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Angiulo: Sometimes a Spouse Really Does Get Half Your Stuff in a Divorce

Monday, August 31, 2015


For people who don't have much, divorce can be a really easy thing.  In fact, there are some fairly simple forms available online through the Massachusetts Probate and Family Court website that can help with the process.  Things can get a little more complicated when large sums of money are involved.  

In general, the marital estate gets divided up between spouses at the time of divorce. Whether or not a party is entitled to a particular asset that one spouse claims as theirs will depend on a number of factors included within the relevant statute.  Those factors include, but are not limited to, the length of the marriage, amounts and sources of income, as well as the needs of each party.  

The recent case of Pfannenstiehl v. Pfannenstiehl from the Appeals Court of Massachusetts puts a spotlight on the process of divvying up money.  The money in question in this case was in a large trust fund held by one of the spouses.  The husband was the beneficiary of a generous family trust that provided regular and ongoing distributions during the course of the marriage.  The facts of the case recite a one-time payment of $300,000 in 2008 as well as several payments ranging from $20,000 to $85,000 during 2009 and 2010.  In addition, the husband was working for the family business receiving a salary roughly three times that which an ordinary person would get for the position of assistant manager at a college bookstore.

All of this mattered to the Appeals Court because of the central role this wealth played in the spouse's lifestyle during the marriage.  The court noted that these monies afforded the parties a large house, weekly individual expenses between two and three thousand dollars, and discretionary spending.  Most importantly, these liquid assets provided the ability to provide exceptional care for their two children who had significant health concerns.

In order to divide anything, one must first identify the sum total.  In this case, the trial court decided that the marital estate included the husband's portion of the trust fund.  The question on appeal was whether, or not, this was appropriate.

The husband's defense included terms of the trust fund that are known as a “spendthrift” clause.  This is a fancy name for the idea that a beneficiary cannot transfer their interest to a third party.  In addition, there was some effort to show that distributions to the husband were irregular and, therefore, the court could not assign any particular figure to the marital estate.

While the published opinion rests on legal and factual grounds the ultimate result was the Appeals Court agreeing with the Trial Court.  The wife received approximately sixty percent of the marital estate totalling $2.3 million.  Approximately $1.1 million of that amount was from the husband's portion of the trustfund.  For many people they may be wondering why this money, which was made independent from any act by either party of the marriage, would be reachable by a divorce court.  While the answer is a long one, the moral of this story is short:  be careful who you marry because they just might end up with half your stuff.    

Leonardo Angiulo is an Attorney with the firm of Glickman, Sugarman, Kneeland & Gribouski in Worcester handling legal matters across the Commonwealth. He can be reached by email at [email protected] 


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