Facts: Husband and Wife divorced after nine years of marriage. Although many issues were addressed on appeal — leading to a 37 page opinion (!) — the only issue I think is of interest to most readers concerns rehabilitative alimony.
At the time of trial in September 2009, Wife was 33 years old, and Husband was 37 years old. Wife is a college graduate with a degree in family community services. Wife is also licensed real estate agent, but at the time of trial she was not actively pursuing a career in real estate. Husband has a degree in science and economics. He is a Major in the United States Army and has over nineteen years’ of military experience.
Wife testified that she intended to pursue a graduate degree that she would complete in three years. She also testified that, if the trial court would grant her rehabilitative alimony for that purpose, she would also sell real estate to supplement her income. Husband had no evidence to rebut Wife’s testimony on her stated intent to take actions in the future to rehabilitate herself.
The trial court found Wife to be economically disadvantaged relative to Husband. The trial court also found that Wife planned to attend and complete a graduate degree to improve her earning capacity, which plan the trial court found to be appropriate. Wife was awarded rehabilitative alimony of $500 per month for a period of 42 months. The decree reflecting these findings was not entered until May 2010, however. An appeal was attempted but rejected by the Court of Appeals because the trial court’s judgment was not yet final, there still being some unresolved issues.
In October 2011, the trial court held a post-remand hearing at which Husband argued Wife should not receive rehabilitative alimony because, as Wife testified in the post-remand hearing, she had not used the money she received for rehabilitative alimony to rehabilitate herself, but had instead simply kept the money for herself. Wife’s testimony at the post-remand hearing indicated that she no longer intended to rehabilitate herself via education, training or other means. Nevertheless, the trial court refused to revisit the issue of alimony because Husband did not raise it as an issue in his first attempt at an appeal. Husband appealed.
On Appeal: The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court.
Husband argued that rehabilitative alimony is not appropriate for someone who does not intend to rehabilitate herself.
First, the Court held that the trial court erred in refusing to consider the issue of rehabilitative alimony at the post-remand hearing based on procedural grounds. Because the order was not yet a final order at the time of the post-remand hearing, it was subject to revision by the trial court at that time. The Court concluded, “Thus, we find at the outset that the trial court erred in holding that it was somehow procedurally barred from considering Husband’s argument on the award of rehabilitative alimony.”
Second, the Court rejected the trial court’s finding that that Wife planned to attend graduate school, reasoning as follows:
In light of Wife’s testimony in the post-remand hearing, we must conclude that the overall evidence before the trial court preponderates against this factual finding. As this was the stated basis for the trial court’s award of rehabilitative alimony to Wife, we must also conclude that the trial court abused its discretion in failing to reverse its initial ruling on Wife’s request for rehabilitative alimony. As we have indicated, rehabilitative alimony is intended to assist an economically disadvantaged spouse “in acquiring additional education or training . . . .” Considering the evidence presented at the divorce trial as well as the evidence submitted post-remand, we can only conclude that Wife does not intend to pursue her initial stated plan of obtaining additional educational training. Under these circumstances, the evidence in the record does not support the award of rehabilitative alimony.
Rather than compel Wife to refund to Husband all of the alimony received, however, the Court cut her a break:
We note, however, that the trial court found that Wife is economically disadvantaged as compared to Husband, and that this finding is supported in the record. Moreover, the evidence in the record does not indicate that Wife was untruthful in her testimony in the 2009 divorce trial as to her intent to pursue further education, only that she did not follow through on her original plan. An outright reversal of the award of rehabilitative alimony would require Wife to repay all of the rehabilitative alimony she has received. From our review of the record, this would work a real hardship on Wife. In this unusual circumstance, we exercise our discretion to modify the trial court’s award of rehabilitative alimony rather than reverse it in toto. We modify the award of rehabilitative alimony to terminate it as of the date of Husband’s request that it be terminated.
Accordingly, the trial court was reversed and its judgment modified.
K.O.’s Comment: Much of the difficulty presented by this case, including issues not addressed in this blog post, was the direct result of the over two-year delay in entering a final judgment. Addressing a similar delay presented by another case, the Court said, “we cannot ignore the fact that all the parties’ circumstances are not the same as they were when they were last before the trial court.” The Court noted “the unusual predicament presented by the inordinate amount of time” that can pass between the entry of a trial court’s non-final orders over the course of one case. This reinforces that the best practice is the prompt entry of all orders whenever possible.
Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee Matrimonial, Divorce and Family Law Attorney.