Equitable Distribution of Businesses and Enhanced Earning Capacity Does Not Always Mean Equal Distribution

I have previously written about equitable distribution issues here and here.  One of the most important issues that divorce attorneys have to address in dealing with equitable distribution is division of businesses or enhanced earning capacity arising as a result of acquisition of a professional degree or a license by one of the spouses.

In distributing marital property of almost every variety, the courts have focused on the relative significance of the non-titled spouse’s contribution toward the marriage, which would almost always result in equal or almost equal distribution.  However, with respect to distribution of business interests and enhanced earning capacity, as of late, the courts have focused on the degree to which the non-titled spouse’s efforts contributed toward the acquisition of each specific asset.

In the past, the non-titled spouse’s contributions to the other party’s business, career or degree, usually resulted in equal distribution of those assets.  However, the recent trend in court decisions has been to grant the non-titled spouse less than one half of the asset.

The courts have described their reasoning as follows: “[a]lthough in a marriage of long duration, where both parties have made significant contributions to the marriage, a division of marital assets should be made as equal as possible. . . there is no requirement that the distribution of each item of marital property be made on an equal basis.”  Kaplan v. Kaplan, 51 A.D.3d 635, 637 (2d Dept. 2008). In equitably distributing a spouse’s business interest, the court must consider the direct contributions the non-titled spouse made to the business as well as the indirect contributions to the ma-rital partnership, including homemaking, parenting, and providing the necessary emotional and moral support to sustain the titled spouse in carrying on the business.  Price v. Price, 69 N.Y.2d 8, 15 (1986).
Unlike other marital assets, in valuing a non-titled spouse’s share in a spouse’s business interest, the trend has been toward awards between 25% and 35% to the non-titled spouse. Chalif v. Chalif, 298 A.D.2d 348, 349, (2d Dept. 2002)(25% award to wife of husband’s medical practice and enhanced earning capacity); Granade-Bastuck v. Granade-Bastuck, 249 A.D.2d 444, 445 (2d Dept. 1998)(25% award to plaintiff of defendant’s law practice); Giokas v. Giokas, 73 A.D.3d 688 (2d Dept. 2010)(10% award to wife of husband’s business); Kerrigan v. Kerrigan, 71 A.D.3d 737 (2d Dept. 2010)(35% award to wife of the husband’s business); Ciampa v. Ciampa, 47 A.D.3d 745, 747 (2d Dept. 2008)(35% award to wife of husband’s business); Kaplan v. Kaplan, 51 A.D.3d 635, 637 (2d Dept. 2008)(30% award to wife of the husband’s dental practice).

This has been a trend state-wide and has been followed by the Appellate Division, Fourth Department, which is located here in Rochester, New York, and to which decisions from Allegany, Cattaraugus, Cayuga, Chautauqua, Erie, Genesee, Herkimer, Jefferson, Lewis, Livingston, Monroe, Niagara, Oneida, Onondaga, Ontario, Orleans, Oswego, Seneca, Steuben, Wayne, Wyoming and Yates Counties are appealed to.

As a result, the non-titled spouses and their divorce lawyers have an uphill fight if they try to obtain a substantial share of such assets as a spouse’s business, educational degrees or professional licenses.