As much as everybody loves going to court to air their dirty laundry in front of a bunch of strangers, many people kick that can down the road for as long as they can. Sometimes people decide to stop living as a married couple, move into separate residents, and for all intents and purposes, begin to lead separate lives long before filing for divorce. Sometimes people let months or even years pass by before formally getting divorced.
Does this sound like your situation? If so, The Court of Appeals just gave you $15,000,000.00 reasons to stop waiting to get that divorce. In Zelasko v. Zelasko, the plaintiff filed for divorce in September, 2011. The parties were in no hurry to finalize their divorce and were using an arbitrator to decide each issue piecemeal. A final disposition of the divorce did not get entered until approximately four years later.
During the pendency of the divorce on July 5, 2013, five years after the parties separated, the defendant bought a one dollar lottery ticket and won approximately $80 million dollars (after taxes he received $38,873,628.00). The question then became: are the lottery winnings part of the marital estate subject to division between the parties? The defendant argued that his lottery earnings were not part of the marital estate because the parties had separated approximately five years earlier and because of their pending divorce. However, the plaintiff, the arbitrator, the trial court, and the Court of Appeals all disagreed. The arbitrator decided that plaintiff was entitled to $15,000,000.00 of the defendant’s lottery earnings and the courts upheld the award, determining that, since the parties were technically still married when the defendant bought the lottery ticket, the lottery winnings were marital property subject to an equitable distribution.
With few exceptions, property acquired during a marriage is considered marital property subject to an “equitable distribution” by the court. The flip side of that rule is that debts acquired during a marriage are also subject to an “equitable distribution.” In short, if you are thinking about getting a divorce, or, if you are separated from your spouse and are in no hurry to get divorced, make sure that you are confident that your spouse isn’t racking up a bunch of debt that you could be on the hook for, and, make sure that you would be willing to divide with your spouse any new property you acquire before getting around to getting divorced.