How Much Alimony Will I Receive? (In Tennessee)
This is a question that we hear an aweful lot from clients staring at a divorce.
You would think that this would be a pretty simple question to answer. Maybe just punch a few numbers into the old calculator and "bing, bang, bong" you've got the exact dollar amount? Not so fast my friend.
Alimony amounts can vary tremendously from one case to another. There are two reasons for this. The first is because alimony, unlike child support, is what we call highly fact-specific; i.e., it is determined based on the dirty little details of each and every case.
The divorce courts are told to look at the following things (Tenn. Code Ann. § 36-5-121(i), to be exact) to considered as factors: the relative needs, future earning capacity, age, physical and mental condition, education, assets, and financial obligations of each party; the length of the marriage; the standard of living the parties had during the marriage; and who is at fault for the divorce.
But wait, there's a catch. Although the court is told to look at these factors it isn't told exactly how much weight it should give each factor, or what factors (if any) are the most important in deciding how much and what type of alimony to award. In a recent opinion, the Tennessee Supreme Court told judges that the two most important factors in determining alimony should be the receiving spouse’s need for alimony and the other spouse’s ability to pay it (Gonsewski v. Gonsewski). But what kind of guidance is this and does it really mean anything? Because need for alimony and the ability to pay are also highly fact-specific and open to interpretation.
That brings us to the second reason why alimony varies so much from one case to another: Each judge is influenced by different things that he or she feels is important.
Where I practice in Shelby County Tennessee (Memphis) the judges and chancellors are, as a whole, intelligent, fair, and dedicated to doing the right thing. But that doesn't mean that they are going to agree with what you or your attorney fees is an "appropriate" amount of alimony. Heck, you would likely get 12 different alimony findings if you had the opportunity to argue your case in front of each of our judges. This is because judges are humans, not computers. They are influenced by the testimony they hear and the evidence that they see in the courtroom, as well as by their prior experience.
As an example, let’s talk about two cases, both of which came from courts in East Tennessee.
- In the first one, Magill v. Magill, the husband was 47 and made approximately $4,000 per month. The wife, meanwhile, was 42 years old and made about $1,000 per month. The parties had been married for 17 years. The court awarded Mrs. Magill $600 per month in rehabilitative alimony for only 48 months, plus a small amount in attorney fees.
- Contrast this case with Farnham v. Farnham. Mr. Farnham was 41, made about $5,000 per month, and was at fault for the divorce. Mrs. Farnham was 51, on disability, and made about $1,000 per month. The parties had been married for 17 years, just like the Magills. But the court awarded Mrs. Farnham $800 per month in alimony in futuro. Unlike Mrs. Magill, who only received four years’ worth of alimony, Mrs. Farnham was guaranteed a monthly alimony payment until her death or remarriage.
What seemed like very small differences in the two cases produced very different results. These cases, along with thousands of others decided by Tennessee courts, demonstrate how hard it is to predict alimony awards in this state.
So, back to the question of "How much alimony will I receive?". The correct, and only, answer is to say "we don't know for sure". We can give you our best guesses within a range, but unfortunately we can't tell you what that exact figure is going to be. And neither can any attorney here in Tennessee. Here is my suggestion if they claim that they can tell you for sure what the amount you will receive is going to be, RUN AWAY. They simply aren't being honest and upfront with you. And do you want someone to represent you who isn't honest from the start?