Facts: Husband and Wife divorced after 15 years of marriage. While both parties hold master’s degrees in civil engineering, Wife had been a stay-at-home parent to the parties’ two children for the last twelve years of the marriage. Unable to find a job as an engineer after being out of the workforce for so long, Wife opted to pursue a career as a math teacher. The trial court found Wife was entitled to rehabilitative alimony of $2,000 per month for three years “in order to achieve an earning capacity that would permit her to enjoy a standard of living reasonably comparable to that enjoyed during the marriage.” The trial court went on to state as follows:
Even if the Wife were to find employment as an engineer with a starting salary, she would be just starting her career. While the Husband’s career has steadily advanced, for the last twelve years she has been out of the job market. It will require some period of time for the Wife to develop her career to the point that she can afford a reasonably comparable lifestyle. Therefore, after the expiration of the period of rehabilitative alimony, the Wife is awarded alimony in solido in the amount of $2,000 per month for a period of 12 years.
Husband appealed the award of alimony in solido.
On Appeal: The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court.
The Court began by analyzing previous cases concerning the propriety of awarding rehabilitative alimony along with concurrent awards of other types of alimony. Basically, rehabilitative alimony should not be combined with permanent alimony in an initial ruling, although it can be appropriate in a post-divorce modification if the efforts at rehabilitation failed. It is appropriate, however, for a trial court to award rehabilitative alimony in combination with transitional alimony or alimony in solido. Alimony in solido, sometimes called “lump sum” alimony, is a form of long-term support.
The Court then turned to the Gonsewski opinion, commenting as follows:
In reversing the decision of the Court of Appeals and reinstating the trial court’s decision, the Court specifically cited the wife’s strong earnings record, the absence of evidence regarding what (if anything) she could do to alter her earning capacity to allow her post-divorce standard of living to be reasonably comparable to that applicable during the marriage, the little amount of evidence regarding the marital standard of living, and the lack of evidence regarding the husband’s expected post-divorce standard of living. . . .
Perhaps the two most significant points we are to derive from Gonsewski are the great deference appellate courts are to give to the trial court’s decisions regarding alimony and the disfavor for long-term alimony. As applied to the case before us, the deference factor suggests upholding the 12-year, $2,000 per month award of alimony in solido, while the disfavor for long-term alimony suggests striking down the award.
That last sentence pretty well sums up the arguments.
The Court then painstakingly analyzed all the statutory factors for alimony before concluding:
In reviewing the statutory factors and the trial court’s findings, we must bear in mind that our review is limited to the abuse of discretion standard. Alimony determinations are inherently factual in nature and require the trial court to balance many factors. Our role is only “to determine whether the trial court applied the correct legal standard and reached a decision that is not clearly unreasonable.” We are to presume the correctness of the trial court’s decision and review the evidence “in the light most favorable to the decision.” An abuse of discretion review must reflect “an awareness that the decision being reviewed involved a choice among several acceptable alternatives.” Thus, the fact that the reviewing court would not have made the same ruling is not relevant as long as the trial court’s decision falls within the range of acceptable options.
With these principles in mind, we cannot find an abuse of discretion in the trial court’s alimony award. The court considered the statutory factors and made specific findings with regard to the factors it deemed salient. Reviewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the trial court’s decision, we see no indication that the trial court applied an erroneous standard or reached a patently unreasonable result.
Interestingly, Judge Clement issued a separate concurring opinion to distinguish the ruling here from the Court’s recent ruling in Jekot. As noted in my blog post on Jekot, Judge Clement explains that Gonsewski did not affect “the less deferential standard that applies when the alimony decision is based upon findings of fact that are not supported by the evidence.” Judge Clement concludes: “Unlike Jekot, the evidence in this record does not preponderate against the findings of fact upon which the trial court based its alimony determination.”
Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee Matrimonial, Divorce and Family Law Attorney.