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

The precise question, therefore, is, Is such a judgment as the one here under consideration a debt within the meaning of the act? The mere fact that a judgment has been rendered does not prevent the court from looking into the proceedings with a view of determining the nature of the liability which has been reduced to judgment. Boynton v. Ball, 121 U.S. 457, 466, 30 S. L. ed. 985, 987, 7 Sup. Ct. Rep. 981. The question presented is not altogether new in this court. In the case of Audubon v. Shufeldt, 181 U.S. 577, 45 L. ed. 1010, 21 Sup. Ct. Rep. 736, Mr. Justice Gray, delivering the opinion of the court, said: [196 U.S. 68, 73] 'Alimony does not arise from any business transaction, but from the relation of marriage. It is not founded on contract, express or implied, but on the natural and legal duty of the husband to support the wife. The general obligation to support is made specific by the decree of the court of appropriate jurisdicrion. Generally speaking, alimony may be altered by that court at any time, as the circumstances of the parties may require. The decree of a court of one state, indeed, for the present payment of a definite sum of money as alimony, is a record which is entitled to full faith and credit in another state, and may, therefore, be there enforced by suit. Barber v. Barber (1858) 21 How. 582, 16 L. ed. 226; Lynde v. Lynde (1901) 181 U.S. 183, 45 L. ed. 810, 21 Sup. Ct. Rep. 555. But its obligation in that respect does not affect its nature. In other respects, alimony cannot ordinarily be enforced by action at law, but only by application to the court which granted it, and subject to the discretion of that court. Permanent alimony is regarded rather as a portion of the husband's estate to which the wife is equitably entitled than as strictly a debt; alimony from time to time may be regarded as a protion of his current income or earnings; and the considerations which affect either can be better weighed by the court having jurisdiction over the relation of husband and wife than by a court of a different jurisdiction.'