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Divorce Litigation Bullet Points 15: Equitable Distribution, Efforts, and Adultery

Outsidequarrelcouple-300x200If you’ve been following my blog over the last year or two, you’ll have noticed that I’ve been systematically sorting through various articles I’ve done over the years to bring you an easy-to-follow list of guides on things like divorce mediation, litigation, and beyond.

Right now, I’m discussing divorce litigation, which is one of the most complicated topics for many couples to deal with. Litigation can be a difficult process at the best of times but understanding the basics of how decisions are made, and issues are overcome can help you to move through the process with as little stress as possible.

Today’s bullet points will cover some important ideas in divorce litigation: namely, equitable distribution, and what kind of things might change what a court sees as “fair”.

What is Equitable Distribution?

In New York divorce cases, the courts will not necessarily distribute assets based on a 50/50 split. Instead, if the couple in question can’t decide how to distribute their assets amongst themselves through a strategy like divorce mediation courts will engage in a process called equitable distribution. This basically means that the courts look at all the debts and assets belonging to the couple and orders a division that is “fair and just”.

  • When deciding what is equitable, courts will consider various factors, including the roles that each person played in the marriage, their income-earning potential, and level of education. Other factors like the ages of the parties and their current income may also come into play when making crucial division choices.
  • Equitable distribution decisions will not always split assets on a 50/50 basis. Instead, the courts aim to come to a decision that is fair for both parties. During the equitable distribution process, the courts will need to consider all assets that were accumulated during the marriage in the division. “Marital property” can cover everything from the family home, to savings accounts, personal belongings, and more.
  • Pension benefits can sometimes be subject to equitable distribution. However, only the pension benefits that accrued during the period of the marriage will be held in consideration. Benefits obtained before the marriage are not part of the consideration, as those are deemed “separate property”. Likewise, retirement benefits earned subsequent to the cutoff date of marital assets, frequently the filing date of the divorce, are also separate property.

What Factors Influence Equitable Distribution?

There are various factors that can influence the equitable distribution decisions made by the New York court. Above, I mentioned things like income potential, education, and the health of both parties. However, the courts also consider other things too. For instance, the efforts and contributions of each spouse might also make an impact on the division of assets.

  • The courts recognize that just because a person wasn’t working in a marriage, doesn’t mean they weren’t necessarily contributing to the home. Additionally, a partner who was working but earning less than their spouse may have contributed to the household in other ways. Efforts and contributions refer to the monetary and non-monetary input of each spouse.
  • In a landmark case, the courts of New York established that efforts put forward by each spouse to look after the family and the household should be deemed an important factor in equitable distribution decisions. Contributions from a spouse that don’t fall into the “finances” space might include things like looking after a child, home making, caring for an elderly parent, or providing emotional support to the other spouse.
  • Notably, the courts also agree that when the value of one spouse’s separate property increases in value due to the contributions of the other spouse, any increase in the value of that asset should be deemed marital property, therefore subject to equitable distribution. For instance, if a spouse is able to increase the value of their business because their partner helped with raising the children and taking over the housework, they could argue that their contributions helped to improve the value of the business. Sometimes this type of premise is commonly referred to as sweat equity. This could be applied to the efforts of a spouse to increase the value of other separate property that the other spouse came into the marriage with such as a house.

Does Adultery Impact Equitable Distribution

Since the positive behavior of a spouse can influence the way that judges consider equitable distribution matters, it makes sense that you might wonder whether negative behaviors have an influence too. For instance, is proof of adultery or “marital fault” cause to change the way that the courts approach equitable distribution?

  • New York courts allow for no-fault divorces to take place since 2010. However, the courts also have some room to consider any factor they may deem relevant when making decisions about alimony, equitable distribution, and child support. Most courts do reject the idea that any marital fault, in and of itself, can be deemed just reason for adjusting the distribution of assets, though.
  • There are situations wherein very specific and egregious cases that have an impact on the court conscience might influence the way that decisions are made. Many courts do agree that assigning fault in any particular circumstance can often be very difficult.
  • Alone, without influencing additional factors, adultery typically isn’t considered as egregious misconduct by the Domestic Relations law of New York. Although, it is one of the basis grounds for an individual choosing to initiate a divorce, adultery cannot generally be used as a means for changing the economic partnership of marriage. If, however, an argument that the spouse committing adultery wasted marital assets on the affair, that might be a reason that the non-cheating spouse deserves more.

If you have any questions or concerns about any of the issues raised in this guide, or you would like to discuss the details of a divorce litigation case, you can reach out to my office today. Free consultations are available for a period of up to 30 minutes by phone, video conference, or in person. Get in touch using my online form or you can call on (516) 333-6555.

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