Facts: Husband and Wife divorced after approximately 17 years of marriage. During the marriage, Wife was employed as a pharmacist while Husband stayed home to care for their two children and work on their farm. After a trial, the trial court awarded Wife a divorce on the ground of inappropriate marital conduct, finding “overwhelming evidence that [Wife] was subjected to domestic abuse that was on occasion severe physical abuse.” The trial court divided the marital property and denied Husband’s request for alimony, citing Husband’s willful underemployment and ability to find employment outside of the farm. Acting on a post-trial motion, the trial court classified Wife’s post-separation income as marital property before awarding the entirety of that income to Wife. Husband appealed.
On Appeal: The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court.
Husband raised several issues on appeal, only two of which are of interest: (1) the award to Wife of the entirety of her post-separation income, and (2) the denial of Husband’s claim for alimony.
Post-Separation Income. Husband asserts the trial court’s decision to award Wife the entirety of her post-separation income was inequitable. Wife responds that there was no error distributing the marital property considering Wife’s continued support of Husband while they were separated and Husband’s dissipation of assets and refusal to find suitable employment.
Because Tennessee is a “dual property” state, a trial court must identify all of the assets possessed by the divorcing parties as either separate or marital property before dividing the marital estate. Separate property is not part of the marital estate and is therefore not subject to division. Separate property is defined, in part, as “[a]ll real and person property owned by a spouse before marriage . . . .” Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-4-121(b)(2). In contrast, “marital property includes all property owned as of the date of the filing of the complaint for divorce or acquired up to the date of the final divorce hearing.” Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-4-121(b)(1). The classification of property as either marital or separate property is a question of fact for the trial court.
Once the trial court has designated the property as separate or marital, the court must divide the property equitably — without regard to fault — pursuant to the factors listed in Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-4-121. The trial court is under no obligation to divide the marital property equally, but rather equitably, for the division of the marital estate is not rendered inequitable simply because it is not mathematically equal or because each party did not receive a share of every item of marital property.
After correctly classifying Wife’s post-separation income of $283,000 as marital property, the marital estate was valued at $783,427, of which Husband received approximately $236,444 (30%) while Wife received approximately $546,983 (70%). The Court ruled:
In this case, we are tasked with reviewing the distribution of the marital property following the end of an approximately 17-year marriage in which Husband agreed to contribute to the marriage as a homemaker, while Wife steadily improved in her career and potential earning capacity. Having reviewed the factors outlined in Tennessee Code Annotated section 36-4-121(c), we conclude that the evidence preponderates against the court’s decision regarding the division of the marital property.
Specifically, we take issue with the court’s refusal to divide Wife’s post-separation income earned in 2008 and 2009. We believe this income was marital property subject to division. Indeed, any income earned until the filing of the final decree of divorce was subject to division and should have been considered in the court’s initial order dividing the marital property. While the court recognized this fact in its subsequent order, the court awarded the entirety of the post-separation income to Wife. We acknowledge that the court was not obligated to divide every piece of marital property between the parties; however, the court’s refusal to divide the post-separation income resulted in an inequitable distribution of the marital estate.
The Court remanded the case back to the trial court with instructions to determine the amount of Wife’s reasonable moving and living expenses during the relevant time period, deduct that amount from her post-separation earnings, and divide the remainder 54.2% to Wife and 45.8% to Husband.
Alimony. Husband argued the trial court erred in failing to award rehabilitative alimony because his agreement and willingness to care for the children while Wife advanced in her career resulted in his prolonged absence from the workforce and inability to secure employment. Husband also argued for alimony in futuro (permanent alimony) to compensate for the tremendous disparity in earning capacities. Wife asserted that Husband, who possessed transferrable job skills, was fully capable of finding suitable employment or continuing with his farming operation. Arguing that Husband was unsupportive of her career, abusive, and willfully underemployed, Wife contended he should not be rewarded for his refusal to secure full-time employment.
There are no hard and fast rules for spousal support decisions, and such determinations require a careful balancing of the relevant statutory factors. Courts must also take into consideration the different roles a spouse may have in a marriage when considering an award of alimony. The contributions to the marriage as homemaker or parent are of equal dignity and importance as economic contributions to the marriage. Further, where one spouse suffers economic detriment for the benefit of the marriage, the economically disadvantaged spouse’s standard of living after the divorce should 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. The courts must consider the standard of living during the marriage and post-divorce where one spouse, as the homemaker or parent, has concentrated his or her efforts on the family, while the other spouse has followed a career.
The Court concluded:
From our review of the record, we believe that the trial court did not err in refusing to award rehabilitative alimony or alimony in futuro. An award of rehabilitative alimony would be inappropriate because Husband is fully capable of finding suitable employment utilizing his skills in farming or in the tool and die industry. Likewise, an award of alimony in futuro would be inappropriate because Husband is fully capable of achieving an earning capacity that will allow him to maintain an appropriate standard of living. However, in this case, Husband remained at home caring for the children while Wife advanced in her career. Daughter confirmed Husband’s testimony that he performed the majority of the household duties while Wife focused on her career. Given this fact, we conclude that the trial court’s complete rejection of all forms of alimony was clearly unreasonable given the unique circumstances of the case. We believe that Husband suffered an economic detriment for the benefit of the marriage and is entitled to transitional alimony. . . . While Husband’s fault should be given great weight, we believe Husband is still entitled to transitional alimony in the amount of $2,000 per month for a period of 36 months. This award should allow Husband adequate time in which to adjust to the economic consequences of the divorce. Accordingly, we reverse the trial court’s denial of alimony and remand the case to the trial court with instruction to award Husband alimony as set forth in this opinion.
UPDATE 5/16/2012: The Tennessee Supreme Court agreed to hear the appeal of this decision. Stay tuned.
UPDATE 12/17/2012: Click here to read my post on the Tennessee Supreme Court’s opinion.
Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee Matrimonial, Divorce and Family Law Attorney.