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Is Ex-Spouse Entitled to Share in $2,500,000 Bonus Earned Before Couple Married?

divorce equitable property distributionThe Appellate Division of the New Jersey Supreme Court recently heard a dispute over a $2,500,000 post-divorce bonus. The couple, Bernice Aucoin-Thieme and Michael Thieme, had only been married for about 15 months at the time their divorce.

Question: Should the Years of Cohabitation Before Marriage Be Considered?

The Hudson County Superior Court had awarded Bernice $30,228 based on the short length of time of their marriage. Bernice believed she deserved $200,029.

The principal question to be decided was this: Should the 8 years during which the couple cohabited before their marriage be taken into consideration when determining the equitable distribution of property?

Bernice believed that those years should be considered because she had sacrificed her career to care for their child and also had helped him socially. Her lawyer opined that it was a question of fairness.

Background Information

These are the events leading to the case going to the Appellate Division of the NJ Supreme Court:

  1. In 1999 Michael Thieme accepted what he considered a low-paying job as the first employee of a start-up company. A few years later, the company agreed that he would be compensated for his hard work and long hours if the company was ever sold. No amount was stipulated.
  1. Michael met Bernice in 2000, and when Bernice became pregnant, the couple moved in together. They did not marry until about 8 years later.
  1. Both before and after the marriage, the two argued about the long hours Michael spent at his job. Michael also complained about his wife’s interference with his work.
  1. After about only 15 months of marriage, Michael filed for divorce.
  1. Their divorce became final on June 20, 2012. The property settlement covered spousal support, child support and custody, and the equitable distribution of marital property.
  1. Three months after the final decree, Michael received a bonus of $2,500,000 from the sale of the company.
  1. Michael put $200,000 of his bonus into a joint bank account without realizing that his ex-wife still had access to that account.
  1. Bernice withdrew $200,029 from the account. She believed she was entitled to that amount based on their 8 years of cohabitation in addition to the length of the marriage.
  1. Michael filed a suit to recover the money in Mississippi, where Bernice and their child had moved. The case was transferred to New Jersey.
  1. The Hudson County Superior Court judge awarded Bernice $30,228 and ordered her to return the rest of the money.
  1. Bernice unsuccessfully appealed the judge’s decision.
  1. The case went to the Appellate Division of the NJ Supreme Court.

NJ Supreme Court Decision

In an unreported decision, the NJ Supreme Court affirmed the decisions of the two lower courts. The Court found that the marital assets had been equitably distributed and that the bonus was not due to any efforts on the part of Bernice Aucoin-Thieme.

Equitable Distribution in New Jersey

In New Jersey marital property comprises all assets with a few exceptions. One exception is property owned by one of the parties before the marriage. The law also excludes gifts or inheritances specifically intended for one spouse.

New Jersey Family Part judges must consider three basic factors when determining the equitable distribution of marital property:

  • Which assets are subject to equitable distribution?
  • What is the value of those assets?
  • What is the most equitable way to divide those assets?

It is important to note that the distribution must be fair, but that does not mean that it has to be equal!

Are you going through a divorce or legal separation? Do you have questions regarding the division of assets and debts? If so, the divorce and family law attorneys at Aretsky Law Group, P.C., can help. Contact us 24/7 at 800-537-4154.


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