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Equitable Division

How to Mitigate Litigation Costs in High Asset Divorce

Sunday, December 14th, 2014

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More money more problems. Although this adage is not commonly used in the context of divorce, it may ring very true in certain situations. In fact, a brief look at media coverage of high profile divorce cases proves this point. Let’s take Tiger Woods’ divorce as an example. Just like any divorce, Tiger Woods’ divorce involved four basic elements: property division, child support, child custody and alimony. However, instead of costing $25,000 to $30,000 to finalize, the cost of his divorce is estimated at $100 million. Why? The most likely possibility is that a couple’s personal assets are directly related to the legal fees and costs of divorce. Put differently, the wealthier an individual or couple is, the more they will likely pay for a divorce.

Fortunately, there are steps that may be taken by parties to high asset divorces to mitigate or limit the costs of divorce.

  • Hire a divorce attorney with experience handling high asset divorce matters. Just like you wouldn’t hire a contractor with no experience constructing a multilevel office building to build a skyscraper, it is not advisable to engage the services of a divorce attorney who is not familiar with the intricacies associated with dividing complex assets during divorce. Experience matters, and an experienced attorney will be more efficient and more effective, and efficiency and effectiveness often saves money.
  • Ask questions. After hiring an experienced divorce attorney, don’t be afraid to ask questions and be involved with the divorce process. After all, you know more about your marriage and assets than you attorney ever will. Thus, it is important to not only provide your attorney with complete and accurate details concerning your marriage, but also to ask questions of your attorney to ensure that you and she are on the same page.
  • Don’t let emotions cloud your judgment. Don’t make decisions when you are angry or when your judgment is otherwise clouded by emotion. Most often, decisions made in anger end up resulting in unnecessary litigation, which in turn increases litigation costs.
  • Engage the help of other divorce professionals. Accountants, estate planners, investment planners, and real estate agents, are all professional that may aid your divorce attorney to craft the best settlement or litigation strategy for you. Although hiring additional professionals may seem counter intuitive when trying to mitigate costs, the assistance of other professionals may reduce the time your divorce attorney has to devote to researching issues tangential to the divorce, which in turn reduces attorney’s fees.
  • Weigh costs versus benefits. When deciding on a litigation strategy, always ask yourself and your divorce attorney: “What are the costs associated with this strategy and what are the benefits.” For example, if it will cost $5,000 in attorney’s fees and other court costs to seek an additional $1,000 in asset distribution, seeking the additional assets is simply economically unfeasible. Don’t let your emotions or your desire to “win” overshadow the economic realities associated with divorce.

There is no doubt that divorce is expensive, but as outlined above there are steps that may be taken to mitigate litigation costs in high asset divorce. For more information concerning the special concerns attendant to high asset divorce, and what steps can be taken to mitigate litigation costs, speak to one of our Georgia asset division experts at Meriwether & Tharp.

Can You Be Held Responsible for Your Dead Ex-Spouse’s Debt?

Tuesday, September 16th, 2014

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One of the primary issues divorcing couples must work out is property division.  This includes both assets and debts. In both equitable division states (such as Georgia) and community property states, a final divorce decree will outline exactly how marital property is to be divided and how marital debts are to be allocated.  Community property states will divide all marital property and debts equally, but the divorce decree will still specify how it will be equally divided.

While a final divorce decree will protect you in court if your spouse is not making payments on a joint debt for which the divorce decree made him responsible, the creditor itself will not be appeased by the court order.  This is because the divorce decree is between you and your ex-spouse – the creditors do not sign off, nor are they a party to the agreement so they are not required to abide by it.  Thus, if your ex-spouse dies before he/she has fully satisfied a debt in both your names, the creditors are likely to come after you.   A dead ex-spouse’s debt can become your problem, by Jeanne Sahadi,, June 25, 2014.

For example, consider a situation wherein you and your ex had a joint credit card for which he was responsible post-divorce, but he dies before he has paid it all off.  In that case, the credit card company will likely come after you for payment because your name is on the card as well.  If you don’t pay it, it could be detrimental to your credit.  You could try filing a claim against his estate, but this takes time so you will likely be forced to pay it in the interim so you don’t damage your credit.

There are a couple things you could try to do to lessen your risk:

  1. Request that your settlement agreement/divorce decree have a clause requiring the party responsible for the debt post-divorce to refinance the debt to remove the other spouse’s name.  Houses and cars can be refinanced. If your ex will not be able to qualify to refinance into his own name, consider taking on the debt yourself along with some additional assets to balance it out.  That way, payment of the debt will be in your control.  Not all debt can be refinanced this way but it is worth a try.
  2. Estate planning attorney Geoff Germane of Kirton McConkie suggests that, at the time of your divorce, “you could try to enter into what’s called a ‘novation’ or ‘accord and satisfaction’ with the creditor to erase your further liability for the debt.  This is essentially an agreement with the creditor that you are no longer responsible for the debt.

Though neither of these options is foolproof, they are certainly worth a try to reduce your risk of being later help responsible for a debt from which you assumed you were already safe.

Is Life Insurance Marital or Separate Property?

Tuesday, August 19th, 2014

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In the case of Frankie Valli v. Randy Valli, the California Supreme Court answered the above stated question: life insurance is marital property (community property according to California law) if purchased with marital funds.

This issue was presented to the Supreme Court of California after Randy Valli appealed the trial court’s ruling in her divorce from Frankie Valli, lead singer of the critically acclaimed singing group the Four Seasons. Specifically, the issue on appeal was the trial court’s ruling regarding a $3.75 million life insurance policy purchased by the singer for the benefit of his wife. During the divorce proceeding, Randy Valli argued that she should retain the insurance policy as her own separate property because the policy named her as the sole owner and beneficiary. The trial court disagreed and held that the policy was community property because it was acquired during the marriage with funds from the couple’s joint bank account. The trial court went on to divided the policy between the spouses by awarding the policy to Frankie Valli and ordering him to buy out his wife’s half at its cash value, $182,500.

Randy Valli appealed the trial court’s decision, and the California Court of Appeals agreed with her argument. The appellate court reversed the lower court’s decision and held that the policy was Randy’s solely, because the policy was in her name alone. Frankie then sought redress from the Supreme Court of California, and in its May 15, 2014 opinion on the matter, the Supreme Court sided with Frankie and the trial court holding: “[…] we agree with the trial court’s characterization of the insurance police as community property.”

Although this matter was decided according to California law, which is distinct from Georgia divorce law in that Georgia is an equitable distribution state, not a community property state, it would not be surprising for a Georgia court to come to a similar conclusion based on similar facts. According to Georgia law, marital property is subject to equitable distribution between the spouses upon divorce. Property, whether real property, personal property, assets or income, is deemed marital if it was acquired by the spouses during the course of the marriage. Moore v. Moore, 249 Ga. 27 (1982). Thus, in a case similar to the Valli divorce, a Georgia court would likely find that a life insurance policy purchased during the marriage with funds from a couple’s joint bank account was marital property subject to division, regardless of which spouse was listed as the owner or beneficiary.

Professional Degrees are Not Subject to Division in Georgia Divorce

Sunday, August 17th, 2014


Obtaining a professional degree, such as a law degree, medical degree or a degree in accounting or business is an investment of both time and money. Like many other investments, professional degrees tend to benefit those who have invested the time and money to earn one in the form of better career opportunities and enhanced earning capacity. With that being said, if professional degrees may be viewed as investments, similar to investment accounts or investment property, the question may arise: “Are professional degrees subject to equitable division during divorce?”

In some states, the answer to the above question is an affirmative one. Professional degrees are viewed just like other forms of investment property and are subject to division upon divorce if deemed marital. However, Georgia is not one of those states. In Georgia, professional degrees are not subject to equitable division upon divorce. In a case specifically addressing this issue, the Supreme Court of Georgia held that professional degrees, such as medical degrees, were not subject to equitable division because “[t]heir value is too speculative to calculate, being simply the possibility of enhanced earnings they provide. That potential may never be realized for any number of reasons. [Professional degrees] have no exchange value or transferrable value on an open market, are personal to [the holder], terminate on his death, and cannot be assigned, sold, transferred or pledged.” Lowery v. Lowery, 262 Ga. 20 (1992).

Although a professional degree (or its value) may not be divisible upon divorce, it may impact an alimony determination. For example, if one spouse earned a professional degree during the course of the marriage, and the other spouse’s contributions to the marriage aided the degree seeking spouse in obtaining the degree, that spouse may be compensated for his or her contribution via alimony. Id. at 20 n.1.


Recognizing Rare Types of Divisible Property in Georgia Divorce

Saturday, August 16th, 2014

There are four main aspects of divorce in Georgia: child support, child custody, alimony and equitable distribution. In many divorce matters, equitable distribution, or the division of marital property upon divorce, is one of the most complex aspects of Georgia divorce. Equitable division is so complex, because before marital property may be fairly divided between spouses, potentially divisible property must first be identified, classified as either marital or separate, and valued.  Generally, couples find it easy to identify potentially divisible marital property, because such property often includes property such as: the marital home, vehicles, home goods and other real and personal property acquired during the marriage or with marital funds. However, homes and cars are not the extent of property that may be divided between divorcing spouses. There is a vast array of property, both tangible and intangible, that may be subject to equitable division during a Georgia divorce. Listed below are some types of property that may not be readily recognized as marital property subject to equitable distribution. This list is not exhaustive. Thus, if you are considering divorce and have questions regarding how your assets should be divided upon divorce, it is absolutely essential for you to consult with an Atlanta divorce attorney with the knowledge and skills necessary to identify potentially divisible marital property to ensure a fair divorce settlement.


Stocks and bonds

Mutual funds

Certificates of deposit

Money market accounts


Life insurance policy cash values


Security Deposits

Future Interests (Remainders)

Oil, Gas, and Mineral Interests

Intellectual Property, such as patents, copyrights, and contracts for royalties

Promissory Notes

Personal Injury awards for compensatory damages

Workers’ Compensation Awards


Business interests

Vacation clubs/Timeshares

Frequent flyer miles

Hotel Points

Season Tickets

Club memberships



Do Non-Economic Contributions Matter in Georgia Equitable Division Cases?

Wednesday, July 30th, 2014

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Georgia law does not provide a formula when it comes to equitably dividing marital property upon divorce. Alternatively, Georgia law gives judges and juries discretion to determine what is a fair or equitable division of a couple’s marital property. In deciding equitable division cases, judges and juries rely on certain factors outlined in Georgia case law to determine how a couple’s property should be divided. These factors include, among others:

  • Each party’s contribution to the acquisition and maintenance of the marital property;
  • The purpose and intent of the parties regarding the ownership of the property;
  • The separate estate or non-marital property of each of the parties;
  • The length of the marriage;
  • Any prior marriage of either party; and,
  • The service contributed by each spouse to the family unit.

Stokes v. Stokes, 246 Ga. 765 (1980); See also Rooks v. Rooks, 252 Ga. 11 (1984) (concurring opinion)( “Stokes simply recognized that a spouse’s non-economic contributions to a marriage might be reflected in an ‘equitable division’ of property, notwithstanding the incidence of legal ownership,[…]”).

Thus, the question posed above can be answered in the affirmative. Yes, non-economic contributions, such as the service contributed by spouses to the family unit, do indeed matter in Georgia equitable division cases.

Impact of 401(k) Loans on Equitable Division in Georgia Divorce

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2014

Georgia is an equitable distribution or equitable division state, not a community property state. This means that upon divorce a couple’s marital property is divided equitable or fairly between the parties. Marital property does not simply include marital assets, such as the marital house, cars and bank accounts, but marital property also includes marital debts, like credit card debt and home loans.  With that being said, determining how to divide an account that may be simultaneously seen as both an asset and a debt may be extremely difficult.

When it comes to dividing 401(k) or other qualified retirement accounts that have outstanding loans against them, many parties are tempted to simply ignore the loan and proceed to divide or retain the retirement account as if there was no outstanding debt associated with it. This is a mistake. Failing to understand the impact of 401(k) loans on equitable division may result in both parties, especially the employee-spouse, suffering unintended financial hardship due to this mistake. For example:

Wife and Husband seek a divorce. The assets the couple must divide include a 401(k) held in Wife’s name. Wife has contributed $50,000 to the retirement account, but there is currently a $20,000 loan against the account. In the divorce, Husband and Wife agree to equally divide the retirement account. Upon their divorce, they have a QDRO prepared that reflects this agreement. The loan is not accounted for. Husband receives his $25,000 portion. However, Wife is only left with $5,000. Since the outstanding loan was not addressed, Wife is only left with the value of the retirement account, minus the loan. Additionally, she must ensure the loan is repaid to avoid penalties.

Although many couples intentionally choose to have one spouse bear the entire burden of a 401(k) loan, this is not the only option. In fact, there are several ways a property settlement could be structured to ensure both parties bear some responsibility for the outstanding loan, especially if the loan was used for the benefit of both spouses.

Using the above example, if the property agreement and QDRO addressed the loan, Husband’s portion could have been reduced by $10,000, making him accountable for half of the outstanding loan, instead of leaving Wife to bear the entire burden of the loan herself. Because there are some many intricacies associated with Georgia divorce and equitable division, it is absolutely necessary to engage the services of an experienced Atlanta divorce team who understand the complexities of Georgia property division and who have the financial know how to ensure a fair property division in divorce.


Who Should Keep the Marital Home Post-Divorce?

Wednesday, April 16th, 2014

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Unfortunately, there isn’t a“right” answer to the question of who should keep the marital home upon divorce. In fact, depending on the details of the particular case, it may be more advantageous for neither spouse to retain the marital home, but to instead sell the home and split the proceeds. Below is a list of factors that each spouse should consider before a decision is made regarding whether the home should be retained by one spouse post-divorce, and if so, by whom.

Does either spouse want the marital home? If neither spouse wishes to retain the marital home post-divorce, the best options are likely to sell the marital home or to seek to rent the marital home to a third party if selling the home will not yield a profit. Alternatively, if both spouses want to retain the marital home after divorce, extensive negotiation may be necessary to determine which spouse should retain the marital home. In the event the parties are not able to resolve the issue of who will retain the spouse, it may necessary to proceed to trial in order for a judge to make this determination. Situations where only one spouse wants to keep the home are generally the least difficult. In such situations, it is generally only necessary for the parties to determine how the other marital assets will be apportioned in order offset the value received by the party retaining the home.

Can either spouse afford the mortgage payments post-divorce? In determining which spouse should retain the marital home post-divorce another issue that should be considered is which spouse will be able to afford mortgage payments post-divorce. If the spouse who seeks to keep the home will not be able to handle the home’s mortgage, other alternatives should be considered such as selling the home or awarding it to the other spouse.

Can the spouse who wishes to retain the home able to refinance the mortgage into their name solely? In addition to being able to afford the mortgage payment, the spouse who wishes to retain the marital home post-divorce must also have the ability to refinance the home mortgage into his or her name solely. Often couple’s obtain home mortgages jointly, meaning that both spouses are jointly liable for the mortgage. Divorce does not sever this joint liability, thus if the spouse who retains the home fails to make timely payments the other spouse’s credit may suffer if the mortgage is not refinanced.

Are there any second mortgages or HELOCs? If there are second mortgages or home equity lines of credit that have been taken out against the marital home, not only must it be determined who will retain the home itself, but it must also be determined how the debt against the home will be apportioned. Often, the spouse who gives up the marital home will resist accepting any liability for the debt associated with it. Thus, the spouse who wishes to retain the marital residence must also be prepared to potentially take on all liabilities associated with the home as well.

Is there agreement regarding the home’s value? This is often a sticking point between spouses who have otherwise reached a decision concerning the disposition of the marital home post-divorce. Even if the home is not going to be sold, the value attributed to the home is important because it directly impacts the analysis that must be conducted to ensure that the marital assets are divided equitably.

If the home is sold, how will the proceeds be divided? Will the home sale proceeds be divided equally or will one spouse receive a greater of the proceeds? If the parties agree to sell the home, not only must the division of home sale proceeds be determined, but the home sale price must be agreed upon and a determination regarding how the costs associated with the sale will be apportioned must be made as well.

The Four Parts of Georgia Divorce: Equitable Division

Thursday, March 27th, 2014

As discussed in our original post entitled “The Four Parts of Georgia Divorce,” Georgia is an equitable distribution state. This means that upon divorce, a couple’s marital property is not divided equally or 50/50, but marital property is divided equitably or fairly upon divorce. O.C.G.A. § 19-5-13 and Fuller v. Fuller, 621 S.E.2d 419 (Ga. 2005). Not only are marital property and assets divided equitably upon divorce, but marital debts and obligations are divided equitably upon divorce as well.

Only marital assets and debts are subject to equitable division upon divorce. An asset or a debt is deemed marital if it was acquired by the parties during the marriage. If an asset or debt is deemed marital, it is subject to division regardless of whose name the property is listed in. Stokes v. Stokes, 246 Ga. 765 (1980).  Essentially, all property acquired during the marriage, like cars, homes, business and furnishings are marital property, unless some exception applies. Alternatively, a spouse’s separate property is not subject to equitable division. Separate property is generally defined as property acquired by one spouse prior to the marriage or property acquired by on spouse by gift, inheritance, bequest or devise, even though during the marriage, remains that spouse’s separate property. Payson v. Payson, 274 Ga. 231 (2001) and Bailey v. Bailey, 250 Ga. 15 (1982).

There is no set formula or calculation used to divide marital property in Georgia. Thus, Georgia judges and juries rely on certain factors and factual determinations in order to determine how the parties’ marital property should be divided. To divide marital property, a Georgia court or jury may consider the following:

  • Each parties contribution to the acquisition and maintenance of the marital property;

  • The purpose and intent of the parties regarding the ownership of the property;

  • The separate estate or non-marital property of each of the parties;

  • The length of the marriage;

  • Any prior marriage of either party; and,

  • The service contributed by each spouse to the family unit.

In addition to the above mentioned factors, Georgia courts may also consider whether the couple’s separation was caused by the misconduct of one of the spouses (for example, if one spouse commits adultery is willfully abandons the other spouse). If so, the judge or jury may rely on this information when determining how the parties’ marital property should be divided. In fact, the portion of marital property awarded to the guilty spouse may be negatively affected by his or her misconduct.


Uncovering Undisclosed Assets Using Your Spouse’s Tax Returns

Wednesday, March 19th, 2014

One of the biggest fears most often held by those going through divorce in Georgia is that their spouse will actively hide or fail to disclose any separate or marital assets and income that should be considered in determining issues such as equitable division, alimony or child support. In Georgia, when a divorce action is initiated, each party is required to complete a Domestic Relations Financial Affidavit (DRFA). Once complete this affidavit must be filed with the court and served on the opposing party. The purpose of this affidavit is to ensure that each party and the court are fully apprised of the assets and income of both spouses.

Additionally, in Fulton County, each party is mandated to respond to Fulton County Mandatory Discovery. Fulton County Mandatory Discovery requires each party to respond to a series of questions concerning income, employment and other issues and also requires each party to produce certain documentation such as paystubs, tax returns and bank records.

Although, in theory, the above mentioned tools would ensure that each party is made fully aware of the other parties’ financial circumstances, it is unfortunately common for individuals to fail to disclose certain sources of income in an effort to reduce their potential child support or alimony liability or to hide assets that would otherwise be subject to equitable division. One option to uncover hidden assets or undisclosed income would be to engage a private investigator or forensic accountant. However, engaging the services of these experts may significantly increase the cost associated with the divorce process.

Although seeking the expertise of a forensic account or other experts may ultimately be necessary, especially in high asset divorce matters, reviewing tax returns is one of the best starting places to determine whether a spouse may be hiding assets. This is so because a spouse who has concerns that their husband or wife has failed to disclose all assets and sources of income may obtain very useful information from the schedules that are often submitted with jointly filed federal tax returns.

Schedule B – Schedule B requires the taxpayer to list the names of names of mutual funds, brokerage companies, banks and other sources of dividends and interest. Additionally, Schedule B also requires the taxpayer to answer questions about the existence of banks and financial accounts in foreign countries or foreign trust transactions. Although individuals whose interest or dividend income is less than $1,500 are not required to complete a Schedule B or list the names of the financial institution where the investment is held, that individual must still report the amount of such income on Form 1040. Even this information may be useful because it shows that individual owns assets that generate investment income. This starting point may then in turn be the basis for serving discovery requests requiring that party to provide more information concerning the source of that investment income.

Schedule D – Schedule D requires the disclosure of capital gains and losses from the sale of fund shares, individual stocks and other assets. Thus, if one spouse reports capital gains and/or losses in Schedule D, this shows that he or she once owned the assets that were sold, and may likely own more.

Schedule E – Schedule E discloses income and/or losses from rental real estate (including the type and location), royalties, partnerships and S corporations, and trusts and estates. Schedule E may be of most import to those who wish to uncover rental property owned by their estranged spouse and the income that spouse is receiving from such income. Schedule E is extremely helpful in this regard because it not only lists the income from rental real estate but also lists the type and location of the property from which the income is derived.