Most people are familiar with the concept of child support—payments which are designed to help care for a child, post-divorce. But far fewer people know that a similar type of support can be awarded to a spouse, too.
These payments are called “alimony.”
Alimony operates very similarly to child support, in that they are regular payments designed to help care for an individual, post-divorce. However, unlike child support, alimony is meant to support one of the spouses, rather than a child (though, it’s not always ordered in every case).
To help clear things up, here’s what you need to know about alimony in Tennessee, when it might be ordered, and what the Byrd Law team can do to help you with this important issue.
Alimony 101: Defining Spousal Support in Tennessee
Alimony (also known as “spousal maintenance” or “spousal support”) is money paid by one spouse to another, to help get them back on their feet, before, during, or after they get divorced.
As we stated, above, these payments operate a lot like child support; they are need based, determined by analyzing individual case factors, and are ultimately fully enforceable, once ordered by a judge.
But why should these payments even exist in the first place? you might be wondering.
It’s a fair question. After all, you’re both grown adults, so what’s the reasoning behind all this, anyway?
The Reasons We Award Alimony
Look. We get it. We wouldn’t exactly be excited to hand over hard-earned cash to our exes, either.
That being said, there are some really good reasons why state legislatures have incorporated alimony into Tennessee family law. All of which revolve around the idea that, as married partners, your interests are tied together. It doesn’t matter who goes to work and who stays home; if both of you work, or one makes more than the other.
From marital property, to retirement accounts, stocks and bonds, to marital debt, your financial successes and failures have always been shared equally—and that shouldn’t change, just because your marriage ends.
Alimony ensures that homemakers are not penalized for stepping away from the workforce, and prevent a more experienced partner from unfairly reaping the benefits of that unsung labor.
Essentially? Alimony is the great financial equalizer in divorce, ensuring that neither spouse either benefits, or is detrimentally punished, if a marriage doesn’t work out.
How Long Do You Have to be Married to Receive Alimony?
You do not have to be married for a certain amount of time, in order to receive alimony. While longer marriages are more likely to need these payments (due to children and other outside forces), shorter marriages can just as easily develop a need.
Who Can Request Alimony?
According to Tennessee law, either spouse can request alimony. These payments are gender neutral—meaning they’re open to homemaker dads and same sex partners just as much as they are to the stay at home mom.
That being said, due to traditional gender roles, it’s true that women have a higher percentage of receipt than men. However, so long as someone can demonstrate that need, either partner is capable of receiving support.
In Tennessee, alimony is most often awarded as the result of a divorce, but it may also be relevant to couples who want a legal separation.
Calculating Alimony in Tennessee
Since alimony is based on need, the amount assigned will differ from case to case, and will be calculated based both on the needs of one spouse, and the other’s ability to pay.
Some of the factors that could contribute to this calculation include:
- Each spouse’s financial needs and obligations;
- Each spouse’s earning capacity, including education and training;
- Each spouse’s ability to earn the necessary education and/or training;
- The length of the marriage;
- The age, mental health, and physical condition of each spouse;
- The terms of any child custody agreement in place;
- The separate assets of each spouse;
- The division of marital property; and,
- Whether one spouse contributed to the education/training of the other.
In addition, judges are free to consider any other factors they think are relevant—including the basis for any fault-based divorce grounds.
Alimony is not a guarantee, however, and Tennessee judges can just as easily deny a request, as they are to approve.
The Duration of Alimony in Tennessee
Just like amounts vary between cases, so does the duration of alimony. In some situations, a judge might assign them to last indefinitely. In others, short term support is more appropriate.
In Tennessee, there are three main types of alimony, each with a different length in duration. These types include:
- Periodic Alimony—long-term support, designed to help a former spouse maintain their married lifestyle until either death or remarriage.
- Rehabilitative Alimony—support with a set expiration date, meant to help get the dependent spouse educated and fully back into the workforce, post-divorce (which can also be paid in a lump sum, after a case).
- Transitional Alimony—the shortest type of support. These payments are awarded when there isn’t enough economic need for rehabilitative support, but a dependent spouse still needs help adjusting between married and divorced life.
Generally speaking, long-term/indefinite support is least likely to be awarded, and is usually reserved for longer marriages (typically defined as twenty years or more). In these situations, partners are closer to the end of their life, so it’s less likely they’ll have the ability and/or opportunity to receive the necessary education or training to maintain their lifestyle.
Is Alimony Enforceable?
Yes, absolutely! When ordered, alimony is fully enforceable, and failure to comply can result in some fairly hefty financial and/or legal consequences.
If it helps, think of your divorce order like your own personal law. Just like speed limits are more than just friendly guidelines, alimony isn’t something you can just ignore, and hope it will go away.
To enforce payments, Tennessee courts will often send a wage garnishment to the payer’s employer. This order requires an employer to withhold alimony amounts from a paycheck, before sending the remainder on to the employee.
If that doesn’t work, the court can also seize property, freeze bank accounts, intercept tax refunds, and even suspend professional licensures, in order to encourage or compensate for missed payments. In extreme circumstances, the willful and intentional failure to pay can also result in a charge for contempt of court.
Contempt is a serious criminal charge, which can result in steep fines, a mark on your permanent record, and even jail time—none of which will eliminate a payer’s obligation to make payments.
Hence, unless you’re really committed (and are willing to rot in jail on the mountain of principal), you’re going to end up paying alimony, eventually. The only real question left is whether you want to do it the hard way, or the easy way.
Can Alimony be Terminated Early?
Of course it can; even long-term alimony can potentially be revoked.
We feel like a broken record, here, but remember: spousal support is need-based. Hence, if something changes to eliminate those needs, then the court may revise their initial payment order.
As a matter of law, Tennessee alimony will automatically terminate any time:
- One spouse dies; or,
- A dependent spouse remarries.
Other situations might also qualify (though, not automatically). For example, while cohabitation wouldn’t automatically terminate support for a dependent spouse, a paying spouse would probably have a pretty good argument for at least a reduction in support (if not the elimination of payments, altogether).
In this situation, our hypothetical paying spouse would need to file a Petition to Modify with the court, who would examine the new facts, and adjust accordingly.
Keep in mind, however, that modifications cannot be applied retroactively. Hence, if you want to modify support in the real world, you’ll want to speak to your family law attorney as soon as possible.
Do You Need an Alimony Attorney in Tennessee?
Marriage shouldn’t be a financial trap—it’s actually designed to be the opposite. Which is why Tennessee legislatures will sometimes award alimony, as part of divorce. These payments ensure couples stay married for the right reasons, and that neither either benefits, or is detrimentally impacted if it ends.
If you have more questions about alimony in Tennessee, and how it might work in your situation, we want to hear from you. Call the Byrd Law team at (423) 304-6827, or contact us online, and let us help you resolve your alimony needs.