Facts: Father and Mother divorced after 14 years of marriage. They have four children. During most of the marriage, Mother was a stay-at-home parent while Husband was the financial provider for the family.
About a year before the divorce, Mother began working as a teacher’s assistant. She also enrolled in a community college with the goal of being a math teacher someday. Mother testified it would take her eight years of being a part-time student in order to complete her education.
The trial court awarded Mother rehabilitative alimony of $2500 per month for 15 years. Mother was also awarded her attorney’s fees plus an additional $3000 in attorney’s fees in contemplation of the appeal.
On Appeal: The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court.
Duration of alimony. Father argued the 15-year duration of the alimony award was excessive in this 14-year marriage.
Tennessee law recognizes four types of spousal support:
- alimony in futuro,
- alimony in solido,
- rehabilitative alimony,
- and transitional alimony.
In this case, the trial court awarded Mother 15 years of rehabilitative alimony.
Rehabilitative alimony is intended to assist an economically-disadvantaged spouse in acquiring additional education or training which will enable the spouse to achieve a standard of living comparable to the standard of living that existed during the marriage or the post-divorce standard of living expected to be available to the other spouse.
Trial courts have broad discretion to determine whether spousal support is needed and, if so, the nature, amount, and duration of the award.
The Court found the trial court abused its discretion by awarding 15 years of rehabilitative alimony:
We do agree with Father’s assertion, however, that the fifteen-year duration of the alimony awarded is excessive. Here, the parties were married for fourteen years. Furthermore, Mother appears to be in good health both mentally and physically. Most importantly, Mother testified that she would be able to earn her degree in eight years attending classes part-time. A thorough review of Mother’s testimony reveals absolutely no basis for an alimony duration that is nearly twice as long as it will take Mother to complete her education and longer than the parties’ marriage. With regard to transitional alimony, which is similar to rehabilitative alimony other than the disadvantaged spouse’s ability to be rehabilitated, this Court has previously noted that “this Court has affirmed an award of transitional alimony for a period of eight years at most. . . .” Under these circumstances, we direct the trial court that . . . the award should extend no longer than Mother anticipates that she will need to achieve her educational goals, i.e., eight years.
Prospective attorney’s fees. Mother was awarded her attorney’s fees plus an additional $3000 in attorney’s fees in anticipation of the appeal. The Court made quick work of this award, explaining:
This Court has previously held that a trial court commits an error of law and abuses its discretion when it awards fees for future litigation. Indeed, when a party is seeking attorney fees incurred on an appeal, that request, absent any statute or rule directing otherwise, must be directed first to the appellate court in a timely fashion. The trial court was therefore not authorized to award any fees to Mother in expectation of this appeal. The award of $3,000.00 in appellate attorney’s fees is therefore reversed.
Accordingly, the trial court was reversed and the matter remanded for further hearing on other matters.
K.O.’s Comment: While there are no outer limits regarding the duration of rehabilitative alimony, the Court of Appeals ruled in Lunn that transitional alimony cannot be awarded for more than eight years. If the need for transitional alimony extends beyond eight years, it should be converted to alimony in futuro, as occurred in Lubell.
Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee Divorce and Family Law Attorney.