Undergraduate Degree

See Ross, Degrees In Property Division, 1990 Family Law Journal 13-19 (February Volume). See also the entry on Graduate Degrees. The only reported holding that speaks directly to undergraduate degrees is Sullivan v. Sullivan, 175 Mich App 508 (1989). In that case Defendant claimed she was entitled to compensation since she helped to support her spouse while he procured his Bachelor of Arts degree. The trial court denied the claim and the appellate court affirmed. The court reasoned that "This Court has held that one spouse may be entitled to share in the value of an advanced degree earned by the other spouse as a result of efforts of both spouses during the marriage…However, this analysis has not been applied when an undergraduate degree is at issue." Hmmm. There is no holding prior to Sullivan. So the reasoning is---

Cow A is not brown.

Cow B is not brown.

No cows are brown.

After Sullivan came Woodworth v. Woodworth, 126 Mich App 258 (1983) and Postema v. Postema, 189 Mich App 89 (1991), both concerned with the valuation of advanced degrees. Postema is definitive that its ruling is only applicable as to advanced degrees, allowing valuation when the degree is the product of a "concerted family effort". There is no ambiguity as applied to anything less than post-graduate educations. Moreover, Postema refuses to extend its reasoning to Plaintiff’s nursing degree, citing Sullivan and noting "such a degree is not an advanced degree". Id at 106. However, it should be noted that the issue did not need to be reached, since the degree was pursued before marriage and after separation, undermining any notions of a "concerted family effort".

It is hard to reconcile the Postema reasoning with the result that undergraduate degrees are not subject to valuation. Postema is predicated upon the notion that it is not relevant whether or not the advanced degree is an asset. The opinion finds the issue a legal and metaphysical irrelevance. For Postema the relevant question is whether there is "an equitable claim for compensation" that arises out of "the degree being the end product of the mutual sacrifice, effort and contribution of both parties as part of a larger, long range plan intended to benefit the family as a whole." Id at 95. 

Well, in this, it is hard to figure out what makes graduate degrees so special. Such concerted family efforts can accrue for a range of occupation-enhancing endeavors, from auto mechanics school to a PHD in rocket science. The matter is merely one of kind. Is the court saying we must only value Porsches and not those ratty old Fords? And, indeed, the linearity of the court’s line is not so clear. Bachelor’s degree in business is probably worth more, in the ordinary marketplace, than a Master’s Degree in Fine Art. Yet, on the line drawn by the Postema court, the latter may be divisible via restitution. The former is not subject to the remedy. Or is it? After blowing off the claim for compensation on Plaintiff’s nursing degree, the court notes that "to the extent that plaintiff used marital funds to pursue the degree…we believe such fact may properly be considered as a factor in the valuation of plaintiff’s equitable claim involving the law degree." Id at 106. Isn’t this, in itself, a form of valuation?

For the moment undergraduate degrees are not subject to compensation. But it seems an area where someone might alter the rules---particularly for a person "contributing" to a "hot" undergraduate degree in, say, business or engineering or as a systems analyst. The Postema theory would apply to these undergraduate degrees as much or more than a Masters in history or English or most others. I can’t see any basis to distinguish.