Illinois Court: $20 Million Wrongful-Conviction Settlement Is Part Of Marital Property In Divorce

melissa-sanders-rivera-and-juan-rivera-after-his-release_facebook_photoThere is an interesting ruling out of Illinois this week. Juan Rivera served 20 years for a 1992 murder that he did not commit. While in prison, he married Melissa Sanders-Rivera. The marriage in 2000 lasted 14 years. However, he divorced his wife in 2014 — two years after his release. After his award of $20 million for his long incarceration, Melissa Sanders-Rivera moved to get her share of the money as his former spouse. The Illinois Court of Appeals ruled that the wife could claim award as marital property.

Rivera was cleared by DNA in the murder of 11-year-old Holly Staker. He argued that the award was not marital property because it concerned conduct preceding their marriage on Halloween in 2000. He argued that the underlying conduct was in 1992, long before the marriage. He could not sue over the wrongful conviction until after his conviction was reversed on appeal in 2011. On the equities, he argued that this was for his long incarceration and a torture-derived confession and that Sanders-Rivera did not deserve the award, which amounts to $11.4 million after taxes. After all, he did the time and only lived with Sanders-Rivera for roughly two years. The Court summed up his position:

“Under this principle, the operative facts and circumstances that gave rise
to [petitioner’s] cause of action occurred in 1992 and 1993. The ‘property’ at issue here is not the lawsuit, but rather the property is the wrongful conduct and resulting injury themselves (indisputably occurring prior to the marriage), which ultimately resulted in the settlement proceeds. Accordingly, [petitioner’s] property interest in that cause of action, i.e., the right to a legal remedy for the injuries he suffered from the wrongful conduct, was also acquired prior to the marriage.”

Sanders-Rivera however insisted that the filing occurred and the award was made during their marriage. The Court agreed:

We do not dispute that petitioner suffered injury in 1992 and 1993 at the hand of the defendants to his lawsuit. However, for purposes of petitioner’s lawsuit, petitioner had no damages until the appellate court vacated his conviction. The “essence” of the malicious prosecution for purposes of determining whether an insurer intended to cover a loss when issuing an insurance policy—which is all the Muller Fuel court found—is not determinative of when a party obtained a property interest for determining whether that property is marital or nonmarital. What is determinative of when property, in the form of a cause of action, is obtained (and thus marital or nonmarital) is when the cause of action accrues. . . . Petitioner did not have a property interest in his lawsuit (or stated differently no lawsuit existed) until the appellate court vacated his conviction in 2011. If there was no lawsuit, or property, in 1992 and 1993, there are no grounds for finding the lawsuit is nonmarital property. Because the lawsuit accrued in 2011, during the marriage, it is marital property subject to distribution pursuant to the factors set forth in section 503 of the Dissolution Act.

That is a rough result for a man who will a substantial portion of the damages for his abusive treatment and long confinement.

Here is the decision: Rivera Opinion

39 thoughts on “Illinois Court: $20 Million Wrongful-Conviction Settlement Is Part Of Marital Property In Divorce”

  1. How is it that she got 11.4 million $ when he served 20 years in prison and they were married for 14 yrs . She should have only been entitled to half of the money for the amount of time they were married. 20 million $ for 20 years = 1 million per year . 14 years of marriage so that = 14 million and her half would be 7 million ?

    1. The 11.4 is the total amount after taxes. The specific question certified to the court was whether that fund qualified as marital or separate property under the Illinois statute. The opinion determined that the setting aside of the underlying conviction was a necessary element of the cause of action upon which he recovered, and that the characterization of the property is determined by when the event constituting the last element of the cause of action occurred.

      How it is split between the spouses will be determined by the court based on the Illinois laws related to the division of marital property. No one has commented as to how such property may be split between the spouses in Illinois.

  2. The DNA taken from the body of the little girl who was raped and stabbed to death has now been linked to another man named Marvin Tyrone Williford, who was convicted of beating another person to death with a 2×4 and setting the body on fire. So not only was Rivera wrongfully imprisoned for 20 years, but during that time the real killer was out on the streets commiting horrific crimes.

  3. I read an article on women who marry prisoners. Some seek out notorious criminals such as serial killers because they want to share in the notoriety. But more common are those who initiate correspondence and eventually marry more anonymous convicts, because are seeking a man who has nothing in his life but her. She has all his attention and he may write to her six times a day. So she gets his undivided attention, but doesn’t have to deal with a real man and his demands and shortcomings in her life and home on a daily basis. If the convict is released, the marriage usually ends, and she will seek out another “husband-in-a-box.” Strange psychology, but I read that every notorious criminal will get stacks of letters from women.

  4. I’m not sure how the proceeds will be split, but I hope it’s not 50/50. In my opinion, she might be entitled to $100-200k out of the pot.

  5. Typical bad call by a state court on taking money from a man (usually) and awarding it to his spouse regardless of whether or not she had any actual claim to it. It could not be more clear that the spouse in this case had no right at all to even one penny of that settlement. I hope to God he continues to appeal until that decision is reversed. Why courts continue to believe that women are entitled to a piece of a husband’s property merely because they are getting a divorce is beyond me. Imagine if courts treated women as unfairly in such cases as they treat men. You’d never hear the end of it from feminists and women generally (rightfully so I might add). But when it comes to men they are expected to just take it and shut up. I hope this attitude comes to an end soon.

  6. Ahh wait a minute. From whence comes all the vitriol directed toward the woman. Assumption upon assumption is heaped like a dung pile. None of the arguments or statements in this thread carry any evidence which directly bear on the woman’s conduct or aspirations. She is repeatedly condemned through citations of others conduct. (Am surprised that some on this thread didn’t pick up on the blonde marrying a man of color. Oh I’m sorry, I guess I did.)

    This is also not all that far from marrying an armed service person following enlistment/commissioning. Retirement is not guaranteed nor is medical care. One requires meeting certain career points; the other is being constantly changed by the executive and legislative branches. Once retirement is established, the divorcing spouse is usually awarded a percentage based on certain criteria which include the duration of the marriage.

    So did some conniving blonde take a chance and strike it rich? Well, considering all the blonde jokes…….usually originated by brunettes…oh wait a minute. I think I see a number of brunettes walking around with blonde hair or highlights…oh ….they are guys.

    Should I mention that both prez candidates are sporting blonde doos?

    Such a disservice to the Nordic heritage hair. The prison story pales in comparison.

    1. Trump is a natural blonde. He is half Scottish and half German. I think HRC was blonde also when she was young. There is a difference between an older gray-haired person tinting his/her hair back to its natural color in an attempt to look younger or more vibrant, and someone who dyes his/her hair to that of a different ethnicity. If HRC wore a black Afro or cornrows on stage, there would be an uproar about “cultural appropriation,” but it’s okay for the “bottle blonde” airheads to appropriate the natural hair color of Northern Europeans.

    2. “…some…didn’t pick up on the blonde marrying a man of color…” I am intimately familiar w/a Latina. At least one reader does not recognize a Latina w/dyed hair.

      Lacking legal opening to deny the wife’s claim, I could see it this way: Married for 11 years (about 57%) of the 19 years he spent incarcerated, wshe gets 1/2 of 57%, or about 28% of his $11M.

  7. Think about all of the people who marry into money–they enter into those unions, basically as paupers, never having contributed to or participated in the accumulation of said vast wealth–the existence of which, often, predates the marriage by decades. Think about it. When these marriages go south, as many ultimately do, unless there is an airtight prenup–and those can be rare–there is a division of assets, where they walk away with a chunk of money for which they never toiled. It goes on each and every day. Whether it is correct or proper is another topic. My point is that this is not uncommon, and, therefore, should not come as a shock. Why is this particular scenario so different from those, which I have just described? While many believe that this particular woman did not deserve her share of his award, as she did not endure the decades of wrongful incarceration, I would assert that those entering into marriages, where there is an amassed fortune awaiting them upon arrival, also fall into that category. She was, by law, married to him for more than a decade, despite the fact that most of that time was not spent under the same roof.

  8. Girl Reporter quotes, “California is the only community property state using a different rule. All personal injury awards from lawsuits started during the marriage are treated as community property.”

    If this were a divorce in California:

    The order doesn’t indicate when the parties separated (generally, when one of the parties relocates from the marital home), which is the date when future acquisitions become separate property of the acquiring spouse again. Hubby filed his 1983 suit in 2012, two years before he filed a petition for divorce, so assuming the date of separation was after he filed that suit, Girl Reporter’s quote might be right if all personal injury awards from lawsuits filed during the marriage are treated as community property. That’s not the case though, and the quote is incorrect.

    In California, generally, it is when the injury is suffered that a cause of action arises and it is when the cause of action arises that defines the character of the acquisition, meaning whether the property is separate property of the injured spouse or community property. which must be divided one-half to each party upon dissolution of marriage. The property includes all money or property received, or to be received, in satisfaction of a personal-injury damage award depending on the marital status at the time the cause of action occurred. (Marriage of Klug (2005).)

    There’s also the general community property presumption which must be overcome, Assuming hubby has no problem rebutting the presumption because the cause of action clearly arose before marriage, any judgment proceeds would be his separate property no matter when he filed his 1983 suit.

    On the other hand, spousal support (alimony) becomes an issue, and this damages award (over $11.4M) becomes the subject of support by calculating its income were it prudently invested in the marketplace. The income is subject to a support order.

    Further, these parties were married for roughly 14 years (measured from the date of marriage through the date of separation, not the date of divorce), which is generally considered a long-term marriage here. (The rule of thumb is 10 years through the date of separation is a long-term marriage. Under these circumstances, however, it may be argued that it wasn’t a long-term marriage although it would seem to be an uphill battle.) The trial court will “generally” not terminate jurisdiction over support in a long-term marriage for a reasonable time and only if the Court deems the supported party has become self-supporting or reasonably should have become self-supporting within that time.

    The other rule of thumb here in San Diego family court, if all other factors have only a nominal effect, is 40% of the disparity in monthly net disposable income (after taxes) of the parties will be roughly the amount of spousal support awarded. Take 2.0%, for instance, as a rough measure of income on $11.4M invested. That’s $228,000.00 per year or $19,000.00 per month gross income to hubby. If wifey is making minimum wage, $1,733.00 per month gross, 40% of the disparity in their respective net disposable income makes some nice pocket change every month for wifey.

  9. If the genders were reversed, there’s no way in hell this court would have arrived at the same decision. The courts have been siding with the feminist war on men for more than 40 years now.

  10. Here is a good basic online analysis of the approaches to this problem:

    Property Division Basics

    Just like the house and cars, a personal injury award is either separate property – owned solely by the injured spouse – or it’s marital or community property, where each spouse in entitled to a share in the award. When it comes to personal injury awards, courts typically use either the mechanical or analytic approach to figure out if spouses must share their awards.

    The Mechanical Approach

    The mechanical approach is based on the state law’s definition of individual or separate property and marital property. Separate property is property owned by the spouse before marriage and any property acquired by gift or inheritance during the marriage. Marital property is property acquired during marriage.

    Many times, awards are treated as marital property. The idea is simple enough: Since a personal injury award is not acquired by gift or inheritance, and it doesn’t fit into an exception to the general rule that property acquired during marriage is marital property, it must be marital property.

    States Using the Mechanical Approach

    Arkansas, Colorado, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Vermont and Virginia treat personal injury awards received during marriage as marital property.

    However, some of these states also use the analytic approach by classifying the entire award as marital property, but then dividing it between the spouses using the rules for the analytic approach.

    The Analytic Approach

    The analytic approach focuses on what the award was intended to replace: Was it something personal to the injured spouse or something both spouses lost. As a general rule, an award is the injured spouse’s separate property if the award was compensation for that spouse’s personal well-being.

    Community Property States

    Practically all community property states use the analytic approach and characterize recoveries according to the injuries they are intended to compensate. So, if the couple (the “community”) paid medical expenses and suffered lost wages during marriage, the recovery is community property. An award is the injured spouse’s separate property when it’s compensation for that spouse’s personal well-being, such as pain and suffering or compensation for a lost limb.

    California is the only community property state using a different rule. All personal injury awards from lawsuits started during the marriage are treated as community property.

    Equitable Distribution States

    Many equitable distribution states use the analytic approach, and they characterize portions of the award as either marital or separate. These states include Alaska, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

    Squeeky Fromm
    Girl Reporter

    1. In California, recoveries for injuries during the marriage are community property, but in a dissolution are treated differently from most community assets. The court generally must assign those proceeds to the injured spouse unless the funds have been co-mingled with other community assets. The court does have discretion, but is not required to, to assign a portion of the recovery to the non-injured spouse in the interests of justice.

    2. Girl Reporter: Yesterday morning, I attempted a reply to your post, which didn’t accurately describe how this case would have been decided had the divorce taken place in California. After pressing the Post Comment button – voila! – the reply disappeared into the spiraling tunnel of filtered doom. (Here, the damages award would have been hubby’s sole and separate property.)

      I wonder if anyone behind the curtain could take a look for it, and publish it if it’s located?

  11. I’m chuckling. I and my bride worked for the Federal Bureau of Prisons. I went on to become a PI, specializing in defending civil injury lawsuits. While my bride and I worked in the prison system, we saw so many women conned into marrying and then doing all sorts of illegal activities for the inmate. The most common is smuggling drugs and other contraband into the prison. So, for the tables to be turned, it seems like all the bad karma from male inmates hoodwinking women, has fallen on this poor guy. Karma be a b!tch.

    Of course this is a bad decision. The damages occurred prior to their marriage.

    1. LOL! One of Penelope’s idiot clients (a college educated white woman) married a murderer, and crack/meth aficionado, while he was in prison. He let her know what area he was going to be working in on a prison-labor cleanup gang. Sooo, our soccer mom goes crawling through a swamp on her hand and knees, in the dark, dodging cottonmouths, gators, rabid raccoons, mosquitoes and other biting insects to deliver a potpourri of recreational drugs to her beau. She was clever, and did not get caught.

      When he got out a few years later, they lived happily ever after. Well, happily for a week or so, until he beat the crap out of her and dumped her. She came to Penelope to answer his divorce complaint, and told us this story as proof of her devotion to him. But he would not have her back. Sooo, she went on to multiple subsequent short term love affairs, with various low life drug dealers. Last I heard, she was in prison for theft.

      Squeeky Fromm
      Girl Reporter

  12. I disagree with the court. The injury occurred when they incarcerated him unlawfully. The claim is fully his, not hers.

  13. Prenup.

    She may have married him because she believed him to be innocent and worked tirelessly on his behalf to get him released. She may have been the only thing that kept him going. Or, she has the same ‘mental illness’ as my ex-wife.

  14. This is absurd. She does not deserve even a penny of his settlement. And the people who put him behind bars should do time.

  15. If ever there was a recompense that belonged absolutely one hundred percent to someone it is this one. He alone was falsely convicted. He alone did the time. She alone is the epitome of scum sucking.

  16. Even in prison, American men are not free of parasitic gold diggers and their advocates kn fhe form of our bigoted family courts.

    Only when marriage is dead as an institution, will men be truly free.

  17. This woman has no Honor. Let this man receive the justice he deserves and be glad he did after he was wrongly convicted. Several million dollars does not equate what she contributed to the relationship. Gold digger.

  18. Putting aside the notion that anyone readily agreeing to marry another incarcerated for murder must not be playing with a full deck, to begin with, the bottom line is that, for whatever reason, this woman succumbed to marrying this guy. Call it desperation. Mental illness. Devotion. Whatever. She did it, and she did it without any expectation of a reward–unless, of course, one considers it an honor and a privilege to be married to a convicted murderer. Remember, he was nothing more than just that–a convicted murderer, proclaiming his innocence, at the time of the marriage ceremony. He was passing his lonely and desperate days and nights in the big house, eager to have someone–anyone–to call his own. She became his wife long before his conviction was reversed and long before his ship had come in, where she stood by him, so to speak, during years of his, alleged, wrongful incarceration. What’s that worth? She had no prior assurances that he would ever be released, much less ever be the recipient of this massive amount of money. I find nothing surprising in the fact that the proceeds from the settlement were correctly determined to be a part of the marital property, anymore than I find it surprising that a person, institutionalized, after spending decades in a prison, is incapable of maintaining a healthy and normal marital relationship. Easy to be happily married when one of the partners is confined to the big house–not so easy to make a go of it once both are under the same roof.

    1. I have to disagree. She knew she was getting a husband-in-cage when she married him. Presumably, that’s what she wanted. If she wanted a real husband, someone that shared her home, she wouldn’t have married a convict. So her involvement with him was limited to letters and visits where they sat on opposite sides of plexiglass. He did the time, ate the slop they call food, smelled the nasty smells, likely got raped, and suffered the mental anguish of a wrongful conviction. The compensation should be all his, as it was compensation for his years of suffering, and the date the paperwork was filed doesn’t transform it into anything for which she should rightfully be rewarded. I certainly hope he appeals. And, I might add, I think she is evil for taking his money after all he has been through.

    2. I see your point. But how does this restitution make him whole, and compensate him for all of his lost time, trauma, lost relationships, if he gives half of it to another?

      I suppose another issue is if he was unemployed, or underemployed, at the time of the divorce, he would not pay her alimony. That would be readjusted with the settlement, as he would be in a position to provide alimony. On the other hand, having been married to an incarcerated convict for 14 years, she would have been working and supporting herself, so perhaps she owed him alimony in the divorce, and needed to get it resettled. Of course, it would sting if she stood by him while he was in jail, and afterward while he was destitute, only to have him get a substantial financial settlement after they broke up.

      I can see both sides, but ethically, this just doesn’t sit well with me. At least she didn’t get all of it.

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