Who Pays for a Divorce in Tennessee?

By Beverly Bird

In Tennessee, as elsewhere, divorce can be extremely expensive. If your divorce is uncontested and you can agree on how to resolve the important issues, the costs are significantly less and you and your spouse can fund the proceedings with marital income. If your matter is contested, however, each of you is typically responsible for paying your own attorneys' fees and costs. This can leave one spouse at a disadvantage if the other out-earns her to a great extent, but Tennessee law balances this in some ways.

The Costs of Divorce

By far, attorneys' fees are the most significant cost associated with divorce. However, other expenses can add up as well. If your divorce is contested, it may involve discovery efforts to try to get financial information from your spouse or from third parties who are in possession of the information. This might mean paying for a court reporter for depositions or process servers to deliver subpoenas. If custody is an issue, you might have to pay for a custody evaluation. If you own real estate, it will probably require appraisals. There are also court fees for filing divorce documents in Tennessee. Taken together, all these costs can add up to many thousands of dollars for each spouse.

Spouse's Contribution

If one spouse simply has no access to this kind of money but her partner does, a Tennessee judge might order counsel fees, obligating the higher-earning spouse to contribute toward the other spouse's attorney's fees. However, someone must file for divorce first so the under-earning spouse can file a motion requesting this and the award usually isn't enough to pay all her attorney's fees. There's often a shortfall which the under-earning spouse would be responsible for paying from her portion of marital property after the divorce is final. Tennessee doesn't allow divorce lawyers to work on a contingency basis, taking a prearranged percentage of any property the court awards to the under-earning spouse in the divorce, but she is always free to pay off the balance of her lawyer's fees by liquidating these assets after she receives them.

Marital Property

Tennessee's statutes on property division specifically note that spouses contribute equally to a marriage, whether they earn income or stay home to care for the household and children. Therefore, an under-earning spouse has a right to her fair portion of marital property, even if she never worked. A court can order liquidation of some of these assets to allow her to pay her lawyer. At the end of the divorce, the judge would factor this money into equitable distribution when deciding property division. He might distribute the property that remains after liquidation or charge the attorney's fees to the spouse who took the money as part of her share of property. For example, if she were to receive $100,000, but took $6,000 at the beginning of the divorce to pay for her lawyer, she might only receive $94,000 in property when the divorce is final.

Court Costs

In some cases, neither spouse has any money to pay the high costs of divorce. If you and your spouse meet certain income guidelines, Tennessee offers Legal Aid offices and staff to help low-income families in all types of civil litigation, including divorce. This would eliminate the cost of an attorney, but you'd still have to pay court fees and other related expenses. If you can't afford the court filing fees, you can request a waiver by filing an affidavit of indigency with the court. You can also do this if you have no access to marital money because your spouse controls it and you want to file for divorce so you can ask the court for attorney's fees. The waiver doesn’t necessarily mean you'll never have to pay the filing fees, but payment is deferred until your divorce trial when a judge will decide who should be responsible for paying them.