Demystifying Myths About Dividing Assets in Divorce: Part 3 – The Contribution Factor – Celebrity Edition

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Perhaps growing up in Los Angeles took some of the fun out of celebrity gossip, but I never understood the fascination with stories about what is in the shopping cart of the (often shorter than advertised) celebrity standing in front of me at the grocery store.  One aspect of celebrity gossip that has piqued my interest in recent years has been celebrity divorces, or more specifically, the public’s reaction to celebrity divorces and how it mirrors a lot of the same misconceptions we hear as divorce practitioners.

The fairly recent divorce between Amazon founder (and the reason most celebrities no longer go to the grocery store), Jeff Bezos, and his now ex-wife, MacKenzie Scott, comes to mind as a situation in which everyone seemed to have a “hot take” about the couples’ divorce financials.  Given the staggering wealth being divided in the divorce, one of the comments I regularly saw on social media was “what did she do to deserve that much of his money?”  Despite the misguided gender stereotypes being at an all-time high, the short response (as confirmed by Mr. Bezos, himself) was “a lot.”

In the third edition of this series about demystifying myths on dividing assets in divorce, I will address the often misunderstood, but incredibly important factor of each spouse’s “contribution” to the marriage and how it can impact the division of marital assets.

In making an “equitable” (not necessarily equal) division of the marital assets, the Court must consider the following mandatory factors: “length of the marriage, conduct of the parties, age, health, station, occupation, amount and sources of income, vocational skills, employability, estate, liabilities and needs of each of the parties, the opportunity of each for future acquisition of capital assets and income, and the amount and duration of alimony, if any.”  While the Court must account for each of these factors in dividing assets in divorce, it can assign different weights to each of the factors and has wide discretion to do so and arrive at an equitable division.

In reviewing these factors, one thing that always puzzled me is the fact that the contribution of each of the parties in the acquisition, preservation, or appreciation in value of their respective estates and the contribution of each of the parties as a homemaker to the family unit – the so-called “economic” and “non-economic” contributions to the marriage – are not technically mandatory factors.  To me, the discretionary nature of these contribution factors never seemed to comport with the importance assigned to them in relevant case law, which reminds us: “the parties’ respective contributions to the marital partnership remain the touchstone of an equitable division of the marital estate,” and “an equitable division must be grounded in the respective contributions of the spouses.”  In my humble opinion, contribution is probably the single most important factor in determining an equitable division of assets.

Judges often tell parties in the divorce that marriage is a partnership, which, in a touch of irony, is likely the same thing those parties heard during some monologue on the day they got married.  With that partnership comes considerable contributions along the way, many of which do not directly result in the value of the marital estate increasing.  As is often the case in divorce, the primary breadwinner spouse has a difficult time fully acknowledging the other spouse’s contributions to the marriage.

Over time, spouses make sacrifices and trade-offs for the betterment of the marriage and family unit.  There is almost invariably some point/counterpoint when it comes to weighing each party’s historical contributions during the marriage.  Most traditionally, you have the scenario of one spouse who works while the other stays at home with the children.  In these scenarios, one spouse can sometimes account for literally all of the acquisition, preservation, and appreciation of the marital estate.  An impressive feat, surely, but it would not be equitable to award that spouse all (or even a majority) of the assets in a divorce, particularly when you consider the incredible contributions the other spouse made in running the household, watching the children, helping with homework, preparing meals, taking children to events, etc., perhaps at the sacrifice of that spouse’s own career.  Those “non-economic” contributions allowed the other spouse to work harder, longer, and get those promotions, raises, new business opportunities, etc.  In this scenario, each spouse is making considerable contributions to the marital estate in very different and not always quantifiable ways.

There are surely plenty of examples in which one spouse’s combined “economic” and “non-economic” contributions greatly exceeded the other’s, but judges will be quick to tell you that is generally the exception.  So the next time you pick up the tabloid at the check-out line to see the latest celebrity divorce ended with the parties each walking away with millions (or billions in the Bezos example), consider the possible ways each contributed to the marital partnership . . . and then you can read about what is in a Kardashian’s shopping cart (spoiler: it’s kombucha).

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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