Last year, my client Greg (not his real name) was facing what seemed like an uphill battle. He had finished medical school a few years before getting married. Both Greg and his wife worked while he attended medical school. His wife was working many more hours each week. Fast forward a few years and Greg is facing a divorce. His wife decided to dissolve the marriage and was seeking spousal support based on Greg’s earning potential.
Along with an enormous amount of school loan debt (he owed approximately $175,000.00), Greg was now also facing having to pay alimony or seek a loan for a lump sum settlement.
I know what you may be thinking; how could a degree or license be considered an asset? If you can’t put an exact dollar amount on the worth, how do you divide something not tangible such as a higher education?
Here’s the answer: If you received your degree while married, it may be considered marital property (an asset) in a handful of states during a divorce. In other words, your spouse may attempt to have the value of your professional degree—and your future earnings, be considered as an asset, therefore, looking to be compensated for it.
Whether you live in a community property or equitable distribution state, your higher earning power due to your degree may be considered.
Community Property Vs. Equitable Distribution
In community property states, property acquired throughout a marriage is jointly owned by each spouse and is divided equally in the event of a divorce. In equitable distribution states, the courts seek to divide marital property fairly but are not necessarily equal and much more complicated than a simple 50/50 split.
Property division is always complicated, regardless of which state you are in. In community property states, many attorneys will say a degree itself is not community property, however, the courts have the discretion to look at many factors that may be necessary to compensate one of the parties. In other words, the degree or license earned during the marriage itself is not valued and divided as tangible property, however, if your spouse contributed to your education or career-building, that will most likely be a factor in determining whether and how much alimony to award.
Did your spouse forgo seeking an education to support you and your family? If so, your spouse may be awarded rehabilitative alimony. This type of alimony is awarded to allow for the spouse to seek an education, training, or work experience to become self-supportive. Even in circumstances where both spouses worked, while one went to school and received a degree or license, the other party has a good chance they are going to be compensated. Your future earnings may be calculated and therefore awarding your spouse a percentage.
This can be a very convoluted area in divorce cases. My advice is to assume the degree or license may be a factor and seek the advice of a family law attorney.