Court awards 10% of wife’s law degree to husband in divorce

April 16, 2012

Family Law Theme MonthDuring these tough economic times, many law school grads are struggling with trying to realize the value of their juris doctorates.

If you’re one of these individuals, though you certainly aren’t in an easy position, you should feel fortunate that you aren’t disputing the value of your law degree with your former spouse in court.

In New York, one of several of states that regard a professional license or degree as a martial asset subject to division during divorce, an appeals court recently affirmed a lower court ruling regarding both the value and apportionment of the former wife’s law degree.

Specifically, the former husband appealed the lower court’s ruling that his ex-wife’s law degree was only worth $126,000*, instead of his expert’s valuation of over $250,000, and that he was only entitled to a 10% share of it.

The disparity between the two values is attributable to differences in the wife’s earning potential used in each respective calculation.

Interestingly, though, the dispute wasn’t over the wife’s earning potential after obtaining her J.D., but before.

The wife’s expert calculated her earning capacity at $44,500 annually, based on statistical data.

Conversely, the husband’s expert calculated her potential earnings at $22,827 annually because of the emphasis he placed on the wife’s actual employment history in the period prior to obtaining her law degree.

In other words, the husband’s expert wanted the court to believe that the wife would have worked only part-time or lower paying jobs even if she hadn’t been attending law school.

This assertion relies on the assumption that one’s law school attendance doesn’t affect his or her employment options, which, as anyone who has attended law school will tell you, is a faulty one.

The appeals court recognized this as well, and affirmed the lower court’s acceptance of the degree’s valuation from the wife’s expert.

What about the husband’s being entitled to only 10% of the wife’s law degree?

10% is a significant departure from the 50% assumed at the outset of any marital property division, so how did the court get there?

The husband argued that he should get a bigger share because he was the family’s primary wage earner during the marriage and arranged his work schedule so that he could care for their children while the wife attended law school.

The court didn’t see these sacrifices as “additional effort to support [the wife] in obtaining [her] license,” but as “overall contributions to the marriage.”

Basically, the court said that he was just doing his job as a husband and a father, and nothing more.

On the other hand, in addition to recognizing the personal effort put forth by the wife in earning her J.D., the court found that the wife paid for a significant portion of her law school tuition through non-martial assets (merit scholarships and an inheritance received during the marriage).

As such, the appeals court affirmed the lower court’s decision – a ruling that comes over five years since the parties filed for divorce in December of 2006.

So, for all of those reading this that are still working to fully leverage the value of their J.D.’s, just be glad that you don’t have to fight a five year long court battle to retain this value for yourself.

*The court was evaluating the value of the wife’s J.D., but not her license to practice law, since the parties filed for divorce after she received her degree but before she passed the bar exam and received her law license.