So often I hear how a particular outcome in a custody, divorce or support matter is “unfair” because my client “knows a guy” who didn’t have to give up as much or got a better custody arrangement or had a significantly different support order. A client will often compare her situation to a relative, a friend or a co-worker and wonder why things turn out differently for her. As attorneys, we try to give clients the best advice given the circumstances of each client’s situation, but that will not necessarily be the same as your sister, friend or coworker. This series of blog posts will attempt to shed some light onto some of the reasons for the differing outcomes in family law cases.
Divorce and Equitable Distribution
In the process of a divorce, the division of marital property in Pennsylvania is governed by the legal concept of equitable distribution (marital property is defined generally as all property acquired during the marriage, regardless of how it is titled). Essentially, what this means is that the division of marital property be done in a way that is fair (or equitable) to both parties. This does not always mean a 50/50 split. In fact, the court is not permitted to start with the presumption of a 50/50 split. Rather, the division is dependent on several factors identified by the legislature that must be considered in making an equitable distribution decision. These factors, found in the Divorce Code, include things such as the length of the marriage, the opportunity of each party for future acquisitions of capital assets and income and the tax ramifications associated with the division of the assets. There are many more factors listed by the legislature. Not all factors identified in the Divorce Code are relevant in every divorce and in some situations some factors are given more weight than others. Divorce attorneys are typically very familiar with these factors and use them in analyzing a likely or fair division of assets for their clients.
In the context of these factors, a couple’s situation can drastically affect the outcome of the case. For example, the distribution of the assets in a two year marriage will likely be considerably different than in a 22 year marriage. Similarly, a couple that is divorcing in their retirement years will likely have a much different distribution scheme than a couple in their 40s who are each working and will continue to generate income and assets. Other situations which typically affect distribution are the existence and/or number of children of the parties, the existence of a prenuptial agreement and the work and educational history of each party.
Simply put, family law in general – and equitable distribution in particular – is not one size fits all. There are intricacies that play in to each and every situation. In equitable distribution, those intricacies can make a significant difference in the division of marital assets and, as a result, a significant difference in each each party's financial status after divorce.