TN Supreme Court: Spouse With Good Job Not Entitled to Alimony

The Tennessee Supreme Court makes sense about alimony in this case.
The Tennessee Supreme Court makes sense about alimony in this caseHere’s a newspaper article about he case decided two days ago (The Chattanoogan, 9/16/11).

I’ve complained a lot lately about state laws that grant alimony to divorced spouses who plainly don’t need it.  One of the prime examples is Maria Shriver, the soon to be ex-wife of Arnold Schwarzenegger.  The actor and former governor is said to be worth about $400 million, while Shriver weighs in at $100 million.  Apparently California law is so well settled on the subject of spousal support that Schwarzenegger isn’t even going to contest the matter.

To me, that is just crazy.  No one needs to support Maria Shriver.  No one needs to support anyone who’s worth what she’s worth.  But seemingly, Schwarzenegger will end up doing just that.

So it’s good to see one state court writing sense about the issue of who supports whom, why and how long post-divorce.  Into the bargain, the Tennessee court gives us some valuable information about the history of the development of alimony law.

Craig and Johanna Gonsewski were married in 1988 when each was 21 years old.  She had graduated from college and was working; he graduated and got a job the following year.  Over the course of their marriage, each remained consistently employed earning substantial incomes.  They had two daughters, one of whom was in college and the other was in her senior year of high school at the time Johanna filed for divorce in 2009.

At the time of the divorce, Craig was earning a base salary of $99,000 per year as the comptroller for a mid-sized national company making stainless steel equipment for restaurants.  He also earned yearly bonuses that had run around $30,000, but would likely be lower in future years due to the recession.  Johanna worked for the State of Tennessee in some unstated IT capacity.  She earned a base salary of $72,000 per year plus $1,500 longevity bonus that increased $100 each year.

By the time the trial rolled around, the younger daughter was living with Craig.  The divorce was far from amicable and the Supreme Court’s description of the parties’ behavior shines a harsh light on what conflict in divorce can look like.

Once the divorce proceeding was underway, both parties filed papers with the trial court accusing the other of harassing behavior, such as unplugging telephone cords in their house, interfering with the other”s use of the family computer, placing a plant on top of Wife”s car, making too many calls in rapid succession to Husband”s cell phone, and preventing one of their teenagers from having access to her clothes. They litigated disputes over a ski trip involving their daughters, the forwarding of emails from their home computer, car insurance for their children, Husband”s access to his deer hunting equipment, and whether certain pleadings should be stricken from the record. They accused each other of criminal contempt, committing perjury, sought restraining orders, and had disputes over whether Wife”s lawyer should be disqualified and who should pay $17.29 to a lawn service business for a driveway repair. They had disagreements over discovery,
custody, child support, spousal support, a tax refund, insurance proceeds, and whether Husband should be permitted to bring his girlfriend around the parties” daughters.

Parenthetically, this is what divorce law looks like to judges.  The vast majority of cases resolve amicably, but judges don’t seem much of those.  The parties present an agreed order to the judge and he/she signs it.  Period.  The cases the judges see a lot of are the ones like the Gonsewski’s.  “Judge!  He put a plant on my car!  Sanction him!”  Is it any wonder judges get it wrong so often when their days consist of refereeing disputes between adults acting like four-year-olds?

The trial court divided up the marital property more or less equally with Johanna getting a little bit more than Craig.  The court also refused to award her alimony reasoning that Johanna had a long history of high earnings that could easily increase if she were to work in the private sector.  She had no mental or physical incapacity and therefore was in no need of Craig’s continuing support.

The appellate court however reversed the trial court and awarded alimony for life in the amount of $1,250 per month.  Johanna was 44 at the time, and, if she lived the average life of a woman in the United States, would have received alimony for some 34 years.  That’s about half a million dollars.

The Supreme Court reversed that ruling and affirmed the trial court’s award of no alimony saying essentially what I’ve been saying all along: spouses who can support themselves should; in the absence of mental or physical disability or advanced age, one ex-spouse shouldn’t be made to support his/her ex; because two people sharing expenses can live better than two people incurring separate expenses, the lifestyles of spouses likely go down post-divorce.

The Supreme Court makes it clear what the main purpose of spousal support is.

It is not surprising, therefore, that “[t]he prior concept of alimony as lifelong support enabling the disadvantaged spouse to maintain the standard of living established during the marriage has been superseded by the legislature”s establishment of a preference for rehabilitative alimony.’

[R]ehabilitative alimony is intended to assist an economically disadvantaged spouse in acquiring additional education or training which will enable the spouse to achieve a standard of living comparable to the standard of living that existed during the marriage or the post-divorce standard of living expected to be available to the other spouse. See Tenn. Code Ann. § 36-5-121(e)(1). See also Robertson, 76 S.W.3d at 340-41; Riggs, 250 S.W.3d at 456 n.4. Rehabilitative alimony thus serves the purpose of assisting the disadvantaged spouse in obtaining additional education, job skills, or training, as a way of becoming more self-sufficient following the divorce.

So, much as I’ve been arguing, long-term alimony should be awarded only in situations in which one spouse is disabled or for some reason cannot become self-sustaining.  Otherwise, alimony should be awarded only for the time necessary for a spouse to “rehabilitate” him/herself via additional education, training, work experience, etc.

Moreover, where “rehabilitation” is involved, the goal is not to return the receiving spouse to the same pre-divorce lifestyle, but only to one comparable.

In short, both the trial court and the Supreme Court saw the case clearly and reasonably.  Johanna Gonsewski is fully capable of supporting herself in a lifestyle comparable to what she had before she filed for divorce and therefore isn’t entitled to continuing support by her ex-husband.

It’s a simple concept, but one many states don’t seem to grasp.  After all, if we applied the Tennessee court’s reasoning to Arnold and Maria, there’s no way she would get a dime in alimony.

Interesting to me is the history of alimony the court provides.  It seems that it all began under ecclesiastical courts.  Back then, the only form of divorce permitted was not a dissolution of the marital relationship, but more like what we today would call a separation.  Given the fact that both spouses were still legally married, neither could remarry.  So courts began the idea of alimony whereby the husband continued to support his wife because she was legally unable to find another husband to do so.  In an era in which women had little legal ability to work, earn, receive inheritance, etc., that seems like the just thing to have done.

Those concepts were imported into civil law and have remained remarkably resistant to change despite the fact that the conditions under which they arose bear no resemblance to conditions today.  As such, the law regarding spousal support should change to reflect societal changes.  Spousal support should become the rare exception rather than the rule.  That’s nothing more than saying that, absent severe disability, men and women are able to support themselves and should be asked to do so.

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