I have practiced law in Rutherford County, Tennessee for nearly twenty years. In that time, I have handled hundreds of divorce cases and child custody cases. However, I know that some citizens of Rutherford County are still unclear about the process of a divorce. It is for this reason that I decided to write a guide to divorce cases in Rutherford County, Tennessee.
How a Divorce Case Begins
A divorce case begins with the filing of a Complaint for Divorce. A Complaint, by statute must allege a number of items. For a complete list of what must be contained in a divorce Complaint, see T.C.A. § 36-4-106.
A Complaint must allege “grounds" for divorce. In other words, the Complaint must provide a reason for the Court to grant the divorce. Tennessee allows couples to file for divorce on “fault based" grounds (typically contested divorces where one party has allegedly acted inappropriately) and “no-fault" grounds (typically uncontested divorces where the parties agree that irreconcilable differences have arisen between them).
If the Complaint pleads “no-fault" grounds for divorce then there must be a total agreement between the parties on the terms of the divorce. These are typically uncontested divorces where both parties agree that divorce is appropriate. Generally, the parties will submit a no-fault Complaint along with a Marital Dissolution Agreement, which divides the parties’ property, and a Parenting Plan, which provides for parenting time of the parties’ minor children, if any exist. Unless the parties reach a total agreement in regards to the Marital Dissolution Agreement, the Parenting Plan, and the final decree of divorce, the court cannot grant a no-fault divorce. For this reason, most complaints plead irreconcilable differences first, but also allege an alternative “fault based" grounds for divorce in case the parties cannot reach a total agreement.
If the Complaint pleads “fault-based" grounds for divorce, then no agreement is required between the parties. The party who files for divorce must plead fault grounds, which include, but are not limited to, adultery, desertion, cruel and inhumane treatment, and inappropriate marital conduct such that further cohabitation is unsafe and improper. Inappropriate marital conduct is the most common contested grounds alleged.
Filing for Divorce
The party who files the Complaint is the Plaintiff or Petitioner. The party who does not file the Complaint is the Defendant or Respondent.
The Petitioner files for divorce and serves the Respondent with its Complaint and a corresponding Summons. The Summons and Complaint puts the Respondent on notice that it has thirty (30) days in which to file an Answer. The Summons and Complaint also include a statutory Restraining Order from the court, which prohibits the parties from engaging in a number of activities. For a detailed listing of the statutory Restraining Order, see T.C.A. § 36-4-106(d).
If the Respondent fails to file an Answer within thirty (30) days of service, the Petitioner can then file a Motion for Default with the court. If granted, the Motion for Default entitles the Petitioner to whatever relief was requested.
If the Respondent files an answer, he or she has the option to also file a Counter-Complaint for Divorce. In a Counter-Complaint, the Respondent can plead its own grounds for divorce, including any fault grounds that it alleges against the Petitioner. This is an opportunity for the Respondent to level the playing field and tell its side of the story.
The Pendente Lite Hearing
Pendente lite is Latin for “while the action is pending." A pendente lite hearing is a temporary hearing held before a Special Master to resolve any issues between the parties and govern the parties’ behavior for the time between temporary hearing and the final hearing. Currently, Special Master John A. W. Bratcher oversees pendente lite hearings in Rutherford County.
A pendente lite hearing is a miniature trial of sorts. The parties introduce evidence to the court and the court makes decisions on any issues that need to be resolved on a temporary basis. The most common issues decided in pendente lite hearings relate to parenting time, child support, and temporary spousal support. Other issues may include living conditions, disposition of property, payment of bills, and any other legitimate issue that needs to be resolved on a temporary basis.
After the hearing, the Special Master enters a Special Master’s Report, which renders decisions on all of the issues presented at the hearing. The court will also enter a Temporary Parenting Plan, which specifically sets out parenting time on a temporary basis. Upon a final hearing, the court will enter a Permanent Parenting Plan, which specifically sets out parenting time on a permanent basis. These parenting plans are very comprehensive documents that cover every aspect of parenting time and every issue relating to the minor children.
Once the Special Master’s Report is approved by the Trial Judge, the Report becomes an Order, and the parties are bound by the Court to follow the same, pending the entry of other Orders.
Discovery is a pre-trial process through which each party can obtain evidence from the other party through various discovery devices. The parties can employ written interrogatories, written requests for production, or depositions. Written interrogatories are written questions sent from one party to the other. The recipient is required to answer every question within the interrogatories. Written requests for production are written statements sent from one party to the other that request the receiving party to produce certain documents or tangible evidence. The recipient is required to produce any documents requested within the requests for production. A deposition is a process through which one party gives sworn evidence as if the party was being examined at trial. Depositions are recorded, either by court reporter or by video recording, and the transcript can be used at a later proceeding.
Once discovery is completed, the parties prepare for a final trial.
Mediation is a process through which an independent third party negotiates between the parties in order to help resolve their differences. If the parties have minor children and are unable to reach an agreement after discovery is completed, state law mandates that the parties attend mediation in an attempt to settle their differences. Mediation is typically very successful, even between parties who vehemently disagree with each other in regards to the various issues that need to be resolved.
If the parties are unable to reach an agreement after discovery and mediation, the case is scheduled for a final trial. At trial, each party offers testimony, exhibits, and other evidence to the court and the Trial Judge makes a final decision on the merits of the case. After trial, the Judge enters an Order, which governs the behavior of the parties after the divorce is granted. This Order is a final decision. It is likely that the final Order will give neither party the full satisfaction that they sought at trial.
If either party disagrees with the Order and has legitimate grounds for contesting its entry, that party has thirty (30) days to appeal the order by filing a Notice of Appeal with the appropriate court clerk. If thirty (30) days passes without either party filing a Notice of Appeal, the Order becomes final and the parties are bound accordingly.
About Joe Brandon, Jr.
Joe Brandon, Jr. is an experienced family law attorney who has served the citizens of Rutherford County and surrounding areas since 1994. Joe takes pride in treating his clients as something other than a case number. He works hard and listens closely to ensure that every client identifies and achieves their goals. You can contact Joe Brandon at (615) 890-3656 or online at www.joebrandonlaw.com.