Facts: After 31 years of marriage, Wife, 54, and Husband, 64, were divorced. Wife, a homemaker, was the economically disadvantaged spouse. Wife was awarded $500,000 in liquid assets from the equitable division of the marital estate. Wife was also awarded seven years of transitional alimony, with payments of $4,500 per month in year one, and then reducing the payments by $500 per year, placing the year seven payments at $1,500. The trial court also awarded Wife her attorney’s fees as alimony in solido, finding she should not have to deplete her resources to pay her attorney’s fees, particularly in light of her lack of employment. Husband appealed the award of attorney’s fees.
On Appeal: The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court.
Husband argued the trial court improperly awarded Wife her attorney’s fees because she had also been awarded $500,000 in liquid assets from the marital estate, which, according to Husband, gave her sufficient assets with which to pay her attorney.
This type of alimony award is reviewed on appeal under an abuse of discretion standard. Under this standard of review, the appellate court can find an abuse of discretion only if the trial court applied incorrect legal standards, reached an illogical conclusion, or based its decision on a clearly erroneous assessment of the evidence. This standard does not permit an appellate court to substitute its judgment for that of the trial court, but reflects an awareness that the decision being reviewed involved a choice among several acceptable alternatives, and thus envisions a less rigorous review of the lower court’s decision and a decreased likelihood that the decision will be reversed on appeal. Accordingly, when reviewing a discretionary decision by the trial court, such as an alimony determination, the appellate court must presume the decision is correct and review the evidence in the light most favorable to the decision.
With this most deferential standard of review in mind, the Court reasoned:
The [trial court] discussed the general rule that a “spouse with adequate property and income is not entitled to an award of alimony to pay attorney’s fees and expenses.” The [trial court] further recognized that “[s]uch awards are appropriate only when the spouse seeking them lacks sufficient funds to pay his or her own legal expenses, or the spouse would be required to deplete his or her resources in order to pay them. The [trial court] found that, in this case, [Wife] was unemployed, and payment of her attorney’s fees would require her to deplete the resources she was awarded, such that an award of fees as alimony in solido was warranted.
The evidence does not preponderate against these factual determinations.
We are required to uphold the trial court’s ruling as long as reasonable minds could disagree about its correctness, and we are not permitted to substitute our judgment for that of the trial court. As such, we cannot say that the trial court abused its discretion in awarding [Wife] her attorney’s fees as alimony in solido. [Wife] had a greater need, and [Husband] had the ability to pay, and considering this along with all the other statutory factors, alimony in solido in the form of an attorney’s fee award was appropriate.
The trial court’s award of attorney’s fees was affirmed.
Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee Matrimonial, Divorce and Family Law Attorney.