Suffering a personal injury or undergoing a divorce can be some of the most stressful and trying experiences an individual may encounter especially when litigating the distribution of a spouse’s personal injury or workers’ compensation benefits is a main issue to resolve during the divorce. It is vital that individuals know what rights they or their spouse have, if any, to a personal injury award in divorce.
Equitable Distribution in Rhode Island Divorce
In Rhode Island, the courts follow equitable distribution to divide the parties’ assets and liabilities in a fair and equitable manner during divorce. In order to determine what is “fair and equitable” in any given case, the courts undertake an analysis and weighing of the factors set forth in R.I.G.L. § 15-5-16.1. Specifically, the courts consider the following:
(1) The length of the marriage;
(2) The conduct of the parties during the marriage;
(3) The contribution of each of the parties during the marriage in the acquisition, preservation, or appreciation in value of their respective estates;
(4) The contribution and services of either party as a homemaker;
(5) The health and age of the parties;
(6) The amount and sources of income of each of the parties;
(7) The occupation and employability of each of the parties;
(8) The opportunity of each party for future acquisition of capital assets and income;
(9) The contribution by one party to the education, training, licensure, business, or increased earning power of the other;
(10) The need of the custodial parent to occupy or own the marital residence and to use or own its household effects taking into account the best interests of the children of the marriage;
(11) Either party’s wasteful dissipation of assets or any transfer or encumbrance of assets made in contemplation of divorce without fair consideration; and
(12) Any factor which the court shall expressly find to be just and proper.
First, the court must identify those assets that are considered marital property. Generally, marital property is all property or assets acquired by the parties during the course of their marriage including, but not limited to, personal injury awards.
Controlling Case Law: Kirk v. Kirk, 577 A.2d 976 (R.I. 1990)
On July 5, 1990, the Rhode Island Supreme Court decided the seminal case regarding the division of personal injury awards in divorce actions. In Kirk, the Court was presented with a certified question of “whether personal injury settlements, workers’ compensation benefits, and Social Security benefits are marital property subject to equitable distribution upon divorce pursuant to G.L. 1956 (1988 Reenactment) § 15-5-161.”
In that case, during the course of the marriage, the husband was injured in two automobile accidents and an accident at work. As a result, he had received two (2) lump-sum settlements for the car accidents as well as one (1) lump-sum Social Security benefit payment. In addition, husband received weekly workers’ compensation checks.
The Court’s first order of business was to determine whether the personal injury settlements where considered marital property subject to equitable division. In answering that question, Court the explained that it is the “purpose” of the personal-injury recovery that determine whether it is marital property subject to distribution.
With respect to the portion of the personal-injury recovery that compensates for pain and suffering, the Court found that is non-marital property not subject to distribution. Similarly, the Court found that those portions of the personal-injury recovery that compensate for losses incurred after the entry of final divorce such as future loss of wages, future medical expenses and lost earning capacity are non-marital property not subject to distribution. However, the Court also found that those portions of the personal-injury recovery that compensate for lost wages, uninsured medical expenses incurred during the marriage, losses that have depleted funds of the marital estate are marital property subject to equitable distribution.
With respect to workers’ compensation settlements, the Court applied the same standard, i.e. if the workers’ compensation benefits replaced property acquired or property that would have been acquired during the marriage it is considered marital property subject to equitable distribution. Thus, payments for past lost wages and past medical expenses would be marital property subject to distribution while payments to compensate for disfigurement and/or loss of use of a limb and payments for future wages or medical expenses are non-marital property not subject to distribution. These rules apply to both one-time lump-sum payments and regular weekly payments.
For more information
As lawyers who have represented countless individuals in personal injury and divorce actions, Attorneys Gregory N. Hoffman and Rui P. Alves, can provide you with the skilled and compassionate legal representation you need. Please contact us immediately so that we can aggressively advocate on your behalf to obtain the best result possible in either your personal injury action, divorce action, or both. Please contact:
Gregory N. Hoffman has handled numerous complex personal injury and divorce cases in the courts of Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Greg relies upon his experience advocating for individuals during times of need to provide compassionate, efficient and skilled legal representation.
Rui P. Alves is an experienced Rhode Island and Massachusetts family law and personal injury litigator in both state and federal court. Rui has successfully represented countless individuals in family law and personal injury cases and aggressively advocates on their behalf to obtain the best possible results.