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Williams v. Williams

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Jackson

August 17, 2017

SONJA BROYLES WILLIAMS
v.
STEWART ASHLEY WILLIAMS

          Session: June 27, 2017

         Direct Appeal from the General Sessions Court for Hardin County No. GS5446 Larry McKenzie, Judge, Sitting by Interchange

         This is an appeal from a divorce case dissolving a long-term marriage with two minor children. Following a four and one-half day trial, the court awarded Wife a divorce, designated Husband as the primary residential parent of the parties' children, distributed the marital property, awarded Wife rehabilitative alimony, and denied Wife's request for attorney's fees. Wife appeals the designation of Husband as primary residential parent, the value and division of certain items within the marital estate, the court's decision to award her rehabilitative alimony rather than alimony in futuro, and the denial of her request for attorney's fees. We vacate the trial court's order regarding retroactive child support and remand the issue for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. We affirm the remainder of the judgment of the trial court. We deny Wife's request for attorney's fees incurred on appeal.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the General Sessions Court Vacated in part, Affirmed in part, and Remanded

          Terry Lynn Wood, Adamsville, Tennessee, for the appellant, Sonja Broyles Williams.

          Ryan Michael Hagenbrok and Katherine Parrish Hagenbrok, Savannah, Tennessee, for the appellee, Stewart Ashley Williams.

          Brandon O. Gibson, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which J. Steven Stafford, P.J., W.S., and W. Neal McBrayer, J., joined.

          OPINION

          BRANDON O. GIBSON, JUDGE

         I. Facts & Procedural History

         Sonja Broyles Williams ("Wife") and Stewart Ashley Williams ("Husband") married on May 24, 1996. During the course of the marriage, the parties had four children, two of whom were minors at the time of trial (the "Children"). During the marriage, Husband worked as a general manager at a car dealership. Wife is a registered nurse and was employed off and on throughout the marriage, both full and part-time. Wife originally filed a complaint for divorce against Husband in 2002, but the parties then reconciled for more than ten years. Apparently unaware that Wife's 2002 complaint for divorce had never been dismissed, Husband filed for divorce from Wife under a new docket number in 2013. The trial court dismissed Husband's complaint, and the parties proceeded to litigate this divorce pursuant to Wife's original complaint.

         One night in October of 2012, there was an altercation between the parties, and Wife's leg was broken. Husband and Wife have very different recollections of what led to Wife's injury. Wife testified that Husband violently and criminally assaulted her that night, which caused grievous injury to her leg. Husband testified that Wife was actually the aggressor and that she injured her leg while she was pursuing him and she tripped and fell. The trial court eventually resolved this issue in favor of Husband, finding that there was not sufficient evidence to support Wife's allegation that Husband intentionally injured her. Wife is currently receiving social security disability benefits as a result of the injury to her leg and various psychological problems.

         Prior to the start of the divorce trial, the court heard testimony from the parties' son, then 13 years old, and their daughter, then 12 years old, regarding their preference of with which parent they wanted to live. Both children expressed a desire to live with their father.

         The case was tried over the course of four and one-half days and included the testimony of 14 witnesses and the introduction of 77 exhibits. The issues before the court at trial were (1) which party was entitled to a divorce; (2) the entry of a permanent parenting plan; (3) division of marital property and marital debt; (4) Wife's request for alimony; and (5) Wife's request for attorney's fees. The trial court issued a written ruling on February 16, 2016. In its written ruling, the court held that Wife was entitled to a divorce because Husband was continuously absent from the home and "gave up on his marriage." The court determined that Husband should be the Children's primary residential parent. The court also divided the marital assets and debt, awarded Wife rehabilitative alimony for three years, and denied Wife's request for attorney's fees.

         The court entered a final judgment on March 21, 2016, which incorporated by reference its written rulings. The final judgment also stated that "requests by either party for retroactive support are denied." The court simultaneously entered a permanent parenting plan consistent with its ruling.[1] The permanent parenting plan designates

          Husband as the Children's primary residential parent, giving Husband 275 days of parenting time and Wife 90 days. In the parenting plan, the court specifically stated that "[t]he custody preference of the children has been a significant factor in preparing this parenting plan." Regarding child support, the trial court held that Wife should not pay child support at this time because she is "presently disabled and drawing social security disability." The court did, however, assign Father as the payee for the Children's social security payments and gave Wife credit for said payments. Again, the trial court declined to calculate retroactive child support for either party.

         II. Issues Presented

         Our review of the merits of this appeal has been hindered by Wife's failure to provide a proper statement of the issues presented on appeal as required by Rule 27(a)(4) of the Tennessee Rules of Appellate Procedure. In his brief, Husband presented a statement of what he considered to be Wife's issues for our review "based on the arguments raised in [Wife's] brief." Despite the deficiencies in Wife's brief, we exercise our discretion to move forward with the issues we have gleaned from Wife's arguments in her brief and that Husband has identified for our review on appeal. We have restated five issues before us as follows:

1. Whether the trial court erred in designating Husband as the Children's primary residential parent?
2. Whether the trial court erred in declining to award retroactive child support to Wife?
3. Whether the trial court erred in valuing certain marital assets and dividing the marital estate?
4. Whether the trial court erred in refusing to award Wife alimony in futuro?
5. Whether the trial court erred in refusing to award attorney's fees to Wife?

         III. Standard of Review

         This case was tried by the trial court without a jury. We therefore review the trial court's findings of fact de novo with a presumption of correctness unless the evidence preponderates otherwise. Tenn. R. App. 13(d); Armbrister v. Armbrister, 414 S.W.3d 685, 692 (Tenn. 2013). We review the trial court's conclusions of law de novo with no presumption of correctness. Hyneman v. Hyneman, 152 S.W.3d 549, 553 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2003).

         1. Designation of Primary Residential Parent

         Mother challenges the trial court's decision to designate Husband as the Children's primary residential parent. Matters of custody and visitation are generally within the broad discretion of the trial court. Melvin v. Melvin, 415 S.W.3d 847, 850-51 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2011) (citing Eldridge v. Eldridge, 42 S.W.3d 82, 85 (Tenn. 2001); Smallwood v. Mann, 205 S.W.3d 358, 361 (Tenn. 2006)). This is because such decisions often hinge on subtle factors, such as the parents' demeanor and credibility during proceedings. Rountree v. Rountree, 369 S.W.3d 122, 129 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2012). However, a trial judge's discretion when determining the details of custody and visitation must be based on evidence and applicable rules of law. Hogue v. Hogue, 147 S.W.3d 245, 251 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2004). A trial court abuses the discretion afforded to it only when it applies an incorrect legal standard or makes a decision that is against logic or reasoning causing an injustice to the complaining party. Eldridge, 42 S.W.3d at 85.

         A. Tennessee Code Annotated section 36-6-406

         Wife first contends that the trial court erred in refusing to apply Tennessee Code Annotated section 36-6-406(b) to this case based on her allegations that Husband physically abused her. Section 406 sets forth circumstances that warrant imposing severe restrictions on a parent's visitation with their children. See Tenn. Code Ann. § 36-6-406. In her brief on appeal, Wife specifically cites to subsection (b) of this statute, which states that a "parent's residential time with the child shall be limited if it is determined by the court . . . that the parent resides with a person who has engaged in physical or sexual abuse." Tenn. Code Ann. § 36-6-406(b). However, Wife does not appear to have ever alleged that Husband resides with anyone who has abused another person. Rather, Wife's contention is that "Husband's act of kicking Wife's leg undoubtedly fits the definition of abuse, " which should make section 406 applicable to restrict Husband's parenting time. Based on Wife's argument, we assume that the portion of section 406 to which Wife is actually referring is section 406(a)(2), which requires a parent's residential parenting time to be limited if that parent has engaged in physical, sexual, or emotional abuse of the other parent, child, or another person living with that child. Tenn. Code Ann. § 36-6-406(a)(2).

         Wife points to the incident on October 12, 2012 that resulted in the injury to her leg to support her allegation that she was physically abused by Husband. Wife acknowledges, however, that the "trial court discussed and rejected Wife's claim of abuse by Husband." Whether Husband was actually responsible for Wife's injuries to her leg was a hotly debated issue throughout the trial. The trial court heard testimony from the parties and others regarding what happened that evening and ultimately concluded "[t]here is simply not enough evidence to support an intentional injury caused [to Wife] by Husband." In support of this determination, the trial court noted that Wife never told anyone about the alleged abuse, Husband had no history of physical abuse, Wife allowed Husband to move back into the marital home, and the record is devoid of any evidence that Wife was frightened of Husband. After reviewing the record, we conclude that the evidence does not preponderate against the trial court's finding against Wife's allegation of physical abuse, and accordingly we discern no error in the trial court's failure to apply Tennessee Code Annotated section 36-6-406 when fashioning a permanent parenting plan in this case.

         B. Tennessee Code Annotated ...


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