Equitable Distribution and Degrees, Licences and Enhanced Earnings Capacity Acquired During the Marriage

In a divorce action, the court can distribute not only tangible assets, such as homes, pensions and investment accounts, but also the value of educational degrees, professional licenses and enhanced earnings obtained during the marriage.  An academic degree may constitute a marital asset subject to equitable distribution, even though the degree may not necessarily confer the legal right to engage in a particular profession. The fact that a degree is an asset to be equitably distributed should not be in dispute. Generally, the value of the degree, license or enhanced earning capacity is open for debate and is determined through the use of expert testimony. I have previously written about some of these issues, but I decided to revisit them in this post.

A recent case of Purygin v Purygina, 2009 N.Y. Slip. Op. 51408(U) (Sup. Ct. Kings Co. 2009), provides a good illustration of the issues involved and the typical approach utilized by the courts in addressing them. In Purygin, between September 1997 and December 2000, the husband attended Long Island University as a full time student so that he could become proficient in English and apply to medical school; during this time, he continued to work part time in odd jobs. He did not receive any degree from LIU. From January 10, 2001 through April 2002, he attended a medical school in the Carribean; during this time, the wife remained in Brooklyn with the parties’ son. Subsequently, he completed another portion of his education in Miami. On December 20, 2002, he passed the first step of the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE). Between December 2002 and November 2004, the husband continued his education at Kings County Hospital and Brookdale Hospital, where he did his clinical rotations. On May 28, 2004, plaintiff passed the second USMLE. He completed Medical School and graduated on April 1, 2005. The husband left the marital residence in December 2005. On November 26, 2007, plaintiff took and passed the third USMLE. This action was commenced on April 24, 2008. Presently, the husband is in his third year of residency.

During the time that the husband attended LIU, the wife continued to work full time at the hair salon. Beginning in September 2001 through October 2004, she attended night school at Touro College and continued to work full-time in the hair salon during the day. She became licensed as an assistant physical therapist in August 2006.

The court appointed a neutral appraiser to value husband’s enhanced earning capacity. By report dated October 31, 2008, the appraiser concluded that the husband’s enhanced earning capacity resulting from the education that he received during the marriage was $1,584,000, taking into account an appropriate reduction for plaintiff’s student loans and the remaining 11% of the training required for him to become a board certified anesthesiologist.

The husband argued that the wife should not be entitled to share in the enhanced earning capacity that she resulted from the 98 courses that he took at LIU between September 1997 and December 2000, because the courses did not result in his obtaining any degree or certification and were only “a stepping-stone to a license to practice medicine,” which he has not yet obtained. He further argues that the wife should not be entitled to share in the enhanced earning capacity resulting from the courses that he took at the medical school, because his medical degree has no value without a medical license, which requires a minimum of three years of residency and passing three examinations. He also contended that the wife should not be entitled to share in the enhanced earning capacity resulting from the one year residency that he completed prior to the commencement of the action on the grounds that he still had two years of residency to complete at that time.

The husband also argued that the wife did not make a significant contribution to his enhanced earning capacity, since she did not sacrifice her career or change her lifestyle for his education.  The husband also emphasized the fact that the parties separated in December 2005, so that wife did not make any contributions towards his education after this date.

The wife argued that the husband’s education and training is marital property subject to equitable distribution and that she substantially contributed to his enhanced earning capacity by providing the family with the bulk of their economic support, arranging and paying for child care, cleaning, cooking, paying the bills and attending to all household chores.

Pursuant to DRL § 236(B)(1)(c), marital property is broadly defined as “property acquired by either or both spouses during the marriage and before the execution of a separation agreement or the commencement of a matrimonial action, regardless of the form in which title is held.” In O’Brien v. O’Brien, 66 N.Y.2d 576 (1985), the Court of Appeals held that a professional license could constitute marital property subject to equitable distribution to the extent that it is acquired during the marriage. In further explaining this decision, the Court of Appeals later stated that “[t]he statute is sweeping and recognizes that spouses have an equitable claim to things of value arising out of the marital relationship”.

The court held that applying the above principles of law to the facts of this case, plaintiff’s education at LIU, which was a necessary prerequisite to his acceptance at the medical school, is a marital asset, as was his medical degree and the two years and nine months of his residency, since this education and training are held to have contributed to his enhanced earning capacity as an anesthesiologist. As a result, these marital assets were found to be subject to equitable distribution. The court relied on the holding in Vainchenker v. Vainchenker, 242 A.D.2d 620 (2d Dept. 1997), where the Appellate Division, Second Department, held that:

Although the husband was a practicing physician in Russia prior to the parties’ marriage, his earning capacity in the United States was enhanced due to the medical training he received in this country during the marriage. The Supreme Court therefore properly determined that the husband’s New York medical license was a marital asset subject to equitable distribution.

(Vainchenker, 242 A.D.2d at 621 (2d Dept. 1997) (citations omitted).

Here, husband’s education was completed as of the date of the commencement of the action, as were two years and nine months of his residency. Further, courts routinely apportion the value of the enhanced earning capacity resulting from courses of study both before and during the marriage. While the instant case is different in that plaintiff was not eligible to receive his medical license for three months after the commencement of the action, it is not disputed that from January 10, 2000 through the date of commencement, plaintiff was working towards acquiring this license. The court stated that if a spouse is permitted to avoid equitable distribution of enhanced earning capacity by commencing an action after the necessary education has been acquired, but before the sought after license is obtained, the rationale behind O’Brien would be abrogated. Under the facts of this case, where husband completed the training necessary to obtain a medical license within three months of the commencement of the action, there is no speculation with regard to whether the necessary studies will be completed.

The court found that the wife made a contribution to husband’s enhanced earning capacity, with the amount of such contribution to be determined at trial and in determining the share of the enhanced earning capacity to which she is entitled, the court can entertain the argument that the parties separated in December 2005.

Accordingly, whenever reviewing assets available for distribution in a divorce action, a family law attorney will typically address issues related to distribution of any degrees, license, or enhanced earning capacity obtained during the marriage.  The non-titled spouse’s contribution to the parties’ household, while the other spouse was obtaining such degree, license or enhanced earning capacity, is very important and should be discussed with the lawyer representing no-titled spouse in the divorce action.

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