Two issues can arise in a divorce related to a spouse’s college or graduate school education. First, is a degree earned during the marriage an asset to divide or is it relevant in settling the terms of a divorce? Second, who gets the student loan debt in the divorce?
Florida courts have said that it is speculative to place a value on a college or professional degree because it’s worth is based on how it enhances the holder’s future earning capacity and income. Its value is not based on how much it cost to get the degree and it is impossible to determine for sure whether the degree holder will do work enhanced by that degree.
Therefore, a degree is not a traditional asset for the court to divide equitably between the parties in divorce nor is it a basis on which a judge should order a lump sum alimony payment. However, it is relevant to deciding whether to grant future alimony payments and to their amount.
The Florida alimony statute does say that two of the factors that the court must consider in deciding whether to grant alimony as well as in determining the duration and amount of an award are:
• The parties’ “earning capacities, educational levels, vocational skills, and employability …”
• Services of one spouse to the other’s “education, and career building …”
So, let’s say a judge based the amount of an alimony payment monthly going forward at a certain amount based on the degree holder’s intention to continue to work as a successful doctor. That is a reasonable and allowable basis for that decision that indirectly takes the professional degree into consideration.
If in this scenario, however, the doctor-spouse changed careers later, causing a major drop in earnings, that spouse could return to the court and ask to lower the alimony amount based on changed circumstances.
In this way, using a degree as a basis for future alimony allows for tweaking the award if future earnings change. If the court had used it as the basis of a large lump-sum award or as an asset to consider in fairly dividing property, there would have not been a way later to adjust for the speculative nature of future earnings.
In part 2 of this post, we will look at how the court divides student loan debt in divorce.