Summary of Elkus v. Elkus, Supreme Ct. of NY, App. Div.. 1st Dept. (1991)
Parties: PL is wife, DF is husband.
Cause of action/remedy sought: PL seeking dissolution of marriage, and a declaratory judgment sought her status as celebrity before the equitable division of the couple’s assets.
Procedural History: In trial court, held for PL. PL and DF are in the middle of trial, and awaiting a decision on PL’s celebrity status as property, so the trial court can render a decision on the economic portion of the proceedings. Reversed in this court, and remanded back to trial court to continue proceedings and move on to equitable distribution.
Facts: Parties getting divorced after 17 years. Joint custody of both children, but at dispute is the split of assets. PL became famous during their marriage. DF claims he was PL’s voice coach for 10 years of the marriage, and sacrificed himself for the marriage, in addition to other duties which he believes made him a contributory factor in her development into an international celebrity.
Issue(s): Under NY property law, is the celebrity status and the wealth which comes from this status a divisible item on an economic basis in divorce proceedings, when the celebrity status came during the marriage?
Holding: Yes. To the extent DF’s contributions and efforts led to an increase in the value of PL’s career, this appreciation was a product of the marital relationship, and, therefore, marital property subject to equitable division.
Court’s Rationale/Reasoning: Medical licenses have been held to enhance the earning capacity of their holders, so as to enable the other spouse who made a direct or indirect contribution to their acquisition, to share the value as part of an equitable distribution. Really, anything in which the other partner has something to do with in terms of contributing to the other’s success deserves a share (“joint expenditures, as per Domestic Relations Law). DF had a direct effect by working with PL as her voice coach, photographer, traveling with her, sacrificing his career for hers. Thus, he is entitled to an equitable share of the tenancy in the entirety. These are contributions to the career or career potential, as she stands to make a lot more money in the future.
Additionally, PL’s earnings increased 275 fold from the time of their marriage. She was hired by the Opera at the time they were married, but her career was just budding at that time. Since then it has really taken off, thanks in some part to her husband, and he should not go free of compensation. Further, DF mainly took care of the kids, coached PL, critiqued PL, and is entitled to the appreciation in her value as a performer.
Rule: Domestic Relations Law defines marital property as property acquired during the marriage “regardless of the form in which title is held.”
Equitable Distribution Law deemed marital property as the effect of an “economic partnership.”
It is the nature and extent of the contribution by the spouse seeking equitable distribution, rather than the nature of the career, whether licensed or unlicensed or otherwise, that should determine the status of the enterprise of marital property.
Did court avoid issues?: No.
Dicta: This is new ground for the court, as there is no appellate authority and little trial authority on this matter.