Posted by: K.O. Herston | September 19, 2011

Long-Term Alimony in Tennessee: Gonsewski v. Gonsewski

Facts: The parties were divorced after a 21-year marriage. Wife was granted the divorce because of Husband’s inappropriate marital conduct. Both had been employed throughout the marriage. Husband earned $138,000 per year, including a $38,000 bonus that was not guaranteed to recur in the future. Wife earned $72,000 per year. In dividing the marital property, the trial court awarded Wife assets valued at $202,000 and Husband assets valued at $189,000. The trial court denied Wife’s request for spousal support in any form on the grounds that she had stable employment, good income, and was awarded sufficient assets in the divorce to enable her to find another residence. Wife appealed.

As discussed in a previous blog post, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court and awarded Wife permanent alimony of $1,250 per month. The Court of Appeals reasoned that alimony in futuro was necessary for Wife to enjoy a post-divorce standard of living reasonably comparable of that available to Husband because of their large income disparity. Husband appealed.

On Appeal: The Tennessee Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals and affirmed the trial court.

The Court began by emphasizing the very deferential standard of review to be applied by an appellate court in reviewing a discretionary decision by a trial court.

“[T]he role of an appellate court in reviewing an award of spousal support is to determine whether the trial court applied the correct legal standard and reached a decision that is not clearly unreasonable.” Appellate courts decline to second-guess a trial court’s decision absent an abuse of discretion. An abuse of discretion occurs when the trial court causes an injustice by applying an incorrect legal standard, reaches an illogical result, resolves the case on a clearly erroneous assessment of the evidence, or relies on reasoning that causes an injustice. . . . Consequently, when reviewing a discretionary decision by the trial court, such as an alimony determination, the appellate court should presume that the decision is correct and should review the evidence in the light most favorable to the decision.

The Court then discusses the history of the development of spousal support, beginning in English ecclesiastical courts and all the way through today’s statutory framework in Tennessee.

Tennessee Supreme Court

The Court then provides an overview of the four types of alimony recognized under Tennessee law today.

Rehabilitative alimony is intended to assist an economically disadvantaged spouse in acquiring additional education or training which will enable the spouse to achieve a standard of living comparable to the standard of living that existed during the marriage or the post-divorce standard of living expected to be available to the other spouse. Rehabilitative alimony thus serves the purpose of assisting the disadvantaged spouse in obtaining additional education, job skills, or training, as a way of becoming more self-sufficient following the divorce. This purpose is markedly different than the purpose of alimony in futuro, which is to provide long-term support when the economically disadvantaged spouse is unable to achieve self-sufficiency.

Transitional alimony is appropriate when a court finds that rehabilitation is not required but that the economically disadvantaged spouse needs financial assistance in adjusting to the economic consequences of the divorce. This type of alimony is designed to aid the spouse in the transition to the status of a single person. In contrast to rehabilitative alimony, which is designed to increase an economically disadvantaged spouse’s capacity for self-sufficiency, transitional alimony is designed to aid a spouse who already possesses the capacity for self-sufficiency but needs financial assistance in adjusting to the economic consequences of establishing and maintaining a household without the benefit of the other spouse’s income. As such, transitional alimony is a form of short-term spousal support.

Alimony in solido is a form of long-term spousal support. The total amount of alimony in solido is set on the date of the divorce decree and is either paid in a lump sum payment of cash or property, or paid in installments for a definite term. It is frequently awarded as an adjustment to the distribution of the marital property.

Alimony in futuro, also known as periodic alimony, is designed to provide long-term support until the death or remarriage of the recipient. Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-5-121(f)(1) says alimony in futuro is appropriate when

the disadvantaged spouse is unable to achieve, with reasonable effort, an earning capacity that will permit the spouse’s standard of living after the divorce to be reasonably comparable to the standard of living enjoyed during the marriage, or to the post-divorce standard of living expected to be available to the other spouse.

Alimony in futuro, the Court notes, “is not . . . a guarantee that the recipient spouse will forever be able to enjoy a lifestyle equal to that of the obligor spouse.”

After reviewing the record, the Court notes the absence of evidence necessary for an alimony in futuro award:

We are persuaded that alimony in futuro should not have been awarded in this case. As noted, alimony in futuro is intended to provide support on a long-term basis if “the court finds that there is relative economic disadvantage and that rehabilitation is not feasible.” In this context, rehabilitation means that “the disadvantaged spouse is unable to achieve, with reasonable effort, an earning capacity that will permit the spouse’s standard of living after the divorce to be reasonably comparable to the standard of living enjoyed during the marriage, or to the post-divorce standard of living expected to be available to the other spouse.” Here, Wife has a strong earnings record through the course of the marriage. The record is silent on what, if anything, Wife could or could not do to alter her earning capacity to permit her standard of living after the divorce to be reasonably comparable to the standard of living during the marriage. No evidence was presented regarding the prospect or feasibility of Wife making any “reasonable effort” in this regard . . . . Nor was evidence presented regarding the post-divorce standard of living expected to be available to Husband. We are not inclined to speculate about these matters, which relate directly to the statutory standard for awarding permanent alimony.

Similarly, the Court found “Wife has not demonstrated that she is in need of additional financial assistance in order to adjust to the economic consequences of her divorce.” Accordingly, the Court affirmed the trial court’s denial of transitional alimony to Wife.

Author’s Comment: I do not think this opinion changes the law of alimony in Tennessee. There are many cases, like here, where long-term alimony was denied when the parties had a large income disparity. They key factor in those cases was the cause of the income disparity. Where the economically disadvantaged spouse sacrificed his or her career for the marriage (for example, to be a homemaker or stay-at-home parent), long-term spousal support has been awarded and should continue to be awarded. Where the economically disadvantaged spouse did not subordinate his or her earning capacity for the marriage, as was the situation here, long-term alimony has been denied and will continue to be denied. I would caution lawyers against reading anything more into this opinion. It is consistent with the case law that preceded it, in my opinion.

Gonsewski v. Gonsewski (Tennessee Supreme Court, September 18, 2011).

Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee Matrimonial, Divorce and Family Law Attorney.


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