Bifurcated Judgment Affirmed by Appellate Court

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  • Dec 05 2016

While there is no “typical case”, I handled a matter about a year ago, that was truly unusual. The client, the husband, was terminally-ill with cancer and seeking a divorce before he died. After an emergency evidentiary hearing during which the ailing man testified, the judge granted what is called a “bifurcated” Judgment of Dissolution of Marriage (definition discussed below). The parties were divorced. Shortly thereafter, the wife (now ex-wife) filed an appeal.  She alleged that the trial court “abused its discretion” in granting a bifurcated judgment.

Recently, the Appellate Court of the First District issued its opinion on the matter and affirmed the entry of the bifurcated judgment. See In Re Marriage of Breashears, 2016 IL App (1st) 152404. The ruling was not only significant for the client and his successors, but also in bringing clarity to the issue of when, if ever, bifurcated judgments may be granted in a divorce.

First, a “bifurcated” Judgment for Dissolution of Marriage, simply put, is when the judge grants only the divorce itself. In other words, the Court does not divide property, allocate child-related decisions or parenting time, or make any material ruling but for dissolving the marriage. In bifurcated judgments, all issues (i.e. division of property and parenting-related matters, if any) are “reserved” by the Court to be addressed at a later time.

When someone seeks a bifurcated divorce, the trial judge has the authority to grant it provided “appropriate circumstances” exist. The party seeking such judgment has the burden of proving that those circumstances exist. While often an attractive option to clients, bifurcated judgments are highly disfavored because the many complications that may arise. The most common example is that, post-bifurcated judgment, property values typically change. Parties will dispute how and when property (e.g., real estate, investment accounts) should be valued—the date of the bifurcated judgment or a later date? If parties receive a bifurcated judgment, they may lack motivation to timely complete the remaining issues. Or at least one party may.

In Breashears, Mr. Breashear’s impending death certainly presented unusual circumstances in a divorce case. The issue was whether his imminent death constituted the required “appropriate circumstances” as required by the statute. Mr. Breashears, who said he had been estranged from his wife for many years, said that he wanted the bifurcated judgment for two reasons: 1.) he wanted to try to dispose of his assets while he was still living; and 2.) he wanted to marry his long-time partner.

Had Mr. Breashears passed prior to entry of the bifurcated judgment, the divorce action would have abated (i.e. vanished). His wife arguably would have fared much better financially in probate court. We can’t be certain of that, but Mr. Breashears thought divorce court would yield a more equitable result for him and his family.

At hearing, I argued that there were little to no complications that would arise if the bifurcation was granted. The Breashears had no children and therefore, parenting matters were not at issue. Second, Mr. Breashears was inevitably going to die very soon. Pursuant to maintenance law, any award of maintenance would terminate upon his death. That was unavoidable regardless of whether the bifurcation was granted. Mrs. Breashears’ property rights would remain relatively unaffected following the bifurcation. She would still be entitled to her equitable portion of the marital estate subsequent to the death of Mr. Breashears.

The Appellate Court agreed with all of the arguments we presented at the trial level and affirmed the decision. It expressly determined that “impending death of a party can represent ‘appropriate circumstances’ for the entry of a bifurcated judgment.”

Undoubtedly, the rule of law regarding impending death is not frequently applicable. However, the Appellate Court’s opinion highlighted that, where maintenance and child related issues are not at issue, there may be relatively few complications that may arise from granting a bifurcation. On this point, Breashears could be persuasive and applicable in future matters.

To view the Appellate Court Opinion please see: http://www.illinoiscourts.gov/Opinions/AppellateCourt/2016/1stDistrict/1152404.pdf

If you believe that a bifurcated judgment may be appropriate in your case, feel free to contact me to discuss.

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