April 2013 Archives

The Importance of Preserving the Record for Appeal (and the Importance of Having a Divorce Attorney)

April 28, 2013 by The McKellar Law Firm, PLLC

In Higgins v. Higgins, No. E2012-01376-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. April 16, 2013), Tennessee divorce attorneys learn the importance of preserving the record for appeal; if there is no record, the Court of Appeals must presume that the trial court's findings and conclusions are correct. Also, Tennessee family lawyers also learn that a party's decision to represent himself or herself pro se are not an excuse for failing to preserve the record.

The facts of the case are as follows: In 2010, Wife and Husband separated after twenty years of marriage; Wife subsequently filed for divorce. Husband was provided with an additional thirty (30) days before trial to acquire a new attorney after his former attorney withdrew from the case; however, he declined to do so, instead choosing to represent himself pro se. The parties then attended trial to address remaining issues of property division. At trial, it was clear to the trial court that the parties had similar health, financial resources, earning capacity, and ages. Also, the trial court noted that the marriage was long-term, and that the parties did not have any separate property. Accordingly, the trial court fairly equally divided the parties' property ($34,000 to Husband and $38,000 to Wife) and expressed its opinions in a memorandum opinion.

Testimony revealed that Wife's $50,000 gift and a prior sale of a residence that was in the name of both Husband and Wife was the source of funds by which the parties acquired their marital residence. The court granted this residence to Wife "subject to the first mortgage as well as two-thirds of the home equity line of credit (HELOC)," and determined that it was a marital asset. Husband was responsible for the remaining one-third of the HELOC. After trial, Wife filed a motion requesting that the court amend the memorandum opinion to elaborate on other matters; the court made amendments and entered a divorce decree and final judgment at a second hearing, which Husband declined to attend. Husband then filed a motion to amend, alleging that the court's initial memorandum opinion differed from the final decree. The trial court only made a few amendments to the final judgment. As such, Husband filed this appeal, claiming that the court improperly classified the marital residence as separate property and that the division of the marital property was inequitable because the trial court failed to account for his "substantial" debt. He also alleged that the trial court wrongfully awarded alimony to Wife.

On appeal, the Court of Appeals addressed the following issues: (1) "Did the trial court err in its classification of the parties' property and did the court err in failing to equitably divide the marital estate?" and (2) "Did the trial court err in amending the final order to include an award of alimony?"

Regarding the classification and division of property, the Court of Appeals found that the trial court properly classified the home as a marital asset and that the trial court averred that Husband did not provide evidence of his alleged debts; since Husband presented no record, the Court had no basis on which to challenge the trial court's position. Finally, the Court found that neither the trial court's memorandum opinion nor amendment reflect any alimony award; the amount was purely an attempt to allocate the mortgage debt between Husband and Wife.

The most important aspect of this case is that the Court of Appeals noted that Husband entirely failed to provide a record of trial, and that his self-representation was not an excuse for his failure to do so. The Court warned that appellants are responsible for "prepar[ing] a record which conveys a fair, accurate, and complete account of what transpired in the trial court with respect to the issues which form the basis of the appeal." If they fail to do so, then the appellate court is required to "assume that the record, had it been preserved, would have contained sufficient evidence to support the trial court's findings."

Legal Father May Terminate Child Support Obligation Via Negative DNA Results

April 24, 2013 by The McKellar Law Firm, PLLC

In the case Price v. Price, No. W2012-01501-COA-R3-CV, 2013 WL 1701814 (Tenn. Ct. App., Apr. 19, 2013) Tennessee family law attorneys learn that that a "legal father" (by virtue of being named on the birth of a child during a marriage), who are later proven not to be the father's biological child, has a right to terminate a child support obligation for that child.

The facts: Husband and Wife married in 1989. From 1992 to 2005 Husband was active duty in the Navy and was stationed away from his family with occasional visits home. From 1993 to 2003, while Husband was stationed away from Wife, she had a male roommate live in the marital home with her. During this period, Wife gave birth to two (2) children. In 2001 Husband had a DNA test performed on one of the children, who was shown not to be his biological child. Husband then filed a Complaint for Divorce, but did not follow through on it and remained married. In 2011, Husband again filed a Complaint for Divorce asserting that he was not the biological father of either child born of the marriage. Wife admitted that Husband was not the father, but argued that Husband executed a "voluntary acknowledgment of paternity" for each child shortly after their births. The court requested DNA testing which confirmed that Husband was not the father of either child. Wife's defense offered proof that Husband held the children out to be his own, listed the children as dependents in his military personnel file, and lived in the marital home with Wife and Children after being relieved of active duty status from the Navy in 2005. The trial court was not persuaded by Wife's arguments in relation to the DNA test results; therefore, it granted the divorce and stipulated that no children were born of the marriage. Wife appealed.

Analysis and Conclusions: On appeal, Wife asserted that "absent an adjudicative hearing naming another man as the biological father of the children, [Husband] is the children's legal father because he was married to the biological mother of the children, who were born during the marriage." Citing In re T.K.Y., 205 S.W.3d 343 (Tenn. 2006). Wife cited Tenn. Code Ann. § 36-1-102(28)(B) for the definition of "legal parent" to include "a man who is or has been married to the biological mother of the child if the child was born during the marriage," as well as Husband's "voluntary acknowledgment of paternity" ("VAP") for each child as reasons why he should be required to pay child support for the children.

The Court of Appeals found that here, no VAP was in the record provided by Wife. The only evidence that Wife provided included birth certificates for the children listing Husband as the father. Because there was no VAP, the Wife's argument was found meritless.

On the argument Wife raised using In re T.K.Y., the Court pointed out that the case was regarding two men seeking to establish parental rights to a child in regards to a termination of parental rights proceeding, and, therefore, was the opposite of the case at bar. The Supreme Court found this argument ineffective.

In regards to the definition of "legal parent" in Temm. Code Ann. §36-1-102(28)(B), the Appeals Court found that definition to be pertinent to adoptions and termination of parental rights proceedings only and therefore inappropriate to apply to the current case.

In its final opinion on the matter, the Court of Appeals stated that Wife's argument was "swimming against the tide." It further opined that Tennessee child support laws seek to obtain child support from biological fathers and seeks to relieve putative fathers from the burden of supporting children that are not biologically theirs. The Court affirmed the trial court's decision that Husband had no legal obligation to support the children in the matter since they were proven to not biologically be his.

Material Change in Circumstance Necessary to Change Custody Arrangement; Standard for Automatic and Permissive Intervention

April 11, 2013 by The McKellar Law Firm, PLLC

In Garrett v. Garrett, No. E2012-02168-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. April 12, 2013), Tennessee divorce attorneys learn that courts require a material change in circumstances before modifying a permanent parenting plan; however, the material change standard is higher when a party wishes to change the designation of primary residential parent. Further, Tennessee divorce attorneys learn the terms under which a party can intervene in a pending action.

The facts: At the conclusion of a divorce action in Cumberland County, Mother was designated primary residential parent; however, Mother and Father were to share time with the children on a 50/50 basis. Mother then decided that the children should attend a different school nearer to her home. At Father's request, the trial court entered an ex parte order requiring the children to continue attending their original school. However, the local Board of Education averred that pursuant to its policy, the primary residential parent's residence determines which school a child must attend; therefore, the Board filed both a motion to intervene and motion to set aside the order. Mother felt that Father did not comply with the permanent parenting plan requirement that they make decisions jointly and therefore filed a motion to clarify the divorce decree. Father then requested to be named primary residential parent since Mother had disregarded the parenting plan by switching the children's school. After a hearing, the trial court found: (1) Mother violated the permanent parenting plan by switching the children's school; (2) legally, the Board was entitled to intervene; (3) that the children required stability; and (4) Father was designated primary residential parent as it was in the children's best interest.

The Appellate Court asserted that the issue of the Board's intervention, while not raised on appeal, was important. Essentially, if an individual wishes to automatically intervene in an action, he or she is required to establish: (1) that he or she requested to intervene in a timely fashion; (2) that a substantial legal interest in the subject matter of the pending litigation exists; (3) that [the] ability to protect that interest is impaired; and (4) that the parties to the underlying suit cannot adequately represent [that] interest. Tenn. R. Civ. P. 24.01. Further, the Court elaborated that the intervening party must "either gain or lose by direct operation of the judgment," and that the presence of a "mere contingent, remote, or conjectural possibility" that the intervening party will suffer consequences is not sufficient. In applying the above factors to the Board's intervention here, the Court averred that the Board's motion should not have been granted since the Board did not have a "substantial" interest in the case since the standard is "best interest of the child, regardless of any [opposing] policies that may be implicated."
However, there is another standard if a party wishes to permissively intervene, and it can be based on either a statutory conditional right or if "an applicant's claim or defense and the main action have a question of law or fact in common"; courts must assess any "undue[] delay or prejudice" to the original parties that could occur as a result of the intervention. Tenn. R. Civ. P. 24.02. Ultimately, the Court determined that the Board's intervention was not permissive since the trial court considered "the need for stability" while ignoring other factors and also incorrectly afforded more weight to the Board's policy than it did to the best interests of the children or the parents' rights.

Secondly, Mother challenged the fact that the trial court declined to hold an evidentiary hearing and neglected to determine if an unanticipated material change in circumstance occurred before changing the primary residential parent designation. However, Father said that Mother was at fault for not requesting an evidentiary hearing, that Mother's deciding to switch the children's school without consulting him constituted the requisite material change in circumstance, and that the court did not need to list and elaborate on every factor having provided adequate information in support of its findings; therefore, he asserted that Mother's issues should be waived at the appellate court level.

In response to these positions, the Court of Appeals explained that "material change in circumstances" is a standard for any change in custody, with the burden being with the parent who wants to modify; in determining whether such a change has occurred, courts must provide findings "as to the reason and facts" in favor of a decision to modify custody. Tenn. Code Ann. § 36-6-101(a)(2)(B). Also, the "threshold" to modify a primary residential parent designation is higher than that necessary to modify a residential parenting schedule.

The Court expressed that a situation no longer being in a child's best interest or a parent neglecting to follow the parenting plan would both serve as examples of "material change of circumstance." Included among factors that Tennessee courts are required to evaluate are whether: "(1) the change occurred after the entry of the order sought to be modified; (2) the changed circumstances were not reasonably anticipated when the underlying decree was entered; and (3) the change is one that affects the child's well-being in a meaningful way."

The Court explained that determining "the best interest of the child" is also crucial when courts are faced with requests to modify custody arrangements. In this case, the Court of Appeals concluded that the trial court neglected to make specific findings of fact regarding an unanticipated material change in circumstances, and that the possibility that the parents would reside outside the same school zone was foreseeable. As such, the Court held that Mother should remain the primary residential parent.

Recent Case Shows How Negative Behaviors Can Impact Your Divorce

In this case titled Thomas v. Thomas, No. M2011-00906-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. March 6, 2013), the Court of Appeals found that the trial court did not err in their findings on the income used to set Wife's alimony and child support. Tennessee divorce attorneys learn that a spouse who is inconsistent about stating their income, fails to account for a dissipation of a child' college fund, and takes revengeful actions such as shutting off power and water to the marital home runs the risk of the divorce court deciding many aspects of the case in the other spouse's favor.

The facts of the case are as follows: Husband and Wife were married in April 1994 and had two children during the marriage. Wife filed for legal separation from Husband in June 2009; the couple attempted an unsuccessful reconciliation in October 2009; Wife moved to reinstate her legal separation petition in March 2010. Husband and Wife had several hearings regarding occupation of the marital home, payment of household bills, child support/alimony obligations, and visitation with the children. An order was entered by the court stating specific findings about Husband's truthfulness, the amounts he had paid or failed to pay (specifically regarding the mortgage), and ordered that Wife could remain in the marital home pending further court orders.

The final order for divorce entered by the trial court named Wife as primary residential parent and adopted Wife's Proposed Parenting Plan. "In part, the court based its custody decision on the limiting factors of neglect or substantial nonperformance of parenting responsibilities (Tenn. Code Ann. § 36-6-406(d)(5)). The court found Husband and Wife to be underemployed with Husband's income at $60,000 per year and Wife's at $24,000 per year. Husband was ordered to pay $862 per month in child support, $350 per month in alimony with this amount to increase to $550 per month to begin on April 1, 2012. Wife was also awarded alimony in solido by way of Husband's retirement account. Husband appealed the trial court's findings.

Analysis & Findings: Under Tenn. Comp. R. & Regs. 1240-02-04-.04(3)(a)(2)(i), it is appropriate to impute income for the purpose of setting child support payments when "(1) a parent has been determined to be willfully and/or voluntarily underemployed or unemployed..." The determination of whether a party is willfully and voluntarily underemployed is a question of fact, and the trial court has considerable discretion in its determination. Taking into consideration the obliging parents educational level and/or previous work experience, determining whether he/she is willfully and voluntarily underemployed, the trial court must make a finding on their potential earnings. However, it is not presumed that the parent is willfully and voluntarily underemployed or unemployed, the burden lies on the party accusing such. Brewer v. Brewer, No. M2005-02844-COA-R3-CV, 2007 WL 3005346 at *8 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2007).

Wife entered income tax returns of Husband's with an income as low as $74,500 in 2005 to $131,097 in 2003. Husband did not submit any tax returns but testified that his income for 2010 was approximately $2,000 per month. To contest Husband's testimony, Wife produced a credit card application in which Husband reported he made $85,000 per year. After reviewing the record, the appellate court affirmed the trial court's finding of Husband's imputed income of $60,000 for purpose of setting child support and the amount awarded and alimony obligation.

Husband contended using his past behavior to determine the residential schedule and adopting Wife's proposed parenting plan was error by the trial court. The Wife's proposed parenting plan allowed him 85 days per year with his children. The factors in Tenn. Code Ann. § 36-6-404(b) must be considered when figuring the child's residential schedule and determining the primary residential parent. Tenn. Code Ann. 36-6-406(a) gives the court power to limit the child's time with the nonresidential parent "based upon a prior order or other reliable evidence that certain circumstances ... exist to justify imposing a limitation on parenting time." Jernigan v. Jernigan, No. M2011-01044-COA-R3-CV, 2012 WL 1357558, at *4 (Tenn. Ct. App. Apr. 16, 2012).

The trial court cited Husband's "abusive use of conflict" as a reason for limiting his parenting time. Examples of this behavior includes his posting intimate photos of Wife on the internet, his shutting off the electricity and power to the marital residence, and his liquidation of the children's college funds while the litigation was ongoing. The trial court also took into consideration a beer commercial he sent to his daughter and his continued self-absorbed acts. The appellate court reviewed the trial court's record and found no reason for the trial court not to adopt Wife's parenting plan. The decision was affirmed.

Husband argued that awarding Wife his retirement account was not an equitable distribution of marital property. The trial court awarded the account to Wife as alimony in solido. "A reviewing court will find an abuse of discretion only if the trial court 'applied incorrect legal standards, reached an illogical conclusion, based its decision on a clearly erroneous assessment of the evidence, or employ[ed] reasoning that causes an injustice to the complaining party.'" Konvalinka v. Chattanooga-Hamilton Cnty. Hosp. Auth., 249 S.W.3d 346, 358 (Tenn. 2008).

In its determination of alimony in solido, the trial court considered Husband's inability to account for the children's college funds as its basis. The trial court also stated the alimony in solido was used as an alternative to awarding Wife accrued alimony and medical expenses owed by Husband. In reviewing the evidence, the appellate court found that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in awarding Wife alimony in solido by way of the retirement account and affirmed the decision.