Facts: Husband and Wife divorced after 18 years of marriage. At the time of trial, Husband was 55 years old, and Wife was 51 years old.
Wife had little history of employment outside the home during the marriage, having worked primarily as a homemaker and stay-at-home parent for the parties’ children. At the time of trial, she had been employed at a local university for two years, earning $1500 per month.
Notably, Wife had recently started taking one college course per semester toward her earning her undergraduate degree.
Husband, a college graduate, had been employed as a financial advisor for the past 12 years. He earned over $100,000. He had a monthly surplus of $3600 after paying his regular expenses.
The trial court found that Wife was economically disadvantaged but that her job prospects would increase if she completed her college degree. The trial court commented:
She will have no problem in the job market if she had a college degree. Will she live 100% to the earning capacity of [Husband]? I’m not a seer. I can’t look into the magic ball and tell you that. But it will certainly give her that earning potential.
The trial court determined that Wife needed rehabilitative alimony to allow her to complete her college education promptly. The court determined that $2500 per month over four years would enable her to “quit her job, take on a part-time job, and finish her education.”
Husband was ordered to pay $2500 per month for four years to Wife as rehabilitative alimony.
On Appeal: The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court.
Mother argued there was no evidence she could achieve an earning capacity that would afford her a reasonably comparable standard of living once she completed her college education.
Tennessee law recognizes that spouses have traditionally strengthened the family unit through arrangements where one spouse focuses on nurturing the personal side of the marriage, including the care and nurturing of children, while the other spouse focuses primarily on building the economic strength of the family unit. This arrangement often results in economic detriment to the spouse who subordinated his or her personal career to benefit the marriage.
When one spouse suffers economic detriment to benefit the marriage, Tennessee law provides that the economically disadvantaged spouse’s standard of living after the divorce should be reasonably comparable to the standard of living enjoyed during the marriage or to the postdivorce standard of living expected to be available to the other spouse, after considering the relevant statutory factors in Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-5-121 and the equities between the parties.
Tennessee law further provides that, whenever possible, the economically disadvantaged spouse should have his or her earning capacity rehabilitated. To be “rehabilitated” means to achieve, with reasonable effort, an earning capacity that will permit the economically disadvantaged spouse to enjoy a reasonably comparable standard of living as compared to the other spouse.
The Court found the evidence did not support the trial court’s findings:
[T]he evidence presented at trial was insufficient to support the trial court’s conclusion that [Wife] could be rehabilitated pursuant to the statutory definition. Assuming, arguendo, that [Wife] was able to obtain her undergraduate degree within the four-year period countenanced by the trial court, there was simply no evidence presented that higher-income employment opportunities would be available to [Wife] thereafter. In fact, the trial court questioned [Wife’s] choice of degree program [in mass communications and art], inquiring allowed whether [Wife] would “get a job with that around here.”
Furthermore, the trial court found that with the amount of rehabilitative alimony awarded to [Wife], in addition to the amount of child support awarded, [Wife] would be able to “quit her job, take on a part-time job, and finish her education.” This finding is unsupported by the evidence, which demonstrated that [Wife] claimed a monthly shortfall of $4450 while earning her full-time salary. In short, there was insufficient proof that [Wife] would be able to achieve an earning capacity that would permit her standard of living following the divorce “to be reasonably comparable to the standard of living enjoyed during the marriage, or to the postdivorce standard of living expected to be available” to [Husband].
The trial court’s judgment was vacated and remanded for further hearing about the appropriate type and amount of alimony to be awarded to Wife.