Archive for March, 2010

Divorce and Reformation of Settlement Agreement

Sunday, March 28th, 2010

I have previously written about vacating settlement agreements on the grounds of mutual mistake.  Here is a case where the court actually reformed the parties’ settlement agreement on the grounds of mutual mistake.

In Banker v. Banker, 53 A.D.3d 1105 (3rd Dept. 2008),  the parties’ oral stipulation of settlement, which was incorporated but not merged into their 2005 judgment of divorce, provided that the parties would subdivide a parcel of property located in Delaware County.  However, despite that provision, after the judgment of divorce was entered, the defendant refused to do so.  In response to a motion by plaintiff to enforce the stipulation, Supreme Court, in February 2006, ordered defendant to obtain subdivision approval from the Town.  The Planning Board denied defendant’s subsequent subdivision application after discovering that the property was encumbered by a restrictive covenant against further subdivision.  In March 2006, defendant moved to reargue and/or renew February 2006 order, and requested a hearing to determine equitable distribution.

Supreme Court reserved decision on all pending matters pertaining to the parties until an appraisal of the property was completed.  Because the parties could not agree on an appraiser, the court appointed one and directed the parties, once the appraisal was complete, to settle the matter in a private auction or buyout.  The appraiser completed the appraisal in June 2006.  By letter dated October 4, 2006, defendant requested the opportunity to offer further proof of value.  Plaintiff made a similar request and explained that the parties had not been able to settle the matter or agree on a private auction.

Plaintiff responded with a motion seeking that the parties’ interests in the property be declared in conformance with the terms set forth in the stipulation and the values established in the appraisal, as well as an order allowing her to buy out defendant’s share of the property.  Defendant opposed the motion, arguing that the appraisal should not be adopted without an opportunity by the parties to cross-examine the appraiser and submit other evidence of valuation.  Supreme Court ordered a hearing to permit the parties to cross-examine the appraiser, but made it clear that no other testimony or evidence of valuation would be permitted.

Following the hearing, at which Supreme Court again denied defendant’s request to submit further evidence, the court determined the interests of the parties in the property to be 83% for plaintiff and 17% for defendant.  The court, fixed the parties’ interests as indicated above, appointed a receiver, and ordered the   public sale of the property.  Defendant appealed.  The Appellate Division rejected defendant’s argument that Supreme Court exceeded its authority by reforming the parties’ stipulation of settlement.  Where, as here, a mutual mistake rendered a portion of the parties’ settlement agreement impossible or impracticable, “the relevant settlement provision was properly set aside”.  No dispute existed that the parties’ agreement to physically divide the property could not occur given the restrictive covenant; and even defendant was not attempting to have the parties’ stipulation enforced.  Thus, after giving the parties ample opportunity to reach a new agreement,  the trial court was correct to move forward by appointing an appraiser so that an equitable distribution of the property, in as close accordance as possible with the intent of the parties as expressed in their settlement, could be achieved.

The Appellate Division noted that to achieve reformation or recission of the stipulation of settlement, one of the parties should have commenced a plenary action, rather than proceeding by motion but, in the context of this matter, concluded the defect to be nonfatal.  However, the lower court erred in resolving this matter without a full hearing permitting the parties to offer proof of valuation.  The court is authorized to appoint an independent appraiser in a matrimonial action but, unless the parties have stipulated otherwise, the court must afford the parties the opportunity to review the appraisal, cross-examine the appraiser and offer additional evidence on valuation.  Although the record contained evidence that the parties consented to Supreme Court’s appointment of the appraiser, it did not suggest that the parties agreed to be bound by the resulting appraisal.

This is an example of a situation where the mutual mistake allowed the court to reform the parties’ settlement agreement.  While those circumstances tend to be limited, the lawyers in Banker recognized that since the property could not be subdivided, it had to be sold or one of the parties would buy out the other party’s interest.  The question of valuation was secondary to the remedy chosen by the court as a result of reformation of the agreement.  At the same time, it is rather surprising that neither divorce attorney was aware of the covenant, since both parties, presumably, had access to the real property records and the property’s abstract of title.

Limitations on Child Support Arrears and Child Support Standards Act

Sunday, March 14th, 2010

One question that I am often asked with respect to child support arrears is whether there is a limit on the amount of child support arrears that can be accrued.  My usual response is that there is only one limitation in the Child Support Standards Act with respect to the limits on child support arrears and it exists solely in situations where the payor’s income is below the amount set by the poverty income guidelines for the single person, as reported by the federal Department of Health and Human Services.

Specifically, where the payor’s annual income is below the poverty income guidelines, then in accordance with the Family Court Act §413(1)(g), then payor’s child support arrears are limited to $500.00.  For 2009, the federal poverty guideline for a single person was set at $10,830.00.  This provision can be very helpful to family law lawyers and their clients since this provision allows for retroactive limitation on child support arrears, but it is limited to those situation where the party who owes child support has an extremely low level of income.

There are some limitations even in situations where the payor’s income was below the poverty guideline amount.  The party charged with paying child support couldn’t have voluntarily reduced his/her income, and must demonstrate inability to earn a higher amount (i.e., cannot have income imputed on the basis of ability to pay or other factors).  On practical level, the most likely situation where this provision becomes applicable is typically where a party becomes disabled and does not seek downward modification of the child support obligation until after child support arrears have accrued.

What is also interesting about the Family Court Act §413(1)(g), is that it directly contradicts Family Court Act §451, which prohibits the court from reducing or annulling arrears accrued prior to the filing of a modification petition unless the party shows good cause for failure to make the application sooner.  The courts were able to harmonize both sections by deciding that if the payor’s income is below the poverty level guideline, then by operation of section 413(1)(g) the arrears had never accrued.  Ronald F. v. Kathy Jo O., 25 Misc 3d 1229 (Fam.Ct. Erie Co. 2009)

Update on Progress of New York’s No-Fault Divorce Legislation

Sunday, March 14th, 2010

I have previously written about the lack of no-fault divorce in New York and the highly uncertain future of the bills creating no-fault divorce in New York.  Earlier this month, the New York State Senate Committee on the Judiciary advanced legislation (S.3890/A.9753), sponsored by Senator Ruth Hassell-Thompson and Assemblyman Jonathan Bing, that would allow a judgment of divorce to be granted to either a husband or a wife without assigning fault to either party.  The legislation now moves to the full Senate for consideration.

The legislation would allow for divorce when a marriage is irretrievably broken for a period of at least six months, provided that one party has so stated under oath.  A judgment of divorce can then only be granted if the following issues have been resolved: the equitable distribution of marital property, the payment or waiver of spousal support, the payment of child support, the payment of counsel and expert fees and expenses, and infant custody and visitation rights.  The bill is supported by the New York State Bar Association.

However, the fate of the legislation is still highly uncertain. The bill is opposed by New York State chapter of NOW, as well as other groups.

Child Support and Public Assistance

Sunday, March 7th, 2010

While I have repeatedly written about various issues involving New York’s Child Support Standards Act, here, here, here, and here, one issue that was not previously discussed and bears mentioning, is the interplay between the Child Support Standards Act and public assistance received by the parent receiving child support.  In Gregory v. Gregory, 68 A.D.3d 770 (N.Y.A.D. 2 Dept), the Appellate Division, Second Department decided the amount of child support payable by the non-custodial parent to the custodial parent was receiving public assistance.

In Gregory, the parents physically separated and the mother retained custody of the children.  Eventually, the parents agreed that the father would have primary custody of their two sons, and the mother would have primary custody of their daughter.  While there was no written agreement or court order concerning child support, the father claimed that he and the mother agreed that each parent would support the child or children in her or his custody, respectively.

Thereafter, the mother applied for and was awarded public assistance.  The mother received public assistance from August 1, 2004, until May 31, 2007, totaling $26,830.67, of which $13,415.44 was attributable to the support of the parties’ daughter, who was the child in mother’s custody.  In May 2007 the mother commenced a proceeding seeking child support for the parties’ daughter.  The Department of Social Services (DSS) intervened in the proceeding, seeking payment of child support from the father, which sum included the money it had paid to the mother on behalf of the parties’ daughter.

After a hearing, the Support Magistrate calculated the father’s support obligation for his daughter for the period to be $26,006.26, and directed him to pay that amount to the DSS.  The Appellate Division held that Family Court’s directive that the father pay the DSS the sum of $26,006.26 was proper.  Since the support obligation of a parent of a child receiving public assistance is measured by the child’s needs and the parent’s means, not by the amount of public assistance paid on behalf of the child, the Family Court acted properly in declining to limit the amount required to be paid by the father to the DSS to the child’s share of the public assistance grant.  Contrary to the father’s contention, he was not entitled to offset alleged unpaid child support from the mother against the amount he owed to the DSS. During the relevant time period, there was no support obligation imposed upon the mother for the children who were in the custody of the father.

The lesson of this case is that whenever the DSS is involved in assisting the custodial parent, this assistance is likely to come at a high price to the non-custodial parent.  What is significant in the opinion is that the typical child assistance payment amounts to a few hundred dollars.  On the other hand, the amount of child support owed by the non-custodial parent and calculated on the basis of that parent’s income, can be several times higher.  The non-custodial parent will not receive the difference between the two figures since it would be retained by the DSS.  In similar situations, depending on the incomes involved, a family law lawyer may recommend to the non-custodial parent to pay the custodial parent the total amount of public assistance privately since it may cost a lot less.