Division of Property Reversed (Again) in Nashville, Tennessee Divorce: J.C.W. v. F.M.W. Jr.

September 8, 2021 K.O. Herston 1 Comments

Facts: In this 10-year marriage, the trial court divided the $11 million marital estate 59% to Husband, 60, and 41% to Wife, 44.

The Court of Appeals reversed this division, citing the trial court’s “inordinate focus on the [16-year] age disparity between the parties,” and sent the case back to the trial court for an equal division.

My post on that decision is found here. I recommend reading that post now to refresh your memory about the specific facts.

The Tennessee Supreme Court granted Husband’s request for permission to appeal and summarily agreed with Husband’s argument that the Court of Appeals improperly substituted its judgment for the trial court’s judgment, thereby violating the “abuse of discretion” standard of review.

The Tennessee Supreme Court issued this order vacating the Court of Appeals’ decision:

This Court has repeatedly instructed the appellate courts to give great weight to the trial court’s division of marital property and cautioned that they should be disinclined to disturb the trial court’s decision unless the distribution lacks proper evidentiary support or results in some error of law or misapplication of statutory requirements and procedures. We find that in its review of this case, the Court of Appeals failed to accord the trial court’s decision regarding the division of the marital estate appropriate weight.

Thus, the Court of Appeals re-examined the case.

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

The opinion begins with a lengthy examination of the Tennessee Supreme Court’s various explanations for what the “abuse of discretion” standard entails, which can be summarized as:

  • the factual basis for the decision is not supported by the evidence,
  • an improper legal standard was applied,
  • the decision is against logic or reasoning and causes an injustice to the complaining party, or
  • the result is not within the range of acceptable alternative dispositions.

The Court methodically explained why each ground for finding an abuse of discretion applies:

If income is to be afforded more weight than age, a larger award of the marital estate to Wife would be in order as she is sharply financially disadvantaged relative to Husband. If age is to be accorded more weight than income, that would favor a larger award of the marital estate to Husband since he presumably has fewer working years remaining than Wife. Since the trial court awarded roughly 59% of the marital estate to Husband despite his pronounced a financial advantage, it is clear by implication that the trial court placed the most weight on age as a factor. …

We find that the evidence preponderates against the trial court’s finding that a 59% to 41% division of the marital estate is an equitable division. The trial court’s finding is ideological in view of the trial court’s other findings regarding the parties’ vastly discrepant incomes. … [Because] Husband’s being 16 years older than Wife and that much closer to retirement does not alter his far superior earning capacity and ability for future acquisitions of capital assets as well as income, it was ideological for the trial court to accord the factor of age more weight than income in dividing the marital estate. Based on the trial court’s own findings, Wife never will even remotely approach Husband’s earning power or ability to acquire capital assets and income comparable to what Husband can even if she works 16 years longer than he does. This is true regardless of the relative liquidity of Wife’s assets. Husband’s means, and prospective means, dwarf hers.

*     *     *     *     *

Based on nothing but the parties’ respective ages, Wife received a smaller portion of the marital estate despite the fact that Husband earns 8.5 to 9 times more than she does.

*     *     *     *     *

[T]o award Husband some 59% of the marital estate is inequitable as the evidence preponderates against this being an equitable division and is based on a clearly erroneous assessment of the evidence. Such an award only exacerbates the yawning financial gap between the parties, and no other factor is cited to justify such a result. The manner in which the trial court weighed the statutory factors found at Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-4-121(c) is consistent with neither logic or reason.

Our review of a trial court’s division of a marital estate is deferential, but we have a role nevertheless.

*     *     *     *     *

[H]aving concluded that the trial court’s decision lacks evidentiary support and is contrary to logic and reason, we necessarily find that the trial court’s decision falls outside the range of acceptable alternative dispositions. To find otherwise would mean that an illogical and unjust decision that is unsupported by the evidence is an “acceptable alternative disposition,” which is absurd.

The Court of Appeals vacated the trial court’s decision and remanded the case for “a new and equitable division of the marital estate.” [Note the Court did not specifically mandate an equal division as it did in its first opinion.]

K.O.’s Comment: I’m always at a disadvantage in commenting because I don’t have access to the entire evidentiary record. Still, it’s fair to assume the necessary facts are contained in the opinions.

With that assumption, the trial court’s unequal division is entirely defensible.

If the trial court still believes a 59-41 division is proper, it can and should stick to its guns and make more detailed findings as to other factors that favor an unequal division, e.g., the duration of the marriage, the relative contribution of the parties, the separate estate of each party at the time of the marriage, etc.

The trial court can absolutely justify this result, but it is the trial court’s responsibility to do so. Husband’s counsel should consider filing proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law to aid the trial court in that effort.

J.C.W. v. F.M.W. Jr. (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Middle Section, August 30, 2021).

If you found this helpful, please share it using the buttons below.

Division of Property Reversed (Again) in Nashville, Tennessee Divorce: J.C.W. v. F.M.W. Jr. was last modified: September 5th, 2021 by K.O. Herston

1 people reacted on this

  1. And, at the end of the day, the real winners are the attorneys. Interestingly, every professional in this case is skilled and attentive to details. This is not one of those cases where a judge or attorney isn’t “all that sharp”. They all are sharp, so I find it fascinating how much this is getting “batted about”.

Leave a Reply to Zale Dowlen, Attorney, MBA Cancel reply