Summary of In re Marriage of Graham, Supreme Ct. of CO (1978)
Parties: Parties were once married. Wife is the petitioner here..
Cause of action/remedy sought: The following is a equitable division of marital property in a divorce proceeding.
Procedural History: Trial court held the education obtained by one spouse during a marriage is jointly-owned property to which the other spouse has a property right. Future earnings were estimated at over $82K, petitioner was awarded over $33k, payable in monthly installments of $100.
Court of Appeals held the business administration degree was not divisible property, under the reasoning that an education itself is not “property” subject to division under the Uniform Dissolution of Marriage Act. This court affirms.
Facts: During their six-year marriage, wife worked full-time. Husband was part-time employed while pursuing and obtaining a BS in engineering physics and a Master’s in Business Administration for 3 1/2 years of the marriage. No marital assets were accumulated during the marriage.
Trial court determined during during the marriage, petitioner accounted for 70% of the financial support, which was used for family expenses and her husband’s education. No marital assets during the marriage. Grahams managed an apartment house, where petitioner did most of the housework and cooked most meals for them. No kids. Date of marriage: 8/5/68; filed for dissolution of marriage 2/4/74.
Issue(s): Under Colorado property law, does a master’s degree in business administration constitute marital property which is subject to equitable division by the court when there there is a divorce proceeding?
Holding: No. Under CO property law, the term “property,” as applied to the facts based on the Uniform Dissolution of Marriage Act is outside of the limits which the court places.
Court’s Rationale/Reasoning: The underlying purpose of the Act itself is to provide an equitable solution for problems associated with the division of property at the dissolution of marriage. Generally, an appellate court will alter a division of property if the trial court abuses its discretion. Therefore the appellate court must determine if there was discretionary abuse.
The court looks to the word “property,” to see how it was meant to be interpreted in the statute. The court determines the legislature had a broad meaning in mind, but some limit must be put on the word. So, they look it up. After determining the rule that property is anything that has an exchangeable value or which goes to make up wealth or estate, the court looks to apply the facts here.
A degree is not something which, according to the court, can be exchanged for money, is not able to be purchased with money, there is no exchange value, it is personal to the holder, it terminates on the death of the holder and is not inheritable, cannot be assigned, sold, conveyed or pledged. It is also an advanced degree which takes lots of time and hard work to acquire, things which are not exchangeable either.
There would be an equitable remedy for petitioner if she were to seek relief in the form of alimony by showing need, but that is not the case here. In such a situation, petitioner would be able to receive money based on the future income of the ex-husband. Here, there are no assets which were acquired, and thus there is nothing to split from the proceeds of the marriage upon dissolution.
Rule: For an item to be classified as property, it must embrace “everything that has an exchangeable value or which goes to make up wealth or estate.” (Black’s Law Dictionary)
Did court avoid issues?: What does equity suggest here? They went by the letter of the law.
Dicta: This is a case of first impression.
If petitioner were to apply for relief, she could mention to the court that she contributed as a spouse to the education of the other spouse from whom the maintenance is sought. This case presented no such prayer for relief.
Dissents: Traditional, narrow concepts of what constitutes “property” renders the courts impotent to provide a remedy for an obvious justice. Equity demands that courts seek extraordinary remedies to prevent extraordinary injustice. Income potential should be calculated into this remedy, as there is no other equitable remedy at law.