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Ex-Wife Entitled to Share of Husband’s Medical License Value

December 27, 1985

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) _ A ruling by New York’s highest court that professional licenses acquired during marriage are considered marital property will pose many problems for courts handling distribution of property in divorce cases, an attorney for the defendant said.

The Court of Appeals’ unanimous ruling Thursday means Loretta O’Brien is entitled to share part of her ex-husband’s future income as a physician. A lower court had awarded her $188,800, representing 40 percent of the license’s estimated value.

Dr. Michael O’Brien’s attorney, Willard DaSilva, said appellate courts in 29 other states have ruled that professional degrees are separate rather than marital property.

The O’Briens married in 1971. Mrs. O’Brien worked as a teacher and contributed her earnings to the couple’s joint expenses when her husband completed his undergraduate degree and premedical courses at New York’s Hunter College and when he attended medical school at Universidad Autonoma de Guadalajara in Mexico.

Mrs. O’Brien also continued to teach and contribute her earnings when the couple returned to New York in December 1976, where he completed the last two semesters of medical school and began internship training. Two months after being licensed to practice medicine in 1980, O’Brien, then a resident in general surgery, sued for divorce.

Attorneys for the husband argued that a professional license isn’t marital property because ″it does not fit within the traditional view of property as something which has an exchange value on the open market and is capable of sale, assignment or transfer.″

Judge Richard Simons, writing the court’s opinion, disagreed. ″A professional license is a valuable property right, reflected in the money, effort and lost opportunity for employment expended in its acquisition, and also in the enhanced earning capacity it affords its holder, which may not be revoked without due process of law.″

The court rejected arguments that the working spouse was entitled only to reimbursement of his or her direct financial contributions.

Its ruling reversed a lower appeals court decision that had concluded a professional license wasn’t marital property. The top court upheld a trial- level state Supreme Court decision, awarding the woman $188,800, to be paid in 11 annual installments.

Mrs. O’Brien’s attorney, Albert Emanuelli, said he spoke with her about the ruling and that she was thrilled. ″If they (the court) were only to have given back what I gave him, I would have felt like a bank,″ the attorney quoted her as saying.

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