Court of Appeals Upholds Trial Court Decision in Tennessee Divorce Case

As promised in a prior post, we will be discussing the second half of the decision reached by the Tennessee Court of Appeals in Henderson v. Henderson, Tenn. Ct. App. (2014), a Tennessee divorce case.

The appeal in Henderson arose out of a husband’s challenge to the way in which the marital estate was divided. His appeal focused on four main issues:  the valuation of his retirement plan, the determination of the wife’s personal injury award as separate property, the failure to split the debt incurred by the husband in the form of loans from his parents, and the determination of various personal property.

The Husband’s Pension Plan

The husband challenged the wife’s expert testimony regarding the valuation of his retirement plan. He stated that he had a financial report that used a different method of determining present interest. However, since he did not give his wife prior notice of the report, the trial court did not allow it into evidence, and so the court of appeals did not allow it in, either.

Secondly, regarding the overall valuation, the court of appeals found that the determination of the overall value of the pension was a matter of fact reached by the trial court, which could only be disturbed if not adequately supported by the evidentiary record. Here, however, the court found that the husband did not present any competing expert witness testimony or other witnesses to suggest an alternative method of reaching a different valuation. Therefore, it was within the court’s discretion to choose the wife’s expert witnesses’ method in reaching the valuation that it did.

The Personal Injury Award

Next, the court turned to the husband’s challenge regarding the wife’s personal injury lawsuit award. The wife testified at trial that she suffered an injury when she fell in a McDonald’s restaurant and that she filed a lawsuit to recover her damages. After paying attorney fees and medical expenses, the wife’s net proceeds from the settlement were $27,635.84. The trial court classified the settlement proceeds as the wife’s separate property.

Under Tennessee law, personal injury awards can be construed as marital property to the extent that the amount is intended to compensate the marital estate for lost wages, medical bills, damage to personal property, or other similar sorts of expenses. There was no evidence that the wife suffered lost wages, and the amount she received was used to pay for typical living expenses. Furthermore, the medical bills had all been paid, and she continues to suffer back pain. Therefore, the court of appeals affirmed the award as the wife’s separate property.

The Husband’s Loans from Parents

Next, the court reviewed the husband’s challenge of the trial court’s decision regarding some loans that the husband took out from his parents after the couple had separated, but before they were divorced. The court of appeals found that the husband had not adequately explained at trial why he needed to borrow money from his parents in order to pay for living expenses. Evidence was presented that the husband’s income had always been sufficient in the past to cover the family’s expenses and that the husband’s salary increased steadily year after year. Therefore, the court of appeals did not find a reason to disturb the trial court’s determination.

The Disposition of Various Personal Property

Regarding the husband’s challenge regarding certain items of personal property, the court of appeals found that the trial court’s awarding to him certain appliances located in his rental home was improper, since he did not own them, but he was not therefore entitled to an offsetting amount to make up for their value. The court of appeals found that the trial court looked at all the circumstances of the marriage in order to arrive at a division of marital assets that was fair and equitable. Just because the values awarded to husband and wife were not exactly equal did not make them legally unsound. Therefore, the amounts were affirmed.

The Wife’s Attorney’s Fees

Lastly, the wife attempted to recover her attorney’s fees on appeal. The court of appeals found that she was entitled to an attorney’s fee award, only insomuch as it related to the husband appealing the alimony, since Tennessee law states that the only grounds alimony awards can be appealed is if the need no longer exists. Therefore, she was awarded half of her attorney’s fees, since that is the amount of time that the husband spent arguing (in his opening statement) about the award of alimony on appeal.

With the exception of the adjustment removing the rental home appliances from the husband’s property award, the entire remainder of the trial court’s opinion was affirmed, and the case was remanded for action consistent with the findings.

Divorce is a trying and emotional experience for a family, especially if children are involved. The attorneys at MHPS, PLLC have extensive experience in all aspects of family law, from complex divorces where the marital estate contains substantial assets, to simple matters where the parties only need an attorney to prepare divorce paperwork. If you or a loved one needs assistance in a family law matter, call us at (615) 800-7096, or contact us through this website.

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