It’s a common question we hear in our Marital Assessment Interviews (i.e., consultations): “How much alimony will I get?”
It seems like a simple enough question. After all, we can tell you exactly how much child support the Primary Residential Parent is entitled to receive in any given situation, so why is this not the case with alimony?
Alimony amounts vary a lot from case to case. There are two reasons for this. One is that alimony, unlike child support, is what we call highly fact-specific; that is, it is determined based on the individual situation in each case.
The court is instructed by statute (Tenn. Code Ann. § 36-5-121(i), to be exact) to consider factors such as the relative needs, future earning capacity, age, physical and mental condition, education, assets, and financial obligations of each party; the length of the marriage; the standard of living the parties had during the marriage; and who is at fault for the divorce.
The court is not told exactly how much weight to give each factor, or what factors (if any) should be definitive in deciding the amount and type of alimony to award. (You can read more about the different types of alimony on our earlier blog post here.) Recently, the Tennessee Supreme Court told judges that the two most important factors should be the receiving spouse’s need for alimony and the other spouse’s ability to pay it (Gonsewski v. Gonsewski), but this guidance really does not seem to clarify much at all, because need and ability to pay are also highly fact-specific.
This brings us to the second reason why alimony amounts vary so much from case to case: Differences between judges.
The judges and chancellors of Shelby County are, as a whole, intelligent, fair, and dedicated to doing the right thing. But judges are still human beings, not computers. They are influenced by what they hear and see in the courtroom and by their prior experience. The truth is that the exact same facts presented in exactly the same way to two different judges could result in two different awards.
As an example, let’s talk about two cases, both of which came from courts in East Tennessee.
- In the first one, Magill v. Magill, the husband was 47 and made approximately $4,000 per month. The wife, meanwhile, was 42 years old and made about $1,000 per month. The parties had been married for 17 years. The court awarded Mrs. Magill $600 per month in rehabilitative alimony for only 48 months, plus a small amount in attorney fees.
- Contrast this case with Farnham v. Farnham. Mr. Farnham was 41, made about $5,000 per month, and was at fault for the divorce. Mrs. Farnham was 51, on disability, and made about $1,000 per month. The parties had been married for 17 years, just like the Magills. But the court awarded Mrs. Farnham $800 per month in alimony in futuro. Unlike Mrs. Magill, who only received four years’ worth of alimony, Mrs. Farnham was guaranteed a monthly alimony payment until her death or remarriage.
What seemed like very small differences in the two cases produced very different results. These cases, along with thousands of others decided by Tennessee courts, demonstrate how hard it is to predict alimony awards in this state.
At the Ferrell Law Firm, we can and will estimate for our clients what a fair alimony number might be, but it can only be an estimate. We would love to be able to tell you exactly how much you’re going to receive, but we just can’t do that because of the reasons mentioned above. And neither can any other divorce lawyer or law firm – no matter what they might try to tell you. In fact, if you talk with another divorce attorney and they “guarantee” a certain result or number I advise you to run away fast. The best divorce lawyers in Memphis know that guarantees are impossible.