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Patel v. Patel

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Jackson

November 15, 2019

MIHIR KISHORCHANDRA PATEL
v.
JANKI ANIL PATEL

          Session September 17, 2019

          Appeal from the Chancery Court for Madison County No. 73872 James F. Butler, Chancellor

         The parties divorced after a thirteen year marriage in which the family was initially solely supported by Wife's $40, 000.00 per year income, but ending with Husband earning approximately $850, 000.00 per year. The trial court found that long-term alimony was appropriate given Wife's contribution to Husband's earning capacity, her inability to achieve his earning capacity despite her efforts at education, and the parties' relatively high standard of living during the marriage. Both parties take issue with the trial court's alimony award. Discerning no reversible error, we affirm the trial court in all respects.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Chancery Court Affirmed

          G. Michael Casey, Jackson, Tennessee, for the appellant, Mihir Kishorchandra Patel.

          Michael A. Carter, Milan, Tennessee, for the appellee, Janki Anil Patel.

          J. Steven Stafford, P.J., W.S., delivered the opinion of the court, in which W. Neal McBrayer and Carma Dennis McGee, JJ., joined.

          OPINION

          J. STEVEN STAFFORD, JUDGE

         I. Background

         Mihir Kishorchandra Patel ("Husband") and Janki Anil Patel ("Wife") were married in India on January 22, 2005. At the time of the marriage, Wife was an American citizen. After moving to the United States following the wedding, Husband eventually became an American citizen. Husband filed a complaint for divorce on December 28, 2015. As grounds, Husband alleged inappropriate marital conduct and irreconcilable differences. Wife filed an answer on February 5, 2016, as well as an amended answer on July 27, 2016, in which she asked that Husband's divorce complaint be dismissed, or in the alternative, that she be awarded alimony in futuro, rehabilitative alimony, transitional alimony, and/or alimony in solido upon divorce. Wife also filed a counter-claim for divorce on the grounds of inappropriate marital conduct and irreconcilable differences. The parties engaged in several pre-trial discovery disputes and each filed motions for contempt.[1]

         Mediation was unsuccessful. Eventually, Wife was allowed to amend her answer a second time to include a jury demand. Trial occurred on February 26, 27, and 28, 2018. The trial was bifurcated with the jury first hearing the evidence regarding grounds for divorce. After the proof, the jury rendered a verdict finding that both parties were guilty of inappropriate marital conduct. The jury was then dismissed, and the trial court thereafter heard proof as to the remaining issues in the case.

         At the time of the marriage, Husband was a full-time medical student earning no income, while Wife earned $40, 000.00 per year in the accounting department at a university in Atlanta. Husband's education and career caused the parties to move across the Southeast, from Atlanta to Louisville to Florida to Ohio, and finally to Jackson, Tennessee. By the time of the divorce, Husband worked as a medical doctor earning approximately $850, 000.00 per year, while Wife was not employed. Husband took issue with Wife's lack of employment, pointing to her historical earnings at the beginning of the marriage. Wife testified, however, that she was unable to find similar employment due to the parties' frequent moves and that, eventually, the parties agreed that she did not need employment due to Husband's high earnings. Following the separation, Wife had enrolled in college to obtain a Bachelor's Degree in Accounting and hoped to eventually gain a Master's Degree that could result in $80, 000.00 to $90, 000.00 in income per year on completion. Wife was a full-time student at the time of trial.

         Each party presented evidence of their income and purported necessary expenses. Husband testified that he planned to move to Florida after the divorce and buy a home for approximately $425, 000.00 to $450, 000.00. Despite the fact that both parties lived in a home purchased for less than $200, 000.00 in Jackson, Husband testified this expense was necessary due to the increased cost of living in Florida. Husband also testified that his base pay upon moving would be approximately $450, 000.00. Husband admitted, however, that this figure did not account for the bonuses that Husband had historically received and had caused his income to increase substantially. With regard to expenses, Husband claimed as an expense $10, 000.00 per month for savings in the event that he is sued for malpractice and his insurance does not cover the entire award, costs for his parents' health insurance, considerable maintenance on his car, and large charitable contributions. With regard to Wife's expenses, however, Husband contended that they were inflated over the expenses incurred during the divorce. Husband testified that many of the expenses incurred by Wife following the separation were for extravagant gifts to family that were not representative of the parties' lifestyle throughout the marriage. Wife's sole income at the time of the divorce amounted to approximately $2, 000.00 per year in dividends.

         The parties had accumulated significant wealth during the marriage, including two cars, several retirement accounts, and large savings accounts. The parties' purchased a home in Jackson for $184, 000.00. Husband paid off the mortgage during the pendency of the divorce. As such, the parties had no debt at the time of the divorce and considerable assets. During the marriage, the parties also took several vacations, both in the United States and outside the country. In addition to various work-related trips, the parties traveled to Europe, the Bahamas, India, Dubai, Peru, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Hawaii, Savannah, Georgia, and several trips to Florida. Husband claimed that the trips cost only a few thousand dollars each; for example, Husband testified that the parties' eleven-day multi-country European vacation cost only $1, 500.00 per person.

         Much of the evidence concerning the marriage was sharply disputed. Each party claimed that the other was overly controlling of the parties' finances, refusing to permit the other to fund basic expenses. Husband testified that while in Atlanta, Wife and her family refused to provide him with necessities, such as heat and internet needed for his degree. In contrast, Wife testified that Husband would buy presents for his family in India, while denying her the same types of gifts. She also testified that she was required to do the vast majority of the housework due to Husband's schedule and his refusal to help around the home. This was especially true when Husband's family visited for extended periods of time, as Wife claimed that she was required to do considerable cleaning, shopping, and cooking, both before and during their visit. Wife also testified that she was required to prepare nearly all of Husband's meals, even on vacation. Each party placed the blame for the parties' lack of children on the other, with Husband stating that Wife refused to have children, while Wife claimed that Husband misled her as to his ability to do so.

         Both parties also claimed physical and emotional abuse at the hands of the other spouse. In support of his claim as to Wife's emotional abuse, Husband played recordings of conversations between himself and Wife taken in 2010. In the recording, the parties are speaking their native language, but Wife's tone is angry, and she raises her voice on several occasions; Husband generally remains calm, but becomes loud on a few occasions as well. Two transcripts of the recordings were entered as an exhibit. The first transcript reveals that Wife was upset about Husband filling out paperwork to seek the citizenship of his family members in India, some of whom Wife describes as "worthless"; Wife threatens to burn the paperwork. Wife also threatens to call 911 on Husband, place him in jail, and ruin his career. A second transcript also concerns the citizenship papers for Husband's family and reveals Wife questioning whether Husband married her to become a citizen and indicating that she does not desire to have to take care of Husband's family or to be insulted by them. There is also some discussion of whether Wife is hitting Husband; Wife denies this in the transcript. At trial, Wife did not deny the conversations, but testified that she was appropriately upset by Husband's plan to bring his family to the United States, as he had promised her that he would not do so when they were first married, Husband's family treated Wife poorly, expecting her to wait on them, and Wife felt that Husband used her to obtain his citizenship and medical residency.

         The trial court issued a letter ruling on March 9, 2018. Therein, the trial court divided the marital property with $700, 718.82 to Wife and $663, 807.86 to Husband.[2]Wife was awarded as her separate property an account totaling over $100, 000.00 that had primarily been funded by gifts from her parents. The trial court also awarded Wife alimony in futuro in the amount of $7, 500.00 per month until her death, remarriage, or a material change in circumstances. In reaching this result, the trial court considered each factor outlined in Tennessee Code Annotated section 36-5-121(i), discussed in detail infra. The trial court further found that neither transitional nor rehabilitative alimony were appropriate, as these forms of alimony would not allow Wife to maintain a standard of living reasonably similar to the standard she enjoyed in recent years given the circumstances and equities present. The trial court, however, denied Wife's request for attorney's fees and rejected several other outstanding issues between the parties that are not at issue in this appeal.

         The trial court entered a Final Decree of Absolute Divorce on April 13, 2018. Husband filed a timely notice of appeal on May 4, 2018. On May 14, 2018, Wife filed a motion to alter or amend the divorce decree and assess discretionary costs against Husband. On August 15, 2018, the trial court granted Wife's motion in part, altering some rulings with regard to marital property that are not at issue in this appeal. The trial court later granted Wife's request for an award of discretionary costs.

         II. Issues Presented

         The parties raise the following issues as we perceive them in this appeal:

1. Whether the trial court erred in awarding Wife alimony in futuro of $7, 500.00 per month.
2. Whether Wife is entitled to attorney's fees on appeal.

         III. Discussion

         A.

         The central dispute in this case involves the trial court's award of alimony in futuro to Wife in the amount of $7, 500.00 per month until her death, remarriage, or a material change in circumstances. On appeal, Husband contends that the trial court should not have awarded Wife alimony in futuro of $7, 500.00 per month. Because Husband does not offer an alternative form, amount, or duration of alimony in his brief, as we perceive it, Husband's argument is that Wife should be entitled to no alimony in this case. In contrast, Wife contends that the ...


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