Just as every person is different, so too, is every married couple – and every marriage. It only stands to reason, then, that every divorce is going to be different too. While all divorces may have some of the same legal elements, and while divorcing couples may face similar issues, there are going to be differences in every case, due to each couple’s unique lifestyle and circumstances. This can particularly be true in divorces where the couple has a high net worth. These sorts of cases will require more in-depth planning, more complicated decisions, and more extensive representation for both parties to ensure that the end result is one that satisfies everyone involved to the greatest extent possible.
If you have a significant amount of assets and you are contemplating divorce, the first and most important step to take will be ensuring that you retain knowledgeable and experienced legal counsel who understands the unique issues faced in these situations and can help you work through those issues successfully. Of course, in most divorces, couples will address issues like child support and custody, division of property, alimony, and the like. However, these issues will typically be more complicated in cases where the couple has a high net worth.
Taking a look at some of the unique aspects concerning these issues that high net worth couples might face can be helpful as you contemplate the divorce process and what it might entail. More specifically, issues to be aware of include:
- Child Support: For the majority of divorces in North Carolina, courts determine child support obligations by utilizing the North Carolina Child Support Guidelines. These statewide guidelines set forth the standards and formulas that courts should use when calculating child support in most cases. In cases where parents earn over $300,000 per year, or more than $25,000 a month, however, it is not mandatory for courts to follow the guidelines. Instead, cases involving higher incomes typically give the courts the discretion to review the circumstances and determine child support obligations with respect to the reasonable needs of the children, their current lifestyle and the ability of each parent to provide the support necessary to continue to meet those needs and maintain that lifestyle. Some needs that the court might consider in high net worth cases include:
- Tuition for private school;
- Expenses for extracurricular activities, lessons, camps, and other hobbies in which the children may regularly be involved;
- Employment of a childcare assistant such as a nanny, au pair, or private tutor;
- College tuition expenses;
- And more.
Of course, in any divorce case, whether involving a high net worth or not, couples have the discretion and freedom to determine and enter into their own agreement regarding what might be best from a child support perspective. It is also important to realize that in many high net worth divorce cases, preserving necessary funds for the children may involve simultaneous estate planning, such as establishing trust funds. Consulting with an attorney and qualified financial advisor about such matters is always wise.
- Child Custody: Sometimes, particularly in high net worth cases, the myth exists that the “richer” parent will be awarded custody. Rest assured that this is not the case. Across the country, there is a trend to move towards the most equitable and equal custody schedule possible, based upon the belief that it is most beneficial for parents and children to spend as much time together as possible. Courts will always be guided by what is in the best interests of the children involved when making custody determinations, regardless of the net worth of the parents, or any other financial circumstances.
- Property Division: An important part of every divorce case is dividing property. As with almost all matters in a divorce, the couple is of course free to review their assets and debts and decide together as to what the best division of property might be. Addressing these matters in an agreement allows for the freedom and flexibility that having a court make the determination will not. Generally, is helpful to understand that in North Carolina, before dividing property, courts will generally seek to determine if the property is marital or separate.
- Marital Property: Typically, the term marital property refers to all real and personal property that is acquired by either spouse or by both spouses during a marriage and before the date that the parties are separated. It includes pensions, tangible property, the marital home, retirement and investment accounts, bank accounts, and more. Generally, it is presumed that all property that is acquired after the date of the marriage and before the date of separation is marital property unless it has been clearly established that the property is separate.
- Separate Property: Separate property, in a legal sense, is a term used to refer to all real and personal property that was acquired by a spouse before marriage, or given to one spouse only as a gift during the marriage if the intention of the giver makes that intention clear. Parties should know, however, that although the concept of separate property might seem clear on its face, if that property is later co-mingled with marital assets, it may be difficult to determine the nature of the property when a court attempts to divide it.
Generally, in cases where a couple has high net worth and a great deal of property to be divided, making a clear and detailed inventory of the property at issue can be extremely helpful. Particularly if either spouse has separate property that should remain distinct from the marital estate, being able to set that property apart and establishing that it has not been co-mingled with other assets will be important. In addition to the issue of determining marital and separate property, couples who have a high net worth may also have multiple real estate holdings – not only the marital home, but also a lake house or a vacation home – in addition to valuable heirlooms, multiple investment accounts, pensions, and other assets. Having your financial advisor, appraisers, and qualified counsel help you to fully evaluate your assets and debts, and work with you toward identifying all relevant property distribution issues in your divorce will be essential to ensuring success.
- Prenuptial Agreements: In many, though not all cases where couples have a high net worth, they also have a prenuptial agreement. If you and your spouse have such an agreement and make the decision to divorce, the agreement will need to be reviewed for validity and applicability to your current situation. In some cases, prenuptial agreements may be set aside – for example of one party forced the other to sign it as a condition of getting married, or if one spouse failed to disclose all of his or her assets when the agreement was made. Your attorney will be able to help you review your agreement and determine its validity, as well as how it might affect your divorce.
- Business–Related Issues: In many, though certainly not all cases where a couple has a high net worth, a business interest may be involved, whether it is a small family-owned business, a closely held business, or even a larger company. In these cases, having the assistance of a qualified forensic accountant can be very helpful to inventory assets, value the business, and take necessary steps toward deciding how to handle the business going forward, both with respect to property division, and how (or if) it will be managed following the divorce.
- Alimony: In some cases, where a high net worth couple has two spouses who both make a significant income, no alimony determination will be necessary. Typically, in North Carolina, it is an issue that is considered when one spouse is dependent upon the other financially – for example, if one spouse is a stay-at-home parent and the other is a physician who earns several hundred thousand dollars a year. In other cases, “dependent” might mean that one spouse earns significantly less – for example, $75,000 per year, while the other spouse earns $500,000. In those instances, spousal support will likely be awarded by the court. Unlike child support, spousal support is not typically determined by any statutory guidelines or formulas – it is generally left to the discretion of the court, or if the parties choose, to their own agreement. Alimony can be paid for the short-term or the long-term, and if determined by a court, will be decided based upon a review of several factors, potentially including: the earning capacity of each spouse, any marital misconduct that may have occurred, the age and health of each spouse, the length of the marriage, the educational backgrounds of each spouse, and the standard of living the couple enjoyed during the marriage, among other factors.
These are only a few of many issues that those couples who have a high net worth may encounter as part of the divorce process. Certainly, each couple and each circumstance is unique. Consulting with an attorney who can help you to assess your circumstances and what issues may arise will be essential, and extremely helpful.
The Law Office of Dustin McCrary – Here for You
If you and your spouse have a high net worth and you’re considering divorce, you may feel slightly overwhelmed as you contemplate the issues that may be involved. Don’t be. Instead, give me a call. Divorce is all I do, and I am proud to have successfully helped many clients, just like you, move through this process smoothly and successfully toward a bright new chapter ahead. I would be honored to have the privilege to help you too. I look forward to speaking with you soon.