, there was due to the wife from the plaintiff in error, for arrears in alimony and allowance under the decree, the sum of $19,221.60. Upon that day, upon application to the District Court of the United States for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, the plaintiff in error was adjudicated a bankrupt. The defendant in error made no proof of her claim for alimony in the bankrupt proceedings. On June 21, 1900, the plaintiff in error was granted a discharge from all debts and claims provable under the Bankruptcy Act. On December 12, 1901, plaintiff in error sued out a writ in the Supreme Court of the State of New York for an order enjoining and restraining all proceedings on behalf of the defendant in error for the collection of the arrears of alimony and allowance aforesaid. This application was denied, upon the ground, as it appears from the memorandum of the judge who rendered the decision, that the arrears of alimony were not discharged in bankruptcy. From the order denying the application, an appeal was taken by the plaintiff in error to the appellate division of the supreme court of the State of New York, where the order below was affirmed. The plaintiff in error thereupon appealed to the Court of Appeals of the State of New York, and on June 27, 1902, the appeal was dismissed for want of jurisdiction, without any judgment of affirmance or reversal upon the merits. A writ of error was sued out seeking in this Court a reversal of the judgment of the Supreme Court of the State of New York.

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DAY, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE DAY delivered the opinion of the Court.

It is conceded in argument by counsel for the plaintiff in error that this case would be within the decision of this Court in Audubon v. Shufeldt, 181 U.S. 577, if the judgment for alimony had been rendered in a court having control over the decree with power to amend or alter the same. It is insisted, however, that, there being in this case no reservation of the right to change or modify the decree, it has become an absolute judgment, beyond the power of the court to alter or amend, and is therefore discharged by the bankruptcy proceedings.

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Walker v. Walker, 155 N.Y. 77; Livingston v. Livingston, 173 N.Y. 377. It may be admitted to be the effect of these decisions of the New York Court of Appeals that, in the absence of any reservation of the right to modify or amend, the judgment for alimony becomes absolute. The question presented for decision, in view of this state of the law, is has the decree become a fixed liability evidenced by a judgment, and therefore provable against the estate of the bankrupt, within the protection of the discharge in bankruptcy? Section 63 of the act of 1898 provides:

SEC. 63. Debts which may be proved. --

Debts of the bankrupt may be proved and allowed against his estate which are (1) a fixed liability as evidenced by a judgment or an instrument in writing, absolutely owing at the time of the filing of the petition against him, whether then payable or not, with any interest thereon which would have been recoverable at that date, or with a rebate of interest upon such as were not then payable and did not bear interest.

It is not contended that this section includes installments of alimony becoming due after the adjudication, but the contention is that prior installments have become an existing liability, evidenced by the judgment, and therefore a provable debt. While this section enumerates under separate paragraphs the kind and character of claims to be proved and allowed in bankruptcy, the classification is only a means of describing "debts" of the bankrupt [25 S.Ct. 174] which may be proved and allowed against his estate.

The precise question, therefore, is is such a judgment as...

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