Have you heard the old saw about a divorce settlement being a good one when “both parties walk away unhappy?” Likely that is a result of a sum zero settlement approach that focuses on positions, instead of one that focuses on interests, needs, goals, and the best interests of the parties and/or the family. Applying an interest-based approach to property division usually results in a more equitable settlement and greater satisfaction for both parties.
What Is Equitable Distribution?
Massachusetts, along with many other states, adopts the principle of “equitable distribution” when it comes to the division of assets in a divorce. The primary aim of this approach is to ensure that marital assets and liabilities are divided fairly when a couple decides to end their marriage.
Contrary to what many might believe, the term “equitable” does not necessarily mean “equal” or a 50-50 split. Rather, it means “fair” and “just.” In making a determination of what is appropriate, equitable division requires an examination of the specific circumstances of each individual marriage, taking into account a series of factors set forth in G.L.c. 208, s. 34, to arrive at a distribution that is both just and reasonable. This method recognizes the unique dynamics of each marital relationship and strives for a division that best serves both you and your family. The primary goal is to ensure that each of you receives a fair portion of the shared assets and responsibilities.
Equitable distribution offers several benefits. Among its most notable is its ability to balance the scales between divorcing spouses. For instance, in a marriage where one of you primarily earns and the other focuses on responsibilities like raising children, running a household, or contributing in some other way, such as through sweat equity, volunteer or non-profit work, pursuing higher education or starting a business, assets are primarily acquired through the higher earning partner. However, with equitable distribution, the lower-earning or non-earning spouse still retains rights to property during the divorce. This approach also supports interest-based negotiation, where consideration of the parties’ needs and abilities post-divorce are a critical part of the discussion.
Factors Considered in Property Division
When dividing property in a divorce, parties must weigh a variety of considerations to ensure a fair distribution, set forth as factors under M.G.L. c. 208, s. 34. These factors help guide decisions and account for the unique circumstances of each marriage. Here are some of the pivotal factors taken into account:
- Duration of the Marriage: The length of your marriage can play a significant role in property distribution. A longer marriage generally means more intertwined assets. Conversely, a shorter marriage often has assets that were acquired independently before marriage.
- Economic and Non-Economic Contributions: Couples should assess each of your financial and non-financial contributions. This includes income and other contributions like homemaking, raising children, supporting your spouse’s education or career, pursuing your own education, sweat equity, or efforts in starting a business.
- Needs of Each Party Post-Divorce: The future financial needs and liabilities of each of you and, if applicable, your children must be considered. An assessment of future needs aims to ensure that you can each maintain a reasonable standard of living, especially when factors like age, health, and future earning potential come into play.
- Conduct of the Parties During the Marriage: While Massachusetts is a no-fault divorce state, in some cases the conduct, meaning problematic conduct, of a spouse can be taken into consideration, not for the moral dimensions of such conduct, but for its effect on the marital estate. For instance, excessive spending, hiding assets, substance misuse, gambling, or infidelity that caused significant financial strain or lowered earning capacity, might be relevant to a determination of equitable division.
- Current and Future Needs of Any Unemancipated Children: When dividing property, you should take into account the current and future needs of your unemancipated children, ensuring their well-being and financial security are prioritized. This consideration plays an important role in decisions related to housing, education, inheritance, and other child-related expenses.
Each of these factors, among others, provides a more holistic view of your financial dynamics, ensuring the distribution is equitable and meets the interests and needs of all involved.
Mediation and Collaborative Law Can Help You Reach Agreement on How to Divide Your Assets.
Choose to take the reins when it comes to deciding on the division of your assets, rather than leaving it up to the court. By actively participating in the division process, you can craft an agreement that genuinely reflects your unique circumstances and understanding of what is fair. Mediation provides a structured environment where you can work cooperatively, assisted by an unbiased third party with expertise in guiding negotiation, to reach such an agreement. Mediation emphasizes communication, transparency, and assistance in resolving conflict. Collaborative Law offers a team approach where you and your attorneys, along with a neutral facilitator, function as a team to identify goals, interests, and needs, and assist you in identifying solutions that benefit you, your spouse, and your children, and help you build a practical, ongoing co-parenting relationship post-divorce.
Opting for interest-based conflict resolution offers numerous benefits. First, it can significantly reduce the adversarial jockeying commonly associated with divorces, promoting a more reasonable and practical divorce process. In addition, mediation and Collaborative Law are far more cost-effective and time-efficient than litigation, which often stretches on for years, even without trial. By focusing on mutual agreement and understanding, mediation allows you to retain more control over the outcome and tailor it to best fit your needs.
The Role of Prenuptial and Postnuptial Agreements
Prenuptial and postnuptial agreements can play a pivotal role in clarifying the distribution of assets in the event of a divorce. These legally binding documents, established either before (prenuptial) or after (postnuptial) marriage, outline how you and your spouse wish to divide your assets and liabilities should the marriage end. While prenuptial and postnuptial agreements can be divisive if not handled with care, they can be extremely helpful in second marriages and in marriages between people who have children from prior relationships. Massachusetts courts generally respect and enforce these agreements, so long as they were entered into voluntarily and are deemed fair at the time of execution and enforcement. With such an agreement, property division can be more predictable, potentially bypassing contentious debates that often arise in divorce proceedings.
How to Prepare for Property Division
Preparing for property division during a divorce requires thoughtful planning and organization. It is useful to create a comprehensive inventory of all assets and liabilities, including details on when and how they were acquired. Keeping thorough documentation, such as purchase receipts, titles, and financial statements, can clarify current ownership and value. Couples engaged in mediation or Collaborative Law may find it helpful to create spreadsheets or tables detailing assets, liabilities, and income flow organized as individually and jointly held. Such tools help make negotiation far more efficient, so you and your mediator/attorneys/neutral facilitator can get a bird’s eye view of the marital estate.
Help With Your Massachusetts Divorce
Nussbaum Family Law LLC has the dedication and significant experience in mediation and alternative dispute resolution representation to assist individuals and couples in meeting their needs and interests in divorce. We tailor our approach to your unique circumstances and will work diligently to help you achieve an equitable outcome, creating a solid foundation for your future. Reach out to us today.