Voluntary Underemployment Examined in Alimony Analysis in Chattanooga, Tennessee Divorce: Chase v. Chase

January 16, 2023 K.O. Herston 0 Comments

Facts: Husband, 56, and Wife, 52, divorced after 24 years of marriage.

Wife was employed as a pharmacist during the early years of the marriage. After Husband, a plastic surgeon, started working at a plastic surgery practice, they agreed that Wife would be a stay-at-home parent for the parties’ children. Husband earned substantial income throughout the marriage.

After the children left the home, Wife did not want to return to work as a pharmacist, even though she maintained her license. Instead, she wanted to pursue creative pursuits she developed while raising the children and aspired to attend art school. Wife suffered from various physical ailments she believed prevented her from returning to a career as a pharmacist.

Although Wife was unemployed, Husband argued Wife could earn more than $100,000 a year working as a pharmacist.

The trial court found Wife’s choice not to practice pharmacy was reasonable considering her physical condition.

The trial court found Wife’s earning capacity to be $30,000 before completing art school, after which her earning capacity would rise to $50,000. After determining Wife needs $11,500 per month to enjoy a standard of living reasonably comparable to that of Husband, Wife was awarded alimony in futuro of $7000 per month plus rehabilitative alimony of $1600 per month for three years so Wife could attend art school and improve her earning capacity.

Husband appealed.

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

Husband argued the trial court abused its discretion by imputing reduced income to Wife based on her “desire to pursue less lucrative employment.”

While alimony recipients have a duty to contribute to their own support, the Court found Wife’s decision not to return to work as a pharmacist reasonable under the circumstances:

The evidence demonstrated that Husband maintained a significantly greater earning capacity than Wife. By contrast, Wife had not maintained employment outside the home for 20 years by the time of trial.

Although Wife did not claim to be unable to maintain any type of employment, she specifically related that she felt she would be incapable of physically performing the long periods of standing required of pharmacists. Nonetheless, Husband advances that Wife’s desire to pursue a different and potentially less lucrative career outside of pharmacy would render her “voluntarily underemployed.”

Following our thorough review of the circumstances surrounding Wife’s decision to seek employment outside the field of pharmacy, we agree with the trial court’s determination that such decision was reasonable. As the trial court found, Wife suffers from physical issues that impact her ability to perform the work of a pharmacist. In addition, Wife has been out of the workforce for 20 years, with her most recent employment as a pharmacist occurring in the late 1990s in another state. Wife has clearly suffered economic detriment for the benefit of the parties’ marriage by agreeing to be a stay-at-home parent for several years. Husband presented no evidence [] to establish that Wife would be able to procure employment as a pharmacist after such a lengthy hiatus. In addition, Husband’s argument that Wife should be forced to return to employment that she cannot physically perform is equally unavailing. We therefore decline to determine that Wife’s failure to return to employment as a pharmacist would render her voluntarily underemployed.

The [alimony] statute explicitly provides that when one party suffers “economic detriment for the benefit of the marriage,” as Wife clearly has, “the economically disadvantaged spouse’s standard of living 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. As the trial court determined, Wife’s needs were commensurate with the standard of living that the parties enjoyed during the marriage and Husband will have no trouble continuing to enjoy postdivorce. We accordingly conclude that Wife’s need for alimony was supported by the evidence.

The Court affirmed the trial court’s judgment.

K.O.’s Comment: This is the 2000th post on this blawg.

Chase v. Chase (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Eastern Section, December 9, 2022).

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Voluntary Underemployment Examined in Alimony Analysis in Chattanooga, Tennessee Divorce: Chase v. Chase was last modified: January 15th, 2023 by K.O. Herston

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