Equitable Division of Marital Property Challenged in Wartburg Divorce: Peterson v. Peterson

Facts: After a 25-year marriage, the parties separated after Husband savagely assaulted Wife. Husband stabbed her multiple times, beat her head against a dresser, and set fire to their home with Wife inside. According to Wife, the attack was unprovoked and stemmed from Husband’s unfounded claim that she was having an affair.

As a result of the attack, Wife underwent surgery for a stab wound that perforated her heart. In addition, she sustained scarring of her chest and face. She required counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder. She suffered nightmares and panic attacks and found it difficult to go to work or otherwise function.

Husband was initially charged with multiple felonies. He entered into a plea agreement pursuant to which he was convicted of aggravated assault. He received a three-year sentence.

The trial court identified, valued, and divided the marital property such that Wife was awarded 82.8% of the marital assets and Husband was awarded 17.2%.

Wife appealed, arguing that she should have been awarded a larger portion of the marital estate for a variety of reasons, including Husband’s dissipation of the marital assets to pay his criminal defense attorney.

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

In a proceeding for divorce or legal separation, the trial court is authorized, prior to determining the support and maintenance of one party by the other, to “equitably divide, distribute or assign the marital property between the parties without regard to marital fault in proportions as the court deems just.” 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. The division of assets is not a mechanical process and trial courts are afforded considerable discretion.

After reviewing the record, the Court reasoned:

By any calculation, Wife received the bulk of the limited marital assets. We think that the trial court implicitly considered and weighed various factors in Wife’s favor to achieve a property division that, while not equal was equitable. In support of its decision, the court stated, “if there was some pocket of cash out there . . . she certainly deserves it. But given what we have and the assets we have to divide, I think what we have done is appropriate under the circumstances.”

The trial court’s approach is fair and reasonable. The evidence does not preponderate against the trial court’s division of the marital estate for one very simple reason, i.e., Husband’s savage assault on Wife and the tragic and expensive aftermath, including Wife’s psychological and physical injuries, warrant a disproportionate share to her. While we have taken into account Husband’s assault on Wife, we do so — not as a matter of “fault” — but rather because of the impact of the assault on the marital estate. But having said all of this, we hold that Wife’s receipt of 82.8% of the marital assets is not against the preponderance of the evidence. We reject Wife’s argument that she is entitled to more.

Accordingly, the trial court’s division of marital property was affirmed.

Peterson v. Peterson (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Eastern Section, January 31, 2014).

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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