published Saturday, September 17th, 2011

Top Tennessee court rules against lifetime alimony

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NASHVILLE — The Tennessee Supreme Court on Friday ruled that a man does not have to pay lifetime alimony to his ex-wife.

Craig and Johanna Gonsewski, who lived in Hendersonville, went through a bitter divorce. In 2009, the Tennessee Court of Appeals ordered Craig Gonsewski to pay his former wife $1,250 a month in alimony. The payments were to last for life or until she remarries.

The case is different from most because it considers a lifetime alimony award for a wife who has a career and worked throughout the marriage and was in her 40s at the time of the divorce. Lawyers say most lifetime awards go to women over 50 who have been married for decades and sacrificed their careers for family.

The ex-husband appealed the lower court’s ruling, claiming it went too far by giving her that amount for life.

Records show that Craig Gonsewski earned $137,000 a year working as a controller for a large corporation. Johanna Gonsewski earned $72,000 a year as a state employee working in information management.

The ex-wife’s attorney, Nashville lawyer Ed Gross, said the ex-husband had “struck gold” with his latest job while she had topped out. He also argued that the woman helped put her ex-husband through college.

Nevertheless, the Tennessee Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the award of lifetime alimony was inappropriate because Johanna Gonsewski held a stable job, earned considerable income and was awarded a significant amount of assets in the division of property.

Gross told The Associated Press on Friday that his client didn’t know about the decision, but he’s sure “she will be extremely disappointed.”

He said the development of law is not a specific occurrence but a process.

“And I personally feel that the Gonsewski case is going to nonetheless lay a very valuable groundwork for what will eventually be a reasonable and a fair standard for women to be justly reimbursed for the investment they make in their husbands’ education and subsequent career,” he said.

The ex-husband’s lawyer, Nashville attorney Jeff Levy, told the AP he hasn’t reviewed the opinion.

The Court of Appeals, which ordered the payments in a unanimous decision, found that the ex-wife was unlikely to earn any more as a state employee, that she needed the money and he had an ability to pay.

In its ruling, the high court recognized that although Craig Gonsewski’s income was more than his ex-wife’s in recent years, both were likely to suffer some reduction in lifestyle following the divorce.

“In many instances, the parties’ assets and incomes simply will not permit them to achieve the same standard of living after the divorce as they enjoyed during the marriage,” Chief Justice Cornelia A. Clark wrote.

The Supreme Court also ruled that the ex-wife was not entitled to the lump-sum alimony award of her attorney fees because she was partially responsible for generating them and had the financial resources to pay.

Additionally, the decision emphasized that trial courts have broad discretion in awarding alimony, stating that “an appellate court should not reverse a trial court’s alimony decision unless the trial court has abused its discretion.”

The Supreme Court said the lower court did not abuse its discretion when it decided to award no alimony to either party, and reinstated the judgment of the trial court.

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