Irreconcilable Differences Divorce in Tennessee
How times have changed in Tennessee divorce law. Think back. Way back. Irreconcilable Differences, the movie, was released in 1984 with child star Drew Barrymore as the fictional 10-year-old “Casey” who sues her parents for divorce.
Although lacking any basis in the law of divorce in Tennessee or elsewhere, the movie was a box office success and, more importantly, spread “irreconcilable differences” divorce into the vernacular.
In 1970, almost 15 years before the film’s release, California became the first pure no-fault divorce jurisdiction in the country. Many states followed suit, but not Tennessee. This is not a pure no-fault jurisdiction by any stretch of the imagination. But since 1977, Tennessee has included irreconcilable differences as one of 15 grounds for divorce. In Tennessee law today, what does it mean to file an irreconcilable differences divorce?
Irreconcilable Differences Are Grounds for Tennessee Divorce
In Tennessee divorce law, grounds must be alleged in the Complaint for Divorce and, thereafter, be sufficiently proved with evidence. In this, the grounds of irreconcilable differences are somewhat unique. If a spouse files for divorce solely because of irreconcilable differences in the marriage, then the other spouse must agree to, or at least not contest, that allegation for the judge to enter a decree of divorce solely on those grounds.
When the filing spouse alleges irreconcilable differences plus a fault-based allegation (often inappropriate marital conduct), the respondent-spouse has options.
Uncontested Divorce Proceedings
When the respondent-spouse admits irreconcilable differences as grounds for divorce, litigating the fault-based grounds becomes moot. There is no purpose in proving infidelity, habitual drunkenness, abandonment, or any other marital fault as the legal reason for the divorce. This could avoid litigation. Avoiding litigation almost always correlates with fewer attorney hours which, in turn, means the cost of divorce is less likely to overburden either spouse or tap much needed family resources.
Should the respondent spouse deny irreconcilable differences are behind the marriage breakdown, the remaining possibilities are to allege some fault-based grounds in a counter-complaint for divorce or rely on the fall-back grounds of the original complaint – that is, inappropriate marital conduct in the previous example.
Be mindful that if the filing spouse did not include fault-based grounds in his or her original complaint in addition to irreconcilable differences, and the respondent denies irreconcilable differences but does not counter complain, then the court has no option but to dismiss the case for lack of jurisdiction. What happens next? One party or the other must re-file and start over.
Will Your Case Suffer Because Irreconcilable Differences Are Alleged?
In Tennessee law, an irreconcilable differences divorce should not influence the court’s division of marital assets and debts, a spouse’s obligation to pay alimony, or determination of child custody and child support. (That is not to say marital fault is irrelevant to the case, however. See the discussion on alimony and child custody below.)
Tennessee’s marital property division statute instructs the court to “equitably divide, distribute or assign the marital property between the parties without regard to marital fault in proportions as the court deems just. [Emphasis added.]” T.C.A. § 36-4-121(a).
Also, marital property is divided before alimony and support issues are decided (although temporary orders may be in place). For more details, read the discussion on Property & Debt Division Factors in Tennessee Divorce Law.
Marital Fault as a Factor in Alimony and Child Custody Awards
Two quick caveats regarding marital fault in awarding alimony and child custody.
Evidence of marital fault may still be offered on the issue of alimony within the irreconcilable differences divorce. Tennessee alimony factors are found in T.C.A. § 36-5-121(i).
With child custody, past parental conduct is considered predictive of future parental conduct. Conduct which may or may not be in the best interests of the child, depending upon the circumstances. Among other things, one of the fault factors the court will consider is whether there was any evidence of physical or emotional abuse of the child. T.C.A. § 36-6-106.
Consider this example: One parent has a history of drug abuse, addiction, and domestic violence. The judge may determine that supervised parenting time is warranted while that parent participates in a drug rehabilitation program that includes drug testing, treatment, and counseling.
Given the factors considered by the court in awarding alimony and child custody, some types of marital fault are relevant in every Tennessee divorce, regardless of the grounds alleged. Irreconcilable differences divorce does not alter that.
What Does Evidence of Marital Guilt Look Like?
When responding to a Tennessee divorce complaint that alleges irreconcilable differences as the first ground and, say, indignities as the second ground, consider very carefully what evidence could be offered to establish marital guilt.
Consult an experienced family lawyer. Ask yourself whether it is wiser to contest the divorce (forcing your spouse to offer evidence of fault so you can challenge it) or admit the irreconcilable differences grounds and avoid the need to rebut evidence of guilt for having ruined the marriage.
Without diminishing or invalidating in any way the heartache and financial impact associated with ending a marriage. And without turning a blind eye to what may have been the true reason for the break-up, the fact is for many spouses it is far easier to agree to irreconcilable differences grounds and focus. Focus on custody and a parenting plan. Focus on the marital assets they really want from the divorce. Focus on what will be needed to get the economically disadvantaged spouse in a position of reasonable financial independence.
Spouses cannot escape what happened to their marriage. But they can get past the anguish and ire that brought them to the courthouse in the first place and move on with their lives. Irreconcilable differences may help some spouses get through the Tennessee divorce process more efficiently, with less hostility. Of course, that is not always the case.
Alleging marital fault grounds for divorce, such as adultery, is often necessary and should not be shied away from in an effort to save a few dollars or to simply go along with divorce when you really don’t want one. Divorce is not easy and the decisions made in the process will have a profound impact on both spouses and their children. Always discuss options and potential consequences with your attorney before committing to a specific course of action.
Irreconcilable Differences Can Save Embarrassment and Hard Feelings
Irreconcilable differences divorce in Tennessee law can save embarrassment and hard feelings, especially when there are children and custody will be shared. The other parent will be involved in the children’s lives long after the decree is entered. Public humiliation in the divorce proceedings and ongoing hostilities between parents as a result are never in the best interests of children.
Unintended Consequences of an Ugly Divorce
As though that were not enough, there is another reason why irreconcilable differences divorce in Tennessee law may be the best option for both spouses. Vindicating oneself by suffering through a highly contested divorce – a parade of sworn testimony, documentary evidence, expert witness testimony, and social media evidence – can do permanent harm to a person in two ways. One’s self-image and self-esteem can be weakened so much so that some individuals find it very difficult to stabilize after divorce. This could result in unintended consequences, poor mental and physical health, and an aimless career path.
Whenever employment is disrupted, unpaid alimony and child support arrears are seldom far behind. Legal proceedings are public record in Tennessee, including divorce proceedings (unless placed under seal). Word of a nasty divorce can linger in cyberspace for far too long, making a job search even more difficult. This is a consideration for both spouses as it affects them both, if not equally so.
Marital Dissolution Agreement to Irreconcilable Differences Divorce
That irreconcilable differences as grounds goes uncontested does not mean the spouses are in complete agreement on every issue raised in their divorce. Spouses can unite on the grounds of irreconcilable differences and still find it necessary to litigate matters of alimony, child custody, child support, or property division. They may disagree on the valuation of a pension plan that is marital property, for example, or that one party should have more (or less) vacation parenting time in their parenting plan.
In every Tennessee divorce, the spouses are encouraged to negotiate, mediate, and resolve differences to the best of their abilities with assistance from their family lawyers. Many spouses do settle all the issues, from “Who gets the marital home? and “How much alimony will be paid? to “Who will be the primary residential parent?” Everything the parties agree to should be included in a written, signed Marital Dissolution Agreement for inclusion in the court’s final orders (absent objection) with any outstanding issues resolved at trial.