Owens v. Owens

Facts: Wife filed divorce Complaint with a proposed parenting plan containing various provisions for Husband’s parenting time, joint decision-making, etc.  The Complaint did not specifically request an award of spousal support but did plead the common request for “general relief.”  Husband was served but never filed an Answer.  Wife obtained a default judgment and a final decree of divorce was entered shortly thereafter.  In the parenting plan incorporated in the Final Decree, Husband’s parenting time had been reduced, Wife was the sole decision-maker for the children, along with several other changes from the parenting plan originally proposed by Wife.  The Final Decree also awarded Wife spousal support of $400/month for 60 months.  Husband sought relief from the Final Decree, which relief was denied.  Husband appealed.

The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court.

Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 54.03, demands that “[a] judgment by default shall not be different in kind from or exceed in amount that prayed for in the demand for judgment.”

The obvious reasons for the rule are that a party has a right to assume that the judgment following his or her default will not go beyond the issues presented in the complaint and the relief sought therein, . . . and that it would be fundamentally unfair to permit the complaint to lead the defendant to believe that only a certain type and dimension of relief was being sought and then to permit the court to give a different type of relief or a larger damage award.

Based on the failure to comply with Rule 54.03, the trial court erred in changing the terms of Wife’s proposed parenting plan.  Further, Wife’s prayer for “general relief” was insufficient to support an award of spousal support by default judgment.  The parties remain divorced but those provisions that differed from Wife’s original proposal were vacated and restored to what Wife originally proposed. Regarding spousal support, Wife will be permitted to amend her Complaint on remand if she wants to pursue spousal support.

Owens v. Owens (Tenn. Ct. App. June 23, 2010).

Information provided by K.O. Herston, Tennessee Divorce Lawyer.

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K.O. Herston is a family-law attorney in Knoxville, Tennessee whose practice is devoted exclusively to family law, including divorce, child custody, child support, alimony, prenuptial agreements, and other aspects of family law.

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