Short-Term Alimony Converted to Permanent Alimony in Chattanooga Divorce: Ruiz v. Ruiz

Facts: In this marriage of approximately 30 years, Wife, 49, had been a homemaker and stay-at-home parent to the parties’ three sons. Husband, 54, was employed working on boilers throughout the marriage. Both are high school graduates.

Husband earned approximately $130,000 per year. Wife had no earnings history but was found capable of earning minimum wage..

In the division of property, Wife was awarded assets valued at $143,000 while Husband was awarded $167,000 in assets.

The trial court ordered Husband to pay alimony in solido of $1300 per month for five years.

Wife appealed.

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

Wife argued the trial court erred by not awarding her permanent alimony, a.k.a. alimony in futuro.

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, a form of long-term support, 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.

Rehabilitative alimony is short-term support that enables a disadvantaged spouse to obtain education or training and 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.”

Rehabilitative alimony is designed to increase an economically disadvantaged spouse’s capacity for self-sufficiency, whereas 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.

Tennessee statutes concerning spousal support reflect a legislative preference favoring rehabilitative or transitional alimony rather than alimony in futuro or in solido.

After reviewing the record, the Court concluded:

Regarding the two primary factors, Wife’s need and Husband’s ability to pay, we note that Husband’s income was approximately $130,000 per year and Wife’s was zero. Clearly Wife has substantial need and Husband has the ability to pay a significant amount with minimal economic hardship….

The difference in the parties’ relative earning capacities is large. The $16,000 per year imputed to Wife approximates the amount she would likely earn at a minimum wage job. There is scant evidence in the record suggesting that Wife has a greater earning capacity than that. She has only a high school education and very little work experience after staying at home for most of this 30-year marriage. In this regard, the long-term duration of the marriage is a significant factor. Wife also is limited by her physical and mental health problems, including chronic pain, depression, and anxiety issues. Her dependency on pain medication will make it harder for her to find employment. Wife was nearly 50 years old at the time of the divorce. The evidence fully supports the conclusion that Wife, the economically disadvantaged spouse, cannot achieve self-sufficiency, and that economic rehabilitation for her is not feasible. Even if she was able to acquire additional education or training, by the time she did, Wife would be nearing retirement age. If the in solido alimony award were to be upheld, in five years when alimony stops, Wife would likely be in serious financial trouble and subject to being a “ward” of the State…. When considered in toto, the evidence preponderates against the trial court’s decision to limit alimony to five years. Because Wife has demonstrated a need for long-term spousal support, this is an appropriate case to change the trial court’s award of alimony in solido into an award of alimony in futuro.

The Court found an award of $1000 per month of alimony in futuro, payable until Wife’s death or remarriage, was appropriate under the circumstances. Accordingly, the trial court’s judgment was reversed and modified.

The Court also awarded Wife her attorney’s fees at the trial court level and on appeal as alimony in solido, finding:

Wife has demonstrated that she lacks sufficient funds to pay counsel, and would be required to deplete her relatively meager resources to pay attorney’s fees. The marital assets awarded to her are illiquid. Her earning capacity is relatively small. As noted, Husband is financially able to pay. We hold this is an appropriate case for an award of reasonable attorney’s fees, at trial and on appeal, as alimony in solido.

The case was remanded to the trial court to determine the amount of Wife’s reasonable attorney’s fees.

Ruiz v. Ruiz (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Eastern Section, October 27, 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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