Inequitable Property Division in Divorce Remedied by Motion to Alter/Amend

June 5, 2013
By The McKellar Law Firm, PLLC on June 5, 2013 3:13 PM |

In the case titled Haggard v. Haggard, No. W2012-003600-COA-R3-CV, 2013 WL 2304186 (Tenn. Ct. App. May 28, 2013) Knoxville divorce attorneys learn what constitutes an equitable division of property in a divorce and when a Motion to Alter or Amend is appropriate post-judgment.

Facts: Husband and Wife were married for nine (9) years with no children. Wife filed for divorce in 2010; Husband responded with a counter-complaint. Wife entered a proposed division of marital property as an exhibit with the trial court requesting it award her a lump sum (or in monthly payments) for her marital share of the assets that she proposed be given to Husband.

The trial court took Wife's proposal under advisement. However, in its Final Decree it awarded marital assets valued at $119,847.49 (including three parcels of property) to Husband while only awarding assets valued at $16,598.01 to Wife with no mention of a monetary award for her marital share of the assets given to Husband.

Wife filed a Motion to Alter the Final Decree arguing that although she had not specifically asked for any of the property awarded to Husband she did not intend to forfeit her claim in said property. She also pointed out the proposed division of the marital property she entered with the court as an exhibit. As a remedy, Wife asked the court to award her unencumbered marital assets. Husband filed a response arguing that the division of property was equitable and no "mistake" was made in the final decree. He averred that under the Rules of Civil Procedure there were no grounds to alter or amend the final decree. The trial court stated that it misunderstood Wife's intention at trial regarding the marital assets and found the division to be inequitable. Therefore, it awarded wife a parcel of property valued at $47,000 with no debt. Husband appealed.

Analysis: On appeal the appellate court had to determine whether the trial court abused its discretion when awarding Wife additional real property, without additional proof presented, based on the trial court's misunderstanding of Wife's intention at trial in regards to marital assets.

Husband argued that the division of the marital property was equitable when factoring in the award of alimony ($450 for 24 months) and attorney's fees (approximately $5,000) awarded to Wife. Husband also pointed out that Wife had no debt. The appellate court did the math which showed Wife's total share of the marital assets as $36,297.51 once the alimony and attorney's fees were added. The court conceded that an "equitable" division of marital property does not have to balance mathematically; however, it stated that the division of assets in this case was "plainly inequitable."

Husband also argued that the trial court abused its discretion in allowing Wife's Motion to Alter or Amend. He averred that in the motion Wife spoke of her "intention" regarding the marital property which was new evidence after the final order was entered in the case. The appellate court pointed out that Husband never asked for an evidentiary hearing from the trial court on the matter.

The appellate court quoted Tennessee case law stating a Motion to Alter or Amend allows a trial court to amend a judgment to correct an error or prevent injustice to a party. Its purpose is to allow trial courts, when it has overlooked or failed to consider important matters, to fix its errors to prevent unnecessary appeals.

Conclusion: The appellate court found that the initial division of marital property was inequitable and the trial court did not abuse its discretion in allowing Wife's motion to amend. The trial court's opinion was affirmed with costs of the appeal taxed to Husband.