Tennessee Court of Appeals Holds Greater Part of Personal Injury Settlement Not Marital Property

coinsThe Court of Appeals for Tennessee was recently faced with the issue of how a personal injury settlement would be classified and divided in a divorce case. In Metzinger v. Metzinger, the parties were married for approximately eight years. In 2011, the husband was injured as the result of being hit by a drunk driver. Subsequent to the accident, the husband received a settlement in the amount of $66,000 for his personal injury. Shortly thereafter, the wife filed for divorce.

The parties worked out the division of their marital property, with the exception of the husband’s personal injury settlement. In order to determine whether the settlement was marital property, the parties went before a trial court for a hearing on the matter. The husband contended that the settlement money did not constitute marital property, and that the wife had furthermore failed to prove as much.

At trial, both parties testified. The husband acknowledged that the settlement was not initially classified as pain and suffering, lost wages, or medical expenses. He also testified that nearly all medical costs resulting from the accident had been paid. The husband described the serious nature of his injuries and his resulting medical care. According to the husband, he could not work for approximately seven months following the accident and had to take pain medication that also prevented him from returning to work as a truck driver.

The husband’s position at trial was that the settlement money constituted damages for pain and suffering. With respect to lost wages, the husband alleged only a small portion of the settlement was intended for that purpose, since his income varied from month to month. The wife, on the other hand, testified that she assumed the settlement included six months of lost wages. After hearing all the proof, the trial court entered a judgment finding that the full settlement award was marital property. The trial court further held that the husband had spent only a portion, $13,400, on legitimate expenses related to the marriage, but had dissipated the remainder of the money. The trial court awarded the wife half of those dissipated funds, or $26,300.

Following the husband’s appeal, the appellate court analyzed whether the trial court had erred. The appeals court looked to the Tennessee Code definition of “marital property,” which includes recovery in personal injury cases for lost wages, medical bills, and property damage. However, settlement awards for personal injury are not included as marital property. The appeals court agreed with the husband’s argument that only a small portion of the settlement fell under the definition of marital property. The court looked to the husband’s tax returns, showing that only $10,000 of the award could be considered as lost wages damages. In addition, the appeals court recognized the trial court’s holding that the husband had spent $13,400 on legitimate marital expenses. Since that amount was greater than the amount owed to the wife, the court of appeals reversed the trial court’s award to the wife.

If you or someone you know has experienced difficulties dividing marital property and assets, contact the Nashville family law lawyers at Martin Heller Potempa & Sheppard. Our skilled and assertive attorneys can explore your options and rights in order to seek a fair outcome. For an initial consultation, contact us online or call (615) 800-7096.

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