Appealing From An Alimony Award: What Can Happen When The Trial Court Does Not Clearly State The Factual Basis For Its Decision

If you are thinking about taking an appeal in a divorce case involving alimony, you may find some help in the Tennessee Court of Appeals’ recent decision in
Joyce v. Ellard, 2015 WL 3397050 (May 26, 2013). That case is a good example of what can happen when a trial court does not provide a sufficient explanation of its basis for an alimony award.

In Joyce, the parties were married for 13 years. At the time of the marriage, the husband was 47 years old, and the wife, 48. The parties had no children. Upon granting a divorce in the wife’s favor, on the stipulated ground of inappropriate marital conduct (which can cover a multitude of sins), the trial court awarded her transitional (short term) alimony in the amount of $1,700 per month for four years. (The decision does not indicate the parties’ respective earnings or occupations.)

The wife appealed, contending that she should have been awarded alimony in futuro (i.e., long-term alimony) or, in the alternative, that the transitional alimony award should have been for a higher amount and a longer time period.

The Court of Appeals remanded (sent back) the case to the trial court. It found that, in addition to failing to make findings with respect to the value of the parties’ property or debt, the trial court made no findings as to the parties’ income or expenses. Further, the trial court merely stated that it thought, given the circumstances presented, that it would be fair and appropriate to award the wife transitional alimony of $1,700 a month for four years.

In finding the trial court’s decision inadequate, the Court of Appeals wrote:

The trial court’s order does not state whether it considered the statutory factors set-forth in Tennessee Code Annotated § 36–5–121(i), nor does it make findings with respect to the statutory factors. Further, although the trial court stated that Wife needed alimony and that Husband had the ability to pay, it made no factual findings to support either Wife’s need or Husband’s ability to pay.

In addition, the Court of Appeals stated:

When determining whether an award of alimony is appropriate and, if so, the amount of alimony to be awarded, the trial court must consider, inter alia, the separate assets of each party and the division of the marital property and debt…. Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 52.01 requires the trial court to make factual findings to support its award of alimony. The trial court did not make the factual findings required by the Rule. Additionally, we must remand this matter to the trial court for further findings with respect to the classification and valuation of the parties’ property and significant debt and, if appropriate in light of those findings, to reconsider its decision concerning an equitable division of property and debt.

THE BOTTOM LINE: A trial court’s alimony decision must clearly set forth findings of fact and link them to the governing statutory factors so that the basis for the decision can be readily discerned and evaluated. When a trial court fails to do so, its decision will be vulnerable on appeal.

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