Facts: Husband and Wife divorced after a 28-year marriage. The trial court divided the marital property and denied Wife’s request for alimony. Wife appealed, and the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court and awarded Wife permanent alimony (a.k.a. alimony in futuro) of $750 per month. Nearly five years later, Husband petitioned to modify the alimony obligation because Wife had “received a substantial promotion” and the relative “earnings and expenses of the parties” justified modification of the award. Husband showed that Wife had returned to school after the divorce, obtained an advanced degree, and had doubled her income as a result. After a hearing, the trial court decreased Husband’s alimony obligation to $500 per month. Husband appealed.
On Appeal: The trial court was reversed.
Husband argued his alimony obligation should have been eliminated in its entirety. The Court agreed.
Awards of alimony in futuro remain in the court’s control and may be increased, decreased, terminated, extended, or otherwise modified, upon a showing of substantial and material change in circumstances. A change in circumstances is considered to be ‘substantial’ when it significantly affects either the obligor’s ability to pay or the obligee’s need for support. A change is not material if the change was contemplated by the parties at the time of the divorce. A substantial and material change in circumstances does not automatically entitle the petitioner to a modification. Rather, the petitioning party must demonstrate that a modification of the award is justified.
Modification based on increased income is proper only where the initial alimony award was based on a presumption that the recipient would not continue to increase his or her income through the pursuit of his or her career. Whether such an increase in income constitutes a substantial and material change is a question of whether it was ‘sufficiently foreseeable.’
It was undisputed that Wife had doubled her income without a significant increase in her expenses. While it was foreseeable that Wife would receive periodic standard of living increases in her income and general increases based upon experience, it was not sufficiently foreseeable that Wife would return to school and advance her education, resulting in her qualification for a position that doubled her income. The Court commented:
Wife is to be commended for her advancement in education and qualification for an advanced position in her field. However, such an increased income based upon that advancement was unforeseeable and resulted in a substantial and material change in circumstances, meriting review of the alimony award.
Having found a substantial and material change in circumstances, the Court turned to whether modification was appropriate under the statutory factors in Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-5-121(i).
Husband argued the alimony obligation should be eliminated because Wife had been rehabilitated and was no longer economically disadvantaged. Examining, as it must, whether the policy reasons meriting the type of alimony awarded were still present, the Court concluded:
Here, Wife received alimony in futuro, which “should be awarded only when the court finds that economic rehabilitation is not feasible and long-term support is necessary.” In this case, Wife’s need for alimony had lessened beyond that which was ever contemplated at the time of the first appeal. She had been economically rehabilitated, was self-sufficient, and was no longer in need of long-term support, given her increased income, education, and earning potential. After a careful review of the evidence, we conclude that the support obligation should have been terminated because an award of alimony in futuro was no longer appropriate.
The Court reversed the trial court’s decision and terminated the alimony obligation in its entirety.
Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee Matrimonial, Divorce and Family Law Attorney.