June 18, 2024

The Division of Assets & Alimony: A Tennessee Case Study

Gonsewski, Johanna L. v. Gonsewski, Craig W. No. M2009-00894-SC-R11-CV

By Jake Amoroso, CPA, Supervisor, Advisory Services

The Division of Assets & Alimony: A Tennessee Case Study Marital Dissolution

The case of Johanna and Craig Gonsewski takes us through the often complex and emotionally charged process of divorce proceedings. Their marriage and the legal entanglements created by their divorce bring to light the critical importance of a clear understanding of finances in marital disputes. As we explore their story, we glimpse the challenges that arise when a couple’s shared financial life is untangled in the eyes of the law.

On May 9, 1987, Johanna and Craig were married in Alabama. At the time of the marriage, Johanna was a recent graduate employed at Redstone Arsenal. Craig was still attending college at the University of Alabama, studying to become an accountant. In 1988, the couple relocated to Tennessee for Craig’s employment. In 2008, the year before the divorce, Johanna earned $72,000 per year with a minimal retention bonus, and Craig earned approximately $138,000 annually between his salary and bonuses as a comptroller.

In 2007, Johanna filed a complaint for divorce. Craig sought to have his attorney fees and expenses awarded as a form of alimony due to his claim that Johanna had prolonged the case. Johanna had a similar claim; however, she requested alimony, both temporary and permanent. The couple went on to litigate a number of disputes, accusing each other of perjury and seeking restraining orders against each other. The trial court distributed the marital assets, which primarily consisted of the equity in the marital home, and elected not to grant alimony to Johanna as she was “not entitled to Alimony in Futuro or alimony for rehabilitative purposes” due to her consistent employment history with the State of Tennessee. In addition to this ruling, the trial court declined to award attorney’s fees to either party.

Johanna immediately appealed the case, and the Court of Appeals affirmed the decision of the trial court in part and reversed it in part by awarding alimony in futoro for $1,250 per month to Johanna until her remarriage or death. The Court of Appeals indicated the reversal was due to the disparity in the parties’ incomes. Craig immediately challenged the Court of Appeals ruling, stating that it did not take into account the “…age, good health, history of stable employment, lack of demonstrated need, and legislative preference for support other than permanent alimony”.

The Supreme Court granted a review and eventually affirmed the trial court’s original ruling, reversing the Court of Appeal’s order. The Supreme Court also referenced Johanna’s stable work history in fashioning its order, adding that she also received a greater share of the marital assets.

The Gonsewski divorce highlights the intricate and highly technical nature of marital separation, specifically in the division of assets and the determination of alimony. The prolonged legal battle, which escalated from the trial court to the Supreme Court, illustrates the complexities divorcing couples face. It highlights the potential benefit of involving a financial expert in such situations. With a third party’s help to create a marital balance sheet, project future earnings, and conduct an earnings capacity analysis, the process could have been significantly improved. The analyses would have summarized the couple’s financial situation and shown what each party could potentially earn. If they had engaged an expert, they might have found a more efficient and less expensive path to reaching a resolution.