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Landmark NH Supreme Court Decision Sets Precedent in Determining Property Awards

A precedent-setting New Hampshire Supreme Court ruling will directly impact all couples seeking a divorce, whether they are opposite sex or same sex.

Shaheen & Gordon, P.A. attorneys Paul R. Kfoury Sr. and Andrea Q. Labonte served as lead counsel In the Matter of Deborah Munson and Coralee Beal. Munson and Beal, a same-sex married couple, had a 15-year relationship prior to their civil union in 2008 and marriage in 2011. At divorce, however, the District Court did not take the length of their previous relationship into account, awarding Beal only 12 percent of the marital estate and limited alimony based on the short length of their marriage. Beal appealed the divorce decree, citing that she and her partner had for years shared income and expenses, held joint bank accounts, shared household duties, and had created estate plans that left their respective estates to one another. Beal had also been on Munson’s health and life insurance plans prior to their civil union and marriage.

The Court’s August 19 decision was unanimous in Beal’s favor. Their case will now be remanded back to trial court, which will now have clear instructions on how to more equitably divide their assets.

According to Mr. Kfoury, “this is a landmark decision in New Hampshire. Courts may now consider premarital cohabitation when considering the division of assets. We believe this case will be circulated across the country.”

An Outcome of Nationwide Importance

Many U.S. states do not have a case on point to consider a couple’s premarital relationship when determining division of assets at divorce. According to Labonte, “There is a catch-all in the statute allowing the court to consider ‘any other factor’ it deems relevant when considering division of assets, but now New Hampshire courts have clear direction that premarital cohabitation may be considered. This is a huge decision, and not just for same-sex couples, but for everybody.”

In 2008, 6.2 million households were headed by people in cohabiting relationships, including 565,000 same-sex couples. Senior Associate Justice Gary E. Hicks stated that the court’s decision to consider premarital cohabitation applies to all divorce proceedings.

According to Beal, the decision was the right one for society.

Kfoury and Labonte were joined by attorneys Jared O’Connor, Ben Siracusa Hillman, and S. Amy Spencer on Beal’s appeal team. The Gay & Lesbian Advocate & Defenders of Boston (GLAD) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Hampshire filed amicus briefs supporting Beal.

Gilles Bissonnette, Legal Director for the ACLU of New Hampshire, has described this ruling as an important step towards full equality for same-sex divorcing couples. According to GLAD’s legal director, Gary Buseck, “We are still working toward full marital equality in the post-Obergefell world. This decision represents a very concrete development for all divorcing couples.”

To speak with a New Hampshire divorce attorney at Shaheen & Gordon, P.A., please contact us.

For over 35 years, Shaheen & Gordon, P.A. has earned a reputation of excellence for its exceptional legal services. With more than 35 lawyers handling cases in all practice areas, our firm is known for putting the needs of our clients first. Shaheen & Gordon, P.A. serves the personal and business needs of clients throughout Northern New England from office locations in Manchester, Dover, and Concord, NH and Saco, ME.