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Think it’s easy to divide property at divorce? Think again

Some people think they can handle a divorce on their own, especially if they don’t have children (or they have grown children) and they’re not fighting bitterly. It sounds easy – you know what you and your spouse own, and you can figure out how to split it. Right?

In trying to end a marriage quickly or amicably, many people make big mistakes and come to regret them later – because they overlooked assets or didn’t take the legal steps necessary to protect their interests.Be careful – it’s not always easy to know what property you’re entitled to and how to divide it. In trying to end a marriage quickly or amicably,many people make big mistakes and come to regret them later – either because they overlooked assets they could have shared, or because they didn’t take all the legal steps necessary to protect their interests.

Even if you and your spouse are separating on good terms, a divorce lawyer can help you know for sure what you have a right to, and make sure you actually receive it. For instance, splitting a pension is difficult and legally complicated. The same can be true for an IRA or a 401(k) plan, and for Social Security benefits. If one spouse has stock options, how should they be divided?

Here are some other recent cases that show that it’s not always obvious who’s entitled to

Money from a lawsuit. Before getting divorced, a wife in Maryland brought an employment discrimination lawsuit and settled it for $550,000.Whose property is that? A divorce judge ruled that it was solely the wife’s money. But the husband appealed, and Maryland’s highest court decided otherwise. The high court said that any part of the $550,000 that was to compensate the wife for lost wages should be shared with the husband, because it replaced wages she would have earned during the marriage. But any part of the $550,000 that was for other things (such as her emotional distress) was hers and didn’t have to be shared.

Accrued sick and vacation days. A husband in Illinois had accumulated 115 sick days and 42 vacation days at the time of his divorce.Whose property is that? A divorce judge ruled that the wife was entitled to $15,000 for her share of the days. But the state’s highest court disagreed, and said the wife wasn’t entitled to anything. It said the value of the days was “speculative,” since the husband might use them before retirement and never receive payment for them.

Windfall during divorce. A wife in Tennessee filed for divorce from her husband, who was a lawyer.After the filing – but before the divorce was granted – the husband settled a huge case and received a $17 million fee.Whose property is that? The state’s highest court said the wife could share in the fee, because property can be divided if it is acquired any time up to the final divorce hearing. But other states may have different rules.

Company-paid benefits. A North Dakota husband was the co-owner of a trucking company with his father.Although he didn’t receive a large salary, the company paid many benefits for him, including clothing, housing, health insurance and out-of-pocket health costs, legal fees, life insurance, disability insurance and many personal expenses. A court decided that the wife was entitled to have these payments considered as part of the husband’s income when calculating how much he should pay
her as support.

Insurance payments. After divorce, an Arizona husband bought a new home that turned out to have mold problems.He filed an insurance claim and settled with the insurance company for $168,000. His wife then argued that this money should be considered part of his income when deciding how much he should pay to support their children. The answer? A court ruled that the money wasn’t income to the extent that it was reimbursement for property damage, repair expenses, or litigation fees. But anything beyond that could be considered income and subject to child support.

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