Brief Fact Summary.
During a divorce the court of appeals instructed the trial court to devise an award of equitable distribution to the wife in compensation for her intangible contributions to the marriage that helped the husband to obtain his medical degree, which he financed without assistance from the wife. The case was appealed.
Synopsis of Rule of Law.
Courts should not apply the doctrine of equitable restitution when dividing property in divorce cases.
Karen (Plaintiff) and Jess (Defendant) Martinez married in 1968. At the time, both had high school educations. The Martinezes had three children between 1970 and 1975. Beginning in 1970, Jess completed the requirements for a bachelor’s degree, and then decided to attend medical school. He was in medical school from 1977 until 1981, and financed his education without assistance from his wife. Later, the couple filed for divorce. At issue was how to equitably divide the couple’s property. On appeal, the intermediate appellate court instructed the trial court to devise an award of equitable restitution to Karen in compensation for her intangible contributions to the marriage that helped Jess to obtain his medical degree. The case was then appealed to the state supreme court.
Whether courts should apply the doctrine of equitable restitution when dividing property in a divorce cases.
No. The court of appeals’ instruction to the trial court is reversed and the case is remanded to the trial court for further proceedings in light of this opinion. Courts should not apply the doctrine of equitable restitution when dividing property in divorce cases.
(Durham, J.): Yes. The majority holds that divorcing spouses have rights only to alimony, child support, and distribution of marital property. These legal rights by themselves are inadequate to ensure fair treatment of divorcing spouses in cases where one spouse obtained a professional degree during the marriage. Because a professional degree is not considered marital property, a spouse who did not obtain the degree is not compensated for the intangible sacrifices he or she made to help the other spouse obtain the degree. For example, a spouse who sacrificed a career to care for children so that the other spouse would be able to obtain a professional degree receives no compensation if the marriage ends in divorce, while the other spouse retains all the benefits of the professional degree. Equity and justice require courts to compensate the spouse’s loss of the investment that was made in the marriage. Equitable restitution is but one of many possible doctrines that courts could adopt to accomplish this. Courts might also calculate the financial gains and losses experienced by each spouse as a result of the marriage and financially compensate the spouse with the greater net loss. By rejecting the appellate court’s attempt at developing fair divorce procedures, the majority has kept in place a system of laws that treat divorcing spouses unfairly.
The court of appeals’ concept of equitable restitution cannot be sustained for three reasons. First, the concept of equitable restitution is based on the proposition that a failed marriage is a venture akin to a commercial partnership in which the spouses invest their time and effort solely for remunerative activities. Second, an award of equitable restitution would be extraordinarily speculative. Although the court of appeals’ opinion is somewhat unclear as to what kind of economic interest it intended to create or just how it should be computed, it did state, “An award of equitable restitution will not terminate upon plaintiff’s remarriage, and may be payable in lump sum or periodically over time depending on the circumstances of each case.” Third, although the court of appeals stated that it rejected the proposition that Dr. Martinez’s medical degree should be valued as a property interest and Mrs. Martinez given an interest in it, that court’s concept of equitable restitution is essentially indistinguishable. Professional degrees are not marital property. The recipient of an advanced degree obtains that degree on the basis of his or her innate personal talents, capabilities, and acquired skills and knowledge. Such a degree is highly personal to the recipient and has none of the traditional characteristics of property. The Court expresses no opinion on the appropriateness of the other modifications made by the court of appeals in the divorce decree.