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Tennessee Family Law: An Overview

Some of the most common cases brought to Tennessee courts involve marriage, divorce and related topics like child custody, alimony, rights to family benefits and ownership of marital property. All of these topics fall under the legal branch of family law. Tennessee family laws protect the rights of family members and regulate legal proceedings concerning family-related disputes.

If you have a family law case in Chattanooga, Memphis, Jackson or elsewhere in Tennessee, LawInfo is your source for information and legal help. LawInfo’s Tennessee Family Law section includes legal overviews, summaries of state laws and other resources to help you make the right decisions for you and your family.

If you need help navigating the complex laws governing your case, a Tennessee family law attorney can help and treat your case with the sensitivity it deserves.

Tennessee Marriage Requirements

While marriage is a very personal choice for a couple to make, Tennessee law is concerned with the potential health or criminal consequences resulting from certain marriages. Therefore, Tennessee prohibits the following types of marriages (see Tennessee Code §36-3-101, 102, 106 and 109):

  • Marriage between parent and child, siblings, grandparent and grandchild or aunt/uncle and nephew/niece.
  • A new marriage when a previous marriage is still valid. If the former spouse from the previous marriage has been absent for five years and isn’t known by his/her spouse to be still living, the previous marriage is considered dissolved.
  • Marriage to a person under age 16. Minors aged 16 or 17 years of age require both parents or guardians to sign an approval affidavit. Minors aged 16 years or under require permission from a court order to marry.
  • Marriage to a party who is incapable of consent due to intoxication or a lack of mental capacity.

Tennessee Marriage License

Prior to getting married, a couple needs to apply for a Tennessee marriage license if they’re getting married in the state. (See Tennessee Code §36-3-103.) The license validates the legal marriage, which helps the couple qualify for things like tax breaks and family insurance.

Tennessee residents and non-residents may apply for a license with any Tennessee county clerk. You and your partner will each need to present identification, proof of your dates of births and proof of divorce if you were previously married. Once you receive your license, it is valid for 30 days without a waiting period. A marriage license can be used in any Tennessee county.

Tennessee Divorce Requirements

There may be a number of reasons why your marriage has come to an end but Tennessee law only permits a divorce if it falls under one or more of 15 specific grounds.

While most of the permissible grounds for divorce attribute fault to one of the spouses due to misconduct, one ground attributes no fault to either spouse. The ground of irreconcilable differences between spouses means that no one is at fault for the marriage’s breakdown.

These are the grounds for divorce accepted in Tennessee (see Tennessee Code §36-4-101):

  • Irreconcilable differences (no-fault divorce).
  • Natural impotency from the time of marriage.
  • Malicious or willful abandonment without a reasonable cause for one year or longer.
  • Infamy from a criminal conviction.
  • Confinement in a penitentiary for a felony conviction.
  • Malicious attempt at murdering the other spouse.
  • Willful absence out of state for two years or longer.
  • The wife’s pregnancy at the time of the marriage resulted from an illegitimate relationship with a third party.
  • Habitual intoxication by alcohol or drugs after the marriage.
  • Cruel and inhuman treatment rendering a spouse’s living situation unsafe.
  • One spouse abandoned or forced the other out of their marital home and refused to support that spouse for no discernible reason.
  • Both spouses have lived separately for two or more years with no minor children (under age 18) involved.

Distribution of Marital Property in Tennessee

As often as you may hear divorcees say, “he/she took half of everything in the divorce,” this isn’t a standard divorce rule in Tennessee. While there is a chance that you and your former spouse’s marital property may be divided and distributed in equal halves, an uneven distribution is more likely. In Tennessee, this is called “equitable distribution.” (See Tennessee Code §36-4-121.)

If a couple cannot agree on how to divide their marital propertyóall assets and liabilities (debts) attained during the marriage excluding gifts and inheritances from a third partyóthe court will decide how to fairly do so. The court bases its decision on several factors, including how long the marriage lasted, the individual financial and health circumstances of each divorcee, the needs of the children and any resulting tax consequences. Fault grounds for a divorce are not considered.

When Do I Need a Tennessee Family Law Attorney?

Whether you need a family law attorney depends on a number of factors specific to your case. There is no one-size-fits-all answer. Few couples need a lawyer to get married but attorneys may be required if there’s a prenuptial agreement involved.

Individuals often benefit from hiring an attorney when dealing with divorce, child support, and especially child custody matters. Because emotions can run high during some divorces, hiring an attorney to negotiate and resolve difficult issues can be invaluable.

Many lawyers offer free initial consultations, so it may be worth your time to speak with an experienced Tennessee family law attorney if you have additional questions.

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