Degrees of Separation

Lady Justice
Graham v. Graham presented a novel question to Colorado courts, requiring a new interpretation of the Uniform Dissolution of Marriage Act. The state Supreme Court ultimately relied on implications of similar findings from out-of-state courts. / Law Week Colorado

Divorce often involves couples fighting over assets — second houses, cars or even pets. But one couple went all the way to the state Supreme Court in a fight over one party’s education. 

The Colorado Supreme Court in 1978 interpreted the Uniform Dissolution of Marriage Act and ruled on an unusually contentious case in which a woman argued her ex-husband’s master’s degree was marital property and subject to division in divorce proceedings. 

According to court documents, the Grahams were married for six years and the wife financially supported her husband for the duration of that time as he pursued two higher education degrees from the University of Colorado. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in engineering physics and an MBA, he got a job paying more than $90,000 a year in today’s money. According to court records, “No marital assets were accumulated during the marriage.”

The couple in February 1974 filed for a dissolution of marriage, and it was determined that the wife was eligible for payments related to the education and subsequent job offer of the husband. The district court estimated payment at what would now total more than $170,000 to be paid in monthly installments. 

The Colorado Court of Appeals reversed the ruling, holding that “an education is not itself ‘property’ subject to division under the Act, although it was one factor to be considered in determining … an equitable property division,” according to court records. 

The case eventually went to the Colorado Supreme Court, which agreed with other courts that education of one spouse is not marital property eligible for division on dissolution. Ultimately, the court determined that a degree “cannot have monetary value placed upon it,” siding with a ruling from a similar appellate decision from California. 

A spouse who provides financial support while the other spouse acquires an education is not without a remedy,” the Supreme Court opinion states. “Where there is marital property to be divided, such contribution to the education of the other spouse may be taken into consideration by the court.”

Based on numerous other rulings from courts in multiple jurisdictions, the Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the Court of Appeals. It found that while the degree might have qualified for alimony payments, the wife did not request maintenance and instead sought division of the MBA as property.

The case had several lasting impacts on divorce proceedings. While ruling history supported the Court of Appeals judgment, Graham v. Graham presented a new angle to the issue of marital asset division, and the case has been cited more than 80 times in other cases in multiple states. 

– Jess Brovsky-Eaker

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