Zelda and Zack have been married for ten years and are undergoing a divorce. Zack recently found out two things: first, that Zelda has won a professional award which will likely allow her to increase her income substantially in the future; and second, that Zelda is likely to come into a large inheritance from her mother, of which Zack had no idea. Zack wants to know if the Massachusetts Family Law Court is likely to take these two things into consideration when dividing the marital property and ordering alimony.

The Massachusetts Probate and Family Courts use a process called equitable distribution to divide marital property in general. Here, the term “equitable” means “fair,” and not necessarily equal: the court will determine how to best divide marital property in the fairest manner in each particular case. There are many factors that the Court considers as part of this process. Massachusetts General Laws, chapter 208, section 34 defines the factors the Court will use in determining how marital property should be divided. Under the statute, the Court may include in its analysis the opportunity for the parties to acquire future income and property.

The opportunity to acquire future income and property is a comprehensive factor: it includes the likelihood of earning future salaries, bonuses, royalties, and other sources of income. It also includes family trusts, inheritances, and other property which may befall one of the parties in the future.

In one Massachusetts case, the Court considered the effect of the husband’s Nobel prize on his future acquisition of assets. As the Appeals Court explained upon appeal:

In explaining her division of assets, the judge relied “heavily” upon the statutory factor of the “ability of the parties to acquire future income and assets.” The judge concluded that the husband’s ability is excellent, as he retains a retirement asset in which his employer “matches his future contributions dollar for dollar,” and his “receipt of the Nobel prize opens wide new horizons for his income potential.” The wife’s future prospects were found to be “paltry and stagnant by comparison.” The judge found that the wife had “no likelihood of acquiring significant future assets or increasing her earned income.”

The Appeals Court affirmed, holding that the trial court properly considered the above factors in computing the parties’ opportunity to acquire future income. “The husband’s and wife’s ability to acquire future income and assets are therefore strikingly different and justify the judge’s heavy reliance on this factor,” the Court noted.

In the case of future property acquisition, however, the Court will carefully consider whether there is a realistic prospect of receiving the future income or property, or whether future acquisition is merely expected. If it’s the latter, the Court may not include it in its consideration of assets. In one case, the courts considered a husband’s future interests in many different family trusts and other property. In some trusts, the husband was deemed to have a present, enforceable right, and those trusts were ordered by the court to be considered as opportunity for future acquisition of capital assets and income in determining alimony and child support. In some other trusts, however, the husband’s interest was deemed too remote or speculative, and those trusts were not considered to be part of the marital estate.

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