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O’Brien v. O’Brien

Todd Berman

InstructorTodd Berman

CaseCast "What you need to know"

CaseCast –  "What you need to know"

O'Brien v. O'Brien

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Brief Fact Summary. A spouse sought to have a professional license declared as marital property, thus subject to equitable distribution.

Synopsis of Rule of Law. An interest in a professional or professional career potential is marital property, which may be represented by direct or indirect contributions of the non-title holding spouse.

Points of Law - Legal Principles in this Case for Law Students.

That is so because marital fault is inconsistent with the underlying assumption that a marriage is in part an economic partnership and upon its dissolution the parties are entitled to a fair share of the marital estate, because fault will usually be difficult to assign and because introduction of the issue may involve the courts in time-consuming procedural maneuvers relating to collateral issues.

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Facts. Plaintiff and Defendant married. They moved to Mexico so Plaintiff could go to medical school full-time. Defendant taught school and contributed her earnings to their joint expenses. They moved back to America so Plaintiff could finish school. Two months after Plaintiff received is license, he filed this action for divorce.

Issue. Is a professional license of one party subject to equitable distribution in a divorce?

Held. Yes.
Marital property is subject to equitable distribution. It is property acquired by either spouse during the marriage regardless of the form in which title is held. New York recognizes that spouses have an equitable claim to things of value arising out of the marital relationship and classifies them as subject to distribution by focusing on the marital statue of the parties at the time of acquisition.
An interest in a professional or professional career potential is marital property, which may be represented by direct or indirect contributions of the non-title holding spouse.
Few undertakings during a marriage better qualify as a joint effort than contributions toward one spouse’s acquisitions of a professional license. Working spouses make great sacrifices and forgo the acquisition of marital assets that could have been accumulated if the professional spouse had been employed rather than occupied with the study and training necessary to acquire a professional license.
Here, most of the marriage was devoted to Plaintiff getting his license. Defendant played a major role in that effort. Here contributions represent investments in their partnership and the license is a product of the parties’ joint efforts, so should be considered marital property.
Concurrence. A professional in training who is not finally committed to a career choice when the distributive award is made may be locked into a particular kind of practice simply because the monetary obligations imposed by the distributive award made by the court. The equitable distributions of the law were intended to provide flexibility so that equity could be done.

Discussion. The court reads a broad definition of property to include professional licenses acquired during the marriage. They believe that a professional license is obtained through a joint effort of spouses, not the work of one.

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