CHICAGO - Decades after she and her husband arrived in the United States with just $500 in their pockets, a woman was awarded $184 million Monday in what could be one of the richest divorce verdicts in U.S. history.
At the center of the legal dispute is energy magnate Michael Polsky, 57, chief executive of Chicago-based Invenergy LLC. Standing on the other side of the courtroom was Maya Polsky, 55, a homemaker and art gallery owner who provided "love, support, advice and counsel" after the couple's 1975 marriage in the Soviet Union, according to court documents.
A Cook County judge ruled in October that Maya Polsky was entitled to half of the Chicago couple's cash and assets, with her share valued at $176 million. On Monday, Judge William Boyd amended his decision to include previously omitted assets which increased the value of her award to $184 million.
Maya Polsky's attorney, Howard Rosenfeld, said more than $170 million of the award is nontaxable cash.
"She's very much satisfied with the court's decision. She thinks she was fairly treated by the court," he said.
Rosenfeld successfully argued that Maya Polsky was her husband's trusted confidant and therefore entitled to half of the estate.
"They would walk together after dinners, and Michael would share details of his work, looking for empathy, advice or merely an open ear," Rosenfeld wrote in court filings. "For many years, their marital partnership flourished. Michael provided sustenance and security, and Maya provided love, support, advice and counsel."
Judges in Illinois have some leeway in determining how to split marital assets. The law says certain factors must be considered, but it lets judges decide how much weight each factor deserves.
Michael Polsky's attorneys contended that he was responsible for the couple's great wealth and said they will likely appeal Monday's decision.
"He intends to test this decision on appeal because he's always believed that this shouldn't have been a 50-50 split," attorney Joseph Tighe said.
If it stands, the award would be a record in Illinois and, quite possibly, in the U.S.
In researching the case, Rosenfeld said he could find no similar cases where a homemaker wife received such a significant award.
David Meyer, a law professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said the Polsky case is "remarkable and historic" because of the size of the award and Boyd's decision to split the estate equally.
"Those are huge numbers," Meyer said. "When you get these cases of extraordinary wealth, it really puts to the test this notion of marriage as a complete partnership."
At a national level, the president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers said he wasn't aware of a bigger award in the U.S.
"How hard is it to settle a case when you're dividing $300 million or $400 million?" Gaetano Ferro said. "The only reason you try those cases is if somebody gets stuck on a principle. … If you're hung up on the divorce really being vindication - proof that you contributed the same, or that you contributed more - you go to war."
The Polskys married in 1975 in Kiev, Ukraine, which then was part of the Soviet Union. Michael was an engineer and Maya taught English.
After living briefly in Austria and Italy, the couple moved to Detroit in 1976. They arrived in the U.S. with only four suitcases and $500 in cash, according to court records. In 1980, the couple relocated to Chicago, where Michael Polsky found success in the energy business.
He co-founded a power equipment company in 1985. Six years later, he launched the company that eventually would become Northbrook-based SkyGen Energy, a leading independent power producer.
Michael and a Wisconsin-based energy company sold Skygen in 2000 for about $450 million. He is now president and CEO of Invenergy, a Chicago-based wind energy company.
The couple separated in 2002, and Maya filed for divorce the following year, citing irreconcilable differences.
Michael Polsky was awarded the couple's $7 million home in Aspen, Colo., a $2.9 million residence in Chicago and $2.1 million home in East Troy, Wis.
Maya received their $2 million home in Glencoe and a $3.7 million home on Chicago's Lake Shore Drive. She was also awarded various investments, cash and was allowed to keep the Maya Polsky Gallery, which is valued at $305,000.
Boyd also halved millions more in paintings, jewelry, rugs and other assets.