I am asked occasionally whether a separation agreement, which was perhaps incorporated in the subsequent judgment of divorce, entered into years ago can be vacated because of subsequent changes in the parties’ circumstances. My usual response is no, since in order to have the agreement vacated, the party must show grounds sufficient to vitiate a contract. The burden of proof in those situations is very high and may also be subject to time limitations. Similarly, with respect to modification of a child support obligation included in a stipulation or a separation agreement, the party must show an unreasonable and unanticipated change in circumstances since the time of the stipulation to justify a modification, and that the alleged changes in that party’s financial position was not of his/her own making. A recent decision by a trial court, Debreau v. Debreau, 2009 N.Y. Slip. Op. 51750 (Sup. Ct. Nassau Co.), demonstrated a good illustration of the above principles, holding that if the parties make a deal as a part of their divorce settlement, provided that the settlement was arrived at fairly, the settlement will stand despite the fact that the circumstances have changed.
In Debreau, the wife accepted title to the family home as prepayment for 15 years of child support. After the house sold for only two-thirds of the value estimated at the time of the divorce, she sued for child support arrears. The court held that “[t]he law is clear that both [the Domestic Relations Law] and the public policy in favor of finality require the enforcement of property distribution agreements pursuant to their terms, absent fraud, regardless of post-agreement changes in the values of the assets.” The court stated that “[t]he law views the equitable distribution of marital assets as a snapshot, not a movie… If an agreement distributing marital assets is not subject to vacatur, on the date of its execution, on grounds sufficient to vitiate a contract, it may not be modified or set aside on the ground that future events have rendered the division of assets inequitable.”
When the parties divorced in 2007, they agreed by stipulation to allow the husband’s share of the marital home serve as a prepayment of the child support he would owe for the couple’s four children over the next 15 years. Mr. Deabreu’s child-support obligation was set at $2,972 per month, or a total of about $535,000. The parties agreed that the husband’s share of the $1.85 million Melville house, after paying off its $400,000 mortgage and other expenses, was comparable to that obligation. They therefore stipulated that his obligation would be met by transferring over title. In June 2008, the house sold for only $1.2 million, netting the wife $734,000 rather than the $1.45 million she had anticipated. Ms. Deabreu subsequently filed a motion seeking child support arrears of $484,492, the amount she contends her husband owes to her from 2006 through 2021.
The trial court rejected Ms. Deabreu’s motion, ruling that any shortfall in the sale of the house should be taken from the wife’s share of the marital assets, not from the husband’s prepayment of child support. “While the prepaid child support sum…was specified and fixed pursuant to the parties’ stipulation of settlement, the value of the marital assets distributed to each party was determined only as of the date of the stipulation,” Justice Falanga held. The sum that the wife was to receive for her marital share “was not guaranteed by the husband, but rather, was subject to various factors such as market fluctuations and the manner in which the premises was maintained.” The decision also mentioned that Ms. Deabreu was not without other methods of seeking redress. According to the decision, “[t]he receipt by the wife, upon the sale of the [house], of approximately $650,000.00 less than she expected when entering into a stipulation of settlement…may constitute an unanticipated and unreasonable change in her financial circumstances, and may have left her, as she has alleged in her within application, unable to provide for the financial needs of the parties’ four children, entitling her to seek an upward modification of child support.”
In my opinion, it is not likely that Ms. Debreau would be able to establish an unanticipated and unreasonable change in circumstances in the above situation. I am also left wondering why the house was not sold earlier. I also would like to know if Ms. Debreau entered into this stipulation after discussing the risk of decline in real estate values with her divorce lawyer. Personally, I don’t think that I would recommend this type of an arrangement to a client. The risk of decline in the value of any asset subject to market forces is too great. As a divorce attorney, I would also be concerned about giving advice to the client to retain a fixed asset as a prepayment of future child support or maintenance obligation.