Tag Archive for: equitable distribution

Equitable distribution is the term used in Pennsylvania referring to division of marital property at the time of divorce. Marital property will consist of nearly everything acquired in either party’s name from the date of marriage through to the date of separation. Equitable distribution does not necessarily mean a 50/50 split of all marital property. Instead, the statute on equitable distribution sets out 13 factors to be considered. Those factors are listed in 23 Pa C.S. 3502 and include the following:

(1) Length of the marriage; (2) Any prior marriage of either party; (3) Age, health, station, amount and sources of income, vocational skills, employability, estate, liabilities and needs of each of the parties; (4) Contribution by one party to the education, training or increased earning capacity of the other party; (5) Opportunity of each party for future acquisitions of capital assets and income; (6) Sources of income of both parties, including but not limited to, medical, retirement, insurance or other benefits; (7) The contribution or dissipation of each party in the acquisition, preservation, depreciation or appreciation of the marital property, including the contribution of a party as a homemaker; (8) Value of the property set apart to each party

(9) Standard of living of the parties established during the marriage; (10) Economic circumstances of each party at the time the division of property is to become effective; (10.1) Federal, State and local tax ramifications associated with each asset to be divided, distributed or assigned, which ramifications need not be immediate and certain; (10.2) Expense of sale, transfer or liquidation associated with a particular asset, which expenses need not be immediate and certain; (11) Whether the party will be serving as the custodian of any dependent minor children

The remainder of 23 Pa C.S. 3502 goes on to discuss the courts powers relating to who can reside in the marital home pending the divorce, maintaining life insurance policies, interim partial distributions, and enforcement powers in the event of contempt of a court order on equitable distribution. Parties should keep these factors in mind when fashioning a settlement agreement of their own. If the parties have to go to court for equitable distribution, they will be required to submit a statement beforehand laying out what they allege is the marital property at issue, how the factors listed affect their case, and what they are ultimately seeking as an “equitable” distribution.

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Parties are often encouraged to try to reach an agreement to resolve whatever issues have arisen in any legal matter. In family law, agreements are especially encouraged due to the personal nature of the issues at hand along with the belief that it is better for the parties to draft their own agreement rather than allow a stranger to dictate their family dynamics going forward. Most agreements in family law will be treated as any contract would and the parties will be obligated to comply with the provisions or face an action for contempt. The family court will retain jurisdiction over all agreements entered that are subsequently submitted to the court to be made an order. As with any contract the court is generally only concerned that the agreement was entered into voluntarily and knowingly. The court will not necessarily be reviewing the content of the agreement before allowing it to become an order of court.

If a provision of the agreement needs to be enforced and one party seeks the court’s help in pursuing contempt, at that point the court would need to examine the content of the agreement in order to make a decision on a resolution of the contempt. Many agreements will include a provision that the party who breaches the agreement will be responsible for attorney fees if contempt must be sought through the court to gain compliance. The most comprehensive agreement in a family law matter is a marital or property settlement agreement. This type of agreement sets out to resolve all issues in a divorce matter including, but not limited to, how the divorce will be proceed to finalization, division of property, child and spousal support and/or alimony, and custody. One provision that will not hold up in court even if the parties agreed to it is the waiver of child support. The PA Supreme Court ruled in Knorr v. Knorr, decided in 1991, that a parent may not contract away a child’s right to support as the court views child support as an entitlement of the child rather than the parents.

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A qualified domestic relations order, or QDRO for short, is a document often used in the context of splitting assets in a divorce to rollover a portion of one party’s retirement plan/benefit to the other party. QDROs are frequently utilized when pensions, 401ks and other retirement benefits have been classified as marital in nature and therefore up for distribution at the end of the marriage. The benefit of a QDRO is that it allows a tax-free transfer of the funds from one party to their new or soon-to-be ex-spouse. The receiving spouse would then be taxed as they withdraw the money as the tax laws provide. The exact nuances of how the plan/benefit is split and what options are available will vary based on the type of plan. For example, it may be that the party receiving a benefit as a result of a QDRO, often termed the alternate payee, cannot begin to do so until the initial participant in the plan begins to do so. The receiving party may or may not be able to designate an alternate successor if they die before the benefits begin to pay out. Or, the plan may provide the receiving party can only designate a survivor beneficiary that would be able to receive the balance of their portion of the benefit if they have started receiving the benefit before they die. The receiving party’s benefit may or may not be affected by the death of the initial participant or his/her early withdrawal penalty, if applicable.

It is always advisable to review the procedures for the specific plan you may need distributed to understand what their rules and policies are when it comes to splitting a participant’s benefits via QDRO in the context of a divorce. You will also likely benefit from having an attorney review the terms of the QDRO as well before signing off on it and submitting it to the plan. Finally, most plans have very specific requirements as far as how the language of the QDRO is to be worded in order for it to be accepted and processed. At a minimum, a QDRO should identify the parties, the plan at issue, and the amount going to the receiving party either as a lump sum or a percentage of the total benefit. It is wise to enlist the services of a company that routinely drafts QDROs to ensure the language is correct and all requirements are met.

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Under Pennsylvania law, one of the parties to the divorce action must have been a bona fide resident of Pennsylvania for at least six months prior to the commencement of the divorce. Bona fide residence is defined as actual residence with domiciliary intent. Domicile denotes the place where a person has his or her true, fixed, permanent home with the intention of returning after any absence. In other words, where an individual sleeps, takes her meals, receives mail, and stores personal possession.

Generally, an action may only be brought in the county where one of the party resides. There are two exceptions allowing a divorce action to proceed in a different county including by mutual agreement of the parties in writing or by participating in the action started in a different county. If two divorce actions are commenced within 90 days of each other, the county where a party resides or where the last marital residence was located gets to determine which county should handle the matter. If neither county is the location of the last marital residence and no party resides in either county, the county that received a complaint in divorce first can make the determination as far as which county will proceed.

Parties should be careful about agreeing to, or participating in, divorce actions outside of their home counties if property distribution and/or other issues such as custody and support may be raised during the divorce. A divorce action may need to be transferred to the county where the bulk of the property is located or where the children reside for custody or where one of the parties reside for support. This will likely result in the expense of having to file a new complaint in the appropriate county as well as the expense and delay of petitioning to have the matter transferred. On the other hand, parties with no issues relating to the divorce may benefit from a cheaper filing fee by choosing a county other than their own for the divorce action.

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Many people consider their pets as members of the family and accordingly, when the family breaks up, custody of the pets can become an issue. The Today Show recently covered a story of a man who had already spent $60,000 in a custody battle over his dog previously shared with his ex-girlfriend. While pets may be considered members of the family from the perspective of the owners, the courts in Pennsylvania deal with pets the same way as they deal with other inanimate personal property in the event of a divorce.

First, a count for Equitable Distribution must be raised in the context of a divorce in order to get the court involved in dividing any property. There are generally two options available when it comes to how property will be divided. First, the parties can reach an agreement on how they will divide property and submit this written agreement to the court so that in the event either party does not comply, the disgruntled party can file for contempt and the court can assist in enforcing the agreement. The other option when it comes to property division is to go to a hearing and let the court decide. If you go this route, the court will likely give the pet to one spouse or the other just as it would any other personal property such as furniture or TVs. It is not likely to get involved in creating a schedule to continue to share the pet post-divorce.

The great thing about an agreement is that it can be as specific as the parties want. The courts rarely get involved in the content of agreements that are knowingly and voluntarily entered into and treat them as binding just as they would any other contract. Therefore, an agreement could provide for a custody schedule more similar to one you would normally see with children. For example, the spouses may decide to split custody of the family pet and lay out the terms of when they will exchange custody back and forth (i.e. every two weeks, every month, etc.). Or, the parties may even agree that the schedule for family pet will coincide with the schedule for their minor children if applicable.

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Today Show story on pet custody battle

Often in the context of divorce parties may attempt to hide assets in an attempt to keep them out of the marital estate that will be up for distribution. One of the biggest red flags as far as potential hidden assets is if the spending/assets of the party are way more than would be expected based on their reported income. A party who has a small business and deals in cash can easily hide money. It may become necessary to hire an expert to analyze the income flow and see if their reported income is correct after a thorough investigation. Top level executives may receive alternative forms of income. Examples include stock options, bonuses, car allowances, and deferred compensation plans to name a few. Military members also often have a compensation package that goes beyond their base salary. It is important to obtainformation on all benefits of employment so they can be either be included as income in a potential support calculation or treated as an asset subject to distribution. Another potential problem as far as hidden assets is offshore accounts. Many offshore banks have confidentiality provisions that deflect detection. Parties should also be weary of the other party transferring assets over to family members or friends.

The first step in tracking down assets, hidden or otherwise, is discovery. Discovery in family matters typically consists of interrogatories (set of questions to the opposing party) and a production request (requesting certain documents be turned over). Tax returns and bank statements are routinely requested and are good starting points for tracing sources of income as well as where the income is going. From a tax return you can see rental income, interest on bank accounts, dividends on stock, etc. Bank statements can show the transfer of money and identify where it went to and for what purpose. Parties in a divorce may also conduct depositions wherein they question a party under oath. Further, the parties can subpoena documents directly from the custodian of the documents if the spouse will not turn them over. If these initial avenues of discovery do not yield the desired results, a party will have to contemplate whether it is worth to invest more money in the chase for hidden assets. Additionally, if a party anticipates that hiding or dissipating assets may become a problem during the pendency of the divorce, it is important to get a court injunction right away preventing the dissipation or transfer of any marital assets.

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Pensions, as well as other retirement plans, are often one of the assets up for division in a divorce. The court will equitably divide the marital portion of a pension plan after considering all the relevant factors in equitable distribution. The marital portion of a plan would be the portion that accrued from the date of marriage through the date of separation. In some cases, the entire pension will be marital depending on the timing of the marriage alongside the start date of the pension plan.

The Superior Court recently released a decision regarding the marital status of post-separation cost of living adjustments (COLAs). In MacDougall v. MacDougall, 2012 PA Super 83, the Superior Court held that Husband’s post-separation COLAs were marital property subject to equitable distribution because they accrued without any effort or contribution by Husband. Wife had filed a Petition for Contempt after discovering that Husband’s monthly pension benefit had continued to increase due to COLAs but he was still only paying her a percentage of the monthly benefit from the date of separation. The trial court ruled in favor of the Husband in finding the post-separation COLAs were not marital, however, the Superior Court reversed their decision.

In reaching its decision, the Superior Court analyzed several previous decisions regarding post-separation increases in pension plans. Most notably, in Berrington v. Berrington, 534 Pa. 393 (1993), the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that increases in a pension plan due to the employee spouse’s own efforts or contributions are not marital whereas increases not attributable to the employee spouse are marital. In MacDougall, the Superior Court determined the increases based on COLAs were automatic and not dependent on any additional effort or contribution by Husband, thus the COLAs were marital and subject to division. Therefore, the Superior Court held Wife’s share of Husband’s pension should also increase to reflect the COLAs. The case was remanded to the trial court in order for exact calculations to be made as far as Wife’s share of the pension with the COLAs included. This approach is arguably more fair in that it doesn’t allow one spouse to benefit from an increase that wasn’t earned and that the parties likely did not know about at the time of equitable distribution.

Frozen embyros are considered marital property and hence, technically up for division in a divorce, however there is some disagreement on exactly how the “property” should be dealt with. This is a relatively new issue in family law and different states have applied different methods for resolving the matter. The Pennsylvania Superior Court recently released a decision regarding the marital status of frozen pre-embryos in Reber v. Reiss, 2012 PA Super 86. In Reber, the court had to determine what should happen to the frozen pre-embyros of a divorced couple. Wife wanted to use the frozen pre-embryos in order to have children of her own whereas Husband wanted the frozen pre-embryos either destroyed or donated for research.

In reaching its decision, the Superior Court considered how other states have dealt with a similar issue. Some states have focused on whether there is a prior agreement between the parties concerning disposition of the pre-embyros in the event of divorce and if so, will uphold the agreement as enforceable. At the same time, other states have held that enforcing such an agreement is a violation of public policy and have declined to do so. The Supreme Court of Iowa follows a mutual consent model requiring both parties to agree on disposition, however, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania did not find this model feasible since parties would not be in court in the first place if they could agree. The approach that was ultimately adopted calls for the court to balance the interests of the parties.

In applying the balancing approach, the court found that Wife’s interest in procreation using the frozen pre-embyros outweighed Husband’s interest against procreation. This decision was based primarily on evidence that the pre-embryos were likely Wife’s only opportunity to procreate along with testimony that Wife would allow Husband to be involved and wouldn’t pursue support in response to the concerns raised by Husband. The court did acknowledge that the party against procreation should normally prevail in a balancing test, however, due to the unique facts of the case, the scales tipped in Wife’s favor. It also seems that the court would’ve likely enforced an agreement on the issue if there had been one. Accordingly, parties who intend to undergo in vitro fertilization should draft a clear, unambiguous agreement as to the disposition of embryos upon separation, divorce or death, or else be subject to a balancing approach by the court.