Divorce, Monetary Obligations and Statute of Limitations

It is is not uncommon for a party to obtain a right to receive a sum of money in the judgment of divorce.  That right usually comes in situations where there are assets that are subject to equitable distribution.  It is also not uncommon for the parties to make their own agreements following the judgment of divorce as to how such sums of money will be paid.  One issue that would raise a concern for me would be a situation where the payment is extended over a long period of time.  It is a concern because a statute of limitations may come into play and, possibly, bar recovery.

In Woronoff v. Woronoff, 2010 N.Y. Slip. Op. 01479 (2nd Dept. 2010), the Appellate Division held that where a monetary award in the judgment of divorce is not reduced to a monetary judgment, such award is subject to a six year statute of limitations.  In Woronoff, the parties were divorced by judgment dated December 21, 1988, which provided, inter alia, that the plaintiff would pay the defendant the sum of $87,500 for her share of his businesses.  In 1990, the parties entered into an agreement which modified this portion of the judgment so as to, among other things, set forth a different payment schedule for the distributive award.  This agreement was not reduced to a court order.  The defendant never entered her distributive award as a money judgment nor sought to enforce collection thereof until 2007, when she obtained a clerk’s judgment against the plaintiff.  Thereafter, however, the plaintiff successfully moved to vacate the clerk’s judgment.

The plaintiff then commenced an action, inter alia, to recover damages for wrongful procurement of the clerk’s judgment including the counsel fees he expended in moving to vacate the clerk’s judgment.  The defendant’s first counterclaim asserted that the plaintiff had failed pay her the full amount of her distributive award for her share of his business, and alleged damages resulting therefrom in excess of $150,000.

The Appellate Division held that contrary to the defendant’s contention, the distributive award made to her in the divorce judgment for her share of the plaintiff’s business was not a “money judgment” subject to a 20-year statute of limitations.  Instead, her claim to enforce this award was governed by the six-year statute of limitations set forth in CPLR 213(1) and (2).  Accordingly, since the defendant did not seek to enforce her distributive award nor reduce it to a money judgment until well beyond six years after the divorce judgment was entered, and even well beyond six years after the parties entered into their modification agreement, the Supreme Court properly dismissed this counterclaim as time-barred.

The lesson of the above case for divorce lawyers is that in the event there is a monetary award in the judgment of divorce, it is a good idea to reduce it to a monetary judgment.  Alternatively, if the parties agree to extend the payment of the amount due beyond six years, such agreement should be reduced to writing and should include a provision specifically waiting statute of limitations.

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