NASHVILLE-The Tennessee Supreme Court heard arguments Thursday on a case that could change the way alimony is awarded in the Volunteer State.
The case involves the bitter divorce of a former Hendersonville couple, Craig and Johanna Gonsewski (gahn-ZES-kee). 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 ex-husband is appealing, claiming that the appellate court went too far by giving her that amount of money for life.
Some legal experts believe that if the award is allowed to stand it could signal more alimony awards in Tennessee. Others say the case is so narrow that any decision will have limited impact.
The case is different 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 the age of 50 who have been married for decades and sacrificed their careers for family.
The ex-husband's lawyer, Nashville attorney Jeff Levy, told the justices the two were 43 years old when they divorced, so his client might ultimately pay alimony for the next 40 years.
"That's over $600,000," Levy said during arguments at Lipscomb University that were attended by several hundred high school students from Girls State. It was part of a Tennessee Supreme Court educational program that teaches students how the court system works.
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 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 and that she needed the money, and he had an ability to pay.
Justice Sharon Lee noted the disparity in income between the two.
Levy agreed there was a significant difference but said his client had only been making that amount of money in the last year or two, and that it was due to bonuses that may not necessarily be awarded in the future.
Her 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.
Justice Janice Holder asked about other factors to consider other than incomes, such as college education and training.
Levy said both had the same amount of education.
Several of the justices asked about whether other forms of alimony might be available to the ex-wife, perhaps signaling that they might consider changing the type of award Johanna Gonsewski received.
"Well, let's assume for a minute that we find that there is economic disadvantage - it may be slight - but let's say we find some," Justice William Koch said. He asked what would determine whether the ex-wife got alimony for life or a transitional alimony to help her adjust to the economic consequences of divorce.
Some states have recently considered eliminating lifetime alimony.
A decision in the case is not expected for at least several weeks.