The family court has the authority to make determinations regarding a marital home even prior to or subsequent to a divorce decree. First, the court can grant one of the parties exclusive possession of the home while the divorce is pending under Section 3502 of the Divorce Code. Case law, however, has indicated that an award for exclusive possession should not be given lightly and the party requesting it has the burden of proving its necessity. Section 3323 gives the court general equity powers to issue any order necessary to protect the interests of the parties or as justice requires. This can include an order mandating a party to pay the mortgage on time, forcing the home to be sold if neither party can afford it, and even decisions on which realtor should be used or what the listing price should be.
Survivor benefits refer to the benefit that can be paid to the selected beneficiary following the death of the employee. This type of benefit is most frequently available in the context of a pension plan. A survivor benefit is a marital asset that should be addressed in the context of a divorce. Additionally, the survivor benefit is a separate asset than the pension itself such that a spouse could receive a portion of the actual pension as well as the survivor beneficiary designation. The employee may need to choose whether they want to establish a survivor benefit at the time of retirement. The election of a survivor benefit can result in the reduction of the benefit the employee will receive during their lifetime.
Retirement plans are often one of the significant assets up for distribution in the course of a divorce. Careful attention should be given to the type of retirement plan at issue to avoid tax penalties and/or early withdrawal penalties to the extent possible. First, retirement plans must be distinguished between qualified plans and non-qualified plans. Qualified plans include defined contribution plans such as 401Ks as well as defined benefit plans such as pensions. A Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO) will be necessary to distribute a qualified plan. Non-qualified plans include individual retirement accounts or IRAs. A QDRO is not needed to distribute these plans.
Property acquired prior to the marriage or in exchange for said property is not marital however the increase in value of that property during the marriage is up for distribution. Pursuant to 23 Pa. C.S. §3501(a)(1), any increase in value for non-marital or separate property should be measured from the date of marriage or date of acquisition through the date of separation or date close to the equitable distribution hearing, whichever date results in a lesser increase. This provision is intended to protect the party with the interest in the non-marital property in situations where there may be a lengthy time period between when the parties separate and when they get to the point of dividing the property.
Section 3501 of the Divorce Code defines what will be considered marital property versus what will be considered non-marital property. Specifically, marital property will include all property acquired by either party from the date of marriage through the date of separation. There is a presumption all property acquired during the marriage is marital regardless of how title is held (e.g. individually vs. jointly). It will also include the increase of value of any non-marital property during the course of the marriage. 23 Pa C.S. 3501 goes on to list what property will not be considered marital under the statute. Property acquired prior to the marriage or in exchange for said property is not marital as well as property expressly excluded by valid written agreement of the parties at any time.
Montgomery County has just adopted a number of changes to their local rules regarding divorce matters. Where there are pending claims for equitable distribution, the moving party should file a Motion for Entry of Grounds and Appointment of an Equitable Distribution Master. The moving party will now have to pay a $400 fee at the time the Motion is filed. The Motion should certify that all discovery is complete. A list of all the assets and debts at issue along with their corresponding values must also be included. Finally, the initial pre-hearing statement should be attached including a completed Inventory and Appraisement. Once the Motion and all its required accompaniments are filed, a copy of the same should be served on the other party. A Certificate of Service should then be completed and filed with the court.
The court may give credit for individual property brought into the marriage depending on the circumstances. Generally, any credit to be received decreases with the length of the marriage. For example, Bucks County will reduce the credit by 5% a year such that there is no longer a credit after 20 years. A prime example of a situation where this rule would be applicable is the purchase of a marital home. Say Spouse A contributed $40,000 of their pre-marital money to the purchase of the house. If the parties separated after 5 years, the amount of Spouse A's individual contribution is reduced by 25%. Accordingly, Spouse A would argue that 75% of the $40,000 down payment, or $30,000, is their separate property and not subject to equitable distribution in the divorce.
Pensions are generally considered marital property and subject to distribution at the time of divorce. The pension may need to be appraised to determine the marital value of the pension, specifically in an instance where the party began accruing the benefits prior to the marriage or the parties were separated for numerous years before a divorce action was commenced. There are also retirement benefits that are excluded from equitable distribution. For example, under 23 Pa. C.S. 3501(a)(6), veterans' benefits are excluded from equitable distribution.
Pursuant to 23 Pa. C.S. § 3502(c), the court has the express authority to award exclusive possession of the marital residence to one or both parties during the pendency of the divorce. This provision was added to the law in 1990. Prior to that, the court had determined it had the authority to grant exclusive possession of the marital residence under the "full equity power and jurisdiction of the court" found at 23 Pa. C.S. §3323(f). This provision gives the court the authority to issue injunctions or other orders necessary to protect the interests of the parties. Laczkowski v. Laczkowski, decided in 1985, was the first case to hold that the court could award exclusive possession of the martial residence during a divorce. 344 Pa. Super. 154 (Pa. Super. 1985). In Laczkowski, the home was to be given to the spouse having physical custody of any minor children.
Equitable distribution is the term used in Pennsylvania referring to division of marital property at the time of divorce. Marital property will consist of nearly everything acquired in either party's name from the date of marriage through to the date of separation. Equitable distribution does not necessarily mean a 50/50 split of all marital property. Instead, the statute on equitable distribution sets out 13 factors to be considered. Those factors are listed in 23 Pa C.S. 3502 and include the following: