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What is Equitable Distribution in a Divorce?

— July 17, 2023

Dealing with a divorce can be a challenging and emotional experience, and it’s crucial to have proper guidance and support to ensure that your assets and property are distributed fairly.

The divorce process can be an incredibly stressful situation, especially when concerns about the division of assets and property arise. When a couple decides to end their marriage, there are often complex legal and financial matters to navigate, including determining how marital property, otherwise known as assets, such as homes, cars, investments, and personal belongings, will be divided between the parties. Worries about whether the division of property will be fair and equal can intensify the stress of the divorce process, as individuals may be emotionally attached to their possessions or have financial concerns about their future stability. 

In Ohio, the state follows the equitable distribution model when dividing marital assets during a divorce, which means that assets are divided in a manner that the court deems fair and just, but not necessarily equally. Many couples may mistakenly believe that equitable distribution translates to an automatic 50/50 split of all assets, but that is not always the case. 

It’s crucial for divorcing couples in Ohio to understand what equitable distribution actually entails and how it works in order to manage their expectations and minimize the stress of the divorce process. Equitable distribution takes into consideration various factors such as the duration of the marriage, each spouse’s financial situation, contribution to the marriage, and future earning potential. This can result in an uneven division of marital assets, which can be a source of stress and conflict. 

Negotiating and resolving asset division can be time-consuming, complicated, and emotionally taxing, adding an additional layer of strain to an already challenging situation. It is essential for individuals going through a divorce to seek legal advice and support to ensure that their rights and interests are protected during the asset division process and to help alleviate some of the stress associated with this aspect of divorce. Seeking the advice of a Columbus divorce lawyer and understanding the principles of equitable distribution can help divorcing couples in Ohio navigate the asset division process with a clearer understanding and make informed decisions to minimize stress during this challenging time.

What is Marital Property?

Marital property is any property or debt that is acquired during the course of a marriage. This includes both assets and debts. Dividing this property and debt is a significant aspect of the divorce process. Community property includes:

  • Any property that is currently owned by either spouse or jointly owned by both spouses
  • Income
  • Retirement benefits
  • Personal property or real estate property interests

In contrast, separate property is any property that is owned by one spouse alone and does not need to be divided during the divorce. Examples of separate property include real estate owned prior to marriage, passive income or interest from separate property, gifts given during the marriage, and property protected under a prenuptial agreement. It’s essential to prove that separate property is not part of the marital estate if you wish to keep it after the divorce. While Ohio recognizes separate property in most cases, once it’s commingled, it may be challenging to trace and prove it as separate property.

What’s Considered Separate Property in a Divorce?

Ohio law defines separate property as property that one spouse owned before the marriage, as well as gifts, inheritances, and personal injury awards, received during the marriage. However, an increase in the value of separate property or income from separate property may be considered marital property. For instance, rental income from a condo owned before marriage may be deemed marital property if both spouses managed it during the marriage. Conversely, if an investment property was bought before marriage and increased in value due to the overall growth of the neighborhood, that increase in value is considered separate property. For instance, if a spouse owned an investment property that was worth $300,000 before the marriage, but is worth $400,000 when going through the divorce process, then both spouses will be entitled to the $100,000 increase in value of the investment property. 

During a divorce, the court divides marital property equally between spouses unless an unbalanced outcome is more equitable. The court can also include either spouse’s separate property. It is essential to note that failure to disclose all property or fraudulent transfers can jeopardize one’s interest in their separate property. For instance, transferring the title of a vacation home to a family member before a divorce to keep it out of the division is a fraudulent transfer and can result in the loss of separate property or a reduced share of marital property. Seeking the guidance of a competent Columbus divorce lawyer can help ensure that your separate property is protected during a divorce.

Divorce Asset Division Factors to Consider

In Ohio, when dividing assets in a divorce, the court initially presumes an equal split of marital property. However, the final decision may be influenced by various factors. These include:

  • The length of the marriage
  • Each spouse’s assets and liabilities
  • Whether it would be beneficial for the custodial parent to remain in the marital home if children are involved

The court will also examine other factors such as:

  • The liquidity of the property
  • The tax consequences of division
  • The costs of selling property
  • Whether the couple had a premarital agreement
  • Retirement benefits of each spouse
  • Any other factor deemed necessary to ensure a fair division

In Ohio, the most commonly divided types of property include real property such as:

  • The family home
  • Personal property such as jewelry
  • Intangible property like income
  • Dividends
  • Benefits
  • Debts accrued by either spouse

Marital debts are treated the same as any other property, and the judge will categorize them as either marital or separate before assigning responsibility. The court will apply the factors above to divide the debts equitably. It is crucial to note that Ohio courts aim to achieve a fair and just division of property rather than an equal one.

Will the Court Still Equitably Distribute My Assets if My Spouse and I Already Agreed on How to Divide Them?

If a divorcing couple has already come to an agreement on how to divide their assets, the court will not need to intervene and equitably distribute them. However, if there is a portion of the estate that remains undivided, the court will step in and distribute it equitably.

Equity graphic
Equity graphic; ; image courtesy of Wokandapix via Pixabay,

It’s important to note that the court will only engage in equitable distribution if the couple is unable to come to an agreement on their own. If both parties agree to a certain distribution of their assets, the court will generally approve it as long as it is not unconscionable or unfair to either party. It’s always recommended to seek the advice of a qualified attorney during the divorce process to ensure that your rights are protected and your interests are represented.

Dividing Debt is Part of Equitable Distribution in Ohio Divorces

Debt division in equitable distribution states like Ohio is not explicitly addressed in state laws and is determined by the court on a case-by-case basis. In Ohio, the judge has the ability to divide marital debts:

  • Equally
  • Proportionate to income
  • Assign the debt to the account owner
  • Assign the debt to the person who incurred it 

Disputes regarding the division and payment of debts are common in divorce proceedings. Generally, both spouses are responsible for debts incurred during the marriage, but each spouse is responsible for their own separate debt, which typically refers to obligations incurred prior to the marriage. 

If a joint asset is used to pay for one spouse’s separate debt, it may lead to disagreements over reimbursement during divorce proceedings. However, in some unique cases, a judge may hold one spouse solely responsible for a debt incurred during the marriage, such as if one spouse incurred significant credit card debt during an affair. Ultimately, the judge aims to balance the division of marital debts and ensure fundamental fairness, such as by assigning a particular debt exclusively to a spouse with a greater ability to pay.

Contact a Columbus Divorce Attorney 

Dealing with a divorce can be a challenging and emotional experience, and it’s crucial to have proper guidance and support to ensure that your assets and property are distributed fairly. Therefore, it’s highly recommended to seek the help of a Columbus divorce lawyer or family law attorney. A seasoned attorney will offer valuable legal advice, guide you through the intricacies of the divorce process, and safeguard your rights. Whether you’re facing issues such as property division, child custody, or other family law matters, a proficient attorney can provide the necessary assistance to help you obtain a just and equitable outcome. If you’re contemplating a divorce or already undergoing the process, don’t hesitate to reach out to a Columbus divorce lawyer or family law attorney for the legal support you need.

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