Appellate court: $11M in wrongful conviction settlement money is martial property

As we’ve discussed, the law here in Illinois provides that any property acquired during the course of a marriage is subject to equitable division in the event of a divorce. What this essentially means is that this marital property — not to be confused with separate property — will be divided in a fair, but not necessarily equal, manner by the court.

Interestingly enough, the issue of property division was recently before an Illinois appeals court in a high-profile case examining whether the proceeds from a $20 million settlement awarded in conjunction with a wrongful conviction are indeed marital property.

The case in question involves a Lake County man who spent 20 years in prison in connection with a violent murder only to have his conviction overturned on appeal after being cleared by DNA evidence and released in 2011. The man later filed a lawsuit against multiple law enforcement agencies for misconduct and settled just last year for $20 million, which ended up being roughly $11.4 million after taxes and attorney fees.

When he was still serving his life sentence back in 1998, the man met his future wife, who had volunteered to work on his case and with whom he forged an immediate bond. The two married in October 2000 and divorced in July 2014.

One of the issues to immediately emerge in the divorce, which remains pending, is whether his soon-to-be former wife was entitled to a share of the $11.4 in settlement proceeds, or, in other words, whether it was considered separate property or marital property.

Here, the man argued that the settlement money was rightfully considered his separate property given that the harm he endured as a result of the wrongful conviction occurred before his marriage, through his marriage, and will continue for the remainder of his life.

His wife, however, argued that the money is indeed martial property given that it was secured during the course of their roughly 14-year marriage and that this was especially true regarding proceeds secured in relation to a defamation of character claim included in the lawsuit.

As mentioned earlier, an state appellate court found these latter arguments persuasive and ruled just last month that the settlement proceeds are indeed martial property. For his part, the wrongfully convicted man has vowed to appeal the decision to the Illinois Supreme Court.

Stay tuned for developments in this fascinating case …

If you have questions about the property division process or any other divorce-related issue, consider speaking with a skilled legal professional who can answer your questions, explain the law and help you take the necessary action.

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