If you get a divorce in Tennessee, you may be awarded (or have to pay) alimony. Also called spousal support, alimony is money one spouse pays to the other after the marriage ends. This article explains how Tennessee courts decide whether to award alimony, how much to award, and how long the award will last. For more information on Tennessee divorce laws, see Tennessee Divorce & Family Laws. To see all of our articles on spousal support, see our Alimony section.
Who is entitled to alimony?
Alimony is money one spouse pays to the other after the marriage ends. A court might order alimony for several reasons. In the case of a longer marriage, alimony may provide support to the spouse who earns less (or not at all), to allow that spouse to maintain his or her standard of living. This is called alimony in futuro, or periodic alimony. Alimony may be required to help a spouse earn more or get a job, possibly assisting a spouse to return to school to increase his or her earning capacity. This is called rehabilitative alimony. Finally, the court may allow one spouse to pay money over time to make up for an imbalance in property division. This is called alimony in solido, or lump sum alimony.
There are no set formulas to determine whether, how much, or for how long a spouse will receive alimony. However, Tennessee law expresses a preference for alimony to be temporary and rehabilitative. If alimony is not received at the time of the divorce, it cannot be obtained later.
Can you give an example of a short-term marriage?
John and Mary have been married five years. Near the beginning, Mary quit school so John could become a dentist. After finishing dental school, John found a new love and filed for divorce. Because the marriage was of short duration, a court must try to put the parties back in the position they were in before the marriage. Obviously, John has benefited from Mary's sacrifice. A court might award Mary rehabilitative alimony for a reasonable time, say three to five years, to help her complete her college education. In fact, temporary rehabilitative alimony must be awarded if rehabilitating the disadvantaged spouse is feasible.
Can you give an example of a long-term marriage?
Steve and Jenny have been married for twenty-five years and are getting divorced. Jenny started and owns an accounting firm earning well into the six figures. Steve teaches music at the local high school and was the primary caregiver for the children, now grown. It may not be feasible for Steve to start over by going back to school. A court might award Steve alimony in futuro. Steve will receive a check for the rest of his life, unless he remarries or circumstances otherwise change.
How does alimony in solido work?
Here's an example: Brad and Susan are both stock brokers who make about the same income and have no children. Their largest asset is their home, which has equity of $80,000. Unfortunately, neither have enough cash to pay the other for his or her share of the equity. Brad might offer to pay alimony in solido each month until he has paid Susan her half of the equity ($40,000) so that he may keep the house. If Susan accepts this type of alimony, she cannot petition the court to increase the amount after the divorce.
Can a court award two kinds of alimony at the same time?
Yes. These types of alimony aren't mutually exclusive; in some circumstances, it might be appropriate for a court to award more than one kind.
What factors does the court consider?
In deciding whether to award alimony (and how much), courts consider these factors:
- the relative earning capacity, obligations, needs, and financial resources of each spouse, including income from pension, profit-sharing, or retirement plans, and all other sources
- the relative education and training of each spouse, the ability and opportunity of each spouse to secure such education and training, and the necessity for either spouse to secure further education and training to improve his or her earning capacity to a reasonable level
- the duration of the marriage
- the age and mental condition of each spouse
- the physical condition of each party, including, but not limited to, physical disability or incapacity due to a chronic, debilitating disease
- the extent to which it would be undesirable for a spouse to seek employment outside the home because he or she will be custodian of a minor child of the marriage
- the separate assets of each spouse
- how the marital property is divided
- the couple's standard of living during the marriage
- the extent to which each spouse has made tangible and intangible contributions to the marriage, such as monetary and homemaker contributions, and contributions to the education, training or increased earning power of the other spouse
- the relative fault (who is more to blame) of the parties in cases where the court, in its discretion, deems it appropriate to do so, and
- such other factors, including the tax consequences to each party, as are necessary to consider the equities between the parties.
So basically, judges can consider almost everything. Appellate courts often say that need and ability to pay are the two most basic and important factors. (But do not rule out relative fault of the parties as a potentially important factor, depending on the circumstances.)
Can a spouse be awarded temporary alimony while the divorce is pending?
While the divorce is proceeding, temporary alimony may be awarded. This is accomplished by a hearing on a motion for pendente lite support. Child support and attorney's fees may also be determined. The temporary order ends when the final judgment for divorce is entered.
How is the amount of temporary alimony determined?
There is no precise formula for calculating a temporary alimony award. The court will use its discretion, considering the financial situation of the paying spouse and the present needs of the receiving spouse. The court will look closely at the couple's standard of living at the time of separation.
Can alimony be modified or terminated?
It depends. In a marital dissolution agreement, the parties may agree to make alimony non-modifiable, or modifiable only under certain specified circumstances. If the court orders alimony, whether that order can be modified depends on the type of alimony awarded and other terms that the court spells out. In order for alimony in futuro to be modified, the court will require a material change of circumstances. If the person receiving support lives with a "friend," this creates a rebuttable presumption that alimony can be reduced or eliminated. Be aware that these decisions can affect the tax treatment of alimony.
What types of changes in circumstances will support a petition for modification of alimony?
The possibilities are endless, but most courts look for practical reasons. A material change in circumstances might include increased or decreased ability to pay or a substantial change in the needs of either spouse, such as a serious illness that prevents one spouse from working.