Not Equal But Fair: Understanding Equitable Distribution

When ending your marriage, one of the most significant sources of stress is the distribution of assets. Who will walk away with what, and how do the courts decide what is fair? If you file for divorce in Utah, the concept of “equitable distribution” guides those decisions.

While we would like life to be fair and equal for everyone, dividing things equally is not the same as dividing them equitably.

An equal distribution would be simply dividing everything in half so that each party walks away with the same amount. However, if one spouse has more education and a higher earning potential, their financial future would likely look much brighter than the other spouse’s. What was equal on the day of the divorce would quickly become unequal.

Equitable distribution seeks to overcome this inequality. It’s the court system’s way of deciding what is fair. For divorce in Utah and other equitable distribution states, the courts strive to determine what is fair by considering many factors of the relationship rather than simply splitting everything evenly.

Let’s look at how equitable distribution affects the division of assets in a divorce.

Factors the Courts Will Consider

Many factors influence a person’s ability to earn a living. Thus, determining the equitable division of financial assets must involve evaluating the potential and resources of each spouse to provide for themselves and for their children.

Earning Potential

Education level, employment history, employability, and current income are some of the work-related factors the court will consider. These variables help the court determine what future income is likely to be. It may lead the court to grant one spouse a larger percentage of the financial assets than the other in order to make the situation equitable for both parties. Another factor to consider is the contributions each spouse made to the other partner’s education, earning power, and career progression.

Length of Relationship

Couples who have been married for many years are more likely to split assets 50/50, as their lives, earnings, and purchases are intertwined. For couples divorcing after a short time, the court may rule to divide assets such that each person is placed roughly in the same position they were before the marriage.

Age and Physical Health

Because your age and health affect both your potential to earn as well as your medical expenses and life expectancy, it may affect what the court deems is a fair division of property and finances.

Other Contributing Factors

The court may also consider the tax implications of the divorce for both parties, as well as future anticipated expenses, including education needs of children.

Equitable distribution attempts to look into the future and predict how each spouse’s current circumstances will affect their future income and financial situation. The overall financial position of each partner, post-divorce, guides the split of the finances.

Assets Covered Under Equitable Distribution

Assets in a marriage are either separate or joint.

  • Separate property belongs to only one spouse. This might include things like a home owned before the marriage or an inheritance or gift one spouse receives during the relationship.
  • Marital property is everything that belongs to both spouses, such as a home purchased during the marriage or a treasured piece of art bought for the family home. As a general rule, something acquired during the marriage is marital property.

Determining the difference can get complicated if one spouse owned a property before the marriage, but the home was maintained with joint funds, or if both partners contributed to work, which increased the property’s value. When in doubt, contact a family law office to determine what might be viewed by a court as separate property.

Equitable distribution of assets will only look at the marital property. Separate property will remain with the party that owns it.

Distribution by Agreement

Even in an equitable distribution state like Utah, there is another option. Rather than having the divorce judge decide what is equitable, the divorcing parties can come to their own agreement on what they find fair. They can resolve this on their own or through mediation or arbitration. However, because Utah requires equitable distribution, all agreements will be reviewed by a judge to ensure they are equitable.

Deciding who gets how much of what is only one of the many complicated factors in a divorce. Using the concept of equitable distribution, Utah courts try to split assets so that each party has the same opportunity not just on the day the divorce is finalized but as they move forward through their new, single lives.

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