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An equitable, rather than an equal, division of property is the ultimate goal of Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 208, § 34. As provided by statute, the trial judge has broad discretion to assign to either the husband or the wife all or any part of the estate of the other, after consideration of the factors enumerated in the statute. A division of marital property which is supported by findings as to the required factors will not be disturbed on appeal unless plainly wrong and excessive.
Plaintiff, Gabriele Ketterle (wife) and the defendant, Wolfgang Ketterle (husband), were married for 17 years. Plaintiff came to the United States from Germany to enhance her husband’s career despite her lack of fluency in English and familiarity with American culture. Plaintiff’s total commitment to child rearing and tending to the home also permitted the husband to pursue his career. The husband won the Nobel Prize for Physics. In a divorce action by plaintiff, the trial judge found that winning the Nobel Prize identified the husband as a superstar in the scientific and academic universe, and she projected his having substantial ability to acquire future income and assets. Relying heavily on this factor, the judge assigned the wife a greater percentage of the existing marital assets. The husband appealed, arguing that the division was disproportionate.
Did the trial court err in assigning the wife a greater percentage of the existing marital assets?
The court ruled that an equitable, rather than an equal, division of property was the ultimate goal of G. L. c. 208, § 34, and as provided by statute, the trial judge has "broad discretion to 'assign to either the husband or the wife all or any part of the estate of the other,' after consideration of the factors enumerated in the statute.” If the evidence demonstrated that one party has little or no ability to produce income and little prospect of obtaining assets by other means, such as inheritance, and the other party has a history of producing income, then a strong case existed for property assignment and/or alimony in favor of the party with minimal economic prospects. In this case, the court held that the judge's findings on the wife's inability to acquire future income and assets were well-supported, given the wife's limited vocational skills and mental illness. The court, however, held that the trial court erred in finding the husband responsible for college expenses for the two youngest children, as such a finding was premature.