Personal Injury Damages
Awards for damages in personal injury cases can qualify as marital property subject to equitable distribution upon divorce. However, there are special considerations that courts must assess when dividing personal injury damages.
Illinois courts have held that personal injury damages generally qualify as marital property if the injured party was married at the time their right to sue the at-fault party arose. Courts may then divide a marital damages award based on the nature of the remedy.
For example, portions of a personal injury damages award intended to cover economic losses—such as medical expenses and lost income—may be divided between the parties in proportion to the income each brings to the marriage. In contrast, courts may award the part of a personal injury damages award intended to compensate the injured spouse for their personal noneconomic injuries—such as pain and suffering, disability, and disfigurement—primarily to the injured spouse.
The judicial trend regarding this issue generally favors awarding a greater share of the damages award to the injured spouse. However, courts may favor granting the non-injured spouse a larger share of a damages award if they depended on the injured spouse's income and employability throughout the marriage. If the injured spouse suffers from a more permanent disability, courts tend to allocate a larger share of the damages to them.
Damages for Other Legal Actions
The damages a spouse would recover from lawsuits that do not involve personal injuries—such as gender discrimination cases—follow a similar legal analysis to personal injury cases. The character of a damages award in such legal actions generally depends on whether the plaintiff-spouse’s right to sue arose during the marriage.
For purposes of determining the equitable division of a general civil damages award, Illinois law focuses on the acquisition of a property interest, not necessarily when such an interest had vested. As a result, Illinois courts are likely to consider class action settlements and verdicts as marital property subject to equitable division. Other jurisdictions have conversely held that the marital or nonmarital character of a spouse’s interest in the other spouse's class action proceeds depends on when such an interest vests and is speculative until that happens—i.e., agreeing to a class settlement as a prospective class member.
Unlike compensatory damages awards, punitive damages are intended to deter the defendant from committing future wrongs. Although courts in many jurisdictions—including Illinois—have not specifically ruled on the issue of characterizing and dividing punitive damages upon divorce, the Alaska Supreme Court recently held that the marital or nonmarital character of a punitive damages award is the same as the character of the underlying damages award.
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Property division issues in divorce cases can be very complicated, especially in matters involving unusual assets like damages awarded to a spouse in a civil lawsuit. To determine the extent of your legal rights and interests in a divorce case, you should confer with a legal professional from the Law Offices of Jonathan Merel, PC for advice. Our legal team, guided by Attorney Jonathan Merel, is dedicated to helping families navigate complex family law issues to reach a fair and just resolution.