A recent Wall Street Journal article dealt a very odd quirk of divorce law in New York. The article focused on a woman, Tanya Finch, who completed a nursing degree while married to her husband, Kenneth Quarty, who was legally blind and did not work outside the home. Tanya worked multiple jobs to support the family while working on her degree and was obviously stunned when they eventually divorced and she found out that she owed her husband a lump sum prepayment of all her future earnings.
This is because New York is one of only a few states that have laws saying that one spouse can be entitled to an upfront percentage of all future money earned as a result of a degree obtained during a marriage. In New York a professional degree or license acquired during marriage is viewed as marital property. During a divorce, the value of the degree is figured by experts and then divided along with the rest of the couple’s property.
The law began after a 1985 court decision which interpreted the concept known as equitable division very broadly. Prior to 1980, during a divorce property went to the person whose name was on the item, the titleholder. That year, in an attempt to create more fairness in divorce, an equitable distribution law was passed which viewed all property acquired during a marriage to be joint assets that should be divided when a marriage ends. Later that same year, a doctor filed for divorce from his wife who had supported the family while he was in med school. The state’s Court of Appeals sided with the wife, saying that she was owed a share of the value of her husband’s medical license.
Courts in Michigan came to a similar conclusion in 1991, though the state has not used the principle nearly as extensively as it has been used in New York. In Louisiana, spouses are entitled to get back any investment they made in their partner’s advanced degree, a concept known as reimbursement alimony.
Over the years, the New York law has been expanded from just licenses to include degrees and even talents, including one rare case concerning the talents of a skilled opera singer. Accurately assessing the value of such things can be very hard to do and a major hurdle in any divorce. In the Finch case, the husband claimed the degree had a value of $841,383; Finch’s attorney said it was worth only $108,000 and the court finally settled on a number in between: $753,488, after subtracting her student loans. Her husband was ultimately awarded 25% of the total, or $155,372 to be paid over 396 months. After a series of appeals the amount was lowered dramatically and Finch was only ordered to pay a little over $15,000 spread out over two and a half years.
Though Ohio also follows the concept of equitable division, the courts in the state have thankfully never interpreted the idea so broadly as to include degrees as part of joint marital assets. To best understand how courts in the state interpret our laws, it’s critical to consult an experienced Ohio family law attorney who can help guide you through the difficult process. Count on the expertise of Twinsburg family law attorney Carol L. Gasper.
Source: “After Divorce, a Degree Is Costly,” by Sophia Hollander, published at WSJ.com.
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