ALBANY – A mother who showed “ability, tenacity, perseverance and hard work” in earning a law degree is obligated to pay her husband only 10 percent of the degree’s value in their divorce, an appeals court has decided.
The Appellate Division, Third Department, accepted the estimate of Victoria Esposito-Shea’s expert that the degree she earned from Notre Dame Law School added $126,000 to her earning power. The court decided her husband Bryan Shea was entitled to $12,600 for his limited contributions to the attainment of the degree.
Esposito-Shea, 42, received her law degree in the mid-1990s while caring for a 5-year-old and with another daughter on the way. “Federal tax [classes] and morning sickness are not a happy combination,” she said in an interview.
The Third Department noted that in instances where courts determine that one spouse’s contributions to the other’s attainment of a higher-education degree or a professional license were “modest,” a court is empowered to “limit the distributed amount of that enhanced earning capacity” to the non-titled spouse.
Shea’s contribution was such an instance, the court decided in its 5-0 ruling in Esposito-Shea v. Shea, 513428.
Shea argued that he was entitled to a greater share of the value of the degree because he was the couple’s primary wage earner during their marriage and arranged his schedule so he could care for the children while she attended classes. But the court concluded that these sacrifices represented “overall contributions to the marriage” rather than additional efforts to support his wife in obtaining her degree.
“In addition, the wife’s own efforts in obtaining her law degree cannot be minimized,” Justice E. Michael Kavanagh (See Profile) wrote for the court on April 5. “For example, she worked in part-time positions throughout the marriage and was employed during the summer months while attending law school. She earned merit scholarships and paid a significant part of her law school tuition with an inheritance she received during the marriage.”
Given those circumstances, the court ruled, St. Lawrence County Supreme Court Justice David Demarest’s (See Profile) August 2011 decision to limit Shea’s share of the value of his wife’s degree to 10 percent was within his discretion.
The Third Department panel also upheld Demarest’s decision denying Esposito-Shea’s application that she be granted a share of the value of her ex-husband’s Ph.D. in psychology.
“The husband had satisfied most of the requirements he needed to obtain this degree before the parties married and paid for it while providing financial support for his family,” Kavanagh wrote. “What assistance the wife may have provided in aiding him in acquiring this degree was simply not so significant or unique as to warrant awarding her a distributive share of its value.”
Esposito-Shea said she worked as an assistant St. Lawrence County district attorney from 2007, when she made about $41,000 a year, until 2011, when she left while making about $53,000 a year.
She said she is making in the “low $50,000s” as an attorney at the Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York.
Michelle Ladouceur of Cappello, Linden & Ladouceur in Potsdam, who represented Esposito-Shea, said the court’s decision correctly weighs Shea’s contribution toward his ex-wife’s law degree and her own determination in earning it.
Shea’s attorney, Cynthia Feathers of Glens Falls, said the value of degrees and professional licenses are typically not distributed on a 50-50 basis after divorce. Courts more often value the contributions of non-titled spouses like Shea at between zero and 35 percent.
Feathers said Shea urged the court to make a distributive award of $75,000 from the value of the law degree.
“We could make a motion for permission to appeal to the Court of Appeals, but we are not going to do that,” she said. “We don’t think there is a real good chance.”
Shea, an Army reservist who served three tours in the Middle East, is a psychologist at a state mental health facility. He is paid $92,974 a year.
The appeals court also did not disturb Justice Demarest’s decision directing him to pay $1,200 a month in child support for his two daughters, who are now 20 and 15 years old, and to pay $17,363 in child support arrears dating back to when the couple’s divorce action began in December 2006 after more than 15 years of marriage.
@|Joel Stashenko can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.