How Some Men Will Try To Get Out Of Dividing Assets In Divorce

Every profession has its share of drama. If you ask a group of emergency room nurses about the most bizarre thing they ever saw at work, you could be in for hours of incredible anecdotes. The same goes for elementary school teachers, bartenders, and virtually anyone else who works with the public. In fact, for some, the drama is the best part of the job — but that’s not how I see it.

As a divorce financial advisor, I prefer as little drama as possible. I know my clients’ lives are much happier when settlement negotiations go smoothly and fair agreements are reached in reasonable time frames. That’s why in my business, the less drama, the better — even though I fully recognize that divorce can be a contentious process, and having to divide assets sometimes brings out the worst in people. (After all, nobody likes to be forced to part with “their” money.)

In divorce, even today, it’s most often the husband who is the more monied spouse — and over the years I’ve observed some husbands go to great lengths not to have to divide marital assets they erroneously consider to be rightfully theirs alone. Family law judges, attorneys, and financial professionals find their capacity for shock is quickly diminished when it comes to financial dirty tricks. They’ve seen just about everything.

Even so, one particular story raised eyebrows last fall. It’s the case of New Jersey residents Michael Mandelbaum and his estranged wife Debra, who seeks to divorce him after more than 20 years together. She reportedly filed for divorce after obtaining a temporary restraining order against Michael, who was charged with aggravated assault after allegedly pushing her down a flight of stairs. (The charge was dropped after he completed a pretrial intervention program.) The couple has three children and shared a home reportedly valued at about $2M.

It’s Mr. Mandelbaum’s response to the filing that raised eyebrows. He claims that Debra can’t sue for divorce, because they were never legally married — never mind that they were wed by a rabbi in 1993 and had been living as married ever since!

Mr. Mandelbaum’s position is that although New Jersey law requires couples to have a marriage license in hand before they wed, he and Debra did not. They applied for a license two days before their wedding ceremony, and received it 16 days afterward. He contends that because there was no legal marriage, there can be no divorce — and therefore the court should dismiss Debra’s case.

Of course, if there was no marriage, Mandelbaum would, conveniently, have no obligation to divide assets or pay alimony. He would probably only be liable for child support, which he reportedly does acknowledge a moral obligation to pay. (Isn’t that nice of him?)

The Mandelbaums’ divorce action made headlines because millions are at stake in the outcome. Mr. Mandelbaum’s father, David, is part owner of the Minnesota Vikings and appeared on The Forbes 400 — the list of the richest people in America — in 2005. Michael reported an income in excess of $6.6M in 2012 from managing his family’s legal affairs.

New Jersey is an equitable distribution state, which means that in divorce, each spouse can claim a fair and equitable portion of all marital assets, regardless of whose name appears on what. Of course “fair and equitable distribution” is based on a variety of factors, including the length of the marriage, and may or may not result in a 50-50 split. Mr. Mandelbaum, reportedly worth hundreds of millions of dollars, apparently considered it worth the time, expense and legal gymnastics to avoid dividing assets with Debra.

Debra Mandelbaum countered her husband’s claim with a filing that includes 20 years’ worth of evidence of the couple’s married life, including joint tax returns and, notably, an anniversary card from Michael in which he wrote, “After 20 years I’d marry you all over again.”

The timing of the wedding ceremony vs. receipt of the marriage license presents a technicality that has reportedly been used in other cases. However, the court will also take good faith and common sense into account in making a decision. Michael and Debra Mandelbaum certainly behaved as a married couple…but on the other hand, New Jersey does not recognize “common law” marriage (by which a couple who has lived together for a long period of time and presents themselves to the public as husband and wife are considered married).

I suppose from Mr. Mandelbaum’s point of view, the worst a judge can say is “nice try, but no.” From Debra’s perspective, the best anyone can say is that her ex-husband’s strategy is pretty low.

Keep in mind, however, that the vast majority of divorces are neither gracious, generous “uncouplings” nor hateful, spite-saturated splits. Most fall somewhere in between. But then, for most of us, a divorce wouldn’t mean dividing millions of dollars’ worth of assets. Still, it’s better to keep headline-worthy tactics out of the picture.

How can you make sure to do that? Follow this simple rule: Even in your happiest times together (and may they be long and prosperous), dot those i’s and cross those t’s in all financial and legal matters — and never forget that your marriage is, above all else, both those things.

Jeffrey Landers is a member of the DailyWorth Connect program. Read more about the program here.

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