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VINCENT LOUIS BACCHETTA v. LENA TROIANI BACCHETTA (05/26/82)

decided: May 26, 1982.

VINCENT LOUIS BACCHETTA
v.
LENA TROIANI BACCHETTA, APPELLANT



No. 81-3-411, Appeal from the Order of the Court of Common Pleas of Chester County at No. 427 October Term, 1979, dated April 23, 1981.

COUNSEL

William Litvin, David C. Becker, West Chester, for appellee.

Raymond T. Cullen, Albert Momjian, Philadelphia, amicus curiae in support of appellant.

Gary R. Block, A. Bruce Niccolo, Arthur A. Moorshead, Devon, for appellant.

O'Brien, C.j., and Roberts, Nix, Larsen, Flaherty, McDermott and Hutchinson, JJ. Nix, J., files a dissenting opinion. Flaherty, J., files a dissenting opinion in which Larsen, J., joins.

Author: Roberts

[ 498 Pa. Page 229]

OPINION OF THE COURT

This is an action for divorce governed by Pennsylvania's new Divorce Code, Act of April 2, 1980, P.L. 63, § 101 et seq., 23 P.S. § 101 et seq. (Supp. 1981) (effective July 1, 1980). The Court of Common Pleas of Chester County refused the request of appellant Lena Troiani Bacchetta, pursuant to section 401(d) of the Code, for equitable distribution of property acquired before the Code's effective date on the belief that the requested distribution would unconstitutionally deprive appellee Vincent Louis Bacchetta of his property rights. Upon application of appellant, this Court assumed plenary jurisdiction. We conclude that the Legislature's clear direction that all property acquired during the marriage of the parties shall be subject to the equitable distribution provision of the Divorce Code is a constitutionally permissible exercise of the Legislature's authority to regulate the marital relationship. Hence we reverse and remand for proceedings consistent with this opinion.*fn*

[ 498 Pa. Page 230]

I

The language of the Divorce Code makes clear that in actions governed by the Code all "provisions of the act," including those relating to the equitable distribution of marital property, shall apply.*fn1

"Marital property" subject to equitable distribution includes "all property acquired by either party during the marriage." 23 P.S. § 401(e). There is no basis in the statute to qualify this legislative mandate by restricting the applicability of the equitable distribution requirement to only that marital property acquired after July 1, 1980, the effective date of the Code. Indeed, of the seven specific exceptions to the equitable distribution provision, none demonstrates the slightest legislative intention that the date of acquisition during marriage shall be at all relevant.*fn2

[ 498 Pa. Page 231]

Moreover, the stated purpose of the new Divorce Code is to deal effectively with the "realities of the matrimonial experience" by giving "primary consideration to the welfare of the family," "mitigat[ing] the harm to spouses and their children caused by the legal dissolution of the marriage," and effectuating "economic justice" as well as "a fair and just determination and settlement of . . . property rights." 23 P.S. § 102(a). Where, as here and in most cases for years to come, the parties were married before the enactment of the Divorce Code, it would be unreasonable to interpret the Divorce Code as providing for equitable distribution of only that property acquired after the Code's effective date. Such an interpretation would impose the unmanageable burden on courts and litigants of determining which properties were acquired before, and which after, the effective date of the Code. Such an interpretation would also substantially deny the benefits of the Divorce Code to spouses in marriages in existence at the time of the Code's enactment, thereby prolonging for at least a generation the very inequity the Legislature sought to remedy. In view of the stated purposes of the Code, it must be concluded that the Legislature's definition of marital property as "all property acquired by either party during the marriage" includes property acquired before the effective date of the Code.

II

The trial court properly recognized that the equitable distribution provision of the Divorce Code applies to all property acquired during the marriage without regard to the Code's effective date. However, the trial court erroneously held that, under Willcox v. Penn Mutual Life Insurance Co., 357 Pa. 581, 55 A.2d 521 (1947), such an application of the equitable distribution provision is [ILLEGIBLE WORD]

Willcox considered the constitutionality of those provisions of the Community Property Law of 1947 designed to confer

[ 498 Pa. Page 232]

    upon Pennsylvania spouses a federal income tax advantage similar to that enjoyed in states which already had community property laws. The Community Property Law deemed the income from properties acquired and owned by one spouse prior to the Law's effective date to be the common property of both spouses.*fn3 The statute applied to all marriages, and automatically bestowed upon each spouse an "undivided one-half interest" in income from property owned separately by the other spouse. This Court concluded that this automatic bestowal of a one-half interest in separate property of another was an unconstitutional deprivation of property, in violation of due process.

In enacting the equitable distribution provision of the Divorce Code, the Legislature sought to accomplish far different objectives than were sought in enacting the Community Property Law. Prior to the enactment of the Divorce Code, in many marriages a non-working spouse contributed years of service to the family, but did not realize any significant economic gain. Thus, upon divorce, non-working spouses, who frequently had no marketable skills, were left with few, if any assets of their own and faced the risk of becoming public charges. By providing for the distribution of property acquired during the marriage, the Divorce Code permits the correction of the economic injustices which often arose under former law and allows non-working spouses to become self-supporting with the least financial hardship possible.

The objective of providing for orderly transition upon the dissolution of marriages is manifestly within the Legislature's broad control over the marital relationship:

"Marriage, as creating the most important relation in life, as having more to do with the morals and civilization of a

[ 498 Pa. Page 233]

    people than any other institution, has always been subject to the control of the legislature. That body prescribes the age at which parties may contract to marry, the procedure or form essential to constitute marriage, the duties and obligations it creates, its effects upon the property rights of both, present and prospective, and the acts which may constitute grounds for its dissolution."

Maynard v. Hill, 125 U.S. 190, 205, 8 S.Ct. 723, 726, 31 L.Ed. 654 (1888). As Willcox itself recognized, it is within the Legislature's prerogative in exercising the police power to provide for the distribution of ...


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