Court of Appeals Holds Lack of Interest in Rehabilitation on Part of Economically Disadvantaged Spouse Does Not Alone Entitle Spouse to Long-Term Alimony

Hallums v. Hallums, (Tenn.Ct.App., filed June 21, 2017). 


This case involves an appeal from a final decree of divorce following a 25-year marriage in which the court awarded alimony in futuro and attorney’s fees to the Wife. The parties were married on October 6, 1990, in Lebanon, Tennessee. Two children were born to the marriage, one of whom was a minor at the time of trial. Wife filed for divorce on October 15, 2014, on the grounds of irreconcilable differences or, alternatively, inappropriate marital conduct; Husband answered and filed a counter-complaint for divorce on the grounds of irreconcilable differences and inappropriate marital conduct. The case proceeded to trial on November 2, 2015.

Tennessee recognizes four distinct types of spousal support: (1) alimony in futuro, (2) alimony in solido, (3) rehabilitative alimony, and (4) transitional alimony. Tenn. Code Ann. § 36-5-121(d)(1). There are no hard and fast rules for spousal support decisions.

In determining whether to award spousal support, the trial court is required to consider “all relevant factors,” including:

(1) The relative earning capacity, obligations, needs, and financial
resources of each party, including income from pension, profit sharing or
retirement plans and all other sources;
(2) The relative education and training of each party, the ability and
opportunity of each party to secure such education and training, and the
necessity of a party to secure further education and training to improve such
party’s earnings capacity to a reasonable level;
(3) The duration of the marriage;
(4) The age and mental condition of each party;
(5) The physical condition of each party, including, but not limited to,
physical disability or incapacity due to a chronic debilitating disease;
(6) The extent to which it would be undesirable for a party to seek
employment outside the home, because such party will be custodian of a
minor child of the marriage;
(7) The separate assets of each party, both real and personal, tangible and
(8) The provisions made with regard to the marital property, as defined in
§ 36-4-121;
(9) The standard of living of the parties established during the marriage;
(10) The extent to which each party has made such tangible and intangible
contributions to the marriage as monetary and homemaker contributions,
and tangible and intangible contributions by a party to the education,
training or increased earning power of the other party;
(11) The relative fault of the parties, in cases where the court, in its
discretion, deems it appropriate to do so; and
(12) Such other factors, including the tax consequences to each party, as
are necessary to consider the equities between the parties.
Tenn. Code Ann. § 36-5-121(i).

Neither party contested the findings relative to Wife’s need or Husband’s ability to pay, or argued that the $1,500.00 was excessive or inadequate. Husband argued that the court erred in making this award because “there is simply no evidence upon which for the trial court to find rehabilitation unfeasible given that the Wife presented ‘no credible proof in the record regarding the cost [to seek additional college classes in preparation for her CPA examination].’” He also argued that the trial court “erroneously found that Husband was maintaining the pre-divorce standard of living and that Wife should also receive said standard of living” and that the court “incorrectly weighed Husband’s relative fault in assessing alimony.

In determining to award alimony in futuro, the trial court stated with respect to Tennessee Code Annotated section 36-5-121(i)(2): Wife has the ability, and the time, to seek additional college classes in preparation for her CPA examination. There is no credible proof in the record regarding the cost of such a venture. The Trial Court found that Wife was simply disinterested in pursuing vocational rehabilitation. The Trial Court found that at her age, the benefit of such rehabilitation must necessarily be compared to the likelihood that to do so, she would have to give up her current employment and likely earn less money in the process.

The Court of Appeals held that the trial court did not make adequate findings relative to whether rehabilitation was feasible and whether an award of rehabilitative and/or transitional alimony would be appropriate. In the absence of such findings, the Court of Appeals did not afford the trial court’s decision the deference normally afforded to an award of alimony.

Wife testified that she had unsuccessfully attempted to pass the CPA exam after graduating from college and worked as a bookkeeper for approximately 14 years before
leaving the workforce to homeschool the parties’ children. She returned to the workforce in a bookkeeping and administrative role for an accounting firm in 2014 after Husband lost his job and the marriage relationship had begun to deteriorate. At that job, which she held at the time of trial, she earned approximately $40,000.00 per year, based on an hourly rate of $25.50, with an expected $.50 per hour raise once a year. She testified that she previously had thyroid cancer and was currently cancer free, but would be on a medication regimen for the rest of her life to “replace the thyroid function.” She had no physical or mental condition that prevented her from working.

The Court of Appeals held that consistent with the holding and rationale of Gonsewski, “a lack of interest in rehabilitation on the part of the economically disadvantaged spouse does not alone entitle that spouse to long term alimony”.  The Court of Appeals vacated the award of alimony in futuro and remanded the case for the trial court to consider and make findings as to whether rehabilitation of Wife is feasible; if so, the trial court should determine the amount and duration of such award and whether an award of transitional alimony is also appropriate. If the court determines that rehabilitative or transitional alimony is not appropriate, the court is free to consider long-term support.

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