Property Division and Alimony: Pettijohn v. Pettijohn

Facts: The parties divorced after 24 years of marriage. Husband earned nearly $100,000 while Wife earned $20,000. Wife suffered from multiple chronic health problems. The trial awarded the divorce to Wife based upon Husband’s inappropriate marital conduct, divided the marital estate almost equally, awarded Wife alimony in futuro of $750 per month (increasing to $1750 when Husband’s child support obligation ceases), and awarded Husband’s one-half interest in the marital residence to Wife as alimony in solido. Husband appealed.

On Appeal: The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court.

Husband argued that by awarding his interest in the marital residence to Wife as alimony in solido, the trial court effectively adjusted what had been an equal property division to one that was 69% to 31% in Wife’s favor, thereby rendering the entire property division inequitable.

The analysis of Husband’s argument must begin by noting a court may award rehabilitative alimony, alimony in futuro, transitional alimony, alimony in solido, or a combination of these.

In Robertson v. Robertson, the Tennessee Supreme Court stated:

We encourage trial courts to use the division of marital property to assist in meeting the disadvantaged spouse’s financial needs when feasible. Section 36-4-121 of the Tennessee Code Annotated does not require an equal division of marital property but an equitable division. When practical, therefore, a trial court should consider awarding more assets to an economically disadvantaged spouse to provide future support, rather than relying solely upon an award of alimony. . . . Careful distribution of the marital property may assist the disadvantaged spouse in achieving rehabilitation in furtherance of the legislative policy of eliminating spousal dependency.

The Court has stated that when determining how much the economically disadvantaged spouse needs in order to maintain the same or similar standard of living as enjoyed during the marriage, the trial court should consider the equitable distribution of the marital assets. Thus, it is no surprise that the Court found “it was appropriate for the trial court to look back to the marital property awarded to Husband and award the house in its entirety to Wife to help defray her needs as the economically disadvantaged spouse in this case.”

In this case, the trial court was confronted with a situation involving a great disparity in the parties’ respective earnings and a Wife with health problems and no reasonable expectation of improving her economic conditions. Wife, through no fault of her own, was certainly in need of long-term support to supplement the income she was able to earn for herself and to “mitigate the harsh realities of divorce.” In short, a trial court has wide latitude in setting alimony and, in this case, we conclude the awards of alimony in futuro and alimony in solido were supported by the evidence and were not an abuse of the court’s discretion.

Pettijohn v. Pettijohn (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Eastern Section, February 28, 2011).

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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