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Wrongfully convicted, he won settlement: separate or marital asset?

Although it is certainly not a divorce-related story with a fact pattern readily reminiscent of other dissolution narratives, it is replete with information that an audience in Massachusetts or elsewhere might reasonably regard as being instructive.

We'll let our readers be the judge.

Consider the case of a man who was sent to prison in 1992 after being convicted of a rape and murder. After languishing behind bars for two decades, DNA evidence emerged to clear him of the crime. He was released in 2012.

He thereafter filed a wrongful conviction lawsuit and ultimately settled with authorities in his state for $20 million. Reportedly, his after-tax take of that gross amount is about $11.4 million.

While in prison, the man met a woman from the outside who he eventually married in 2000. They divorced in 2014, two years following his release.

Unsurprisingly, his ex-wife staked a claim on his settlement money, claiming that it constituted marital property subject to an equitable division.

A trial court disagreed, deeming the money to be the man's separate property. The stated rationale: the money addressed injuries (primarily the conviction and sentence meted out) that were incurred before the couple ever met.

An appellate court reversed that ruling, holding that the man had no property when he was imprisoned in 2002, with the lawsuit accruing during marriage. As such, the money must necessarily be considered as a marital asset to be equitably divided.

Ultimately, the state's highest court declined to hear the matter, meaning that the appellate court's view prevailed.

It is now headed to divorce court where, commencing this July, a trial will determine what "equitable" means in the case. The woman's attorneys say they will push for "an equal division" of the property. The man's legal team asserts that he "will receive the vast majority" of the settlement.

The case addresses two major points that emerge as central in many divorces, namely, the distinction/determination of separate versus marital property and a court's reasoned conclusion regarding what constitutes an equitable division of property in a dissolution.

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