Terese J. Singer

Wisconsin Courts Award Unequal Property Division in Lieu of Maintenance Payments in Divorce

When dealing with a divorce in Wisconsin, courts must give careful consideration to the division of existing property, assets, and debts that a couple may have, as well as how to divide future obligations and income, if necessary. While Wisconsin courts typically start from the presumption that marital property should be divided equally between two spouses, such arrangements can be modified when it would be in the interest of the courts and the couple to do so. A recent Wisconsin Court of Appeals case considered and applied a creative approach for resolving spousal maintenance issues between a couple by instead offering one spouse an additional lump sum property award.

Mr. and Mrs. K. were married for over 37 years. During that time, Mr. K. worked as a business owner, while Mrs. K. stayed home to raise their children. Since Mr. K. had worked for much longer than Mrs. K., upon retirement, he received a Social Security payment of $1,900 a month, while Mrs. K. received less than half of that, only $700. At the time of the divorce, the couple owned collectively approximately $837,000 in assets. Starting with the presumption of equal division of property, the court assumed that each spouse was entitled to $418,500 in assets. However, the court also noted that since Mrs. K. had given up a career to raise children and, as a result, now experienced lower Social Security payments, she was also entitled to a monthly award of spousal maintenance from Mr. K. Recognizing that this maintenance award would be difficult for Mr. K. to pay on a limited Social Security income, the court instead decided to give Mrs. K. the more valuable of the two homes owned by the couple, which was worth an additional $108,000 in assets. The court determined that this additional lump sum payment was equivalent to approximately 14 years of maintenance payments and satisfied Mr. K.’s maintenance obligations. Mr. K. appealed this arrangement.

Mr. K. argued on appeal that it was improper for the court to award vastly different property distributions in lieu of spousal maintenance payments. The court noted that while it was true that Mrs. K. received markedly more valuable property than Mr. K., this was not done with the intent to unequally distribute assets but to address spousal maintenance at the same time. Thus, the two spouses started with the presumption of equal property ownership, but Mrs. K. was awarded more property to compensate her for the spousal maintenance that she was entitled to receive. The Court of Appeals held that this was fair and equitable under the circumstances of the case, and it was supported by the factors considered by the Court. These included the fact that Mrs. K. had sacrificed much over the course of her lifetime to support Mr. K.’s career, and she would otherwise be penalized for such sacrifices because her Social Security was so much smaller.

In light of the circumstances and Mrs. K.’s willingness to take a lump sum payment rather than monthly spousal maintenance payments for the duration of Mr. K.’s lifetime, the Court of Appeals held that the arrangement was a logical resolution and well within the sound discretion of the court. If you are considering divorce or are facing the possibility of a difficult division of property in Wisconsin, you should discuss your rights and options with an experienced Milwaukee family law attorney as soon as possible. To speak with a knowledgeable Milwaukee divorce lawyer today, do not hesitate to contact the law offices of Reddin & Singer, LLP online or give us a call at 414-271-6400.

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