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Stearns-Smith v. Smith

Court of Appeals of Tennessee

July 31, 2019


          Session April 10, 2018

          Appeal from the Circuit Court for Bedford County No. 2015-CV-12895 Franklin L. Russell, Judge

         After Wife filed for divorce from her husband, the parties stipulated to an equitable division of personal property and to the grounds for divorce. The court conducted a trial to resolve questions surrounding the classification and division of two parcels of improved real property and Wife's requests for alimony and attorney's fees. The trial court determined one parcel of real property was separate property while the other was marital and provided for its division. The court also awarded Wife alimony in solido and attorney's fees. On appeal, Husband challenges the classification and division of the real property and the awards of alimony and attorney's fees. We conclude that the court erred in calculating the amounts due from Husband to Wife to accomplish its division of marital property, so we modify the judgment in that respect. Otherwise, because of a failure to fully comply with Rule 7 of the Rules of the Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Husband's issues related to the classification, valuation, and division of property are deemed waived. As to the remaining issues, we affirm the award of lump sum alimony in solido but reverse the award of attorney's fees as alimony in solido.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Circuit Court Affirmed in Part as Modified and Reversed in Part

          Raymond W. Fraley, Jr., Fayetteville, Tennessee, for the appellant, James Ronnie Smith.

          Barbara G. Medley, Lewisburg, Tennessee, for the appellee, Donna L. Stearns-Smith.

          W. Neal McBrayer, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Andy D. Bennett and Thomas R. Frierson II, JJ., joined.





         On January 20, 2015, in the Circuit Court of Bedford County, Tennessee, Donna L. Stearns-Smith ("Wife") filed a complaint for divorce from her husband of five and one-half years, James Ronnie Smith ("Husband"). The marriage was not the first for either party. Wife met Husband a year-and-a-half after the death of her first husband. Her previous marriage lasted 30 years. This would be Husband's third divorce.

         The parties differed over the events leading up to the filing. Wife claimed that, eleven days prior, she had just returned home from a mission trip to Louisiana when Husband told her, "I've packed up and left you." Wife described herself as shocked and devastated by the news. She thought their marriage "was fine," although she acknowledged it was not perfect.

         According to Husband, he merely suggested taking some time off so they could think about their relationship. And he had only packed his clothes, what he needed for work, and his yard tools. He would have taken more if he had realized he would never be returning. Husband also did not understand Wife's shock at his suggestion of time away from one another. He described their marriage as "rocky" and claimed that divorce had been discussed "on multiple occasions."

         The parties eventually stipulated to the grounds for divorce. See Tenn. Code Ann. § 36-4-129 (2017). They also stipulated to an equitable division of their personal property. So the case proceeded to trial on the division of real property and Wife's requests for alimony and attorney's fees.

         Only Wife and Husband testified at trial. When they married in August 2009, Wife was 53, and Husband was 55. Going into the marriage, Husband let Wife know that he planned to retire soon, hopefully to Guntersville, Alabama. Wife described herself as open to the idea of retiring to Alabama.

         Wife and Husband both had accumulated assets worth in excess of $1 million. And leading up to the marriage, they took steps to sell their Tennessee assets. Husband sold his home in Estill Springs not long before the marriage and moved into Wife's Shelbyville home, which was also listed for sale. Additionally, Wife owned two Merle Norman franchises, one in Shelbyville and another in Tullahoma. Wife sold the Shelbyville franchise before the wedding, and her daughter took over operations of the Tullahoma store. The proceeds of the sale of Husband's home and the Shelbyville store were placed in certificates of deposit.

         Shortly after returning from their honeymoon, Husband and Wife closed on the purchase of a lot in Guntersville. The now-married couple had house plans drawn up, but several events frustrated their move to Alabama. Wife had difficulty selling her Shelbyville home that she now shared with Husband. More significantly, in May or early June 2010, Wife's mother was diagnosed with lung cancer. Then during that same year, a week before Wife's mother died, Wife's sister also received a lung cancer diagnosis. In her testimony, Wife agreed that the illnesses of her mother and sister caused the couple to "put things on hold." According to Husband, the couple "just kind of set everything else aside at the time and decided that maybe we should just make the home in Shelbyville our marital residence."

         Whether the decision to remain in Tennessee was permanent or temporary, the parties agree that they spent approximately $183, 000 on the Shelbyville home. Wife and Husband added a pool to the property, but otherwise Wife described the changes to the home as "cosmetic things." According to her, the work on the home provided a needed distraction from her mother's worsening condition. Husband's view was that they were renovating what was now to be their retirement home.

         Still, the parties remained interested in Alabama. Around the time of the passing of Wife's mother, the couple purchased another lot, this time in Grant, Alabama. Although the lot was purchased with joint funds, only Husband's name appeared on the deed. From November 2010 to March 2011, the couple spent approximately $215, 000 constructing what would become known as the lakehouse. At trial, the parties generally agreed the property was worth $320, 000.

         After the parties separated in 2015, Wife sold the Shelbyville home for $455, 000 and purchased a condominium in Murfreesboro. Later Wife sold the condominium to buy a larger home. Wife also returned to work. By this point, she had sold the Merle Norman franchise in Tullahoma being run by her daughter, so she took an hourly position as a buyer and merchandiser for a retail store ...

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