Recently in Texas, Stephen Phillips was exonerated for sex crimes that he was convicted of committing over twenty years ago. Based on newly available DNA testing, Phillips, who steadfastly insisted on his innocence, was finally proven true, and released from prison after twenty-four years. The state of Texas compensated him with over $6 million in a lump sum payment, annuity payments, health insurance, and educational benefits.
There is no question that Phillips deserved this cash. However, his ex-wife, Traci Tupper, whodivorced him in 1992, also felt that she deserves a piece of the reward. A trial judge in Texas agreed to a certain extent, and awarded her $150,000.00, but she felt that she deserved more and appealed. The case is expected to go all the way to the Texas Supreme Court as a matter of first impression: whether compensation for wrongful incarceration is "community property." Texas, a community property state unlike Pennsylvania, characterizes everything as either "community" or "separate property," and has different definitions for what is included as a part of the community.
In Pennsylvania, as an equitable distribution state, property is characterized as either marital or non-marital, with marital property being subject to equitable (although not always equal) distribution by the Court. The same issue that applies in Texas would apply here: whether the award is marital property. At this moment Pennsylvania does not have a statute providing for compensation for wrongful imprisonment (a bill was recently introduced in the state senate, so that may change). Wrongful imprisonment compensation could be considered to resemble a form of lost wages, or as a personal injury award. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently in Focht v. Focht held that any type personal injury award (including lost wages) is marital property if the cause of action accrued during the marriage. The question would then be when the cause of action (i.e. the injury) occurred. A court might hold that the right to the money accrued on the date of his wrongful conviction, and it was therefore marital property, or that it only accrued when he consented to accept the settlement or was found to be not guilty of the crime. In that case, it would not be marital property. The family court, if the award is determined to be marital property, could still choose to award the entire amount to the victim, for purposes of fairness. The legislature could also choose to exclude these awards specifically as marital property because of the ultimate goal of compensating the victim for the wrong that was done to them.
It is not clear how this question will turn out, but it is likely that this decision out of Texas could prove to be persuasive for other states deciding the same issue. In any case, Phillips is at least being compensated. Contact our Pittsburgh divorce attorneys to discuss which of your assets will be subject to equitable distribution in your divorce case!