Intangible contributions to a marriage may have value in Connecticut divorces

On Behalf of | Dec 7, 2022 | Property Division

Dividing property in a Connecticut divorce requires more sophisticated analysis. The process involves far more than merely identifying and distributing assets to the litigants. The family court rules include provisions for mandatory disclosure of finances and assets in the divorce process. A portfolio may include tangible and intangible assets. Contentious disputes may arise regarding valuation issues and what may be a fair and equitable solution to complex assets structures. Similarly, contributions to the marriage — and the financial success of the household — are not always easily quantifiable.

For example, one spouse may take care of the children and the household while the other completes medical or law school, obtains their license and establishes a lucrative practice that supports the family. The professional spouse may not have so quickly secured their education and job without the other spouse managing the home.

The spouse who supported the other may have set back or sacrificed their own educational or career options to do so. As a result, the family overall enjoys a high standard of living because both spouses made it possible.

Division of the marital estate

Connecticut is a unique “all-property” state in which the court may fairly and equitably distribute in divorce all property of either spouse, whether owned individually or jointly. The judge must make a division that is fair and equitable after weighing specific factors listed in state statute. CT Gen Stat § 46b-81.

This property-division statute also requires that the court “consider the contribution of each of the parties in the acquisition, preservation or appreciation in value of their respective estates.” Connecticut courts have consistently held that the judge must include nonmonetary, intangible contributions if they enriched the wealth or holdings of the family and its members. See O’Neill v. O’Neill, 13 Conn.App. 300 (1988) (“[H]uman capital in homemaking has worth …”).

A typical scenario

The circumstances in our hypothetical above – where one spouse manages the home to let the other advance their career or work a demanding executive or professional job to provide a good lifestyle – constitute the usual situation where nonmonetary contribution is relevant to property division. Traditionally the stay-at-home parent has been a mother, but gender is not a factor in the analysis, and more nontraditional arrangements and marriages may create alternate scenarios.

In addition, nonmonetary contributions from the working spouse can be relevant to the property distribution.

The state Supreme Court provided an example in Simmons v. Simmons, 244 Conn 158 (1998). There, both spouses worked and earned degrees in the first years of marriage. They had no children together, but the wife had six before the marriage.

Eight years into the marriage, the husband, 20 years the wife’s junior, entered a medical school that did not allow students to work while enrolled. During medical school, the wife worked to support the family and “provided financial and emotional support as well as her services as a homemaker.”

Two years before the end of a five-year residency program, the husband filed to dissolve the marriage.

The Supreme Court said that the trial court’s distribution of all the liquid assets (cash) to the wife and all the debt to the husband was equitable under the circumstances. While the husband’s medical degree itself was not distributable property, it did give the husband the prospect of significant earnings opportunities in the future.

(While we focus here on property division, the Supreme Court did hold that the trial court abused its discretion when it denied alimony to the wife. This is a typical resolution – but not automatic, said the court – to the problem presented when a spouse has supported the other through school but would without alimony never reap the financial benefit of their sacrifice for the other’s degree.)

Seasoned legal counsel

While an exact number cannot be assigned to a nonfinancial contribution, the judge must consider it in determining equity in distribution. When either litigant in a divorce has given nonmonetary contributions to the marriage that have enriched the value of their estates, the involvement of an experienced Connecticut family lawyer can make a difference.

Presentation of evidence relevant to intangible marital contributions can make all the difference in educating the judge about how significant such a contribution has been to the prosperity of the family. It can be challenging to establish the weight of something intangible and experienced legal counsel will understand how to undertake this presentation.

An attorney can assist a client in identifying nonmonetary contributions they may not have thought about – or in countering such contributions the other litigant claims they made. Counsel may provide guidance in assessing whether an intangible contribution made an economic difference, even a contribution outside of the usual circumstances.

And these contributions can make all the difference in the outcome. For example, in one case, the wife managed the home, provided care for the husband’s children plus one of their own while at times working outside the home. The court held that “the [wife’s] contributions to the husband, the children and the family during the almost twenty years of marriage are as significant and important to the accumulation and preservation of marital assets as are the contributions of the [working husband].” Smith v. Smith, 2002 WL 323524 (unpublished 2002).

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