Tennessee Divorce Questions

by David Carnes
Divorce can be a long and complex process.

Divorce can be a long and complex process.

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In Tennessee, as in other states, divorce is based on state law rather than federal law. Although Tennessee divorce laws share many features in common with the divorce laws of other states, they also include distinctive features. Tennessee divorce law covers many issues that may arise in a divorce: fault, child custody, alimony, child support and property division, for example.

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Grounds for Divorce

In Tennessee, couples who choose no-fault divorce may cite "irreconcilable differences" as their ground for divorce. Tennessee also recognizes several fault-based grounds for divorce. Grounds, such as adultery, substance abuse and abandonment, are similar to grounds available in other states. Others, such as malicious attempt on the life of another and "inappropriate marital conduct" are uncommon elsewhere in the United States.

Child Custody

Divorcing couples are responsible for creating a "permanent parenting plan" that allocates each parent's responsibilities toward the children. The parenting plan must be approved by the court. Parents must also attend a four-hour parenting class. If the parties cannot agree on a parenting plan, they must attend court-ordered mediation and attempt to reach an agreement. If mediation fails, child custody issues will be resolved by the court and included in the final divorce decree. In all cases, the court will determine or approve child custody arrangements based on the "best interests of the child," a standard that applies in all 50 states.

Child Support

Child support is part of the permanent parenting plan that parents submit to the court, and all child support arrangements must be approved by the court. Tennessee courts use the income shares model to calculate the exact amount of child support to be paid. Under the income shares model, each parent is generally responsible for contributing a share of support for their children in pro rata proportion to their available income. A parent with twice as much available income as the other parent, for example, will likely be responsible for two-thirds of the child's support expenses. This means that a higher-income parent will likely have to pay child support, especially if the child lives with the other parent most of the time.


In Tennessee, four different types of alimony are available for different purposes, including equalizing the standard of living of the two divorcing spouses, helping one spouse increase earning power, helping one spouse deal with the temporary economic consequences of the divorce, and compensating for an imbalance in property division. Legislative changes in 2003 allow Tennessee courts to award alimony to one spouse to ensure that the receiving spouse continues to enjoy a standard of living close to either (1) the standard of living enjoyed during the marriage or (2) the standard of living enjoyed by the other spouse after the divorce. The 2003 changes also allow a court to award more than one type of alimony to the same spouse.

Property Division

Like most states, Tennessee is an equitable distribution state rather than a community property state. If spouses agree on property division and reach a marital dissolution agreement, courts normally respect it. If not, Tennessee courts may exercise considerable discretion. Equitable distribution means a fair distribution, with a 50/50 split used as a starting point. Courts consider several factors when adjusting this split one way or the other: the length of the marriage, the financial capacity and needs of each spouse, tax consequences, and the contribution of one spouse to the other spouse's earning power.