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Battle Over Huge Lottery Win a Sad Tale to Learn From

View profile for Jonathan Corbishley
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The law often unearths worthy tales of note for all to learn from. Some are just stories where people shake their heads, and move on without a thought, but others have deeper lessons for all of us.

One such recent tale hit the national newspapers and involved a court battle on the other side of the Atlantic. It demonstrates a course of behaviour, which is just as likely to happen here in the UK.

It reports on a couple who had been married, but whilst separated the husband bought a lottery ticket, winning an eye watering $38m dollars, which is just over £30m.

Richard Zelasko from Pontiac, Michigan had been living apart from his wife Mary Elizabeth for a considerable time after she initiated divorce proceedings.

As they went through the divorce process and fought over the marital finances, the wife’s lawyer said the winnings should be jointly shared as Mr Zelasko had also probably incurred losses on the lottery during the marriage also.

Mary Elizabeth was legally awarded her half of the winnings, but her husband appealed the decision, which he lost, and is still pursuing the battle.

This case is a perfect example of where couples separate and do not obtain legal advice, leaving themselves vulnerable to their spouse pursuing a claim on a later divorce, against assets acquired post-separation.  While assets accrued post-separation can be disregarded in financial settlements, they are not always ring-fenced.

Had the couple got divorced at the time of their separation and entered into a properly legally binding financial settlement, the wife probably would not have been able to pursue this claim.

Divorce doesn’t have to be acrimonious but once vast sums of money are involved, particularly monies received post-separation, it can be difficult for couples to avoid the approach of ‘winning’ at all costs.

Here in the UK, most family lawyers will encourage couples to mediate relating to issues such as wealth and assets, no matter how difficult the circumstances.  In fact, the Courts require parties to try and mediate before a Court application can be made, unless there is a valid exemption (such as domestic abuse). Leaving a marriage with the ability to move on and look to the future rather than be consumed in rage is a more positive step for all those involved.  Mediation can really assist with this.

Our current divorce law does not allow for parties to end a marriage within the first two years of separation, without one party blaming the other for the breakdown of the marriage; either by accusing them of adultery or unreasonable behaviour.  This can often cause unnecessary acrimony and that often then filters into the financial disputes.  A case that may be straightforward to settle could be litigated aggressively because one party is upset at being blamed for the breakdown of the marriage.  Sadly the blame that must be laid in the divorce can also have a detrimental impact on whether parties can effectively co-parent after the separation too.

The Government have recently introduced a new bill into Parliament to introduce no-fault divorce and it is hoped the new legislation will be in place in the next 1 to 2 years.  In the meantime, parties seeking to divorce shouldn’t let the ‘blame game’ stop a divorce from proceeding.  In some cases, for financial reasons, a divorce needs to take place within those first two years and the parties simply cannot wait until they have been separated for two years.  As in this case, a lottery win or inheritance in that two year separation period before divorce takes place could really impact on how the finances are divided.

A good family lawyer can help you to divorce amicably, within the constraints of the current law, and ensure that your financial position is protected and not left open ended; to avoid a situation arsing like this poor couple.

In the near future, the current ‘blame game’ on divorce will become a thing of the past and hopefully more couples will be able to amicably divorce, swiftly upon separation and avoid protracted disputes about monies they come into play after their separation.

We hope that others pursuing such a damaging course of legal action can take a moment to reflect or seek advice in a more collaborative way.  It can save plenty of acrimony and unnecessary costs if parties obtain sensible legal advice early.