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Methods of Dividing Damages in Divorce


In the United States, issues of property division upon divorce are governed either by the community property system or by principles of equitable distribution. In Rhode Island, property is divided according to the rules of equitable distribution, which provides that all marital property is distributed equitably between the spouses in a divorce case.

Property Division in Rhode Island

Rhode Island follows a three-step approach to determining property division issues in divorce cases. In the first step, the court must decide which assets qualify as “marital property” and which assets qualify as “nonmarital property.” In the second step, the court will consider certain factors enumerated by statute. In the final step, the court will determine how exactly to divide the property between the divorcing spouses.

In general, subject to certain exceptions for property acquired by gift or inheritance, all property that the couple acquired during marriage is considered to be marital property subject to equitable division upon divorce. For example, if a married couple purchased a house during their marriage, it would qualify as marital property. Other assets that qualify as marital property include income from work earned during marriage.

Civil Damages

In civil lawsuits, the plaintiff typically requests the defendant to pay damages to which they are legally entitled. A damages award can be divided into two categories: economic losses and noneconomic damages.

Economic damages generally compensate the plaintiff for monetary losses they suffer as a result of the injury the defendant caused.

Examples of economic damages in civil lawsuits include:

  • Expenses or losses incurred from breach of a contract or agreement
  • Lost wages
  • Lost business profits

In contrast, noneconomic damages compensate the plaintiff for losses that flow from an injury but cannot be easily quantified in financial terms.

Examples of noneconomic damages include:

  • Disability or disfigurement in personal injury cases
  • Pain and suffering in personal injury cases
  • Loss of reputation in defamation cases

In divorce cases, certain damages from a civil lawsuit may be divided upon divorce, like other assets. Other types of damages, however, may not.

Rhode Island’s Approach

Rhode Island uses what is known as the “analytic approach” for distributing damages in divorce cases. Under this approach, courts will analyze the type of loss that the damage award is meant to compensate. Because income earned during divorce is typically considered to be a marital asset subject to equitable distribution, damages that compensate the plaintiff for economic losses take on the character of the funds spent to cover such losses.

For example, if the plaintiff had to use money they earned during marriage to pay for their medical expenses, the part of the damages award meant to compensate the plaintiff for those medical costs will qualify as a divisible marital asset. Conversely, if the plaintiff used money from a separate savings account containing money that qualifies as a nonmarital asset, the economic damages award might also be considered a nonmarital asset.

Furthermore, compensation for losses that are strictly personal to the plaintiff—such as pain and suffering—will not qualify as a marital asset even if the injury arose during marriage. Courts classify such losses as nonmarital property because it is a loss that only the plaintiff endures, and not a property right that both the plaintiff and their spouse enjoys.

Contact McIntyre Tate for Legal Counsel and Representation

Issues such as property division can be a challenge to navigate in divorce cases. As a result, you would benefit from getting legal representation from an experienced family law attorney from McIntyre Tate LLP.

Call us at (401) 351-7700 or contact our office online for an initial case evaluation today.