Facts: Parties were married for 12 years. Husband was a physician capable of earning $850,000 per year. Wife was a stay-at-home mom to the parties’ Child who had no earnings during the marriage. Wife was found to be the economically disadvantaged spouse relative to Husband. After protracted and expensive litigation, the trial court
awarded Wife rehabilitative alimony in the amount of $8000 per month for four years, and $5000 per month for the following two years. Additionally, Wife was awarded $8500 per month in alimony in futuro until her death or remarriage. Husband was also ordered to pay $2100 per month in child support, $1250 per month into a trust account for Son’s college expenses, and Son’s private school tuition.
The trial court turned to Wife’s request for attorney fees. It commented: “Any neutral observer of legal proceedings would be appalled by the attorney’s fees in this case.” It recapped the attorney fees incurred prior to trial as totaling $369,697 for Husband and $308,953 for Wife.
In setting forth its reasoning on the award of attorney fees, the trial court . . . observed that “lawyers from both sides contribut[ed] to the aggravation between the parties rather than attempting to minimize conflict.” The trial court specifically laid some of the blame on Wife for repeatedly terminating lawyers. Ultimately, the trial court found “significant blame to be shared by all,” but noted that Wife’s fault would “be reflected in the attorney’s fees awarded.” The trial court then awarded Wife $186,000 in attorney fees as alimony in solido and $15,000 in discretionary costs.
In general, “[t]he purpose of spousal support is to aid the disadvantaged spouse to become and remain self-sufficient and, when economic rehabilitation is not feasible, to mitigate the harsh economic realities of divorce.” Four types of spousal support are recognized in Tennessee: alimony in futuro, alimony in solido, rehabilitative alimony, and transitional alimony. There is a statutory preference for the award of rehabilitative alimony.
Rehabilitative alimony is intended to assist the disadvantaged spouse in achieving economic rehabilitation after the divorce. Under Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-5-121(d)(2) and (e)(1), the term “rehabilitation” means that, with reasonable efforts, the disadvantaged spouse will be able to achieve “an earning capacity that will permit the economically disadvantaged 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.” An award of rehabilitative alimony may correspond with the disadvantaged spouse’s acquisition of additional education or training.
Alimony in futuro is long-term periodic spousal support, typically payable until the death or remarriage of the obligee spouse. An award of alimony in futuro is appropriate when the trial court finds “that there is relative economic disadvantage and that rehabilitation is not feasible.” An award of alimony in futuro concurrent with an award of rehabilitative alimony may be appropriate when the trial court finds that the economically disadvantaged spouse “may be only partially rehabilitated.”
Applying the facts of the case to the deferential “abuse of discretion” standard of review on appeal, the Court concluded:
In reviewing an alimony award, the role of the appellate court is to “determine whether the trial court applied the correct legal standard and reached a decision that is not clearly unreasonable.” Again, the appellate court is not to substitute its judgment for that of the trial court. After a careful review of the evidence in the record, we must conclude that the trial court applied the correct legal standard and that the alimony award does not constitute an abuse of the trial court’s discretion.
Regarding attorney’s fees, Husband argued the fees were excessive (to put it mildly) because of Wife’s actions. The Court addressed this as follows:
Husband’s arguments regarding Wife’s litigation choices are not without merit. Early in the litigation, Wife adopted a pugnacious posture . . . . It cannot be said that either Wife or her attorneys sought to minimize conflict. Her financial positions were consistently excessive and she resisted compromise on even minor parenting issues. Nevertheless, in reviewing the award of attorney fees, we are obliged to take a “bird’s eye” view of the litigation as a whole. In awarding attorney fees and discretionary costs to Wife, the trial court correctly noted that the delay in the case was caused by “both happenstance and intent.” Although Wife changed attorneys more, both parties in fact changed attorneys during the case, and the trial court found that the attorneys on both sides had created pretrial disputes, filed overly-long, unnecessary pleadings, and overall “contributed to this environment of animosity.” The record supports this finding. Moreover, we cannot ignore Husband’s choice upon filing the divorce complaint to lock Wife out of access to the parties’ marital funds, a tactic that set a combative tone for the litigation at the outset. . . . Thus, no one party can be blamed for an aggregate of attorney fees that is indeed “appall[ing].”
From our review of all of these factors, and of the record as a whole, the balance struck by [the trial court] in awarding wife $186,000 of the $302,714 in attorney fees she requested, and in awarding her $15,000 of the $64,786 in discretionary costs that she requested, is within the range of reasonableness. Under all of these circumstances, we cannot conclude that the trial court abused its discretion in its award to Wife of attorney fees and of discretionary costs.
There are some unique facts in this case that contributed to the astronomical attorney’s fees but, even considering that, the fact that this divorce cost approximately $750,000 (and undoubtedly much more on appeal) is difficult to comprehend. The trial court commented that “[a]ny neutral observer of legal proceedings would be appalled by the attorney’s fees in this case.” It is impossible to disagree with that. For whatever reason, the legal system appears to have failed these parties.
Information provided by K.O. Herston, Tennessee Divorce Lawyer.