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Dividing professional licenses in divorce: An overview of O’Brien vs. O’Brien

In New York, professional degrees and licenses are generally considered marital property and subject to division on divorce. If you earned either one while married and later divorce, then an expert may value it and divide it to reflect your spouse’s support during the education and licensing process.

The New York case O’Brien vs. O’Brien (66 NY2d 576) confirmed that professional credentials could be included in the marital estate.

When Michael and Loretta O’Brien married in April 1971, both were teachers at a private school. She later claimed that she had given up the opportunity to get her permanent teaching certificate while her husband completed his education and later graduated from medical school. In addition to doing the housework and managing the family finances, Mrs. O’Brien worked full-time and contributed 76% of the household income while Mr. O’Brien was a student.

Expert testimony valued Dr. O’Brien’s medical license at $472,000 at the time of divorce and calculated that Mrs. O’Brien’s contribution to her husband’s medical education was $103,390. He tried to exclude his license from distribution, arguing that it was not property as per common law but represented a personal achievement.

Finding that the medical degree and license were marital property, the court awarded her $188,800, or 40% of the value of the license, and ordered Dr. O’Brien to pay it in 11 annual installments (November 1982-1992) and maintain a life insurance policy for her benefit for the unpaid balance of the award.

Dr. O’Brien protested the decision as unconstitutional. Speaking on behalf of his client, attorney Willard DaSilva said that it turned Dr. O’Brien into an “indentured servant” because he would have to pursue a career in surgery in order to pay that debt in the required time frame.  Mrs. O’Brien’s lawyer, Albert Emanuelli, said that compensating a spouse for their support during degree attainment was “like a debt that you owe and you pay it, just like a mortgage on your house. You can’t fool around.”

Today, New York courts may compensate the spouse who supported the degree by increasing support payments or granting them a larger percentage of other marital property. The outcome for individual divorce cases will depend on the size of the marital estate, how much one spouse contributed to the other’s education, and other factors unique to the relationship.

Contact a New York divorce attorney

If you are divorcing in New York and your spouse has a professional license or degree earned during the marriage, then an experienced divorce attorney can help you arrange for the necessary valuations so that you are fairly compensated for your contributions to your spouse’s increased earning ability. Jayson Lutzky is a Bronx divorce lawyer who offers free in-office initial consultations. Mr. Lutzky has over 35 years of legal experience and can be reached at 718-329-9500. Visit www.mynewyorkcitylawyer.com to learn more.

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