Property Division in Tennessee Divorce Inequitable When it Takes 30 Years: Pijan v. Pijan

Facts: After over 30 years of marriage, Husband and Wife were divorced. The trial court divided their marital property “more or less equally.” The marital residence, valued at $130,000, was awarded to Wife. To equalize the division of property, the trial court awarded Husband a $65,000 security interest in the residence and ordered Wife to redeem Husband’s security interest by amortizing it over 30 years at an interest rate of 4% a year, thereby requiring Wife to pay Husband $310.32 monthly. Husband appealed.

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

Husband argued that at the time of divorce he was 63 years old and that, according to the mortality tables in the appendix to the Tennessee Code Annotated, his life expectancy was between 12 and 15 years. Husband argued the 30-year repayment schedule ordered by the trial court made it unlikely he would ever fully realize the value of his security interest. He further argued that the trial court’s order had the effect of allowing Wife to live in a six-room house for a relatively small outlay of cash — $310 per month plus the cost of annual property taxes and homeowner’s insurance. Conversely, Husband would receive only $310 each month for his housing needs, a woefully inadequate amount to cover those needs.

Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-4-121(a)(1) authorizes the trial court in actions for divorce or for legal separation to equitably divide, distribute, or assign the marital property “without regard to marital fault in proportions as the court deems just.” The trial court is directed to consider all the relevant factors in its distribution of marital property, including those listed in Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-4-121(c).

An equitable, or fair, property division is not achieved by a mechanical application of the statutory factors, but rather by considering and weighing the most relevant factors in light of the unique factors of the case. In dividing the marital property, the trial court is empowered to do what is reasonable under the circumstances and has broad discretion in the equitable division of the marital estate.

Tennessee’s appellate courts have stated many times that while Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-4-121(a)(1) requires an equitable division of marital property, that does not necessarily mean an equal division nor one that is mathematically precise. Nor is a division necessarily inequitable because each party did not receive a share of every piece of marital property.

After reviewing the record, the Court concluded as follows:

[T]he facts in the present case support, as equitable, a division of the marital property that is more or less equal. . . . Although the trial court did not explicitly state that it intended to equally divide the marital assets, the symmetry of its award suggests that such an intention played a part in its judgment. The parties were each awarded the financial assets that were in their own names, which were substantially equal in value. By awarding Husband a security interest in the marital home equal to half of its value, the court at least nominally divided that asset equally. . . .

The trial court’s order shows that it recognized that a more or less equal division of marital property is the most equitable in this case, and, specifically, that an equal division of the equity in the marital home was equitable. We agree. Accordingly, we vacate that portion of the trial court’s final judgment dealing with the marital home. Instead, we award the marital home to both parties equally as joint tenants. We also give Wife exclusive possession of the marital home for the next 12 months following the filing of this opinion so that the parties can have sufficient time to determine the ultimate disposition of the house by mutual agreement, on condition that Wife continue to pay Husband $310.32 per month during that period.

We note that there are many possible routes for the parties to follow that would be consistent with the joint tenancy we have ordered. For example, they may choose to sell the property and to divide the proceeds equally. Or Husband may instead sell his share to Wife and quitclaim his interest for a mutually agreed upon amount to be paid as the parties agree. Or Wife may sell her share to Husband under similar terms. Hopefully, the parties can reach a solution that will preserve the individual assets that they will both need during their retirement.

Pijan v. Pijan (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Middle Section, January 13, 2012).

Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee Matrimonial, Divorce and Family Law Attorney.

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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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