Graduate Degrees

See Ross, Degrees In Property Division, 1990 Family Law Journal (February Volume). See also Undergraduate Degrees. The Ross article is comprehensive but pre-dates the key case in the jurisdiction, Postema v. Postema, 189 Mich App 89 (1991). Postema holds that it makes no difference whether or not a graduate degree (in this case a law degree) is properly characterized as "property". Looking to Woodworth v. Woodworth, 126 Mich App 258 (1983) the court holds that (a) the goal of the trial courts in property divisions is to be "fair" and (b) it is "fair" to compensate a non-holding spouse for an advanced degree when the degree "is the end product of a concerted family effort involving mutual sacrifice and effort by both spouses." 189 Mich App at 94. The court explains that the existence of a "concerted family effort" is seen "not only through a spouse’s tangible efforts and financial contributions associated with working and supporting the mate while the mate pursues the advanced degree…but also through other intangible, nonpecuniary efforts and contributions, such as where a spouse increases the share of the daily tasks, child-rearing responsibilities, or other details of household and family management undertaken in order to provide the mate with the necessary time and energy to study and attend classes." Id at 97.

Postema does not track Woodworth as to remedy, however, moving from a present "fair market" valuation of the degree---the difference in the lifetime present value of the person’s earnings with and without the degree---to a sort of restitution theory. Indeed, the notion of the "present value" of the degree is completely disavowed. The restitution theory is explained as an amount needed "to reimburse that spouse for unrewarded sacrifices, efforts, and contributions toward attainment of the degree…" Id at 104. As a matter of dollars this is explained to be dependent upon "the length of the marriage after the degree was obtained, the sources and extent of financial support given to the degree holder during the years in school, and the overall division of the parties’ marital Property…" Id at 105. 

In other words---your guess is as good as mine---so long as such guess comports with the reviewing court’s notion of equity. I think that a key here is the timing of the separation. Postema’s concern seems to be that ordinary alimony analysis is unlikely to cover all cases. If the parties remain married for many years post-degree, the non-holding spouse receives the benefit of the degree in three ways---(a) lifestyle enhancement, (b) asset accumulation and (c) alimony candidacy. In a longer marriage, there may be no real need or basis to fashion an award. See 189 Mich App at 107. The issue for the Postema court (and rightly so) was the case where one spouse helps the other and then does not receive any benefit (or less than fair compensation) for his or her part of the bargain. I think the Ross article, though pre-Postema, "predicts" that case and provides a working set of aphorisms---

What it comes down to is this. If a degree is the product of "a concerted investment" it may be the basis for awarding alimony, even if traditional alimony theories would not ordinarily justify relief. If the case has "classic"a limony elements, the "degree", in and of itself, is a marginal or ancillary consideration. If, however, the case involves a shorter marriage, or one where "classic" alimony elements are not present, an award should be fashioned which allows the "non-degree" holder the opportunity which he/she provided to the other spouse. This should be the case regardless of the "non-degree "holder’s plan or actual use of the opportunity. 1990 MFLJ (February) at 19.

As an aside, it doesn’t seem to me that the Woodworth remedy is necessarily dead. There may be cases where such a remedy (present value of the earning difference of the degree holder) is both more rational and subject to calculation than the Postema restitution theory. For anyone desirous of trying it out my suggestion might be to limit the years of the present value calculation to the years of the marriage or the years the non-degree holder supported the holding spouse, as opposed to the "lifetime" notions of Woodworth. The problems with the Woodworth numbers/results is that, to many, it looked like indentured servitude. Limiting the years of calculation to the years of support may solve some of the valuation issues inherent in both Woodworth and Postema.

A recent unpublished case, Wilson v. Wilson, No 219876 (June 1, 2001) follows Postema See also Joshi v. Joshi, ---Mich Ap--- (Unpublished, 11/17/05) a more recent case explaining and following Postema; Morse v. Morse,---Mich Ap---(Unpublished, 12/7/06); LeClair v. Shareghi, ---Mich App---, (Unpublished, 8/16/02); Greenslait v. Greenslait, ---Mich App---, (Unpublished, 7/7/05).