TN Supreme Court Reverses Lifetime Alimony Ruling

News Release from the Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts, Sept. 16, 2011:

Nashville, Tenn. – The Tennessee Supreme Court today issued an opinion reversing the Court of Appeals’ decision to award lifetime and lump-sum alimony support to a divorced spouse who is in good health, has a well-paying job and received significant property assets in the divorce.

In 2009, Johanna Gonsewski and Craig Gonsewski were granted a divorce after 21 years of marriage. Both spouses were college educated and held well-paying jobs. The trial court divided the marital property between the two parties, awarding slightly more than half to Johanna Gonsewski, but denied spousal support and the payment of attorneys’ fees to either spouse.

On appeal, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s judgment regarding spousal support and awarded Johanna Gonsewski $1,250 per month in alimony until her death or remarriage. Additionally, the Court of Appeals awarded the wife lump-sum alimony to cover her attorneys’ fees and expenses for both the trial and appeal.

In its unanimous opinion, the Supreme Court determined the award of lifetime alimony and attorneys’ fees to be inappropriate because Johanna Gonsewski held a stable job, earned considerable income, and was awarded a significant amount of assets in the division of property.

The Court recognized that, although Craig Gonsewski’s income was historically greater than Johanna Gonsewski’s in recent years, both parties were likely to suffer some reduction in lifestyle following the divorce. Rejecting the wife’s claim that she was entitled to exactly the same standard of living after the divorce as before, Chief Justice Cornelia A. Clark wrote that, “in many instances, the parties’ assets and incomes simply will not permit them to achieve the same standard of living after the divorce as they enjoyed during the marriage.”

The Supreme Court also held that Johanna Gonsewski was not entitled to the lump-sum alimony award of her attorney fees because she was partially responsible for generating the fees and had the financial resources to pay them.

The Supreme Court determined that the trial court was correct in denying transitional alimony, because Johanna Gonsewski had received temporary spousal support in the 16 months leading up to the divorce and, with her share of the marital assets and her income, had sufficient financial resources to establish her separate household.

The opinion also emphasized that the trial courts have broad discretion in awarding alimony, stating that “an appellate court should not reverse a trial court’s alimony decision unless the trial court has abused its discretion.” In the Supreme Court’s view, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in this case when it decided to award no alimony to either party, and reinstated the judgment of the trial court.

In its opinion, the Court also reiterated the guidelines for awarding the four types of spousal support – alimony in futuro, which provides spousal support until remarriage or death; alimony in solido, long-term support that is paid in lump sums or installments; rehabilitative alimony, intended to provide training or support to help the spouse achieve a comparable standard of living; and transitional alimony, short-term support that helps the spouse adjust to the divorce.

Writing for the Court, Clark emphasized that “the statutory framework for spousal support reflects a legislative preference favoring short-term spousal support over long-term spousal support, with the aim being to rehabilitate a spouse who is economically disadvantaged relative to the other spouse and achieve self-sufficiency where possible.”

Students attending Girls State heard the oral arguments in the case as part of the SCALES Program, which stands for Supreme Court Advancing Legal Education of Students. This was the first time the Supreme Court brought the SCALES Program to Girls State, which was held at Lipscomb University in June.

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