O'Brien v. O'Brien
66 N.Y.2d 576, 498 N.Y.S.2d 743, 489 N.E.2d 712 (1985)

  • Mr. and Mrs. O'Brien were both substitute teachers when they met, but Mr. O'Brien decided to go to med school. They stayed together throughout his training, with Mrs. O'Brien paying the majority of the bills with her teaching jobs.
    • Mr. O'Brien went to med school in Mexico, which disrupted Mrs. O'Brien's career.
  • As soon as Mr. O'Brien finished med school, the couple got a divorce.
    • The couple did not have many tangible assets, but they did have Mr. O'Brien's medical degree.
      • Mrs. O'Brien argued that the medical degree was the result of their partnership and was thus marital property that should be equitably divided upon divorce.
      • Mr. O'Brien didn't claim that the degree was separate property not subject to distribution, instead he argued that it wasn't property at all.
  • The Trial Court awarded Mrs. O'Brien $189k for her share of Mr. O'Brien's medical degree. He appealed.
    • The Trial Court calculated the difference in earnings that a doctor makes over a non-doctor. Then they calculated the present value of that difference in earnings over a lifetime.
  • The Appellate Court reversed.
    • The Appellate Court found that a medical license was not property and therefore couldn't be marital property and was thus not subject to distribution.
  • The New York Supreme Court reversed and found that a degree was indeed property and thus subject to distribution.
    • The New York Supreme Court looked to the State divorce Statute (Domestic Relations Law 236[B][5][d][6]), and found that "joint efforts or expenditures...to the career or career potential of the other party..." were included.
      • The Court read that to mean college degrees.
    • The Court found that Mrs. O'Brien had made sacrifices to her own career for Mr. O'Brien's education, and had made substantial contributions towards it. It would be equitable for her to recover some of that.
    • The Court noted that it was not possible to come up with an exact value for the degree, but that an estimate would be equitable.
      • The Court likened the situation to determining the valuation of lost earning potential in a wrongful death tort lawsuit.
      • Generally courts would rather to a lump sum distribution, but if they have to they can do a pay-as-you-go, which helps alleviate this problem.
    • The Court found that even though the degree produced income after the period of marital property has ended, it was earned during the marriage.
  • New York is the only State that considers a college degree to be marital property that can be divided.
    • See Mahoney v. Mahoney (453 A.2d 527 (1982))