March 2013 Archives

Alimony in Futuro Not Appropriate Where Spouse Has Some Education and Work Skills

March 27, 2013 by The McKellar Law Firm, PLLC

In this case titled Hatfield v. Hatfield, No. M2012-00358-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 7, 2013), Tennessee divorce attorneys learn that the trial court erred in awarding alimony in futuro due to Wife's education level and ability to work, and that the award of almost all the value of the marital property to Wife was not equitable.

The facts of the case are as follows: Wife filed a complaint for divorce in March 2011 alleging adultery by Husband after twenty-four (24) years of marriage, for most of which Wife was a stay-at-home mother. The couple had three children born of the marriage. At the time of filing the initial complaint, the oldest child had reached the age of majority.
In April 2011, the trial court ordered Husband to pay temporary child support in the amount of $1,422.00 per month and temporary spousal support in the amount of $1,422.00 per month. He was also ordered to continue paying the parties' main household bills such as utilities and a home equity line of credit. The trial court allowed him to use his 401k account, but only "for the purpose of paying child support and temporary alimony." The following month the trial court allowed Husband to withdraw $5,000.00 for his attorney fees and expenses and $5,000.00 for Wife's attorney's fees and expenses from the 401k account.

In November of 2011, the divorce hearing was held over a two day period. After the hearing, the court entered a memorandum opinion regarding the permanent parenting plan and the division of marital property. In this opinion, the court proposed that Wife remain the primary residential parent and found her income to be zero. Husband subsequently filed a motion objecting to the court's proposed final order. In the court's ruling on this motion, it stated that it was not the court's intent to award alimony in solido to Wife. Instead, received a larger portion of the marital property in lieu of said alimony in solido. Wife had a need of $2,300.00 per month; however, Husband only had the ability to pay $1,500.00 per month. The court reasoned that there were no assets that could justify an award of alimony in solido.

The final decree for divorce was entered in January of 2012. Wife was granted the divorce on grounds of adultery and awarded alimony in futuro in the amount of $1,500.00 per month. Wife was also awarded the equity in the marital home totaling $242,227.00 and the remaining 401k balance of $40,872.12. The court again stated that it was awarding wife a larger portion of the marital property because Husband could not afford to pay Wife's need. Husband appealed the decision arguing that the trial court erred in its division of the marital property and in awarding Wife alimony in futuro instead of transitional alimony or no alimony at all.

Analysis: In considering Husband's appeal, the appellate court stated that an equitable division is not necessarily an equal division. According to Husband's calculations, the trial court awarded Wife 99% of the marital property; Wife's calculations showed 96.5%. Wife asserted that Husband dissipated marital assets by withdrawing money from the 401k account which bumped his share of the marital property to 21%. The appellate court rejected this argument due to the ruling of the trial court that allowed him to make withdrawals to pay his and Wife's attorney fees.

In regards to the marital property, the appellate court agreed with the trial court's strategy in treating wife as a disadvantaged spouse. However, it disagreed with the "extreme disproportion in the percentages awarded to the two spouses." The appellate court modified the property division awarding Husband the 401k balance and allowing Wife to retain the equity in the marital home.

In considering Husband's argument regarding alimony, the appellate court stated that the trial court erred in its calculations of Husband's ability to pay $1,500.00 per month in alimony. It reasoned that Husband's statement of income showed monthly expenses of $4,892.00 and his monthly income as $4,982.46. Subtracting the child support obligation of $1,357.00 and the alimony at the trial court's ruling of $1,500.00 left Husband with only $2,125.00 toward his monthly expenses. The appellate court averred that the evidence preponderated against the trial court's finding that Husband had the ability to pay the $1,500.00 in alimony in futuro. It modified Husband's obligation to $1,200.00. It also found that the trial court erred in awarding the alimony as in futuro. It stated that Wife had completed some college and had a real estate license which she could eventually use to support herself in the workforce. Therefore, the appellate court modified the alimony in futuro to transitional alimony for a period of five (5) years.

Recent Case Explains Juvenile Court Custody Appeals Go To Appeals Court, Dependency and Neglect Cases are First Appealed to Circuit Court

March 20, 2013 by The McKellar Law Firm, PLLC

In the case of Clark v. Clark, No. E2012-00684-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. March 18, 2013), Tennessee family law attorneys learn that appeals of custody matters are heard by the Court of Appeals, but appeals of a dependency and neglect action must be first appealed to the Circuit Court.

Summary: Father voluntarily gave custody of the minor child to the Grandparents. Mother then filed seeking custody, but her requests were denied. The Juvenile Court had described the case as both a custody case and as a dependency and neglect matter at different points throughout the litigation. Mother appealed from Juvenile Court to Circuit Court, but her request was denied based on the holding that the case was a custody matter which should have therefore been appealed to the Court of Appeals instead of Circuit Court. Mother then appealed that ruling. The Court of Appeals held that the trial court was correct in concluding that the case was a custody matter and that the Circuit Court therefore had no jurisdiction to hear Mother's appeal, but her appeal should have been transferred to the Court of Appeals instead of being dismissed.

Facts: After establishing paternity, the parties entered an agreed order giving custody to the grandparents. Mother then filed a motion requesting a hearing, which was denied. At that hearing, the Juvenile Court stated that the action was a visitation and/or custody case, not dependency and neglect. Mother then filed several subsequent requests for custody and visitation, which were denied. However, in denying these subsequent motions, the Juvenile Court classified the action as a dependency and neglect case when the grandparents received custody, thus contradicting the earlier ruling. Mother then appealed to Circuit Court. The Circuit Court found the matter to be a custody case and therefore dismissed the appeal.

Analysis: The issue is whether the Circuit Court erred in denying Mother's appeal because the action sounded in custody rather than dependence and neglect. A case of dependency and neglect is directly appealable to Circuit Court, whereas a custody action is only appealable to the Court of Appeals. Here, the Juvenile Court first labeled this case custody and later labeled it dependence and neglect. The Appeals Court noted that "the nature and substance of a proceeding cannot be transformed simply by the filing of a petition with a different caption." Therefore, the Court looked to the nature of the action. From the record, there was no evidence that this was ever a dependency and neglect action. Instead, the only issue that ever came before the court was a custody arrangement. Therefore, the Circuit Court correctly held that the case sounded in custody. However, the Mother's appeal should not have been dismissed. The appeal should have been transferred to the Court of Appeals. Anytime a court is lacking jurisdiction to hear an appeal, the proper step is a transfer, not a dismissal. Therefore, the Circuit Court is directed to do so upon remand.

Two Lessons from Recent Case Law: Appeals of Criminal Contempt Acquittals Are Barred in Tennessee; Take Care to Make Orders Specific

March 15, 2013 by The McKellar Law Firm, PLLC

In the case of Adkisson v. Adkisson, No. E2012-00174-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. March 11, 2013), Tennessee divorce attorneys learn the following about criminal contempt: 1) that for a party to be found in criminal contempt, they must violate a court order that is neither vague nor unambiguous; and 2) that an acquittal of criminal contempt cannot be appealed.

The parties divorced in 2006 and in 2009 Mother filed to modify the parenting plan and for a finding of contempt against Father for failing to follow the plan's provisions for medical costs and spring break visitation. Father counter-filed, requesting that he be named primary residential parent ("PRP") and for contempt against Mother for also failing to follow the plan's medical provisions and violating the parental bill of rights. The trial court found: a material change of circumstances existed but the child's best interests required the Mother to remain PRP; that Father was in contempt for not reimbursing Mother for medical expenses and not following the spring break schedule; that Mother was in contempt for failing to reimburse Father for medical expenses, for failing to return his property and for violating the parental bill of rights; and Mother was awarded attorneys fees and costs in the amount of $17,500. Father appealed.

Modification of Parenting Plan: The Father here appealed the court's best interest finding that a change of custody was not proper under the factors in T.C.A. §36-6-106. Here, the thirteen year old son testified that his Mother interfered with his telephone calls to his Father and that his preference was to spend equal time with both parents. He also stated his Mother told him to say "bad stuff" about Father to his therapist. The therapist testified that both children stated their unhappiness with Father's treatment of them. The therapist gave an opinion that the Father was emotionally abusing the children by taping conversations, grilling them about therapy and making them "a rope in a tug of war." Her opinion was that the children's testimony of wanting more time with Father was due to his coercion of them. The therapist stated she had "never seen such bad conduct on the part of a parent." The trial court found that Father had narcissistic and controlling behavior traits such that he addressed most issues relating to the children without regard for the children's welfare..." Based on the record, the Appellate Court here could not find that the trial court abused its discretion in maintaining Mother as the PRP.

Father's Contempt over Spring Break: The parties' parenting plan provided the following: "The parties shall alternate Spring Vacation with Mother having the children in odd years and the father having the children in even years." The term 'Spring Break' is not defined in the Plan. In 2010, Father took the children on the day school let out (Thursday or Friday) and returned them to Mother nine days later. The trial court found that the Father lied to Mother, stating that the weekend before school resumed would be made up by Mother if she allowed him the extra days of Spring Break and then refused to do so, thereby depriving Mother of those days. The Appellate Court here found that the trial court's conclusions were not supported by the evidence. First, the testimony showed that Mother did not agree to a make-up weekend, but that she would instead get nine days during next year's Spring Break, which she did. Secondly, "Spring Break" is not well defined enough by the plan to uphold a finding of criminal contempt. Criminal contempt requires a court order that is not vague or ambiguous, and when they are, the person facing contempt is given the benefit of the doubt. Therefore, the finding of Father's contempt was reversed.

Mother's Contempt Over Medical Expense Reimbursement and Parental Bill of Rights: In this case, the trial court refused to find Mother in criminal contempt based upon either allegation. Due to the double jeopardy provisions found in the Tennessee State Constitution, "an appeal from an acquittal of criminal contempt is barred." Therefore, Father's appeal of the trial court's findings were dismissed by the Appellate Court.

Rehabilitative Alimony Is Modifiable By Definition in Tennessee

March 11, 2013 by The McKellar Law Firm, PLLC

In the case of Finchum v. Finchum, No. M2012-00975-COA-R3-CV, WL 17155CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 13, 2013), Tennessee divorce attorneys learn that rehabilitative alimony is modifiable when a substantial and material changes of circumstances can be shown.

Facts: In May of 2009 Husband and Wife divorced after a ten year marriage, during which they had two (2) children. The Marital Dissolution Agreement ("MDA") awarded Wife rehabilitative alimony of $1,000 per month for thirty (30) months to terminate in June 2012 or upon Wife's death. In September 2009 an Amended MDA was entered and approved by the court. In the pleading, Husband agreed to extend his alimony payments by six months.

In September 2010 Husband filed a Petition to Modify seeking to terminate his alimony and modify his child support payments based on Wife's remarriage and her increased income. Wife filed an Answer and Counter-Petition alleging Husband was in contempt for unilaterally terminating his alimony payments in April 2010. Wife then filed a Motion for Partial Summary Judgment asking the court to deny Husband's request to terminate his alimony obligation. Wife asked the court to award her the outstanding alimony payments, her attorney's fees, and to find Husband in Contempt. The trial court granted Wife's Motion for Partial Summary Judgment and found that the alimony was contractual in nature and, therefore, un-modifiable. In the Final Order issued in April 2012, the trial court found Husband in contempt for unilaterally stopping the alimony payments prior to filing his Petition and awarded Wife $5,200 in attorney's fees. Husband appealed the trial court's decision.

Analysis and Conclusion: The Appellate Court referred to Tenn. Code Ann. § 36-5-121(e)(1) which provides that rehabilitative alimony is modifiable at any time by the court. It surmised that the trial court must have determined the alimony awarded to Wife to be in solido alimony, which is not modifiable, instead of rehabilitative alimony. Because both the MDA and Amended MDA in the case at bar referred to the alimony as rehabilitative, the Appellate Court concluded that the alimony was modifiable. It remanded the case back to the trial court to determine if Husband could prove a substantial and material change in Wife's circumstances to warrant a termination or modification of the rehabilitative alimony as of the date of the Petition (September 1, 2010).

Attempted Compliance Can Thwart Contempt Allegations

In the case of Gaddes v. Gaddes, No. M2011-02656-COA-R3-CV, 2013 WL 26842 (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 1, 2013) Tennessee divorce attorneys learn (1) criminal contempt is not warranted when attempted compliance is proven; and (2) parties cannot claim inconsistent positions about the intent of contractual language in order to avoid obligations.

Facts: The parties divorced in January 2001. In the Final Decree Mother was named the custodian from September through May, for which time period Father was to pay $1,622.00 per month in child support. From June through August, Father was named the children's custodian for which time period Mother was ordered to pay $290.00 per month in child support. After the Final Decree, Mother and Father verbally agreed to subtract Mother's child support obligation from Father's leaving Father to pay $1,174.00 per month in support over a twelve month period. The Final decree also stipulated that Father maintain health insurance for the two minor children and "the parties shall each pay one-half of any expenses not covered by insurance."

In December 2010 Mother filed a Petition for Criminal Contempt alleging Father was $2,059.00 in child support arrears, and that he had not yet paid the December payment. She also alleged that Father had not been paying in a timely manner and not paying his half of the out-of-pocket optical and/or dental expenses. Mother requested Father be incarcerated for ten days, become current on his child support, and that his visitation with the children be restricted pending mandatory counseling. Father filed a Counter Petition to Modify Final Decree and for Criminal Contempt requesting a reduction of his child support due to his decreased income and to hold Mother in contempt for interfering with his parenting time. The trial court held Father in contempt for his failure to pay the December 2010 child support payment before December 1st. However, the trial court declined Mother's request to incarcerate Father citing he was attempting to pay his child support obligation and prior to being served the Petition for Contempt he sent Mother a check for his December 2010 child support payment.

In August, 2011 a hearing was held on the competing motions. Mother was awarded $7,583.10 for unpaid child support through May 2011 to be paid at $500.00 per month and $1,200.00 for attorneys' fees. The trial court found Father was not obligated to pay half of any out-of-pocket optical and/or dental expenses for the children and reduced his child support obligation to $789.00 due by the 1st day of every month. Mother appealed.

Analysis: On appeal, the Appellate court decided two issues: (1) whether the trial court erred in declining to incarcerate Father for contempt; and (2) whether the trial court erred in not ordering Father to pay half of any out-of-pocket medical expenses.

On the contempt issue, Mother asserted a decade long issue with Father paying his child support obligation on time. The Appellate Court cited there was "scant evidence" to support Mother's allegations of decade-long non-compliance. The Court cited that Mother admitted to the trial court that her calculation of Father's arrearage was incorrect as she had failed to take into account two $600.00 payments made by Father. The Appellate Court pointed out that Father was $1,174.00 (one month) in arrears at the time Mother filed her Petition, and prior to being served Father paid the amount in full.

In regards to medical expenses, Mother argued that "medical expenses" referenced in the Final Decree should have been "reasonably interpreted" to include both optical and dental expenses. Mother contended that Father should be judicially estopped from claiming such expenses are not "medical expenses" due to Father's previous assertion in a contempt claim against Mother for her failure to pay a portion of non-covered medical and dental expenses. On appeal, Father asserted that "health insurance" did not cover optical and dental expenses. The Appellate Court cited Father's previous petition against Mother for dental expenses and ordered Father judicially estopped from claiming that the parties did not intend to split dental expenses, and found no reason to treat optical expenses differently from dental expenses. It also stated that both Mother and Father admitted that they had been splitting optical and dental expenses for "quite some time." The Appellate Court averred that when interpreting a contract, the parties' declarations and conduct are evidence to the interpretation of said contract.

Conclusion: The Appellate Court affirmed the trial court's ruling not to incarcerate Father. It reversed the trial court's ruling that Father did not have to pay half of optical and dental expenses and awarded Mother $2,889.70 for said expenses.