In early April, I received a phone call from Attorney Brian Wilson, a principal in the Canton personal injury law firm of Nicodemo & Wilson. He and I have teamed up on a few prior projects, and he has contributed to the Oho Family Law Blog in the past. After catching up a bit on the joys of blogging and our respective lives, he asked if I might consider writing an article as a guest blogger on their Bull’s-Eye Blog about how personal injury settlements are treated by divorce courts. Of course, I was only too happy to accommodate Brian. His blog is superb and one that I read several times a week. Check it out by clicking here. The article I wrote was posted on May 3, 2010. Thanks, Brian! Here it is starting with Brian’s introduction:
Occasionally, we have guest bloggers write on topics of interest that cross over into Ohio personal injury issues. Our guest blogger is Robert L. Mues, an outstanding Dayton, Ohio, family law attorney. I found his interesting and informative blog and website while searching the Net for…interesting and informative blogs and websites! His blog is a must read for folks dealing with the weighty issues of divorce, custody, and other related legal matters. One issue that intersects our legal worlds is how Ohio personal injury claims or proceeds are divided in domestic relations court. Take it away, Robert…
A year ago you were involved in a rear-end car accident which was not your fault. You were the only occupant in the car. You were taken to the hospital from the accident scene and given some pain medication and told to contact your family doctor. The next day, you couldn’t believe your back and neck pain! The pain continued and your wife correctly suggested that you hire an attorney to represent both of you in dealing with the insurance company. As a result of the accident, you missed a week of work at ABC Machine Shop, where you work as a tool maker being paid $17 per hour. Fortunately, all your medical expenses were covered under your health insurance plan except for $100 in co-pays.
In addition, for about a month or so you were not able to cut the lawn, take out the trash and do other chores you usually did. Your wife had to pick up the slack. Your interest in being intimate with your wife also suffered. All of this started causing arguments between the two of you. You generally just went to work and would come home and go to bed early. Your wife started staying out late after work and “going out with the girls”. After much discussion and investigation, you learned she had become involved with a male friend. The two of you decided 7 months after the accident to separate and, unfortunately, to end your marriage and get a divorce. You both hire separate divorce lawyers. In the midst of the divorce, your lawyer on your accident case calls you to tell you that after long and hard negotiations there is a “fair” offer on the table for you and your wife. That is great news you think, since you could use the money to help get back on your feet.
But your accident lawyer tells you that your wife will need to sign both the insurance check and release document. Now you realize that you might have a problem. So you decide to call your divorce attorney and tell her the situation and ask if keeping all the money would be a problem. She says that this is a new issue and that it will “need to be worked out” with your wife’s attorney. “Worked out?” What is there to work out, you think, since it was you that was injured and not your wife? Here is what you are likely to learn from your divorce lawyer about how personal injury claims are typically treated in Ohio Courts.
IS A PERSONAL INJURY SETTLEMENT SEPARATE OR MARITAL PROPERTY?
The general rule is that if the settlement is to compensate for injuries, pain and suffering, loss of enjoyment, or medical bills that do not have any impact on the marital estate, the settlement is separate property and should be fully awarded to the injured person. Realizing this to be the law, your divorce attorneys will try to get you all or as much of the proceeds as possible.
If the two lawyers are not able to negotiate an agreement, the divorce court would need to determine what part of the proceeds are “martial” and subject to equitable division and what portion is “separate property” and not divided. Separate property is defined to include “compensation to a spouse for the spouse’s personal injury, except for loss of marital earnings and compensation for expenses paid from marital assets.” Thus, in order for the settlement to be considered separate property, a person must trace those funds, and those funds must represent something other than a loss of marital earnings or compensation for expenses paid from marital assets. A personal injury settlement is “marital property” divisible upon divorce, only to the extent that it reimburses injured spouse for lost earnings and medical expenses that have adverse impact on marital estate. In characterizing settlement proceeds, it is proper to consider whether injured spouse’s medical expenses had, in fact, depleted the marital estate, or whether employer or insurer had picked up such expenses. It is also common that a portion of the settlement proceeds are intended to compensate the injured person’s spouse for the damage or impact to their marital relationship, which is referred to as a “loss of consortium” claim. Divorce Courts typically view that claim as the separate property of the spouse of the accident victim.
Ohio Courts have held that a personal injury settlement is marital property in the following situations: commingling assets by accepting entire settlement in one check made payable to both parties; compensation for lost wages; and medical bills that have an impact on the marital estate. In addition, when there is a lower settlement amount than what would have otherwise occurred due to low policy limits or a lack of funds from the responsible party, there is no abuse of discretion for the trial court to allocate a portion of the settlement to lost wages even when the settlement indicates that it is for personal injury only.
Many personal injury attorneys are successful in requesting the insurance adjuster to provide a letter breaking down the proceeds by category. That can be very helpful for the divorce lawyer. But if the adjuster will not provide that breakdown, then the Court will need to hear testimony about the injuries and review the demand package sent to the adjuster and apply the law.
So, what is my best estimate how a court might allocate the net proceeds in the above scenario if there is no letter from the insurance company setting forth their breakdown? Well, it would seem that the lost wage portion of approximately $680 would likely to be considered “marital” and she would get half of that amount. The medical bills did not impact the parties significantly. Technically, she should get perhaps $50 to reimburse her 1/2 of the co-pays. In my experience, loss of consortium claims typically make up only a small portion of the gross settlement unless the injuries are very significant. But this is a very “grey” area subject to the Court’s equitable discretion. Any amount allocated to her loss of consortium claim would be wife’s separate property. So, in my scenario, the lion’s share of the settlement proceeds will go to you to compensate you for your pain, suffering, and all that you had gone through as a result of the collision.
Robert L Mues is the managing partner of the Dayton law firm of Holzfaster, Cecil, McKnight & Mues. He has focused much of his practice over the past 31 years in the family law arena handling divorce, custody and juvenile law matters throughout Southwest Ohio and in many Ohio Courts, including the Ohio Supreme Court. Mr. Mues has received the highest rating from the Martindale-Hubbell Peer Review for Ethical Standards and Legal Ability. He has been very active in supporting child welfare issues throughout his career as well as serving on various charitable non-profit boards. He loves to write and is very proud to be the publisher of the popular and informative Ohio Family Law Blog. To learn more about Mr. Mues and to be linked to the Ohio Family Law Blog, click here.
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Robert L. Mues
Robert Mues is the managing partner of Dayton, Ohio, law firm, Holzfaster, Cecil, McKnight & Mues, and has received the highest rating from the Martindale-Hubbell Peer Review for Ethical Standards and Legal Ability. Mr. Mues is also a founding member of the "International Academy of Attorneys for Divorce over 50" blog.