A recent call from one of my Rhode Island clients sparked an interesting issue regarding the client's divorce. It is not a question that arises as frequently as many others but it does raise its head on occasion because in today's litigious society there are frequent personal injury claims that arise.
Assume that a wife has a personal injury claim that occurred during the marriage but may be worth a substantial amount of money. The husband and wife get divorced but neither party discloses the claim as a potential asset that may be part of the marital estate because it was merely a claim at the time they settle their divorce. Before the Final Judgment of Divorce is entered, a Rhode Island Insurance carrier pays the wife $120,000 to settle the wife's claim. The husband has his lawyer file a motion in Rhode Island Family Court seeking half of the $120,000.
What, if anything, might the Husband be entitled to since his Rhode Island Divorce is not yet final?
The answer revolves substantially around the way in which the Rhode Island personal injury claim was settled. Monies received for medical bills are typically subject to a lien by the medical insurance carrier that must be repaid to that carrier. Monies paid on a claim that are paid for pain and suffering are intended to make the individual who was injured "whole" and therefore the payment is distinct compensation to something wholly individual to that person and not part of the marital estate.
The only portion of a personal injury settlement that is normally considered part of the marital estate and therefore is subject to distribution by the Rhode Island Family Court judge is that part of a settlement that compensates the wife for her lost wages. This is because the wages of either party are considered "marital" regardless of which party earns them by the very nature of the marriage covenant.
Thus, the only portion the husband might receive is a possible award of any lost wages the wife was compensated for by the settlement.
Christopher A. Pearsall
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West Warwick, RI 02893
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