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Tennessee Court Denies Husband’s Petition to Decrease Alimony Obligation
When alimony is awarded to one spouse after a Tennessee divorce, it is not uncommon for disputes to arise in the future, particularly if there is a change in circumstances. In a December 11, 2017 case, the Tennessee Court of Appeals considered whether the husband’s alimony obligation should be reduced, and whether, in light of his failure to pay that amount in full, he should be held in criminal contempt.
The parties had divorced in 2007 after 22 years of marriage. Their settlement agreement, which was incorporated into the divorce decree, provided that the husband would pay the wife 50 percent of his gross income as alimony, until the death of one of the parties. In a separate agreement, the parties agreed that the husband would also pay half of his bonuses and that the remarriage of either party would not terminate the alimony obligation.
In 2015, the husband filed a petition to modify his alimony obligation, claiming that his income had not kept up with inflation since the time of the divorce. He argued that he could not afford to purchase a home and owed a significant amount of taxes, while the wife had a job making $20 per hour and had purchased a home. The wife opposed the petition and also asserted a counterclaim for an arrearage judgment, requesting the court hold the husband in contempt for alimony that he had failed to pay.
On appeal, the court first addressed the motion for criminal contempt, which had been dismissed by the trial court. The appeals court explained, however, that since the issue was partially criminal in nature, it was afforded some constitutional protections. As a result, the dismissal functioned as an acquittal for the purposes of double jeopardy, and it was not subject to review by the appeals court.
As to the matter of alimony, an award in futuro may be modified upon a showing of a substantial and material change in circumstances. In the case at issue, a change in circumstances is “substantial” if it significantly affects either the husband’s ability to pay or the wife’s need for support. It is “material” if the change occurred after the original alimony award and was not considered by the parties at the time of the divorce.
The trial court in the case had decreased the husband’s alimony obligation. On appeal, the court noted that the only significant change was that the husband’s income had increased by approximately $38,000 to $158,000, while the wife’s income had remained the same at $41,000. The court did not consider the husband’s sale of his house and the current rental situation to be a substantial change in circumstances. Instead, the court concluded that the husband’s assertions that he struggles to pay his bills while his wife is able to maintain her standard of living shows only that she is better able to manage her funds. After reviewing the record, the appeals court concluded that there was no basis for the alimony modification, and it reinstated the original amount under the agreement.
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