Is It Time for Tennessee to Adopt a Formula for Alimony?

This article by Robert McCoppin in the Chicago Tribune may be of interest.

Divorces of Rich Raise Eyebrows, but New Laws Affect Those of More Modest Means

For better or for worse, when it comes to divorce “for richer or for poorer” helps determine how much one spouse pays the other.

In an ongoing divorce trial due to resume in mid-December, the multimillionaire founder of Cancer Treatment Centers of America, Richard Stephenson, and his ex-wife Alicia Stephenson are battling over whether she needs more than $400,000 a month to maintain her living expenses.

tennessee alimonyWhile the super-rich duke it out over a standard of living most people will never experience, a shift in Illinois divorce law aims to reduce conflicts in dissolving marriages and establish better equity for former spouses with more modest incomes.

The policy changes are driven by attempts to correct past injustices that often left ex-wives with little money and no viable way to support themselves after years of raising children, divorce attorneys said. They mark the first major revamp of Illinois divorce law in almost 40 years.

“If you’re in a difficult relationship, nothing will eliminate the fact that people don’t get along,” prominent divorce attorney Pamela Kuzniar said. “But because there’s a template for agreement, it helps somewhat to resolve the issues.”

In the wake of the women’s liberation movement, divorce law in Illinois underwent major revisions in 1977, in particular to provide for divorcing wives with little or no education or who dropped out of careers to help their spouses advance. Before that, husbands typically kept most of a divorcing couple’s assets and paid sometimes negligible alimony.

The first comprehensive changes to the law since then took effect this year and reflect other cultural shifts. The new version, for example, swaps out the language “husband and wife” with the gender-neutral “spouses” because of the legalization of same-sex marriage. It also reduces the previous two-year separation period to six months.

But perhaps the biggest change is that the old grounds for divorce — like adultery, bigamy and cruelty — have largely been eliminated, moving Illinois to a no-fault divorce system that generally streamlines the process because no party has to prove fault. Wait time has been reduced to six months in cases where one spouse opposes the dissolution.

The new law also eliminated the words “custody” and “visitation,” replacing them with “parental responsibilities” and “parenting time.” That means parents must propose and accept an agreement on who will have the kids when, and how the parents will jointly make decisions about their children’s education, religion, health and extracurricular activities.

In addition, for the first time, Illinois’ divorce laws have set a formula for determining maintenance, or what used to be called alimony. Previously, divorce attorneys said, there was little consistency in how such payment levels were set, and some downstate judges tended to not award maintenance at all.

Now, for couples making a combined gross income of less than $250,000, the payer — generally the spouse with the higher income — must pay 30 percent of his or her income minus 20 percent of the recipient’s income. So if a husband earns $100,000 a year and his wife $50,000, he would pay her $30,000, minus $10,000, for a total of $20,000.

The duration of maintenance was left to the judge’s discretion before; now it depends on the length of the marriage.

There’s a minimum payment of $40 per month per child, and a maximum of 40 percent of combined income, and judges may still decide whether maintenance is appropriate, or may deviate from the guidelines if they see fit.

Not only has the new law made maintenance more predictable, courts are more willing to grant maintenance, and it goes on for a longer time, divorce attorney Roman Seckel said.

And rather than setting the amount of child support first and then the maintenance to get the desired overall split in income, now judges often set the maintenance by formula, then adjust child support, often downward, to reach the desired balance of income, Seckel said.

But a new formula is due to be set for child support next year as well. Currently, the guidelines call for 20 percent of the noncustodial parent’s net income for one child, 28 percent for two children, 32 percent for three and so on.

In the future, support is expected to be based on the concept of shared income, which some 38 other states use. The formula estimates the amount of money needed to raise a given number of children, then determines what share parents must pay based on their income.

Parents may reduce the amount of support they pay by increasing the amount of parenting time, which may become an even more contentious issue, lawyers warned.

For all the attempts at uniformity, though, the maintenance guidelines apply only to those who toil for combined incomes below $250,000. That means the rich, such as the Stephensons, still must either settle or fight out everything in court.

Divorcees and attorneys still complain about some aspects of the law, but the Illinois State Bar Association called it “improved” overall.

Wealthy spouses fighting over riches attract media attention, but it’s far more common for poor couples to wrestle with the increased expense of maintaining two households instead of one, said attorney Alan Hoffenberg, past president of the Illinois chapter of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers.

“It’s more than a rude awakening. It’s sometimes devastating,” he said. “It’s hard for the breadwinner to understand why they have to pay a substantial portion of their income to their spouse. That’s why blue-collar cases are so difficult, because there’s just not enough money to go around.”

Under past changes in the law, fathers have had to pay more while also losing custody of their children, Hoffenberg said. Now, the law provides for more collaborative parenting, and more experts are recognizing that children need both parents, he said.

“The new act goes a long way to remove a lot of the acrimony in custody disputes,” he said. “The pendulum is swinging back in a fairly good way.”

In general, fewer marriages are ending up in divorce court. From their peaks in the 1970s, marriage rates fell substantially in Illinois through 2013, the most recent year for which statistics are available, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health. Divorce rates have similarly dipped, though less dramatically.

K.O.’s Comment: I am in favor of anything that brings more consistency and predictability to alimony rulings in Tennessee. On the other hand, I have long opposed one-size-fits-all approaches to family-law issues. I could support some advisory guidelines that establish a range for alimony awards provided they allow for deviations based on the circumstances. Something like that could encourage more uniformity across the state while still allowing trial courts the discretion they need to tailor their decisions to the specific facts of individual cases. What do you think? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.

Source: Divorces of Rich Raise Eyebrows, but New Laws Affect Those of More Modest Means (Chicago Tribune, November 28, 2016).

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