Can a Divorce on No-Fault Grounds Be Opposed?

One question that so far has not been resolved with any degree of certainty by the courts is whether in a divorce action brought pursuant to the new no-fault divorce statute requires specific proof that the parties’ marriage was irretrievably broken for a period of six months or longer. It is an important question since in the past divorce attorneys were able to challenge grounds for divorce and force plaintiffs to establish that there were adequate grounds for divorce. In a significant number of cases, grounds trials were held for economic reasons, i.e., the monied spouse did not want to divide assets and/or pay spousal maintenance.

Six months after the no-fault statute was enacted by the New York’s legislature, we are learning that the courts are divided on this issue, with some courts requiring proof that the marriage was actually irretrievably broken for a period of six months or longer, and with some courts holding that there is no defense to the no-fault grounds.

In Strack v. Strack, 2011 N.Y. Slip. Op. 21033 (Sup. Ct. Essex Co. 2011), the court held that the question of whether the marriage was irretrievably broken was a question of fact requiring a trial.

The facts in Strack are as follows. The parties were married on May 25, 1963 and plaintiff sought a divorce based upon the no-fault grounds contained within Domestic Relations Law §170 (7). Defendant moved to dismiss the complaint, contending (1) that the complaint lacked specificity; (2) that the conduct alleged in the complaint was barred by the five-year statute of limitations; and (3) that the complaint failed to state a cause of action for divorce under Domestic Relations Law §170 (7).

Effective relative to actions commenced on or after October 12, 2010, Domestic Relations Law §170 (7) permits divorce where “[t]he relationship between husband and wife has broken down irretrievably for a period of at least six months, provided that one party has so stated under oath.” This additional ground for divorce has given parties the option of securing a divorce without alleging fault.

Here, the allegations in the complaint were as follows:

The relationship between husband and wife has broken down such that it is irretrievable and has been for a period of at least six months. For a period of time greater than six months, Defendant and Plaintiff have had no emotion in their marriage, and have kept largely separate social schedules and vacation schedules. Each year Plaintiff and Defendant live separately throughout most of the winter months. Though they share the residence for several months out of the year, Plaintiff and Defendant have not lived as husband and wife for a period of time greater than six months. Plaintiff believes the relationship between she and Defendant has broken down such that it is irretrievable and that the relationship has been this way for a period of time greater than six months.

Having decided that the above allegations stated a cause of action and were not barred by the statute of limitations, the court stated that Domestic Relations Law §170 (7) is not a panacea for those hoping to avoid a trial. Rather, it is simply a new cause of action subject to the same rules of practice governing the subdivisions which have preceded it. By referring to Domestic Relations Law §173 which provides that “[i]n an action for divorce there is a right to trial by jury of the issues of the grounds for granting the divorce” and, here, the Legislature failed to include anything in Domestic Relations Law §170 (7) to suggest that the grounds contained therein are exempt from this right to trial.  The court further held that since the phrase “broken down such that it is irretrievable” is nowhere defined in the statute, the determination of whether a breakdown of a marriage is irretrievable is a question to be determined by the finder of fact.

In a more recent decision, A.C. v. D.R., 2011 N.Y Slip. Op. 21113 (Sup. Ct. Nassau Co. 2011), the court held that once the plaintiff makes a sworn allegation that the marriage had irretrievably broken down, a trial not required, and there is no defense to the action. The court held that the only requirement to satisfy the no-fault ground for divorce is a party’s sworn statement alleging that the marriage has irretrievably broken down. Specifically, the court stated:

It is sufficient that one or both of the parties subjectively decide that their marriage is over and there is no hope for reconciliation.  In other words, a plaintiff’s self-serving declaration about his or her state of mind is all that is required for the dissolution of a marriage on grounds that it is irretrievably broken.

As the no-fault statute requires, in order for a judgment of divorce to be entered, all the issues relating to the divorce, including equitable distribution, maintenance, child custody and support need to be resolved before a party can be granted a divorce.

While I am not aware of the court decisions on this issue here in Rochester, I hope that the courts will grant divorce solely on the party’s subjective allegation that the marriage has irretrievably broken down. Since the trial courts are split on the issue, it is likely that appellate courts will have to address this issue eventually.  I hope that the holding of the more recent case will be widely adopted follwint he Legislature’s intent in creating a true no-fault divorce in New York.

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