equitable distribution of marital home

The immortal George Carlin once said, “That’s the whole meaning of life, trying to find a place for your stuff. That’s all your house is, just a place for your stuff while you go out and get more stuff.”

In the context of Family Law, the topic of personal property is rarely discussed and consistently dismissed by the court and counsel. It is clear that both view personal property as being simply stuff. In fact, it has been assigned multiple euphemisms to it in order to deflate its relative importance. We have all heard the dismissive terms: chachka; accoutrement; trinket; fixture; knick knack; and of course, whatnot- a word specifically designed to describe all the things the item is actually not. In addition, there is often such contempt for personal property that we have created an amalgamation, personalty, simply in hopes of accelerating the process of distributing it by reducing the length of the term, itself.

Continue Reading Personal Property: From Picayune to Precious, Distributing the Immaterial Possession

Last year, we published a post entitled He Who Hesitates (To Sell Former Marital Home) May Have Lost.  However, the Supreme Court disagreed in Sachau v. Sachau decided May 11, 2011.

In Sachau, the marital home was supposed to be sold on a triggering event, the emancipation of the youngest child, which in this case was in 1984.  The house wasn’t sold then but in 1990, the wife began making inconsistent payments at inconsistent intervals to the husband through 2004 totalling almost $80000.  When the husband became unable to support himself, he filed a motion to compel the sale of the house in 2006.

Without getting into the legal steps it took to get to a hearing, the trial judge ultimately concluded that there was no agreement between the parties in respect of the valuation date and that the 1984 value of the home was $120,000 and that was the valued to be used.  As such, the husband’s share was filed at  $144,915.62 (which included interest) and the wife’s share was $417,472.64. The judge further determined that the wife would be credited for payments made. Moreover, the judge noted that the equities were in parity and that “the passage of time ha[d] not caused a change in position to the
detriment of [Barbara].” The husband appealed, and as noted in our prior post, the Appellate Division affirmed.

Continue Reading Supreme Court Says That Unless You Specifically Agree Otherwise, Date of Value for a House is the Date of Distribution

On April 5th, the struggling housing market will face a new ally in the form of a short sale program being aggressively pushed by the Obama Administration to help millions of home owners escape from mortgage debt by selling their homes for less than the balance of the mortgage while receiving an additional monetary payment to do so.  As the government’s attempts to assist homeowners struggling to make their mortgage payments have only slightly helped according to a recent article in the New York Times, the new program will pay $1,500 to the short selling homeowners to "relocate."

The benefits of the plan are hoped to be widespread, as lenders will ideally receive more money than with a foreclosure, the borrowers will experience a softer hit to their credit – including the lender’s assurance that they will not later be sued for an unpaid mortgage balance – and fewer homes will be empty on the foreclosure market.  To protect from cases of fraud, lenders will utilize real estate agents, who will determine a home’s value and, by correlation, the minimum acceptable sale price.  Adding another layer to this new system, the agent’s determined value will not even be shared with the home owner, but the lender is required to accept any offer equal to or higher to such value.  What happens when a home owner has multiple mortgages on a single property, however, remains unclear.

From a family law standpoint, this plan provides the sort of good news that divorcing spouses struggling with what to do with their "under water" marital residence are looking for.  Whether it actually fulfills that glimmer of promise, however, remains unclear.  In the down real estate market, how to equitably distribute the home has proven challenging.  Oftentimes, neither party can afford to continue residing in the marital home, refinancing is unavailable due to the negative equity, neither party wants to face the credit hit of a foreclosure, and there is no money to cover the shortfall debt that might result where the house is sold for a price lower than the outstanding mortgage.

Short sales with a guarantee that the lender will not come after the borrowers such as that in the President’s plan are therefore a desirable way out.  Short sales generally tend to be a risky, slow moving process with no guarantees.  With the Obama Administration’s new plan to boost the housing market, hopefully such situations will take a turn for the better.

A recent case was filed concerning a woman who entered into a Marital Settlement Agreement with her then husband in which the marital home was not to be sold immediately, but provided for how the proceeds would be distributed when it was. The Husband, however, was in poor health, and the agreement did not provide for the possible event of his death prior to sale of the home. In fact, the husband died prior to the sale of the house, but after the limited divorce that the couple had obtained .  His interest in the house went to his estate rather than to his former wife as she had anticipated. The former wife was then forced to purchase the half interest from the estate in order to retain the home, something that was not anticipated by her, and cost her a significant amount of money.

I am sure that the former wife assumed that the deed to her home contained a right of survivorship in the event of her former husband’s death. Instead,  the property was most likely titled in such a way that the parties owned the property as tenants by the entirety, which means that they owned as husband and wife, and upon the death of one spouse  title of the property would go to other, assuming they were still married. Upon the divorce of parties to a tenancy by the entirety,  however, the title changes to what is known as a tenancy in common, which means that they each had a one half interest in the property which would then go to their beneficiaries upon death unless there is a specified right of survivorship.


The moral of this story? Make sure your lawyer has a copy of your deed as well as any other important documents.   If you do not have one, make sure that a title search is conducted on the property.   It is critical that a lawyer understand how property is held between spouses and/or other co-owners. Many times, incorrect assumptions are made about these kinds of issues and the results can be expensive. My motto is, I can never have to much information from my client.

In September of 2008, I posted a blog entry on The Value of Real Estate – Problems in this Ever Changing Market.  In that post, given the decline in the real estate market, it was posited that retaining the marital home may not be the best financial strategy.  Unfortunately, little has changed in the real estate market since that time to change conclusions of that post.

That said, in many cases, the marital home remains the single largest asset to divide in divorce.  Moreover, with the continuing troubles in the economy, it may represent the only way for either or both of the parties to wind up with liquid funds after the divorce.  Now if the home is going to be sold, or one party is going to buy out the other, then there usually is little dispute other than logistics of sales price, how soon to reduce the price, how to handle repairs until sale, etc. 

The problem arises if one party wants to defer distribution to allow the child(ren) to finish high school, etc.  There is a question of fairness to the other spouse whose equitable distribution is tied up as may be their ability to buy a house of their own both (1) because they don’t have the money for a down payment until they get their share of the house or (2) they are still on the mortgage of the marital home.  Further, due to the decline in the real estate market, parties are now also agreeing to defer the distribution for some period of time in hopes that the market will rebound, as opposed to selling now.


The disposition of the marital home is oftentimes the most pressing financial issue in a divorce case. The current real estate market brings tax issues to the forefront which must be given consideration. When negotiating a settlement, (or preparing for trial) it is important to understand the tax consequences of the disposition of property. Too often, parties simply think they are just going to divide assets at the value that they have today on a statement rather than understanding the tax affected value. One area that has to be carefully considered is the marital home.

As a general rule, when you sell your primary residence, you can make up to $250,000 in profit if you’re a single owner, twice that if you’re married, and not owe any capital gains taxes. However, in the 5 years prior to the sale of the house, you need to have lived in the house for at least 24 months in that 5-year period. In other words, the home must have been your principal residence.


In a matrimonial action, and in particular, in a long marriage where the parties have owned a house for many years, this rule can have a profound affect on a party who has not been living in the house while the action has been pending. Add to this a real estate market that us sluggish and in which houses are taking years to sell, a settlement that says the parties shall “sell the house and divide the proceeds equally”, can really result in an unequal amount to the parties after taxes if one parties pays a substantial capital gains tax and the other, who has been living in the house pending sale, does not. SO, if you are going to let one parent stay in the house for the next six years until junior finishes high school and the real estate market hopefully bounces back, make sure you have considered the possible tax consequences.


Capital gains of course, are not limited to houses. The same concern exists for investments and any other assets that have increased in value. So if Jane is going to get the AT&T stock that was a wedding gift 25 years ago and worth $100,000 today and John is going to get the money market account with $100,000, it’s really not an equal distribution of assets, because Jane is getting an asset that is going to be taxed. 


The above examples are meant to stress the importance of understanding the effect that taxes can have on a distribution of assets and the importance of getting sound advise from your attorney and accountant or other tax professional prior to signing any agreement.