Tennessee marital property laws and who gets what

Divorce in Tennessee today is much more complicated than it used to be. Often both spouses work, may own property, and have careers. There may be multiple retirement funds, investments, vehicles, bank accounts, inheritances, and luxury goods. This means that if a marriage comes apart, there can be a great deal of confusion over what exactly falls under the definition of marital property under Tennessee law and what each spouse should get, especially if there is no prenuptial agreement.

Marital property

According to Tennessee law regarding divorce and annulment, marital property is defined as anything that was acquired by both spouses from the date the marriage began to the date that the marriage is officially dissolved. There are exceptions to the rule and the judge presiding over the divorce decides any exceptions. For example, a judge may decide to divide up property if a couple legally separates, which means from the date of the legal separation what each spouse acquires is their own property and cannot be questioned by the other spouse.

Examples of marital property:

  • Earnings
  • Personal injury compensation
  • Real estate
  • Contributions made by each spouse
  • Recreational vehicles such as boats or motorhomes
  • Luxury goods (non-gifts)

Marital property still accumulates until the final divorce decree

In 2010, a divorced couple went to court over whether a $17 million fee the husband earned for legal services rendered was marital property. The husband argued that the fee was not marital property because the wife filed divorce papers before the payment was received. The wife argued the opposite. The Tennessee State Supreme Court agreed with a trial court ruling that the money was indeed marital property because it was received before the divorce was final. The wife was awarded $6.8 million of the fee as a result.

The above example shows how Tennessee courts interpret the state statutes, making income, acquired property, and investment returns subject to divorce property division. This means that spouses may want to consider waiting until their divorce is final before taking a new job, buying property, or taking any action that could classify the asset or money as marital property of the couple.

Define ownership of property

A marriage is a legal contract, and just as it is important to have contracts for business in writing, it would also be a good idea for spouses to document who owns what property and any gifts that may have been given. A pre-nuptial agreement or ante-nuptial agreement can prevent problems dividing property later. Just documenting the nature of an asset received during the course of the marriage can prevent problems. For example, if a husband is presented with a substantial cash gift from a relative, it would be a wise idea to have it in writing that the amount was a gift. This will help prevent the wife or their relative from claiming otherwise if the marriage breaks apart.

In another example, the Tennessee Court of Appeals agreed with an ex-husband that a home he lived in with his wife was marital property, despite the fact that she owned the home prior to their marriage. The court cited the fact that the home's mortgage was paid for out of a joint account with the spouses' names on it, that the home was the primary residence of the couple during their six-year marriage and that the husband made improvements on the home, as reasons for its ruling. Spouses in Knox County who have questions over how to protect their property from divorce should consider the help of an experienced family law attorney.