What You Need to Know about Dividing Stock Options in Divorce

One of the more difficult items to divide in divorce is a stock option. An option is a specific type of employment benefit in which the employer company gives the employee an option to buy company stock in the future at a discounted or stated fixed price. So rather than simply offering the employee stock as a benefit, they are given the ability to purchase stock at an attractive price at some point in the future. Understandably, valuing and dividing stock options incident to divorce can prove quite challenging.

As an initial matter, it is important not to ignore the fact that a spouse has stock options. Just because this an option isn’t exercisable until the future, it is still often a source of tremendous wealth. If your spouse has stock options you certainly want to take the time to explore if any portion of the options are marital property and subject to division. If you do not know whether or not your spouse has options, be sure to obtain complete discovery showing all of his or her employment benefits.

Options have been a source of astronomical wealth for many people – consider for a Silicon Valley employee who was granted options in a software startup twenty years ago. Although they weren’t handsomely compensated at the time, many of these software engineers were granted options, and as the employer company’s wealth skyrocketed the options rewarded them with a serious payout.

Although the vast majority of North Carolina divorces will not involve Silicon Valley stock options, there are many local startups that may have offered stock options as an employment benefit. Getting full disclosure from your former spouse about each employment benefit is immensely important.

Marital v. Separate Property

If a spouse has unexercised stock options, the first step will be to determine which options, if any, are considered marital. One might assume that any options granted during the marriage are considered marital. However this assumption is not entirely correct. Options are often granted as a reward for past work and as incentive for future work. Granting options is a way for a company to ensure that an employee will stay, even if the company doesn’t have the funds to properly compensate the employee right away.

The concept that the option might have been granted in some capacity as a reward for past work can complicate the analysis of labeling options as marital or separate. Contemplate a situation where a spouse was granted an option after separation. If the option was in some part compensation for work completed during the marriage, at least a portion of the option would be considered marital. Similarly, if an option was granted shortly after marriage, for work done before the marriage, a portion of that option would be considered separate, and not subject to distribution.

In classifying stock options as marital or separate, first it must be determined what the option was granted for. If it was granted for services rendered during the marriage, it is marital. This can often be hard to determine, so be sure that you gain access to the employee handbook, employment contract, and all other documents that give insight into whether the option was granted for past work or for future work.

Vested v. Unvested Options

In addition to determining whether the options are separate property or marital property, you will need to consider whether the options are vested or not. The vesting period refers to the amount of time an employee has to wait before he is able to exercise an option. For instance, an option may have been granted to an employee in 2005, but may not be exercised until 2015. That option will be considered “unvested” until 2015.

As you can imagine, a vesting schedule will complicate the division of stock options incident to divorce even further. Consider the above example where the option was issued in 2005 but not vested until 2015. Add the fact that the spouses were married in 2003 and separate in 2012? Can the unvested stock options be classified as marital property?

Yes. In North Carolina both vested and non-vested stock options are subject to distribution. So, if a spouse has unvested options those options must still be classified as marital or separate, valued, and divided. In the above example, a portion of the unvested stock options would be subject to distribution.

Valuing the Option

Once it has been determined that the options are marital, a value will have to be attached to them. This too, is a complicated process, and there are several methods that can be used.