Equal Division Reversed in Long Marriage in Kingston, Tennessee Divorce: Brown v. Phillips

April 14, 2021 K.O. Herston 0 Comments

Facts: Husband and Wife divorced after 22 years of marriage.

Husband operated a painting business for approximately 13 years of the marriage and worked sporadically after that. He admitted a substance abuse problem that plagued the marriage, resulting in debt ultimately paid by Wife’s income and retirement savings.

Wife entered the marriage with substantial assets, including the marital residence she inherited. She improved that property before the marriage, and continued during the marriage by adding a two-story addition, an oversized garage, a sunroom, and remodeling the kitchen.

The trial court found the marital residence appreciated during the marriage by $197,800. It further found that Husband substantially contributed to the marital appreciation through marital funds early in the marriage and later through labor such as plumbing and hanging drywall.

Wife was awarded the marital residence but had to pay $98,900 to Husband, representing half the increase in value.

Regarding Husband’s substance abuse issues, the trial court found no dissipation of marital funds by either party.

Wife appealed.

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

When equitably dividing marital property, trial courts must consider the factors found at Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-4-121(c), including the parties’ relative contribution to the acquisition, appreciation, and dissipation of marital or separate property.

The statutory factors are not listed in order of importance, and each is to be considered in relation to each case’s specific facts.

The Court found reversible error in an equal division in this long marriage:

Here, the parties agreed that Wife funded a $50,000 kitchen remodel to the marital residence without help from Husband. She worked overtime in an effort to complete the project before her retirement. She notes that the parties maintained separate bank accounts, allowing her to even trace the funds used for this particular renovation. Under these circumstances, we hold that the trial court erred in dividing the total increase in value in the marital property at a rate of 50/50. We modify the court’s award to reflect a division of the 60/40 to account for Wife’s contribution to the increase in value without assistance from Husband, thereby reducing Husband’s award from $98,900 to $79,120.

Lastly, Wife requests an adjustment in the percentage of her [retirement accounts] awarded to Husband as marital property. She relies upon her status as the sole wage earner and Husband’s waste throughout the marriage as a result of his substance abuse and his failure to financially contribute. . . . Following our review, we modify the court’s award to reflect a division of 60/40 in the [retirement accounts] that increased in value during the marriage, with 60% awarded to Wife and 40% awarded to Husband.

The trial court’s judgment of an equal division was reversed.

K.O.’s Comment: First, a 22-year marriage is a marriage of long duration.

Second, Tennessee law recognizes a general presumption that an equitable division in a marriage of long duration is an “essentially equal division.” Like any presumption, this can be rebutted.

Third, the standard of review on appeal for property division is an abuse of discretion. Appellate courts are not to second-guess trial courts or tweak the division of property piecemeal.

Unfortunately, this opinion does not refer to any of that.

Does the presumption of an essentially equal division in a long marriage apply? Was it rebutted?

How does a 50-50 division of these specific assets fall outside the range of reasonable outcomes, i.e., an abuse of discretion, while the minor adjustment to a 60-40 division does not? Why is an equal division reversible error?

Appellate opinions are not written only for the parties. They are to guide trial courts and lawyers in other cases. This opinion fails to do that.

Brown v. Phillips (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Eastern Section, March 29, 2021).

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Equal Division Reversed in Long Marriage in Kingston, Tennessee Divorce: Brown v. Phillips was last modified: April 7th, 2021 by K.O. Herston

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