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In Connecticut’s swank Gold Coast towns, like Greenwich and Darien, country club membership can take on momentous significance. “It is my social life and my athletic life,” testified Nancy Brewster in her divorce proceedings. Brewster — whose parents, brothers and nephews are all members of the world-renowned, 210-acre Round Hill Club in Greenwich — recently asked Stamford Superior Court Judge Kevin Tierney to order her husband to transfer his membership to her. “I am a legacy, and legacy is preferred for new members,” she told the court. Instead, in the most far-ranging analysis of country club membership by a Connecticut jurist, Tierney last month concluded that membership rights in a stock corporation country club with a nonrefundable initiation fee of $65,000 is not marital property and is impossible to value. His exhaustive 27-page opinion pivots on a club bylaw that requires the affirmative votes of nine members of the board of directors to approve a new member. Tierney reasoned that, because he cannot order the board to vote Nancy Brewster into the club, her potential rights are a worthless expectancy. “The condition against transfer prevents the rights of membership by themselves to be considered marital property,” he wrote. The opinion, and the case record, says nothing about the relative likelihood that the club’s directors would vote to accept Nancy Brewster. Tierney posits the board would have no choice but to accept the husband’s tendered resignation, but treats the issue of the wife’s likelihood of membership approval as an unfathomable mystery. (Country clubs typically require some sort of vote to admit members.) WELCOMED CLARIFICATION? Tierney’s May 17 decision runs contrary to historic practices, in which judges routinely assigned dollar values to country club memberships and, on occasion, have directed the transfer of membership from one spouse to another. Indeed, in 1980, Tierney’s father, Judge Trial Referee William Tierney, in Lane v. Lane, did what his son says is now legally impossible, when he wrote, “It is further ordered that the defendant transfer the membership in Round Hill Club to the plaintiff …” In that decision and most others, wrote the younger Tierney, “there was no discussion concerning the club’s bylaws, certificate of incorporation, or any other club documents.” Furthermore, “[t]he issue of whether or not country club rights were marital property appears not to have been raised in the above cited cases,” he wrote. The question of whether club membership should show up on the radar of a property settlement was raised by Daniel Brewster’s lawyer, Gaetano Ferro of New Canaan, Conn.’s Marvin and Ferro. In an interview, Ferro said this is the first time the issue has been raised in a reported decision. Clarification in this area of divorce law is welcomed, said Ferro, “because here in Fairfield County, we fight over country club memberships all the time.” Daniel Brewster is the former CEO of magazine publisher Gruner + Jahr, USA. Cynthia George — of the Greenwich matrimonial firm of Schoonmaker, George & Colin — said Nancy Brewster, her client, has decided to appeal Tierney’s ruling. “We think it is [marital] property,” she said of the club membership. Under the Black’s Law Dictionary definition cited in the landmark 1995 state Supreme Court case of Krafick v. Krafick, property includes everything that “goes to make up wealth,” including the intangible, invisible and incorporeal assets, George noted. Stamford, Conn., solo Joseph T. O’Connor, who represents Daniel Brewster, called the ruling “narrow” and said it requires divorce lawyers to scrutinize any club membership carefully. JUDICIAL EXERCISE Valuing club memberships is a common practice in Connecticut divorce settlements. In the recent case of Sosin v. Sosin, a Westport multimillionaire’s nine club memberships were valued at $960,000. In March, Bridgeport Superior Court Judge Howard T. Owen directed the respective spouses to transfer any interests “in accordance with the clubs’ bylaws” to the spouse retaining club membership. In the Brewster case, Tierney found that neither the entry fee nor the membership itself could be valued as marital property. However, the right to be paid a share of the proceeds if the club is dissolved is marital property, the judge decided. Without benefit of any expert testimony, Tierney then posited that the “highest and best use” of the club property, which includes a championship 18-hole golf course, is to demolish all club buildings and divide the property into 50 four-acre lots, yielding “between $22,270,000 and $47,270,000.” Club membership is fixed at 390 people, and each owns one share. Daniel Brewster would “probably receive a total of $64,103 to $128,206,” the judge wrote. But then he noted, “from all accounts the Club is viable,” and its “dissolution may never occur.” In order to keep from upsetting the Brewsters’ finely balanced property settlement of July 2004, Tierney decided to do nothing. The judge had retained jurisdiction to consider the issue last November, when Ferro and George argued for the husband and wife. Despite his ambitious re-landscaping of the concepts of country club valuation in divorce, Tierney reluctantly stuck to the status quo in Brewster. “If this decision was based solely on equitable considerations and the statutory property distribution criteria, the court would award the membership rights in the Club to the plaintiff wife,” he wrote. But since Tierney found club membership was not marital property, “this court has no authority to enter such an equitable order.” Ironically, he cited previous cases in which he and other judges have found creative ways to allocate club membership rights in the interest of fairness. In the 2000 Superior Court decision of Wasson v. Wasson, Judge Michael E. Shay ordered the husband to resign his membership in the Belle Haven Club and have membership continue in the ex-wife’s name alone “to preserve the continued use of the facilities for the children” and to promote their best interests.

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