Alimony Determined to Be Modifiable in Springfield, TN Post-Divorce Litigation: Miller v. McFarland

Facts: The parties were divorced by agreement in 2011. Their Marital Dissolution Agreement (“MDA”) provided for alimony, stating:

Wife is economically disadvantaged as compared to Husband. Husband shall pay Wife alimony at the rate of $929.00 per month, beginning August 15, 2011. Said alimony shall continue for a period of eight years.

The following year, Husband petitioned to terminate his alimony obligation because Wife had remarried, resided with a third party (her new husband), and no longer needed alimony.

Wife responded that the alimony award in the MDA constituted alimony in solido, which was non-modifiable.

The trial court found the MDA failed to specify whether the payments were to be considered alimony in solido or transitional alimony. The trial court further found the parties could have included specific exceptions or conditions in the alimony provision but chose not to. The trial court then denied Husband’s petition to terminate the alimony obligation.

Husband appealed.

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

The issue presented is whether the alimony at issue constitutes alimony in solido, which is not subject to modification, or transitional alimony, which is subject to modification.

Whether an alimony award is subject to modification depends upon the type of alimony involved, as determined from the language of the order or agreement establishing the award.

Tennessee recognizes four distinct types of spousal support: (1) alimony in futuro, (2) alimony in solido, (3) rehabilitative alimony, and (4) transitional alimony.

Alimony in futuro is a form of long-term support. An award of alimony in futuro is appropriate when the economically disadvantaged spouse cannot achieve self-sufficiency and economic rehabilitation is not feasible.

Alimony in solido, another form of long-term support, is typically awarded to adjust the distribution of the marital estate and, as such, is generally not modifiable and does not terminate upon death or remarriage.

By contrast, rehabilitative alimony is short-term support that enables a disadvantaged spouse to obtain education or training necessary to become self-reliant following a divorce.

Where economic rehabilitation is unnecessary, transitional alimony may be awarded. Transitional alimony assists the disadvantaged spouse with the transition to the status of a single person.

Wife argued the alimony at issue is alimony in solido. Alimony in solido is an award of a definite sum of money, and the total amount to be paid is ascertainable at the time of the award. It retains its character as alimony in solido even if paid in installments, provided the payments are ordered over a definite period of time and the total amount to be paid is definite and ascertainable. Alimony in solido promotes the twin goals of certainty and finality through the award of a fixed amount without conditions. The determinative factor in deciding whether an award of alimony is in solido is the intent of the parties (in an MDA) or the court (in a final order). A final award of alimony in solido is not subject to future modification.

Husband contended the alimony at issue is transitional alimony, which is subject to termination in certain limited circumstances. Transitional alimony is designed to aid a spouse who already possesses the capacity for self-sufficiency but needs financial assistance in adjusting to the economic consequences of establishing and maintaining a household without the benefit of the other spouse’s income. Consequently, transitional alimony has been described as a form of short-term “bridge-the-gap” support designed to smooth the transition of a spouse from married to single life. Transitional alimony is payable for a definite period of time and may be modified only if: (1) the parties agree that it may be modified; (2) the court provides for modification in the divorce decree, decree of legal separation, or order of protection; or (3) the recipient spouse resides with a third person following the divorce.

After reviewing the record, the Court concluded:

[W]hen the obligor spouse is seeking a modification of transitional alimony based upon the alimony recipient’s cohabitation with a third party, as is the case in this appeal, there is no statutory requirement that either the parties or the court agree to this type of modification in the initial divorce decree or MDA. Instead, the obligor spouse’s right to seek modification based on the alimony recipient’s cohabitation with a third party is guaranteed by statute…. Therefore, the trial court incorrectly concluded that the parties’ failure to include modification terms in their agreed MDA was fatal to Husband’s request to modify or terminate his alimony obligation.

[A] finding that the obligee spouse is economically disadvantaged is a hallmark of transitional alimony…. In contrast, economic disadvantage is not a condition precedent to an award of alimony in solido….

[T]he plain language of the parties’ MDA, which includes a notation that the alimony is awarded because Wife is “economically disadvantaged” is clear evidence of the parties’ intention that the alimony at issue is properly considered transitional alimony, rather than alimony in solido.

From the totality of the circumstances, we conclude that the alimony at issue in this case is transitional alimony subject to modification pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-5-121(g)(2)…. [T]he MDA specifically states that the purpose of the alimony is to provide for Wife, who is economically disadvantaged. This is the stated purpose of transitional alimony in the alimony statute.

Accordingly, the trial court’s judgment was reversed. The case was remanded for consideration of whether Husband is entitled to a modification or termination of his alimony obligation based on Wife’s remarriage and cohabitation.

K.O.’s Comment: This case reminds me of Averitte v. Averitte, another what-type-of-alimony-is-it case where the Court repeated the following advice:

Obviously, great care should be exercised by counsel and trial courts in crafting decrees. The decree should reflect the court’s findings with regard to the circumstances of the parties, the purpose or expected results of the relief granted, and the specific benefits granted to and obligations imposed upon the respective parties. In addition to the rights and obligations of the parties with respect to each other, the liability for taxes, the rights of creditors, and other significant consequences may depend upon the preciseness of the language employed in the decree. Construction by the courts of uncertain and ambiguous language is a poor substitute for careful articulation.

Miller v. McFarland (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Middle Section, May 23, 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.

One thought on “Alimony Determined to Be Modifiable in Springfield, TN Post-Divorce Litigation: Miller v. McFarland

  1. I legally agreed to pay alimony in solido in sept 2008 beginning when child support ended in 2013 but soon became totally disabled and my ex Tina remarried! I didn’t really understand what I read because of mental illness ! Anything o can do?

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