Facts: After a ten-year marriage, the trial court divorced Husband and Wife on stipulated grounds but reserved all financial issues, including alimony, for trial. After a subsequent trial, the trial court awarded Wife rehabilitative alimony of $2,000 per month plus the cost of Wife’s COBRA premiums, with the alimony amount increasing to $2,400 per month when Wife’s COBRA coverage expired. The trial court also ordered Wife to undergo a vocational rehabilitation evaluation, emphasizing that her failure to do so could result in termination of her alimony award. Wife completed the vocational rehabilitation evaluation, which concluded that she was not employable. Wife then moved to modify the alimony award to convert it from rehabilitative alimony to permanent alimony. Wife also filed a Rule 60 motion to amend the final order to make clear that it was not final because it was subject to change based on the results of the vocational rehabilitation evaluation. The trial court granted both Wife’s Rule 60 motion and her motion to modify the alimony award, thereby converting the rehabilitative alimony to permanent alimony. Husband appealed.
On Appeal: The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court.
Husband argued the trial court erred by amending its final order because Rule 60 does not permit an unambiguous order to be modified to express the trial court’s subjective intent. Husband argued the record shows the trial court’s intent in ordering Wife to complete the vocational rehabilitation evaluation was to motivate Wife to enter the workforce, not to determine whether she could be rehabilitated. In response, Wife cited several portions of the record indicating the trial court intended to review the results of the vocational rehabilitation evaluation before making a final determination on her ability to be rehabilitated.
Showing deference to the trial court’s discretion, the Court concluded:
After reviewing the record, we conclude that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by amending the final order pursuant to Rule 60.01. Although we find support for both Husband and Wife’s arguments throughout the record, we believe that the trial court is in the best position to interpret its own orders. Furthermore, we are “even further removed from the events surrounding the [final] order than is the trial court, and we would be reluctant to say that the judge’s order means something different from what [she] says it means.” At the hearing on Wife’s Rule 60.01 motion, the trial court stated that it would not have ordered the vocational rehabilitation evaluation if it did not plan on using the results to determine the appropriate nature and amount of alimony. Rule 60.01 was intended to correct such unintentional omissions in orders where the trial court leaves out something it intended should go into the order.
Husband then argued the trial court abused its discretion in converting Husband’s alimony obligation from rehabilitative alimony to alimony in futuro because Wife failed to show a substantial and material change of circumstances, as required by Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-5-121(e)(2). Wife argued the trial court had not yet closed proof on her ability to be rehabilitated, thereby making the statutory burden of proof requirements inapplicable. The Court ruled:
Because we conclude the trial court’s decision to amend the final order pursuant to Rule 60.01 was not an abuse of discretion, we agree that the trial court retained jurisdiction to hear further proof on Wife’s ability to be rehabilitated and determine the nature and amount of alimony at that time. Thus, . . . we find that Wife was not required to show a substantial and material change of circumstances in order to receive an award of alimony in futuro.
Finally, Husband argued the trial court erred in awarding permanent alimony, correctly stating that Tennessee “courts have consistently limited the duration or amount of an alimony award where the marriage between the parties was one of short duration, especially when the obligee spouse has contributed little or nothing to the marriage.” Husband further argued that the trial court erred when considering his ability to pay because it failed to take into account the increased expenses he incurs every month from supporting his current spouse and their three children. In response, Wife argued that any obligations Husband voluntarily assumed since the divorce should not be considered to decrease his alimony obligation.
The Court noted the trial court expressly found the award to be appropriate even though the marriage was one of short duration. The Court further stated:
“The settled rule in Tennessee is that ‘obligations voluntarily assumed are not proper to be considered as changed circumstance[s] to reduce support payments otherwise owed.'” Although this rule usually applies to cases where the trial court modifies its initial alimony award based on a substantial and material change of circumstances, we find that the unique circumstances of the case at bar warrant its application. The trial court’s decision to declare the parties divorced and reserve the issue of alimony to be determined at a later date resulted in this unusual factual situation. Considering the equities between the parties, we agree with the trial court’s decision not to decrease Husband’s alimony obligation by an amount attributable to the support of his new family. “While there is no absolute formula for determining the amount of alimony, ‘the real need of the spouse seeking the support is the single most important factor.'” Consequently, we find no abuse of discretion in the trial court’s decision to increase the amount of Husband’s alimony obligation.
Citing the Tennessee Supreme’s Court recent opinion in Gonsewski applying a very deferential standard of review, the Court concluded it must affirm the trial court’s ruling so long as reasonable minds can disagree as to propriety of the decision made. Accordingly, the trial court was affirmed.
Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee Matrimonial, Divorce and Family Law Attorney.