When it comes to divorce, the first order of business – after child custody arrangements – is the division of marital property. The goal of the State of Texas is to divide those assets and debts that a couple accrues in the course of their marriage in a manner that is just and right rather than equal. This naturally leaves plenty of room for interpretation. Let us consider an example of property division that recently took place in a Michigan divorce.
$80 Million Jackpot
According to People Magazine, a Michigan man – Richard Zelasko – won an $80 Million jackpot in the Mega Million Lottery in 2013. Mr. Zelasko was separated from his wife, Mary Zelasko, and in the throes of a divorce when he purchased the winning ticket. Mr. Zelasko was naturally thrilled with his nearly $39 million in take-home earnings (after taxes and deductions).
Arbitration and Awards
Apparently, the Zelasko’s divorce was in arbitration at the time of Mr. Zelasko’s windfall. Arbitration is an alternative to court in which both parties agree to allow an arbitrator – whom they both agree upon – to settle specific issues that remain unresolved in the divorce. The division of marital property is an issue that is commonly brought to arbitration. Arbitration is legally binding, and unless the arbitrator breaks one of a very limited set of rules, the judge must approve the settlement issued.
The Zelasko Case
The arbitrator in the Zelasko case determined that Mr. Zelasko’s winnings were, indeed, part of the couple’s marital property because the couple was married when the ticket was purchased. The arbitrator also pointed out that it was highly improbable that this ticket purchase was a one-time thing. In fact, Mr. Zelasko shared his penchant for playing the lottery and gambling. The arbitrator awarded Ms. Zelasko $15 million – half of Mr. Zelasko’s winnings.
Marital Property and Luck
Upon appeal, Mr. Zelasko’s divorce lawyer took the stance that it was his client’s luck, and not his client’s wife’s luck, that led to the massive lottery win. The appeals court rejected this argument, however, and the original decision reached in arbitration was upheld as being without error.
Mr. Zelasko’s attorney has since filed an appeal brief to the Court of Appeals and a reconsideration motion on his client's behalf. The couple’s divorce was finalized in 2018, but the battle over the lottery proceeds is still on.
While this is an extreme example of the division of marital property, it does highlight how complicated said division can become.