Alimony Provision in Prenuptial Agreement Invalidated in Chattanooga Divorce: O’Daniel v. O’Daniel

Facts: Four days before their marriage, the parties executed a prenuptial agreement that provided, in part, as follows:

In the event the marriage is terminated by divorce, annulment, or any other means other than the death of a party after five years of marriage has passed, . . . to the extent allowed by law, each of the parties shall waive any right of support, maintenance or temporary alimony which he or she may be entitled to receive from the other as provided by law….

The highest salary Wife earned pre-marriage was approximately $25,000 annually working as a receptionist for an accounting firm. Wife did not work outside the home during the parties’ approximately five-and-a-half-year marriage.

Husband was a successful businessman of considerable wealth.

Approximately one year after the marriage, Wife was diagnosed with autoimmune neutropenia, a rare and potentially life-threatening medical condition. Wife’s neutropenia causes her immune system to destroy her white blood cells, putting her at a greatly increased risk of contracting infections and greater difficulty in combating them. On three occasions during the marriage, Wife had to be hospitalized as a result of her condition, each time for an extended period of time. The parties stipulated that the medical bills for treatment of Wife’s neutropenia-related health care from totaled $431,043.62 to date.

Wife argued the alimony provision of the prenuptial agreement should be considered invalid because enforcing it would render her a “public charge” after the divorce.

The trial court held that the prenuptial agreement is valid and enforceable in its entirety, and Wife failed to prove that the enforcement of the prenuptial agreement would render her a public charge as of the time of the divorce. Thus, Wife was denied any alimony.

Wife appealed.

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

Prenuptial agreements, sometimes called antenuptial or premarital agreements, are favored by Tennessee law. As a general rule, Tennessee courts enforce a prenuptial agreement if the party seeking enforcement demonstrates that the agreement was entered into freely, knowledgeably, and in good faith and without the exertion of duress or undue influence.

Wife argued that the agreement is valid and enforceable with the exception of the waiver of alimony provision. In support of this position, she relied upon the Tennessee Supreme Court’s decision in Cary v. Cary, where the Supreme Court held that “[alimony] provisions will be fully enforced unless enforcement will render the spouse deprived of alimony a public charge.”

In order for the public charge exception to apply, the deprived spouse need not prove that he or she will leave the courthouse on the day of the divorce and sign up for public assistance. Instead, the test is whether, within a reasonable period of time following the divorce, it is probable — based upon the evidence before the trial court at the divorce hearing — that the deprived spouse will become a public charge if the limitation or waiver of alimony is enforced.

Based on the foregoing, the Court reviewed the record and concluded:

The testimony of the doctors and of Wife indicates that when her condition is carefully managed and in remission, she will be able to work and live fairly normally. When she contracts an infection, which is highly likely to occur on occasion, however, Wife probably will require significant medical attention and hospitalization, and will incur substantial costs…. The doctors were in agreement that in order to manage her autoimmune neutropenia, Wife will require regular doctor visits and medical testing and monitoring. Consequently, Wife’s need for health insurance and her inability to fund uncovered medical expenses is critical….

Wife testified that she cannot afford to pay her health insurance premiums — testimony that was credited by the trial court. If Wife does not have health insurance, her next infection is likely to render her bankrupt and reliant on public assistance for her medical needs and her survival. The trial court found that, without health insurance, it “is likely to result in [Wife] becoming a public charge in the reasonably foreseeable future.” We agree. [I]t is [] probable that in the not too distant future, Wife will need public assistance unless sufficient spousal support is provided for her on remand….

Wife is in her mid-thirties with a life-threatening condition for which there is no cure. Her condition was first diagnosed after the parties married. She is in need of long-term financial assistance from Husband.

Accordingly, the alimony provision of the prenuptial agreement was invalidated. The case was remanded to the trial court to consider Wife’s request for alimony.

O’Daniel v. O’Daniel (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Eastern Section, June 26, 2013).

Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee Divorce, Matrimonial 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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