State Supreme Court ruling could yield increased alimony awards

Monday, July 4, 2011 at 7:05pm
SupremeCourtMain.jpg
Tennessee Supreme Court (Jude Ferrara/SouthComm) 

The Tennessee Supreme Court is about to decide a lawsuit that could open the door to the awarding of more alimony in divorce cases, even for spouses who already make good livings on their own. 

In the case, the trial court originally denied alimony for Johanna Gonsewski, who was divorcing her husband Craig in 2009 after 21 years of marriage.  But on appeal in an unusual ruling, she was awarded $15,000 a year in alimony for the rest of her life or until she remarries, even though she earns $72,000 a year as a state employee. 

The appeals court decided to award alimony to prevent Johanna Gonsewski’s standard of living from dropping below that which she enjoyed during her married life. Her husband earned $100,000 a year as an accountant but also sometimes was given bonuses by his employer. He received a $30,000 bonus in the year of their divorce. 

In the unanimous opinion of the Court of Appeals in Nashville, Judge Frank Clement Jr. wrote the awarding of alimony to Gonsewski was necessary “to mitigate the harsh economic realities of divorce.” 

Johanna Gonsewski “is the economically disadvantaged spouse,” Clement wrote, and her “earning capacity will not permit her to maintain a standard of living after the divorce that is reasonably comparable to the standard of living enjoyed during the marriage, or to the post-divorce standard of living expected to be available to the husband.”

The Supreme Court heard arguments in June from attorneys in the lawsuit and should rule within a few months. During the arguments, Justice Sharon Lee, one of three women who now make up a majority of the court, asked Craig Gonsewski’s lawyer to explain why Johanna Gonsewski shouldn’t receive alimony for life.

“Clearly, she was going to be disadvantaged economically after this divorce,” Lee said. “Why shouldn’t she have gotten some alimony to help equalize the parties?”

The case is unusual on several fronts, family law experts say. Divorce court judges have broad discretion to determine whether alimony is awarded, and their decisions are not often second-guessed by appeals courts.

In addition, Tennessee judges rarely award alimony for life, especially to spouses with their own careers. Rather than alimony, judges typically award marital property to disadvantaged spouses.

Permanent alimony is usually reserved for stay-at-home spouses who have been married for a long time, experts say. Courts generally consider the need of the disadvantaged spouse and the ability of the other spouse to pay. But in this case, maintaining the wife’s marital standard of living was the paramount factor.

“This wife is employed. What has raised attention is that she makes a good living. But the court was looking at that marital standard of living.  It’s not something Tennessee has emphasized before now,” said Kelly Murray of Vanderbilt University Law School.

“It looks like it’s easier to at least challenge the awarding or denial of alimony based on this opinion. That’s noteworthy,” Murray said. “If this case is affirmed, it could open the door to more challenges. You could challenge it in the past but, before this opinion, you were highly unlikely to get anywhere. You were most likely stuck with it.”

Rose Palermo, a prominent Nashville divorce lawyer, said the case could give previously out-of-luck spouses new hope for alimony.

When Palermo heard about the Gonsewski case, she said, “I was surprised that the lady got any alimony. If she’d been my client, I would have told her she probably wasn’t going to get any.”

“If they affirm this case, it’ll be pretty big,” she added. “If they uphold this case, it’ll give spouses who want alimony more leverage. It will encourage more people to push for alimony. They’ll have this Supreme Court case to wave around.”

It’s the second family law case that the high court has agreed to hear this year. Court watchers say it’s unusual for the justices to take such cases.

In the second case, the court will decide whether a man has legal grounds to sue for emotional distress for being tricked into supporting a child that turns out to have been fathered by someone else.

A Maury County man paid $26,000 in child support before obtaining a DNA test that proved he wasn’t the biological father of his ex-wife’s daughter. The trial court awarded him $100,000 in damages for emotional distress.

In the trial, the man testified he had a vasectomy during his marriage. He said he never would have undergone the procedure if he thought he already hadn’t fathered a child.

“It hurts to know you’ll never have a child,” he testified. “The family name won’t be carried on. It’s just a hurt you can’t explain.”

The Tennessee Court of Appeals struck down the award, ruling that since the man sued only for fraud and misrepresentation, he couldn’t collect for emotional distress.  

21 Comments on this post:

By: house_of_pain on 7/5/11 at 4:47

Alimony is an outdated concept. You think the men don't experience any decrease in their standard of living, after a divorce?

By: richgoose on 7/5/11 at 5:25

Every single man who is contemplating marriage should read this article and research as many divorce cases as possible.

I have a grandson who has been lectured by me on many occasions as to the statistics on marriage versus the statistics on winning in Las Vegas. If a man expects to have a large income and an estate he should be wary of marriage. The statistics are that 50% of marriages wind up in divorce. I would never risk half of my estate and alimony unnessarily. Marriage is not a necessity.

By: govskeptic on 7/5/11 at 6:30

How can either party maintain their same standard of living after a divorce. Both
suffer, especially if one has to lower their own standard by a large degree in order
that the other's standard be maintained. While they may be lower or higher
Court Judges, I find their reasoning about as confusing and often as misinformed
as that of the general public. Ruling that gives even more reasoning to never
marring in the first place certainly does nothing to assist the very important "Family Unit"!

By: Nitzche on 7/5/11 at 6:31

Viva la gloria steinem!

By: budlight on 7/5/11 at 6:41

Marriage is a covenant bond. Most people enter marriage for all the wrong reasons and then when the going gets a little tough, they cry, tuck tail and run for the divorce hills. Really strong ethical people can always work out their differences if and when they put their hearts and minds to it. I was immature when I divorced my first husband. I was a spoiled "brat" and didn't want to grow up. Asked for no alimony nor did I ask for anything because I left the relationship. He and I are friends to this day. Both are happily married to other spouses! I say NO to alimony unless it's extreme cases, especially when both parties are capable of supporting themselves.

By: JKennedyMD on 7/5/11 at 7:21

This burns my biscuits.

Just goes to show....men marry for sex (at least Catholic, Baptist, and Church of Christ men who wish to be obedient to the Commandments) and women marry for money (and sperm so that they may have children, which, postdivorce, leads to more money).

Sadly, once the man marries, their wife's desire for sex dwindles. It must be a side-effect of the gold on her left finger. Her desire for money, however, increases.

Divorced women's motto - the only thing a father (or ex-husband) is good for is money.

Since most divorces are filed by women, should the Supreme Court affirm the Appeals court (which is likely on this issue, given that Connie Clark is on the Supreme Court), it will encourage more divorces so that women can cash in, leaving most of the consequences of divorce to the husband.

By: richgoose on 7/5/11 at 7:33

JKennedyMD......I love the satire along with the truth.

By: bfra on 7/5/11 at 9:33

bud - Asked for no alimony nor did I ask for anything because I left the relationship. He and I are friends to this day. Both are happily married to other spouses! I say NO to alimony unless it's extreme cases, especially when both parties are capable of supporting themselves.
=========================================================

No, you just went on Geraldo's show, trying to get money from a dead man, you had never been married to. Some comments, have a way of lingering!

By: budlight on 7/6/11 at 7:18

No, the Geraldo show was not about me receiving money. My goal for being on the show was to inform and educate women and men on the disadvantages of living together vs legal marriage. You don't know me and therefore you have no clue what you are speaking about.

I also did not ask for anything from the man who I was not legally married to. He left a 4-page holographic will stating his wishes. The courts in Utah ruled against his will. Primary reason: His father had the money to hire the biggest guns attorney. Oh and the money was from his estate. So if he took the time to write out 4 pages of a holographic will leaving me the house, cars and money (just 21 days before he died), do you think he may have wanted me to be treated kindly and well? Ya thank?

bfra, just like some "comments have a way of lingering", so do some people who stink! And the smell of your stench is well imbedded in this post. You are a hate-filled human with no respect or love for anyone except yourself. I feel so sorry for you as a human because your life is so filled with "some comments" which you take out of context. Have a lovely day. Those who come in contact with deserve something nice even when you can't seem to conjure up anything nice.

Again, you don't know anything about anything with regards to that situation.

By: budlight on 7/6/11 at 7:21

And P.S. I'm not proud of "living together in sin" at the time. I've actually asked God for forgiveness and He forgave me. Sharing the story is a way to teach others about the consequences of going against the will of God and I'm happy to do that when it's called for.

What about you? Are the panes in your glass house spotless?

By: bfra on 7/6/11 at 8:12

bud - What about you? Are the panes in your glass house spotless?
=================================================

No! But neither do I air my private life on a public board and then complain about the responses! I didn't post the history of your sordid life, you have over a very short time.

By: budlight on 7/6/11 at 11:05

My life has not been sordid. My life has been -- my life -- and what it is. I do not mind giving a testimony as to my past. Especially if it can help someone make a better decision.

It's a shame you are such a lonely person that you only see the bad in everyone. I know others like you. bfra, just because I posted something does not mean you have to constantly chew on it and regurgitate it. It's puke to you.

To me, it's my testimony to the goodness of my Lord Jesus Christ coming into my life and changing me for the better.

Sorry that you're so eaten up with negative, angry, thoughts. Or else why would you constantly dig up bones of the past and puke them out. Try to be better to yourself. I'm sure someone love you.

Again, how are your panes? pains? Spotless, I'm sure. I'm not "complaining" about your response. I'm merely dialoguing!

By: bfra on 7/6/11 at 11:38

bud - Bud best advice: If you don't want responses, don't air your dirty linens on public sites. Plus, tone down the "holier than thou" comments to other posters.

By: budlight on 7/6/11 at 12:05

bfra, I love to have dialogue with intelligent, compassionate, caring people and there are some of those on this post.

As to me being "holier" than anyone, I am the first to admit that I am not.

How about you? Can you admit and own up to your own faults? Have a nice day and God bless you. No response necessary.

By: bunnymaytrix on 7/6/11 at 12:42

By: JKennedyMD on 7/5/11 at 8:21
This burns my biscuits.

RE:
Just goes to show....men marry for sex (at least Catholic, Baptist, and Church of Christ men who wish to be obedient to the Commandments) and women marry for money (and sperm so that they may have children, which, postdivorce, leads to more money).********Bunny says" Men do marry for sex. They have sex as much as they can...sometimes even with the woman they actually married"

Sadly, once the man marries, their wife's desire for sex dwindles. It must be a side-effect of the gold on her left finger. Her desire for money, however, increases.***Bunny says"Funny, that sex dwindling thing does not happen to the man...oh but wait, that is because he 'loses' his gold ring every time he leaves the wife's presence...it must be a build -up -over- time effect, and since he wears HIS ring almost none of the time, that effect does not plague him"

Divorced women's motto - the only thing a father (or ex-husband) is good for is money. ***"Bunny says" if they can leave the computer porn alone long enough to go out and MAKE money"

Since most divorces are filed by women, should the Supreme Court affirm the Appeals court (which is likely on this issue, given that Connie Clark is on the Supreme Court), it will encourage more divorces so that women can cash in, leaving most of the consequences of divorce to the husband.
***Bunny says" About damn time the tide got turned!!" It really has positive effects, too. Men realize it is important to wash their butts, trim their eyebrow, ear and nose hair occasionally, and learn to prepare their own meals and laundry...and women finally have time to shop for their real love...something that supports them when they need it and makes them look great...new shoes!"

By: budlight on 7/6/11 at 1:10

Bunny, you are good! You need to be paid to do that routine in front of an audience at the comedy club. There is nothing stranger or funnier than the truth and you hit the proverbial nail on the head.

Most men can't wait to "capture" our hearts and drag us home. Then once the tingle has worn off, many of them actually return to the hunting grounds (Hooters, etc) and start a new trek. I remember being asked out by a married man. I said "you know you'd have a lot higher self-esteem if you were not out here running around on your wife" to which he backed down and slide on over to some unsuspecting candidate for his tom-foolery!

I think there are a lot of good marriages (both on the part of men and women); it's sad that the covenant of marriage has slipped into the court room. Intelligent, caring, loving people can usually make ends meet in the middle both in their marriage and their finances.

You are funny, bunny!

By: drinkcan on 7/6/11 at 2:14

So in the whole process, a couple is NEVER truly divorced. You are forever, tethered to each other due to forever alimony. It is not a divorce, it is just a separation. Divorce should mean, the relationship/marriage/communication is over, not tethered to each other for life. Writing a check or depositing money every month is not a divorce. Just one persons opinion.

By: richgoose on 7/6/11 at 4:06

Budlight, I am anti-marriage and anti-trash girl friends. I doubt that there is a woman that would interest me at Hooters. I like the girls that love money and are always on the look-out for the financially elgible guys. They are usually bright and are dedicated to their pursuit of money. I like what they offer and they like what I offer and I always try to remain friends after the experiment is over. In almost every case these "ivory" hunters have moved on when they realize that all they are going to get is a honest guy with no intentions of marrying or co-habitating.

By: bfra on 7/6/11 at 4:23

Nothing like tooting you own horn, eh richgoose? Most times, that is all it is, tooting!

By: richgoose on 7/6/11 at 6:56

I have been blessed BFRA! When I see the word "toot" it brings back so many good memories.

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