Recent Case Shows How Negative Behaviors Can Impact Your Divorce

April 5, 2013
By The McKellar Law Firm, PLLC on April 5, 2013 10:09 AM |

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.