One Spouse Is a Physician; The Other Is Not

NOVEMBER 10, 2017
Douglas R. York
physician, divorce, spouse, marriageOne scenario in a physician divorce is so common that it has become a cliché: the spouse who is not a physician worked for years, often sacrificing his or her own education and employment prospects, to pay for the medical education of the other spouse.

Once the medical degree was achieved and internships and residencies completed, the supportive spouse stayed home to raise children while the medical spouse became the breadwinner.

Then, for whatever reasons, the physician — or the physician’s spouse — decides that he or she wants a divorce. How can or should the non-physician spouse be compensated for contributions to the present success of the physician? 

Nine states are known as community property states: Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin. (Alaska has an optional community property system.)  But “community property” does not necessarily mean, as some imagine, a precise 50/50 division of all property. 

In Texas, for instance, the law only requires that the division of property between divorcing spouses be “fair, just and equitable.”  Many factors can be considered in the determination of “fair, just and equitable.” Certainly the contributions of the non-medical spouse to the physician’s career, and the failure to cultivate a career that provides comparable earnings, can be among those factors. 

Alimony, or temporary support, is another issue in which the laws differ from state to state.

Most couples will walk through the courthouse doors shortly after filing for divorce requesting temporary orders. The spouse who is financially disadvantaged will request temporary spousal maintenance from the higher wage earner to keep things “status quo.” The higher wage earner will most likely ask the court to “stair-step” any temporary payments, and for such payments to decrease over the coming months in order to urge the other spouse to become employed and self sufficient. 

One thing is for certain, however, both parties are normally passionate about keeping as much money as possible and not “giving away” any assets to the other. Being able to effectively present a good case in front of the court on temporary orders is paramount, as it sets the stage for trial and could encourage a quick settlement. 

Of course, the physician spouse may complain that the scenario described above does not really apply to his or her situation. Perhaps the couple married after the physician already had his/her medical degree. Perhaps the couple never had children, so there was no need for anyone to give up a career to care for children. Perhaps the children were actually raised by a nanny or a relative. Perhaps both spouses continued to pursue lucrative careers. These are all factors that will be taken into consideration in the division of property and the assignment of support.

Since there are so many unique issues involved when a physician divorces, it is essential that he or she choose an attorney who is highly experienced in representing physicians.

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This article was written by Douglas R. York, an attorney based in Houston with 17 years’ experience in marriage dissolution, including multi-jurisdictional divorces involving highly complex legal issues.

Douglas R. York is a licensed attorney in the State of Texas, and by this article, no advice is intended to be given and no attorney-client relationship is formed.  The reader should check the laws of his/her state and seek legal advice from counsel of his/her choosing.
 

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