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Pack v. Rothchild

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Knoxville

July 21, 2017


          June 20, 2017 Session

         Appeal from the Circuit Court for Knox County No. 125048 Gregory S. McMillan, Judge

         This is an appeal from a final decree of divorce. The Appellant Rebecca Rothchild ("Mother") challenges the trial court's division of marital property, its designation of Bobby Pack ("Father") as the primary custodian of the parties' children, and its refusal to award her alimony. For the reasons stated herein, we affirm the judgment of the trial court.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Circuit Court Affirmed and Remanded

          Danny C. Garland, II, Knoxville, Tennessee, for the appellant, Rebecca Suzanna Rothchild.

          Theodore Kern, Knoxville, Tennessee, for the appellee, Bobby Joe Pack.

          Arnold B. Goldin, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Charles D. Susano, Jr., and Thomas R. Frierson, II, JJ., joined.



         Background and Procedural History

         Mother and Father married in January 2006. Two children, both boys, were born of the marriage. The parties' first child was born in December 2006. Their second child was born in March 2008.

         After several years of marriage, Mother and Father separated in February 2012. The present litigation soon followed when Father filed a complaint for divorce in the Fourth Circuit Court for Knox County on June 7, 2012. In his complaint, Father asserted that he had been the children's primary care-taker prior to the separation. He further contended that he was the proper person to act as the primary residential parent for the children. Although the case was subsequently referred to mediation, the parties were not able to settle their differences.

         On October 2, 2014, Mother filed an answer to Father's complaint, as well as a counter-complaint for divorce. Whereas Father's complaint had asserted that he should be appointed primary residential parent for the children, Mother's counter-complaint contended that she should be designated for that role. Father filed an answer to Mother's counter-complaint on November 13, 2014, and a multi-day trial commenced the following summer. Trial proceedings concluded on February 3, 2016.

         On March 31, 2016, the Fourth Circuit Court entered its order of divorce. In addition to declaring the parties divorced pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated section 36-4-129, the court divided the parties' marital debts and assets, held that Father should be appointed primary residential parent, and dismissed Mother's claim for alimony. Mother timely appealed to this Court.

         Issues Presented

         On appeal, Mother raises three issues for our review, which we have reworded as follows:

1. Whether the trial court erred when it granted Father primary custody of the children.
2. Whether the trial court erred in its division of the parties' debts and assets.
3. Whether the trial court erred when it did not award Mother alimony.

         Standard of Review

         As a general matter, our review of a trial court's factual findings is de novo upon the record, accompanied by a presumption of correctness unless the preponderance of the evidence is otherwise. Northland Ins. Co. v. State Farm Mut. Auto Ins. Co., 916 S.W.2d 924, 926 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1995). With that said, "[a]n incomplete appellate record is fatal to an appeal on the facts." Piper v. Piper, No. M2005-02541-COA-R3-CV, 2007 WL 295237, at *4 (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 1, 2007). Indeed, absent an appellate record containing the facts, "we must assume that the record, had it been preserved, would have contained sufficient evidence to support the trial court's factual findings." Sherrod v. Wix, 849 S.W.2d 780, 783 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1992) (citations omitted). The burden is on the appellant to provide the Court with a transcript of the evidence or a statement of the evidence from which this Court can determine whether the evidence preponderates for or against a particular factual finding. Coakley v. Daniels, 840 S.W.2d 367, 370 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1992). Questions of law are reviewed de novo with no presumption of correctness. In re Angela E., 303 S.W.3d 240, 246 (Tenn. 2010) (citations omitted).

         In domestic relations cases, trial judges are often tasked with making a number of discretionary decisions. See, e.g., Massey-Holt v. Holt, 255 S.W.3d 603, 607 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2007) (citation omitted) ("[A] trial court has broad discretion regarding a custody determination."); Larsen-Ball v. Ball, 301 S.W.3d 228, 234 (Tenn. 2010) (citation omitted) ("Because trial courts have broad discretion in dividing the marital estate, the division of marital property is not a mechanical process."). When reviewing a discretionary decision on appeal, we employ an abuse of discretion standard. "The abuse of discretion standard of review envisions a less rigorous review of the lower court's decision and a decreased likelihood that the decision will be reversed on appeal." Lee Med., Inc. v. Beecher, 312 S.W.3d 515, 524 (Tenn. 2010) (citations omitted). This standard of review does not allow us to second-guess a trial court, as it "reflects an awareness that the decision being reviewed involved a choice among several acceptable alternatives." Id. (citations omitted).

         Although less rigorous, the abuse of discretion standard does not immunize trial court decisions from appellate review. Boyd v. Comdata Network, Inc., 88 S.W.3d 203, 211 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2002) (citation omitted). Indeed, the standard does "not prevent us from examining the trial court's decision to determine whether it has taken the applicable law and the relevant facts into account." Id. (citation omitted). A trial court abuses its discretion when "it causes an injustice to the party challenging the decision by (1) applying an incorrect legal standard, (2) reaching an illogical or unreasonable decision, or (3) basing its decision on a clearly erroneous assessment of the evidence." Lee Med., Inc., 312 S.W.3d at 524 (citations omitted).


         Custody Determination

         We turn first to Mother's assertion that the trial court erred when it granted Father primary custody of the parties' children.[1] A trial court's decision concerning the custody of a child is one of the most important decisions confronting a trial court in a divorce case. Chaffin v. Ellis, 211 S.W.3d 264, 286 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2006) (citation omitted). When reaching a decision regarding custody, "the needs of the child are paramount, and the desires of the parents are secondary." Id. (citation omitted). ...

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