Tennessee: State Supreme Court considers lifetime alimony payments

By Sheila Burke

The Associated Press

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- The Tennessee Supreme Court is considering a case that could alter the way alimony is awarded across the state by examining the bar for lifetime or limited payments.

The case involves the divorce of a Hendersonville couple embroiled in legal battles since 2007.

"It appears to be a possible game changer on alimony," Helen Rogers, a Nashville lawyer who is an expert on family law, said of the case.

In 2009, the Tennessee Court of Appeals ordered Craig Gonsewski (gahn-ZES-kee) to pay $1,250 a month in alimony to his ex-wife, Johanna. The payment was to continue for life or until Johanna Gonsewski remarried.

Johanna Gonsewski was 43 at the time of the couple's divorce in 2009, and she was making $72,000 a year working in information technology for the state. The couple had been married for 21 years and had two older children when she filed for divorce two years earlier. Craig Gonsewski earned $137,000 working as controller for a large corporation.

This type of alimony is often reserved for someone over the age of 50, said Rogers, who is not involved in the case. It's typically awarded to a woman who has been married for decades, sacrificed her career for her family and can't find a job that would come close to maintaining her former lifestyle.

It's not clear how often this type of support is awarded. Neither the Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts or the Internal Revenue Service tracks alimony.

Rogers believes that if the alimony award is allowed to stand it could discourage people from remaining in long-term marriages because, unlike child support, these payments last for life.

Sumner County Circuit Court Judge Tom Gray said Johanna Gonsewski should not be awarded any alimony.

But the Tennessee Court of Appeals overturned him, saying the husband earned significantly more than his wife in the last few years and the income disparity kept growing.

Craig Gonsewski, who is now remarried, called the ruling "devastating."

"I could understand if she was not working and needed to be retrained, but she has a bachelor's degree, she has a job, and she has a pension that I don't have."

He doesn't believe his ex-wife will every remarry if the award stands.

She did not return a phone call to the Associated Press. Her lawyer, Nashville attorney Ed Gross, said Johanna Gonsewski deserves the money.

"If it wasn't for her, he'd probably still be in Huntsville working as an accountant for some small company," Gross said. The lawyer said his client worked two jobs and put her ex-husband through school.

"As far as her working two jobs when he was in school--actually, they both helped support each other and that was 20 years ago," Craig Gonsewski's attorney, Jeff Levy said. "And I don't think she's had two jobs for the last 16, 17 years she's worked for the state."

Gross says the ex-husband should also pay because he caused the breakup.

"The whole theory behind alimony is that when he makes up his mind to leave_OK, you can do that_but you have an obligation to maintain your wife, your family, at the same economic status as it was originally." Gross said.

The ex-husband denies that he left.

Levy said that the two main factors the court will consider is her need for the money and his ability to pay.

Oral arguments in the case are scheduled to be heard in Nashville late this spring.

Published: Fri, Mar 11, 2011