The Long Goodbye: How Lengthy Physical Separation Affects Equitable Distribution in a New York Divorce

August 2, 2023
Louis Sternberg

Without fail, a divorce is always a difficult process.  In New York, marital property is divided by way of “equitable distribution” – the law governing the division of assets and liabilities during divorce proceedings. That process is fundamentally changed when the divorcing parties have experienced a lengthy physical separation prior to the commencement of the divorce. When spouses have lived apart for an extended period, the division of marital property can become more challenging.

Understanding Equitable Distribution

New York is an equitable distribution state, meaning that marital property is divided fairly, pursuant to various factors set forth in the Domestic Relations Law.  An essential principle of equitable distribution is that equitable does not necessarily mean equal. As such, one party may be entitled to a greater or lesser distribution of marital property.  Marital property generally includes assets and debts accumulated during the marriage, while separate property typically refers to assets owned individually before the marriage or acquired through inheritance or gift during the marriage.

Factors that Influence Equitable Distribution

Several factors guide the court’s determination of equitable distribution. These factors include:

  • Duration of the Marriage: The length of the marriage can significantly affect the division of property. Longer marriages tend to result in a more even distribution of assets, whereas shorter marriages may give rise to inequitable distribution, generally in favor of the titled spouse.
  • Financial Contributions: Courts consider each spouse’s financial contributions to the marriage, including income, investments, and property acquisition.
  • Non-Financial Contributions: Contributions made as a homemaker, caregiver, or support in the pursuit of the other spouse’s career are also considered.
  • Future Financial Prospects: The court will assess the financial future of both spouses, including their earning capacity, need and potential for future financial growth.
  • Age and Health: The age and health of each spouse play a role in equitable distribution, as they can impact earning capacity and financial independence.
  • Custodial Arrangements: When children are involved, the court considers custodial arrangements and the associated financial responsibilities.
  • Wasteful Dissipation: If one spouse has recklessly depleted marital assets during the separation, it can affect the equitable distribution process.

Extended Physical Separation and Its Impact on Equitable Distribution

A prolonged physical separation can raise several unique challenges during divorce proceedings:

  • Financial Autonomy: Lengthy separations may lead to financial autonomy, as each spouse may establish separate lives with individual financial responsibilities, assets, and debts. This can complicate the identification of marital property subject to distribution.
  • Change in Circumstances: As time goes on, circumstances change, and assets might appreciate or depreciate. Accurate valuation of assets becomes complex when they have evolved over an extended period.
  • Separate Property Considerations: If a spouse acquired assets or debt during the separation but before the divorce, the question arises as to whether these should be considered marital or separate property.
  • Emotional Impact: A lengthy separation can lead to heightened emotional tensions between the spouses, affecting their willingness to negotiate and find an amicable agreement.
  • Geographic Challenges: If one spouse moves to another state during the separation, jurisdictional issues may arise, leading to further complexities in equitable distribution.

Divorce is rarely a straightforward process, and when couples have experienced a lengthy physical separation, the process becomes even more intricate. In New York, equitable distribution strives to divide marital property fairly, considering various factors that influence the financial aspects of both spouses. However, with a prolonged physical separation, complexities may arise concerning the identification, valuation, and distribution of assets and liabilities.

During such challenging times, it is essential for both spouses to seek legal counsel to navigate the equitable distribution process smoothly. By understanding the implications of a lengthy physical separation and being open to negotiations, separating couples can strive for a fair and just resolution as they embark on a new chapter of their lives.