Rehabilitative Alimony and Duration of Marriage Examined in Springfield, TN Divorce: Henson v. Henson

Facts: Husband and Wife were married for nine years before Wife discovered Husband’s affair and filed for divorce. They have no children.

During the marriage, they moved frequently to accommodate Husband’s military career.

Husband retired from the military and worked as a helicopter instructor pilot for a contractor in Dubai. Including his military retirement and some rental income, he earned $21,600 a month.

Wife worked cleaning houses and earned $500 a month before she suffered a knee injury that prevented her from cleaning houses.

The trial court found that Wife planned to go back to school once she recovers from her knee injury so she can obtain a degree that will enable her to get a better-paying job. The trial court also found that Wife is in need of financial support from Husband.

After dividing the marital property and assigning the marital debt to Husband, the trial court ordered Husband to pay Wife rehabilitative alimony of $2500 a month for three years.

Husband appealed.

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

Once a court finds a party is economically disadvantaged relative to his or her spouse, the court may award alimony after considering the factors at Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-5-121(i). The court may award rehabilitative alimony, transitional alimony, alimony in futuro, alimony in solido, or a combination thereof.

If rehabilitation is possible, the Tennessee General Assembly has expressed its preference for rehabilitative alimony to allow for the economically disadvantaged spouse to achieve, with reasonable effort, an earning capacity that will permit them to enjoy a standard of living after the divorce that is reasonably comparable to the postdivorce standard of living expected to be available to the other spouse.

Husband argued the trial court should have denied alimony altogether because this was a marriage of short duration. Specifically, Husband argued that Wife was not absent from the workforce for a sufficient length of time to “impede” her career.

The Court found that Wife suffered economic detriment for the benefit of the marriage and, therefore, was economically disadvantaged:

Husband fails to cite any Tennessee authority that bars an award of rehabilitative alimony in a marriage with a duration of less than 10 years. . . .

[P]rior to the marriage, Wife quit her job to live with Husband in Europe, and Wife remained unemployed throughout the marriage, with the exception of one month of employment as a medical transcriptionist. Wife ended this employment when Husband requested that Wife assist him with two businesses, for which she took no salary. Therefore, Wife has been unemployed for over 10 years. Husband has a college degree, and he is a trained helicopter pilot. He has maintained employment throughout the course of the parties’ marriage. Since filing for divorce, Wife has applied for jobs but has been unable to find long-term employment. Additionally, since filing for divorce, she had undergone two surgeries, and she testified that she will need several months to recover. As found by the trial court, Wife plans to pursue an Associate’s degree in medical coding to seek future employment.

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Wife has no income; Husband earns $16,509.17 per month from his employment [as a helicopter pilot] and an additional $5123.12 from other sources. Accordingly, Wife is economically disadvantaged relative to Husband, and Husband has the ability to pay the rehabilitative alimony award of $2500 per month for three years. From the record, we conclude that the evidence does not preponderate against the trial court’s findings on alimony.

Thus, the trial court’s judgment was affirmed. Wife was also awarded attorney’s fees both at trial and on appeal.

K.O.’s Comment: (1) Let’s remember that “economically disadvantaged spouse” is a term of art referring to a spouse who suffered “economic detriment” for the sake of the marriage or the family. It does not include a spouse who simply earns less than than other spouse when the lower-earning spouse did not subordinate his or her career to benefit the marriage or the family. See, e.g., McKee v. McKee. The record certainly supports the finding that Wife is an economically disadvantaged spouse.

(2) Tennessee caselaw differs on what constitutes a marriage of long or short duration depending on whether we’re dealing with property division or alimony. When dividing property, the distinction between a short and long marriage gets fuzzy as we approach 10 years. See, e.g., Ricketts v. Ricketts (property division case where 10-year marriage is not short but “cannot be considered to be of exceptionally long duration”). When analyzing alimony, the line between long and short takes longer to reach. See, e.g., Garman v. Garman (alimony case where 17-year marriage is neither short nor long).

Henson v. Henson (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Middle Section, April 24, 2017).

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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