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Q. My wife and I are getting our divorce with the assistance of a paralegal. That person has prepared a Marital Settlement Agreement. The paralegal says she cannot give us legal advice. There is a phrase in the agreement that says something about each of us waiving Epstein reimbursements. I have no idea what this means.

"Epstein reimbursements" deal with the question: "How do we divide debts that we incurred during the marriage, where one of us made payments after we separated and up to the time of divorce?" The best family lawyers know the answer - but most don't.

A common situation is that parties have credit card debt that needs to be divided in the divorce. Say there was a balance of $10,000 owing to American Express on December 31st, the day before your wife drank too much at the office New Year's celebration and had an unfortunate tryst with her boss - this isn't the first time this has happened, and your New Year's resolution is to move out (sorry, I am just trying to be colorful), and so you do move out the next day. Her reaction is to file for divorce, because her boss looks way more interesting to her than you do these days.

Under this example January 1 is your date of separation. From the date of separation on, the earnings of either spouse are no longer community property, or joint earnings, but instead these earnings belong to each of you separately. Family Code section 771.

Often where a credit card is in the name of one person alone, the other spouse or domestic partner doesn't contribute to the payments after separation - sometimes because they won't and sometimes because they can't. But as between the two of you, the $10,000 is jointly owed to American Express, even if the other spouse did not sign the credit card application or is not named on the card, or on the statement. This is also true whether or not both parties directly benefited from the use of the credit card - for instance, maybe the $10,000 was charged by your wife to buy shoes over the course of the past year to help make herself feel better about the fact that you never have intimate conversations with her any more (or for any other reason), or perhaps you charged the card to add more chrome to your Harley Davidson Fat-Boy because your hairline is receding.

If the card is not paid, American Express can pursue collection either against the spouse who is the account holder, or against the community property of both spouses. Family Code section 910. If the credit card is in your name alone, it will be your credit that might be ruined if the monthly installments are missed.

Now again, as between you and your wife, the general rule is that each of you owe one-half of the credit card debt which means that all other things being equal, in a property settlement or if a Judge is forced to divide your property and estate, if one party is assigned 100% of the debt the other owes a reimbursement of $5,000. Lawyers and Judges speak of assigning the debt to one party or the other on the "marital balance sheet" which implies a corresponding credit or right of set-off against the division of some other item of property.

Circumstances When Not Entitled to Epsteins

There are, of course, exceptions. These exceptions frequently include (a) situations where a debt was incurred in breach of a fiduciary obligation owing the community estate or to the other spouse and (b) where one party retains the benefit of the property that the credit card was used to acquire (believe it or not, I am frequently asked about breast augmentations or other cosmetic surgeries - except in extreme cases, courts do not charge one party for these). For example, if when you learned of your wife's affair your reaction included flying to Las Vegas and having a wild weekend and you recklessly charged the $10,000 at the casino, this might be considered a breach of fiduciary duty and result in the entire $10,000 being your responsibility even though the two of you had yet to physically separate. Or, if instead you spent the $10,000 buying more chrome for your Harley and you expect to keep it in the divorce, then even though the $10,000 was otherwise a community obligation equitable considerations may result in the debt being assigned to you. If in the divorce the two of you decide to sell the Harley but the chrome you spent $10,000 buying adds only $2,000 in value to the sale's price, in that case the $10,000 remains a joint obligation because you neither breached a fiduciary duty nor retained a sufficient benefit that the law would charge you for it and the asset is being divided. Another common situation is where one spouse retains the furniture or refrigerator charged at Lowe's - in that case more of the debt may be assigned to that party.

Assuming you continue to make monthly payments of principal and interest on the credit card up to the point of dividing the debt in a marital settlement agreement (MSA), or if a judge makes the call for you both after a trial, as a general proposition your wife owes you one-half of all those payments. These are called Epstein credits or Epstein reimbursements in California, and many other community property states have similar rules. These are also called equitable reimbursements, meaning that the right to be reimbursed is not absolute and certain but that the court has wide discretion to grant the reimbursement or not depending upon fairness. Typically California family law courts do grant the reimbursement so long as the parties benefited equally (or the money was equally wasted).

The principle in California was first set forth in the case of Marriage of Epstein (1979) 24 Cal.3d 76. It is to be distinguished from the rule that the debt itself, if community, must be divided equally between parties in divorce. Family Code § 2550. It covers reimbursements rights that accrue between physical separation and the date of ultimate division of the liability.

So, the agreement the paralegal has prepared includes an agreement each of you is giving up any right to be reimbursed for debt related payments made after separation. You are not being asked to waive your credit for $5,000 if the $10,000 debt is assigned to you (unless there is a separate provision assigning the credit card balance to you completely). You are being asked to waive all the debt maintenance up to this point. It is not an unusual clause in an MSA, but it may or may not be in your best interests to agree to it.

Epstein credits take a variety of forms, and are not limited to credit card debt. The Epstein case itself involved a husband who voluntarily made the mortgage, insurance, and tax payments on the family residence during the separation period. Wife and their son occupied the home. Up to that point the law was that if one party used separate property (earnings after separation) to pay community debt (the mortgage, etc., on the residence), there was a presumption that this was intended to be a gift to the community unless an agreement could be proved that it was not to be a gift.

Each party may have separate Epstein claims as to different items of debt.

Upon separating, it is a smart idea to get and keep copies of credit card statements and statements for all liability accounts as of the date of separation. From an accounting point of view, the date of separation is a critical snapshot of a point in time. It is essential that the parties maintain these records as proof of what the numbers were, and of what payments were made afterwards.

Whether or not you should waive the Epstein reimbursements that might be owing you is part of the give and take of negotiating a divorce settlement. These are usually simple accounting issues, but not always.

If your Wife gets an attorney that attorney might try to convince you to waive the Espteins, or hope that you don't understand the concept or have it independently explained to you. In my experience where we are speaking in terms of vanilla debt (meaning there is no questionable conduct and the charges were incurred in the normal course), your wife's lawyer would also agree that you are entitled to these reimbursements without a fight if you know enough to insist.

There is an important flip side and hybrid of the Epstein reimbursement concept - that of Watts charges and credits. The deal generally with who pays for the beneficial use of community property (i.e., the home) during the separation period, once the divorce is finalized.

To learn more about Epstein reimbursements in California divorces, visit us here!

I address Watts issues separately.

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Author: Thurman W. Arnold