Facts: Husband and Wife divorced after 17 years of marriage.
Husband was 55 years old at the time of trial, and had worked for the local government for 32 years. He had elected to retire no later than April 2019.
Wife was 53 when the case was tried. Injuries from a car accident during the marriage led to Wife’s addiction to prescription medications, which led to heroin use, which led to inpatient drug treatment.
The trial court awarded Wife alimony in futuro. Husband was ordered to pay Wife $980 per month until he retires. Once he retires, the alimony payment will automatically drop to $720 per month. The alimony terminates whenever Wife receives Social Security benefits.
On Appeal: The court of Appeals affirmed the trial court.
The general rule is that alimony in futuro is not modifiable until a party files an application and makes the required showings.
Automatic modifications of alimony are generally not appropriate except in cases involving unique circumstances that are expected to occur in the near future, such as when a minor child will soon reach majority and the obligor is no longer required to pay child support.
By including an automatic modification provisions in such cases, trial courts spare the parties the additional expense and trouble they would have otherwise incurred from having to reopen the issue of alimony so soon after the court’s ruling.
The Court found this to be one of the exceptional cases where an automatic modification of alimony is appropriate:
[I]t it is undisputed that Husband will retire and begin drawing his pension no later than April 2019, which is roughly three years after the trial court entered its order. Also undisputed is the amount of his pension; the trial court found that “[u]pon his retirement on April 10, 2019, Husband will receive a monthly pension of $3596 per month gross income.” There is little uncertainty here about what will happen with Husband’s employment . . . although it is possible, as the trial court noted, that his poor health may cause him to retire earlier. We are of the opinion that this case presents “circumstances that are expected to occur in the near future” warranting the future automatic modification ordered by the trial court. Such a ruling promotes judicial economy, and saves both parties time and money. We find no abuse of discretion in this provision of the trial court’s judgment.
Thus, the trial court’s judgment was affirmed.
K.O.’s Comment: For a similar argument with a different outcome, read Naylor v. Naylor, where the court declined to automatically modify the obligor’s alimony obligation at his anticipated retirement, explaining:
Courts deal with the present. They do not address future events that may or may not occur as anticipated or, indeed, it may not occur at all. Courts will decline to act where there is no need for the court to act or where the refusal to act will not prevent the parties from raising the issue at a more appropriate time. . . Questions involving reaching far into the future are best left to future judicial determination rather than crystal-ball gazing. Given the myriad scenarios that might arise between the divorce trial and Husband’s anticipated retirement, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in relying only on the present circumstances of the parties in reaching its decisions.
Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee Divorce and Family-Law Attorney.