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Articles Posted in Divorce

Compass pointing to MediationDivorce Law Basics

Lawyers label divorce cases according to the complexity of issues that must be resolved prior to the granting of a decree and/or to the degree of contention that exists between the two opposing parties. An uncontested divorce is one in which both spouses seek a divorce and agree on all divorce related matters. A contested divorce is a case where one of the spouses does not want a divorce or where the spouses are unable to agree on all the issues of the case. A complex divorce case is a contested divorce where many issues are in dispute.

Important considerations in a divorce may include: alimony¹, a parenting plan and child support (when there are minor children), the division of personal property (such as furniture, cars, firearms, etc.), payment of attorney’s fees, marital debt, division of real property, taxes, and other financial considerations. Every case is unique, and significant issues will vary based upon the complexity of the marital estate and the personal goals of each spouse.  Speaking with an attorney before filing for divorce can help someone who is considering divorce determine what issues may or may not be significant to him or to her.

Gavel pounding moneyIn many marriages, one spouse will be the primary breadwinner. If a couple is happily married, a significant disparity in income is often not a cause for concern, but if the couple decides to divorce, the lesser earning spouse is at a financial disadvantage and may wonder if he or she can afford the cost of an attorney. The law aims to protect the rights of all individuals, even individuals that cannot afford an attorney. Thus, in many divorce cases, the court will order one spouse to pay the other spouse’s legal fees. If you intend to end your marriage, it is in your best interest to consult a skillful Tennessee divorce attorney to discuss whether your spouse may be responsible for your legal fees.

Responsibility for Legal Fees

Like many states, Tennessee follows the “American Rule,” which traditionally requires a party to a lawsuit to pay his or her own attorney’s fees unless a statutory or contractual provision states otherwise. State v. Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., 18 S.W.3d 186, 194 (Tenn. 2000). Nevertheless, Tennessee statutory law vests trial courts with the discretion to award one party his or her attorney’s fees in the context of a divorce proceeding, and some trial judges may deem such an award to be a form of alimony. See Tenn. Code Ann. § 36-5-103(c).

Cole Law Group BlogThe marriage is over but the divorce lingers on.  Perhaps you are one who has now reached a high level of frustration because you still can’t get on with your life, because you and your ex-spouse are deadlocked on every issue, and because your divorce is dragging along at a snail’s pace.  Actually, your consternation may be justified.  The prolongation of divorce proceedings is both financially ruinous and emotionally devastating.  And you shouldn’t have to endure it forever. 

In Tennessee the procedure for dissolution of marriage is pretty straightforward.  A no-fault divorce based on irreconcilable differences with no minor children involved has a minimum statutory waiting period of 60 days (90 days if minor children are involved.)  This uncontested divorce process should be completed within one year and consists of four primary steps:  1) File a petition for divorce with the  court, 2) Prepare a Marital Dissolution Agreement, 3) Agree on a Permanent Parenting Plan if minor children are involved, and 4) Schedule a final hearing in court. The procedure for a contested divorce, on the other hand, can take up to two years and beyond to finalize simply because of the filing of motions and counter motions, discovery (interrogatives, fact finding, and depositions), court ordered mediation, or multiple hearings and a backlog of court cases.

And even though a contested divorce by its very acrimonious nature takes longer to resolve, it is wise to be aware of certain mindsets and external influences that can turn a routine process into a never-ending nightmare.  Below are some bumps in the road that can derail a successful, timely divorce resolution.

Alimony – A Primary Issue in Divorce

Alimony ButtonFor better or worse, nearly half of marriages in the United States end in divorce. Although the exact statistics on divorce fluctuate slightly from year to year and state to state, the residents of Tennessee are no strangers to breaking the bonds of matrimony. Throughout Tennessee, it is widely accepted and understood that issues pertaining to child custody and property division must be decided as part of any divorce. However, another extremely important issue in divorce – the issue of alimony (sometimes referred to as “spousal maintenance” or “spousal support”) – is often less certain or overlooked by parties to a divorce until it is too late, particularly if either or both of the parties have never gone through divorce before or if the divorce is unexpected.

In a broad legal sense, there are five (5) primary issues pertaining to any divorce: (1) grounds for divorce; (2) child custody; (3) child support; (4) equitable distribution of marital property; and (5) alimony. While none of these issues can be considered in isolation, the issue of alimony often predominates throughout divorce. The issue of alimony is the last major issue decided by the trial judge in a Tennessee divorce. Even if the facts of a case strongly indicate that the Court is likely to award one party alimony at the conclusion of the proceeding, vigorous litigation can ensue regarding what form the alimony should take, as well as its amount, duration, and other conditions.

Separate v. Marital PropertyProperty owned during a marriage in Tennessee is classified as either separate property or marital property. This distinction becomes quite important for many spouses when considering divorce. The concept is worth understanding because only marital property is subject to equitable distribution during a divorce. Separate property includes property which was owned by a spouse before marriage; property which was acquired in exchange for property which was already owned prior to the marriage; income and appreciation of separate property; property acquired by a spouse through gift, bequest, devise or descent; pain and suffering awards; victim of crime compensation; future medical expenses; future lost wages; and property acquired by a spouse after an order of legal separation in which a court has completed a final disposition of property.

Where the separate property analysis gets tricky is a carve out section, T.C.A. § 36-4-121(b)(1)(B)(i). This section states: ” ‘Marital property’ includes income from, and any increase in the value during the marriage of, property determined to be separate property in accordance with subdivision (b)(2) if each party substantially contributed to its preservation and appreciation” This requires an understanding of substantial contribution and preservation and appreciation. Thankfully, the statute includes some more helpful information by defining a substantial contribution. A substantial contribution may include, but not be limited to, the direct or indirect contribution of a spouse as homemaker, wage earner, parent or family financial manager, together with such other factors as the court having jurisdiction thereof may determine.” Preservation and appreciation are not further defined in the statute.

Let’s consider a few hypotheticals. In Marriage A, Wife was gifted a significant amount of publicly traded stocks from a family member prior to marriage. Husband paid taxes on Wife’s stocks when sold. Are the stocks marital property? In Marriage B, Husband bought a house before the marriage that was never used as the marital home. Wife’s name was never put on the deed. However, when the house needed repairs, Wife paid for the HVAC to be replaced. Is the house Husband’s separate property? In Marriage C, Wife purchased a house during the marriage and the house was foreclosed on. Can Husband be awarded dissipation?

Every battle is won or lost before it is ever fought.”

Divorce PreparationAlthough we say, “until death do us part” and fully expect our lives with that special someone to last forever, unfortunately, sometimes those expectations fall short of the reality.  Whether it’s because one spouse did something unforgivable or you simply grew apart, divorce may become the new reality.  As an attorney, I often find that by the time a client has made it into my office, much of the damage has already been done. This article was inspired by such clients in an effort to prevent the same type of damage to others who find themselves in similar circumstances.  Make no mistake, although we would like to think the person we committed our lives to would never purposefully try to deceive or deprive us, a divorce can be, and often is, a battle to be won or lost.  Recognizing this fact and understanding the “Art of War” is the first proactive thing a spouse can do for themselves.  It was Sun Tzu, a Chinese military general and strategist, who literally wrote the book and emphasized the importance of preparation for any victory.  His words transcend the battlefield and could not be truer than they are here. Proper preparation can mean the difference between victory or defeat, and much of a divorce battle is fought before the first court filing.

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YELLOW LABRADOR“Until one has loved an animal a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.” – Anatole France

Wedding china, dining room table, artwork collection… pets?  As most of the United States today, Tennessee included, continues to deem pets as personal property, many divorcing pet owners will face the question, “Where will Fido go?”  This question is particularly important for couples who acquired pets during the marriage and, as many pet owners can attest, consider them to be fundamental members of the family.  In this situation, divorcing parties are typically expected to separately address and agree to an equitable division of all “other items” of tangible personal property – “umbrella” language commonly found in divorce settlement agreements – under which pets fall.

Despite traditionally itemizing Fido between the Instant Pot and the outdoor patio set, the issue of pet ownership in divorce proceedings is, in fact, becoming an increasingly popular topic in family law throughout the country.  Similar to child custody disputes, divorcing parties may want to first discuss how to best maintain the status quo for the pet(s) post-divorce.  If both parties have equally contributed to the well-being, care, and financial responsibility of the pet(s), will be in the position to continue same after the divorce finalization, and neither wishes to forfeit ownership and/or visitation rights, they may find an informal pet agreement to be a feasible solution.

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