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THE STATUS OF ALIMONY LAW IN TENNESSEE
On September 16, 2011 the Tennessee Supreme Court issued its decision in Gonsewski vs. Gonsewski, the Court’s first review of Tennessee alimony law in several years. The full decision, which is available at www.tncourts.gov/courts/supreme-court/opinions, provides a history of the development of alimony law in Tennessee and should be read by anyone seeking alimony in a divorce. In summary form, this is where things now stand.
There are four kinds of alimony in Tennessee: alimony in futuro; alimony in solido; rehabilitative alimony; transitional alimony. Alimony in futuro is intended to provide long term support to a former spouse until that person’s death or remarriage. It is appropriate in situations where the recipient is economically disadvantaged by the divorce and, because of age, disability or other reason is unable to improve his or her economic situation. Alimony in futuro is paid in regular installments and is subject to modification in the future. Alimony in solido is also a form of long-term support, but the total amount is set at the time of the divorce and it is paid in lump sum or in installments until paid in full. The most common reason for awarding alimony in solido is to adjust an unequal division of marital property. Rehabilitative alimony is payment over a fixed period of time to help a disadvantaged party improve her employment options through education or training. A typical reason to award rehabilitative alimony arises where one party has stopped working to stay home with the children, and must either resume a former career or start a new one. A person seeking rehabilitative alimony should be prepared to present a plan that sets out what that person intends to do (obtain a college degree, professional license, etc.), how long it will take and what it will cost to complete the plan, and the expected benefits in employability or salary increase when the plan is finished. Transitional alimony is also a short-term form of support, intended to help one spouse cover the costs of moving to life as a single person. For example, if one spouse is keeping the marital residence, the other spouse might receive transitional alimony to cover the cost of renting an apartment for a fixed term.
Tennessee statutes set out a number of factors which a court is required to consider when determining whether to award alimony, what kind to award, and for how long. The most important factors are the disadvantaged spouse’s financial need and the obligor spouse’s ability to pay. There is a preference for awarding rehabilitative or transitional alimony over alimony in futuro or alimony in solido, the intent being to help an economically disadvantaged spouse acheive self-sufficiency if possible. Alimony in futuro is awarded only when court finds that the economically disadvantaged spouse will be unable to improve his or her financial position with the help of short-term alimony.
In Gonsewski, the parties had been married for twenty-one years. They were each forty-three years old at the time of divorce, each had college degrees and had worked throughout the marriage, and each was in good health. Both parties received approximately the same value of marital property. Wife had worked for the State of Tennessee for sixteen years and earned $73,500.00 per year. Husband was an accountant and earned $120,000.00 to $130,000.00 per year. The Supreme Court determined that alimony in futuro and was not appropriate because both parties earned enough money to meet their individual financial needs. Rehabilitative alimony was not appropriate because both parties already had college degrees and were employed in established careers. Alimony in solido was not appropriate because the parties had received approximately equal shares of marital property, and becauase neither party showed financial need. Transitional alimony was not an issue in this case, and was not addressed.
The Court specifically stated that the fact Husband made significantly more money than Wife at the time of the divorce was not reason to order payment of alimony. The lesson from this case is that a spouse who expects to receive alimony in a divorce is going to have to provide evidence of financial need before the court will consider the claim. Once financial need is established, the court will move on to determine what kind of alimony is appropriate, and for how long.