Archive for December, 2009

Vacating Settlement Agreements on Grounds of Mutual Mistake

Sunday, December 27th, 2009

In is not unusual for a party to attempt to vacate a settlement agreement.  In order to do so, a party must meet a significant burden of proof that the agreement came as a result of a material, mutual mistake, fraud, or other relevant facts.  A interesting illustration of the above principles came in a recent decision, Simkin v. Blank, Sup. Co. New York County (December 22, 2009).

In 2006, Mr. Simkin, a partner at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison and his wife negotiated a settlement agreement in their divorce action.  One of the marital assets was an account the parties opened during their marriage with Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities LLC which was worth $5.4 million.  As part of a 2006 equitable distribution agreement, Mr. Simkin  paid Ms. Blank $2.7 million, which represented what he thought was his ex-wife’s fair share of their Madoff investments.

After Mr. Madoff’s arrest, Mr. Simkin attempted to reform the agreement, claiming it was based on a “material, mutual mistake” and resulted in a “windfall” for Ms. Blank. He argued that the agreement did not accomplish the parties’ goal of ensuring that each would keep approximately half of the marital assets.  Ms. Blank responded that as long as Mr. Simkin could have redeemed the account for the value that the parties agreed to on the cut-off date, he received what he bargained for. Noting that Mr. Simkin had liquidated part of his investment to fund his ex-wife’s equitable entitlement, the court pointed out that in 2006 and “the several years after that plaintiff maintained this investment,” the account “could have been redeemed for cash, presumably significantly in excess of its 2004 value.”  While Mr. Simkin claimed the Madoff account held no assets, he did not allege it had no value, the judge wrote.  “An investor’s ability to redeem an account for value, was the assumption on which the parties relied in dividing their property and in doing so they made no mistake,” the court found.

Justice Evans agreed with Ms. Blank holding that while Mr. Simkin’s decision to retain the Madoff account may have been “improvident,” that did not give the court an equitable basis to set the agreement aside. In dismissing Mr. Simkin’s complaint, Justice Evans wrote, “There is no evidence that defendant was unjustly enriched. In 2006, at the time of their agreement, each of the parties received the benefit of his and her bargain.”

The lesson of the above case is that clients and their divorce attorneys should be careful in fashioning settlement agreements.  Even when significant mistakes are made at the time the agreements are entered into, it is very difficult to set them aside, even in such extreme circumstances as described above.

Return From Military Service and Reconsideration of Custody Orders

Sunday, December 20th, 2009
Laws of 2009, Ch 473, effective November 15, 2009, amended the Domestic Relations Law, the Family Court Act and the Military Law to provide that the return of a parent from activation or deployment by the military will automatically be considered a ‘substantial change in circumstance’ for seeking reconsideration of a custody or visitation order. The amendment changes the law enacted last year which requires that all child custody orders issued when a parent is on active military duty be deemed temporary and subject to revision when the parent returns to civilian life.
Laws of 2009, Ch 473, § 1 amended Domestic Relations Law § 75-l ( entitled Military service by parent; effect on child custody
orders) to provide unless the parties have otherwise stipulated or agreed, if an order was issued under Domestic Relations Law § 75-l, the return of the parent from active military service, deployment or temporary assignment shall be considered a substantial
change in circumstances. Upon the request of either parent, the court shall determine on the basis of the child’s best interests whether the custody judgment or order previously in effect should be modified.
Laws of 2009, Ch 473, § 2 amended Domestic Relations Law 240, subdivision 1 to add a new paragraph (a-2) to read as follows:
(a-2) Military service by parent; effect on child custody orders.
(1) During the period of time that a parent is activated, deployed or temporarily assigned to military service, such that the parent’s ability to continue as a joint caretaker or the primary caretaker of a minor child is materially affected by such military service, any orders issued pursuant to this section, based on the fact that the parent is activated, deployed or temporarily assigned to military service, which would materially affect or change a previous judgment or order regarding custody of that parent’s child or children as such judgment or order existed on the date the parent was activated, deployed, or temporarily assigned to military service, shall be subject to review pursuant to subparagraph three of this paragraph. Any relevant provisions of the Service Member’s Civil Relief Act shall apply to all proceedings governed by this section.
(2) During such period, the court may enter an order to modify custody if there is clear and convincing evidence that the modification is in the best interests of the child. An attorney for the child shall be appointed in all cases where a modification is sought during such military service. Such order shall be subject to review pursuant to subparagraph three of this paragraph. When entering an order pursuant to this section, the court shall consider and provide for, if feasible and if in the best interests of the child, contact between the military service member and his or her child, including, but not limited to, electronic communication by e-mail, webcam, telephone, or other available means. During the period of the parent’s leave from military service, the court shall consider the best interests of the child when establishing a parenting schedule, including visiting and other contact. For such purposes, a “leave from military service” shall be a period of not more than three months.
(3) Unless the parties have otherwise stipulated or agreed, if an order is issued pursuant to this paragraph, the return of the parent from active military service, deployment or temporary assignment shall be considered a substantial change in circumstances. Upon the request of either parent, the court shall determine on the basis of the child’s best interests whether the custody judgment or order previously in effect should be modified.
(4) This paragraph shall not apply to assignments to permanent duty stations or permanent changes of station.
Laws of 2009, Ch 473, § 3 amended Family Court Act § 651 to add a new subdivision (f) which reads exactly the same as Domestic Relations Law 240, subdivision 1 (a-2).

On November 15, 2009, amendments to the Domestic Relations Law, the Family Court Act and the Military Law became effective that provide that the return of a parent from activation or deployment by the military will automatically be considered a “substantial change in circumstance” for seeking reconsideration of a custody or visitation order.  The amendments change the law enacted last year which requires that all child custody orders issued when a parent is on active military duty are deemed temporary and subject to revision when the parent returns to civilian life.

Specifically, Domestic Relations Law §75-l ( entitled Military service by parent; effect on child custody orders) provides that unless the parties have otherwise stipulated or agreed, if an order was issued under Domestic Relations Law §75-l, the return of the parent from active military service, deployment or temporary assignment shall be considered a substantial change in circumstances.  Upon the request of either parent, the court shall determine on the basis of the child’s best interests whether the custody judgment or order previously in effect should be modified.

Domestic Relations Law §240(1), was amended to add a new paragraph (a-2) as follows:

(a-2) Military service by parent; effect on child custody orders.

(1) During the period of time that a parent is activated, deployed or temporarily assigned to military service, such that the parent’s ability to continue as a joint caretaker or the primary caretaker of a minor child is materially affected by such military service, any orders issued pursuant to this section, based on the fact that the parent is activated, deployed or temporarily assigned to military service, which would materially affect or change a previous judgment or order regarding custody of that parent’s child or children as such judgment or order existed on the date the parent was activated, deployed, or temporarily assigned to military service, shall be subject to review pursuant to subparagraph three of this paragraph. Any relevant provisions of the Service Member’s Civil Relief Act shall apply to all proceedings governed by this section.

(2) During such period, the court may enter an order to modify custody if there is clear and convincing evidence that the modification is in the best interests of the child. An attorney for the child shall be appointed in all cases where a modification is sought during such military service. Such order shall be subject to review pursuant to subparagraph three of this paragraph. When entering an order pursuant to this section, the court shall consider and provide for, if feasible and if in the best interests of the child, contact between the military service member and his or her child, including, but not limited to, electronic communication by e-mail, webcam, telephone, or other available means. During the period of the parent’s leave from military service, the court shall consider the best interests of the child when establishing a parenting schedule, including visiting and other contact. For such purposes, a “leave from military service” shall be a period of not more than three months.

(3) Unless the parties have otherwise stipulated or agreed, if an order is issued pursuant to this paragraph, the return of the parent from active military service, deployment or temporary assignment shall be considered a substantial change in circumstances. Upon the request of either parent, the court shall determine on the basis of the child’s best interests whether the custody judgment or order previously in effect should be modified.

(4) This paragraph shall not apply to assignments to permanent duty stations or permanent changes of station.

The Family Court Act § 651 was amended to add a new subdivision (f) which contains identical language as Domestic Relations Law §240(1) (a-2).

If you are in the military service, the amendments provide some degree of comfort that any changes to the preexisting custody arrangements as a result of being called to the active duty can be reevaluated.  At the same time, in order to do so, the service person will be required to go to court and is likely to require assistance of a family law lawyer.

Constructive Emancipation, Burden of Proof and Contact With the Child By Non-Custodial Parent

Saturday, December 12th, 2009

I often see cases involving constructive emancipation which typically arise when the child refuses to have contact with the non-custodial parent.  If the contact cannot be reestablished after a period of time, the non-custodial parent can move to terminate the child support obligation, assuming that the non-custodial parent was not at fault for the breakdown in the relationship and the child is of the employeable age.  Burden of proof ofconstructive  emancipation rests on party making the assertion.  Constructive emancipation cases are not easy to prove and are factually intensive.  I have previously written about various issues in constructive emancipation here.

A recent example of such case was Dewitt v. Giampietro, 66 A.D.3d 773 (2nd Dept. 2009).  According to the Appellate Division, although the daughter refused to have contact with the father after some incident which was not described, the father ceased making attempts to reestablish contact with daughter after approximately one month.  According to the Appellate Division, one month period of trying to reestablish a relationship with the daughter could not be considered as a serious effort by the father.  The court also noted that the daughter testified that she loved her father and would be willing to re-establish visitation gradually through counseling.   According to the Appellate Division, the child’s reluctance to see parent is not considered to be abandonment.

Accordingly, if a non-custodial parent is in a situation where the child of employable age, generally high school graduate or older, is refusing to have any contact with the parent, the parent must keep on trying to reestablish contact for a period of time in excess of several months.  Any such contact may take several different forms, and phone calls, email, letters, postcards, and even text messages may be utilized.  It is important that the parent remembers the child’s birthdays and other special occasions.  Generally, the courts are reluctant to terminate child support and will do so only if the non-custodial parent will demonstrate that the continuing pursuit of the relationship with the child would be fruitless.