The Tennessee Divorce Settlement: A Complete Checklist

Getting a divorce is no picnic.

In fact, it’s rated among the top five most stressful events in a person’s life—right up there with the death of a loved one, a major illness, and job loss. Since the divorce process is often harrowing and fraught with emotions, anger, and fear for the future, it’s crucial to keep a level head as often as possible.

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” —Albert Einstein

That’s why choosing the right lawyer to guide you through the process is so important. An attorney can be part of the solution or part of the problem. You want an attorney who creates solutions, not more problems.

To get the best possible outcome you must start with the end in mind. You identify your goals and determine what is important to you. Then, you make decisions that take you closer. If you are going to pack for a vacation, you would first need to know the destination and length of the trip before you can identify what is important to pack. Packing for a beach trip requires a different packing list than packing for a ski trip. There are some essential items that would be required on both trips, but the rest is dependent on the destination.

“Parents should do everything they can to make decisions during the divorce process that are intended to enhance the quality of life for their children rather than trying to punish the other parent.” —Dr. Stephen Ross

Get your thoughts and goals for your divorce before signing any marital settlement agreement.

It can be helpful to follow a divorce settlement checklist, which addresses:

  • Issues related to your children
  • Spousal support agreements
  • Division of marital property and assets
  • Distribution of marital debts
  • Documents you’ll need to make informed settlement decisions

Speak with a Chattanooga Divorce Attorney to ensure you’ve got all your ducks in a row and can get everything you’re entitled to in your divorce.

What is a Marital Settlement Agreement?

When a married couple gets divorced, many decisions are to be made, which inevitably leads to a lot of negotiation. The marital settlement agreement, also known as the property settlement agreement, is the result of successful negotiations, and it’s a legal document that outlines all terms of the divorce that the couple has settled on.

Settlement agreements often include:

If both spouses sign the marriage settlement agreement, the court will consider it a binding contract, and a divorce trial can be avoided.

It’s in the best interest of both spouses to settle their divorce outside of court with a settlement agreement. This will save both time and costly legal fees associated with a trial.

“Our system is too costly, too painful, too destructive, too inefficient for a truly civilized people. To rely on the adversary process as the principal means of resolving conflicting claims is a mistake that must be corrected.” —Warren Berger, former Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court

You should, however, consult with an attorney before signing any agreements.

If you suspect you will be unable to reach an agreement on your own or your spouse will refuse to sign any divorce agreements, an experienced divorce trial lawyer will significantly benefit your case.

There are at least two irreplaceable benefits that hiring a lawyer brings to the table. First, hiring a skilled and experienced divorce lawyer will bring you confidence that your agreement has considered every reasonable possibility. You will also know that you have been advised correctly about the law and possible outcomes under the circumstances. With good information, you can be confident you are making good decisions about your future.

What Should I Ask for in a Divorce Settlement?

The purpose of the marital settlement agreement is to arrive at divorce terms that both parties are comfortable with so that a final divorce judgment can be made and you can avoid a costly and contentious divorce trial.

What you should ask for should be guided by what is important to you. Start by identifying what you want; what is your end goal? With this goal in mind, you should request terms that are in the children’s best interest and provide you with your fair share of assets.

The Divorce Settlement Checklist

Since every marriage is different, every divorce is unique and has a variety of factors that need to be considered. However, most topics that need to be discussed and agreed upon in a divorce fall under similar categories. They generally involve minor children and the equitable distribution of marital assets.

Here are five topics that should be on your divorce checklist.

Address Issues Related to Children

Decisions regarding children often make up the most critical discussions during divorce negotiations.

Where will the child live? 

How often will each parent see the child? 

How will the parents share in the financial and emotional support of the children?

Consider these items when discussing issues related to your children during settlement negotiations.

Child Custody & Parental Responsibility

Child custody is often called “parental responsibility.” Legal custody determines whether one or both parents will have essential decision-making abilities for their children.

Physical custody refers to the parent with whom the child will primarily reside.

While most people are familiar with the term “custody,” Tennessee law has stopped using that term in favor of the term “parenting time.” The language shift attempts to align with the law’s presumption of ‘shared parenting time,’ previously referred to as ‘joint custody.’ Under all but extreme circumstances, both parents will be allowed some portion of shared parenting time.

Parents must agree on parenting time with children and how to handle issues like who will make decisions for the kids, where and how to exchange the kids, and how visitation will work. If the parents are unable to agree then the court must make those difficult decisions for them.

“Who we are and how we engage with the world are much stronger predictors of how our children’s success and how they will do in life than what we know about parenting or what the parenting time schedule looks like. The question isn’t so much, ’Are you parenting the right way?’ or ‘Is this the right schedule?’ The more important question to ask yourself is, ‘Are you being the adult you want your child to grow up to be?’” —Sam Byrd

Have you ever heard the term “Good enough for government work?” The court is a branch of government, the Judicial Branch. Like most other government work, relying on the court to resolve your problems will usually cause the end result to come in with a less than optimal result, behind schedule, and over budget.

And while most judges are very knowledgeable about the law, they will never know your kids’ or family’s needs as well as you would. Court decisions about the special and nuanced needs of your kids and family will never be crafted with the precision you would be able to create. Think of these decisions like surgery: you have the power to divide and share time with the precision of a scalpel, while the court’s decisions are more akin to carving of a butcher knife or, worse, a hatchet. They will get the big picture pretty close, but they will not be able to finesse the details. In the end, both parents are usually unhappy with the result, which creates an endless cycle of fighting against the order and with each other.

Keep your child’s best interest in mind when negotiating parental responsibility with your spouse. Because that is exactly what the court will do.

What is best for kids is two healthy, capable, engaged parents. With this in mind, Tennessee law requires courts to “order a custody arrangement that permits both parents to enjoy the maximum participation possible in the life of the child.”

“Dare to be the adults we want our children to be.” —Brene’ Brown, Ph.D., LMSW

The court will start with the initial presumption that both parents are healthy, capable, and engaged. When parents resort to the court to make parenting decisions, what results is two parents pointing fingers, casting blame, and doing their best to show the other parent is anything but healthy, capable, or engaged.

Each time you go to court to solve a problem, you become further polarized, and the chances of settling the dispute between you and creating a peaceful future with your co-parent becomes progressively smaller.

What is best for your kids is for you and your co-parent to put your personal intimate relationship faults aside and work together to create a new normal—a more peaceful coexistence.

Divorce, in its pure definition, is a family change—and it is a significant one. Like any event in a child’s life, it has implications. There’s going to be grief. There’s going to be anger, upset, fear, and worry. There’s going to be a temporary loss of security. As long as we understand that our children are grieving and trying hard to find their way back into security, we can direct our goals so that we support them emotionally, restore their sense of loss, and restore that stability and security.

Then, while the divorce is a significant family change, it doesn’t have to be destructive. It doesn’t need to be damaging. If we remain good parents, demonstrate our unconditional love and support for our children, manage conflict appropriately, and provide positive, inspiring modeling through change, divorce does not have to damage our kids.

Start working together rather than tearing each other down. Sure, that will be hard. But a separation or divorce is the end of an intimate partnership for adults, not the end of the family for children. You will do well in making this transition to follow the Golden Rule we all learned in elementary school. Treat others the way you want to be treated, not the way you think they deserve to be treated.

Put aside your personal feelings about the other person as a spouse. That relationship is over. Reframe your mindset and start treating the other person as a business partner with whom you are in the business of building and producing happy healthy children.

What is best for kids is their parents working together to create a time-sharing schedule that accommodates the unique needs of all members of the family. What is best for kids is also intertwined with what is best for their parents. Create a schedule that accommodates as best you can the unique circumstances of your lives—the kids and both their parents.

This includes creating a schedule that respects how to best maintain your work, how to maximize parenting time with the kids, and how to build parenting skills where they are needed to ensure both parents are able to provide for the kids not just financially but emotionally, in that “hands on” loving way. A good shared schedule looks like the child having enough time with each parent to have that sense of home so that they are not “visiting” the other parent. We “visit” with aunts or grandparents. A fully engaged relationship with both parents should be the goal.

Parenting Plan & Time-Sharing

Once parental responsibility is determined, a parenting plan will need to be created.

This plan often includes:

  • Regular time-sharing schedules
  • Holiday schedules
  • How children will transition from one parent’s care to the other throughout the schedule
  • How parents will communicate with one another regarding children
  • Transportation to and the attendance of the child’s extracurricular activities
  • Healthy boundaries and expectations that allow flexibility and reduce conflict

Some parents include other factors in the parenting plan that will impact their child’s upbringing, like house rules and discipline, religious teaching, or decisions regarding health care.   If you can agree on those things, GREAT! If you can’t, it is not the end of the world.

Just like every other aspect of life, you can only control what you can control. The weather, the world, and the other parent are not within that sphere of control. If you focus the conversation on shared values and a shared vision for who you want your children to become, then that may help. The specifics don’t matter so much.

A shared vision that “We want our kids to be safe, healthy, active, and smart” changes the focus of a conflict. An argument over eating junk food on a Friday night or disagreement over whether the child is ready for a phone changes tone when you ask each other if these behaviors are in alignment with what we agreed we want for our child. Try to get alignment on these big issues, and the rest will fall into place.

“You can take control of your situation by controlling your response to it.” 

Child Support & Child Expenses

Child support in Tennessee is based on an Income Shares model. This means that parents’ income and parenting time will be considered when determining child support payments. Basically, a mathematical formula using inputs such as income and parenting time of both parents, cost of the kid’s insurance, and work-related child care costs is calculated to provide an amount for how much child support is owed to whom. There is some allowance for special circumstances that could take the number up or down if appropriate.

However, your marriage settlement agreement should also include any additional expenses your children incur and a plan for how they should be handled.

Expenses may include:

  • Health care coverage
  • Out-of-pocket medical expenses
  • Life insurance
  • Extracurricular activities
  • Educational expenses like tuition

Agree on Spousal Support & Maintenance

Alimony in Tennessee is determined case-by-case and depends primarily on the requesting spouse’s financial needs and the other spouse’s ability to pay it.

When negotiating terms, consider how long you were married, how much support the requesting spouse needs, and what an appropriate amount of time for alimony payments will be.

Your goal should be to figure out a way to not be dependent on your former spouse any longer than you need to be. This is consistent with a recent shift in alimony laws in Tennessee and other states that believe that, in most cases, the goal should be to provide financial support in an amount and duration that will allow the lower earning spouse to the time and resources to raise their earning capacity, so they are less dependant on their former spouse, and ideally, no longer reliant at all. What may start as a higher amount may gradually reduce or be totally eliminated over time. What that amount and duration looks like will be very specific for each situation.

Marital Property Division: Real Estate Determinations

The most common real estate held in most marriages is the marital home. Dividing this property is challenging, especially since one spouse sometimes wants to stay in the house.

Some factors influencing negotiations regarding property are the best interest of the children living in the home and one party’s willingness or ability to pay the other party for their portion of the property.

There may be unforeseen tax consequences to the sale or transfer of real estate or other assets that may result in unexpected additional expenses, so be sure to check with an attorney or a tax professional about your choices.

Division of Assets

Marital assets include bank account balances like checking and cash savings accounts, stocks, bonds, and mutual funds.

However, don’t forget to consider any life insurance policies, pensions, retirement accounts, and valuable possessions when negotiating the division of marital assets.

Debt Distribution

Property and assets aren’t the only things that need to be divvied up during the equitable distribution process in a Tennessee divorce. Any debts incurred during the marriage should also be identified, classified, and divided in the marital settlement agreement.

Documents to Gather for Divorce Settlement Agreements

  • Financial statements, including those for bank accounts, stocks, bonds, mutual funds, retirement accounts, and pensions
  • Income and employment records, including pay stubs and income tax documents
  • Documents for other assets and debts, including trusts, mortgages, and car loans
  • Titles and deeds for your family home, vacation homes, and vehicles
  • Insurance policies and wills, including health insurance, life insurance, car insurance, and living will paperwork
  • Bills and expense documents for both the family home and children’s expenses

Let a Chattanooga Divorce Lawyer Help

Getting divorced isn’t just emotional and stressful; it’s also complicated.

You may have spent years building your life and your estate with your spouse, so there are a lot of assets, debts, and other factors to consider.

The only thing worse than a bad marriage is a bad divorce. A  Chattanooga Family Law Attorney can walk you through the process of ending this chapter of your life so you can start building your new, more peaceful life on a firm foundation. Our attorneys will help you identify strategies on how to minimize or manage conflict and stay out of court. We will help you focus on your present and your future and provide practical solutions and actionable strategies without delving heavily into the past.

“We help divorcing parents make rational decisions in an irrational time.” —Sam Byrd

We can’t give you a “do-over,” but we can get you a fresh start. We are really good at helping divorcing parents make rational decisions in an irrational time. We will help keep you out of court, but if that becomes necessary we will help you be in the best possible position in front of the judge.

Author Bio

Sam Byrd is the owner and managing attorney at The Law Office of Sam Byrd. With hands-on experience in divorce, family law, criminal law, and DUI/DWI cases, Sam has been serving clients in Tennessee since 2012. He graduated with a J.D. from the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law in 2012 and holds a B.S. in Legal Studies from the University of Tennessee – Chattanooga, where he graduated summa cum laude in 2009.

He began his legal career as a paralegal, working under his father’s guidance. Prior to that, Sam served in the United States Marine Corps as a member of the 2/7 Weapons Company stationed at 29 Palms, California.

Sam has received several accolades for his work, including being recognized as a Rising Star in Divorce & Family Law by Tennessee SuperLawyers in 2020, 2019, and 2018. He is also a member of The National Trial Lawyers’ Top 40 under 40, an exclusive professional organization for top trial lawyers under the age of 40. Sam’s commitment to continuous learning and improvement is demonstrated by his certifications in Trial Skills from the National College of DUI Defense in 2019 and 2018.

LinkedIn | State Bar Association | Avvo | Google