Alimony (also called “spousal support”) is a legal obligation of one spouse to provide support to the other spouse after a divorce or legal separation. Most often, this support is in the form of monthly payments of a set amount. Tennessee law provides four different types of alimony, along with guidelines for determining an appropriate amount of spousal support. Furthermore, Tennessee law defines when alimony can be modified or terminated.
A brief history
Alimony has been around for centuries. The American form of spousal support came from the English ecclesiastical courts, which is no surprise since early American courts borrowed heavily from English law. Originally divorce wasn’t “absolute”, like it most often is now. Divorce under early English law didn’t actually end the marriage, it just allowed the husband and wife to live apart, and was called a divorce from bed and board (what we now call “legal separation”). The court would award alimony because the husband still had a duty to support his wife and children. Back then, without alimony the wife would most likely be unable to support herself because she could not get married again and employment opportunities for women were poor.
In the early history of Tennessee, our legislature adopted a similar scheme. Spousal support could only be awarded in divorces from bed and board, since the parties were really only separated and not free to remarry. If the parties were receiving an absolute divorce, the court could only provide support to the wife in the form of property division, rather than monthly payments. It wasn’t until the late 1800’s that the legislature began to give the courts the ability to award alimony in absolute divorces.
Today, alimony can be awarded in either a divorce or legal separation, and there is no gender bias in the statutes. In fact, in recent years there have been an increasing number of men seeking spousal support from their former wives. The legislature has provided a list of factors for the courts to consider when contemplating an award of spousal support, and the judge has a considerable amount of discretion in determining the type, duration, and amount of payments.