The “Wright” Strategy for Increasing What You Keep in Your Divorce
In a post titled “Determining Marital Property in Maryland, Virginia and the District Of Columbia” (June 17, 2011), I said:
“This article is about when the accumulation of marital property ends. It starts at the time of the marriage. When you return from the honeymoon and go to work the next Monday morning you are earning marital property – the stuff the divorce judge divides. When is the first day you can go to work and earn separate non-marital property? It depends on the jurisdiction.”
And after reviewing the applicable statutes, I said:
“When you and your spouse have separated, intending to remain separated, and do not have a property settlement agreement, in Maryland and the District of Columbia the property you acquire from the date of separation until the date of divorce is marital property. In Virginia such property is not presumptively marital, and in general is determined to be separate property, unless special facts and circumstances are established to overcome the presumption.”
In a recent case, Wright v Wright, 61 Va. App. 432; 737 S.E. 2d 519; 2013 Va. App. LEXIS 53, the Court of Appeals of Virginia considered whether Mr. Wright’s strategy in the two plus years between the date of separation and date of the divorce hearing required a finding to bring post-separation expenditures of marital property back into the marital pot to be divided with Mrs. Wright.
Husband had certain marital accounts totaling about $2,800,000. Husband earned approximately $1,500,000 per year; Wife was a homemaker. During the post-separation period, the marital accounts declined to about $1,415,000 on account of Husband’s payment of joint income taxes, real estate taxes on the marital home, tuition and school expenses for a child of the parties, spousal support to Wife and his own attorney’s fees and expert witness fees. Husband deposited the money he did not spend on these expenses to his separate accounts which, of course, were not marital.
The Court of Appeals said none of those expenditure were improper so they did not amount to “marital waste.” They explained that there are only two categories of expenditures of marital funds “proper” and “waste.” If your spending of marital funds falls into the “proper” categories it’s okay even if that permits a big decline in marital assets to be divided and a big increase in the separate funds of the party following the strategy.
The result in Wright provides a road map for the higher earning spouse to skew the division of marital property in his or her favor in some Virginia cases. If you are the lower earning spouse you want prompt filings, quick hearings and, if the stakes justify it, an injunction on expenditure of marital property.
Also, for multi-state or potentially multi-state cases, Wright is another reason that in a case with a relatively long separation, all other things being equal, the higher earning spouse probably wants the divorce case to be heard in Virginia. As I’ve said here before, a little planning and a little audacity can get you into the Court you want to be in. And a little more planning during separation can increase the property you get to keep.
Some of the facts here are from an article by one of the lawyers involved in the case. What’s wrong with Wright, Ronald R. Tweel (Virginia Family Law Quarterly, Spring 2014)