High asset divorce: a 50-50 split?

Pennsylvania readers, especially those who have gone through a divorce, may be familiar with the concept of marital property. As traditionally defined, the term refers to a 50-50 split of all earnings made during the course of a marriage. Each spouse’s entitlement to an equal share of the marital estate includes assets such as appreciation on real estate property, gains in securities or other financial investments or retirement accounts, and even increased business sales.

The concept of marital property may originally have been intended to protect a spouse that chose to contribute in non-financial ways to the marriage, such as full-time child rearing or through other types of uncompensated work. In a high-asset divorce, however, it may sometimes seem that courts are more reluctant to divide a millionaire’s net worth with a short-lived marriage partner.

In billionaire divorces, for example, one source reports that many divorcing spouses get, on average, 16 percent of the other spouse’s net worth. However, there are examples both below and above that average. In a 2007 example, a divorcing spouse was awarded only 1.6 percent of her husband’s $18.7 billion net worth — although that percentage still amounted to $300 million. A 2010 divorce, in contrast, awarded 46 percent of the other spouse’s assets, for an award totaling $1.6 billion.

Of course, there may be other legal issues at play in these high stakes divorces. A prenuptial agreement, for example, might cap the amount of alimony or financial assets that can be awarded to a divorcing spouse. Although such agreements might be challenged during a divorce proceeding, many often survive — especially if both parties carefully reviewed and consented to the terms before the marriage.

Source: forbes.com, “To Forbes 400 Following $250 Million Divorce Settlement,” Caleb Melby, May 14, 2013