Archive for the ‘divorce’ Category

Transmutation of Separate Property into Marital Property

Sunday, March 23rd, 2014

One of the basic theories in equitable distribution and divorce litigation is that of transmutation. Transmutation theory holds that by their actions, the parties are able to modify the status of the property they own from separate property to marital property. Most of the time transmutation occurs when the parties commingle separate property with marital property or place what otherwise be separate property into both parties’ names.  This was demonstrated in Fehring v. Fehring, 58 A.D.3d 1061 (3rd Dept. 2009), where the money received on account of personal injuries by the husband, would be initially classified as his separate property. However, the husband deposited check in brokerage account held and used jointly by the parties. In January 2006, husband used $50,000 from account to purchase real property. The court held that transferring separate property assets into a joint account raises rebutable presumption that funds are marital property subject to equitable distribution and that the husband failed to rebut presumption of marital property given commingling of funds. It held that the lower court providently exercised discretion in distributing equally the value of interest in real property purchased with funds held in joint account.

Another example of how separate property may become a marital asset was addressed in a recent decision from the Appellate Division, Fourth Department. In Foti v. Foti, 2014 N.Y. Slip Op 00835 (4th Dept. 2014), defendant received several pieces of real property as gift from her father. Subsequently, tax losses associated with those properties were taken on the parties’ joint income tax returns. The court held that there was a question of fact whether defendant commingled her interests in the entities with marital property and whether a joint federal tax return in which defendant reported her interest in the entities as tax losses, precluded her from taking “a position contrary to a position taken in an income tax return”.

Unfortunately, the Foti decision does not give us enough facts to find out exactly what the tax returns stated. Nonetheless, this shows that even a seemingly innocuous act of filing a tax return may change the status of the property. In my view, decisions like this one, could have been prevented if the parties had signed either a prenuptial or a postnuptial agreement. If you are contemplating divorce, be careful to avoid taking any action that converts your separate property to marital property. Once transmutation takes place, it is highly unlikely that you would be able to change the property’s status back to separate property, even with a lawyer’s assistance.

Update on Duration of Maintenance

Saturday, October 26th, 2013

When New York Legislature passed the “no-fault” divorce statute in 2010, it created a formula for calculating temporary spousal maintenance under DRL §236[B]5-a. However, it did not set forth a formula or specific rules for establishing spousal maintenance post-divorce in terms of both amount and duration.

Thus, family law attorneys have to rely on court decisions as a basis for estimating likely spousal maintenance awards. In Monroe County, in a typical maintenance case, it is likely that a spouse who is entitled to receive maintenance is likely to receive spousal maintenance with length of one third duration of the marriage.  This rule of thumb has been utilized by a number trial court judges and lawyers. However, not every trial judge subscribes to it, and each judge’s views of maintenance are likely to impact such awards.

In a recent case, Zufall v. Zufall, 2013 NY Slip Op 06142 (4th Dept. 2013),  The Appellate Division, Fourth Department, has confirmed this. In Zufall, the parties were married for 21 years and have five children, one of whom was emancipated. During the marriage, plaintiff was primarily a homemaker, raising the parties’ children while defendant worked as a correction officer. Shortly before divorce action was commenced, defendant retired at the age of 50 after 25 years of service. Plaintiff has been determined by the Social Security Administration to be 50% disabled, and she receives partial Social Security disability benefits of $622 per month plus workers’ compensation benefits of $400 per month. She also works 20 hours per week as a bartender, earning $5 per hour plus tips.

The court stated that after considering the statutory factors enumerated in Domestic Relations Law § 236 (B) (6) (a) — particularly, the length of the marriage; the income and property of the parties, including the marital property distributed by the court; and the present and future earning capacity of the parties,  ”[w]ith respect to the duration of maintenance, however, we agree with defendant that the court’s award is excessive insofar as the court ordered defendant to pay maintenance until plaintiff turns 62, i.e., for approximately 18 years. We conclude that a term of seven years from the date of commencement of the action “should afford the plaintiff a sufficient opportunity to become self-supporting”.”

Given the circumstances, the trial level award of 18 years of maintenance was probably too long.  As a result, it appears that the Appellate Division, Fourth Department, has adopted a bright line rule of awarding spousal maintenance for one third of the duration of the marriage.

It will be interesting to see if this standard will survive any changes to the Domestic Relations Law that may come as a result of the Law Revision Commission’s report issued in May.

Future Changes to Spousal Maintenance

Sunday, June 9th, 2013

When New York Legislature passed the “no-fault” divorce statute in 2010, it created a formula for calculating temporary spousal maintenance under DRL §236[B]5-a. However, it did not set forth a formula or specific rules for establishing spousal maintenance post-divorce. At the same time, the Legislature directed that a law revision commission be set up to review New York’s spousal maintenance law and make recommendations to the legislature with regard to potential changes.

On May 15, 2013, the Commission issued its “Final Report on Maintenance Awards in Divorce Proceedings”.  The Commission recommended that that a mathematical formula be used to calculate a presumptive award of post-divorce income from one party to the other based on the parties’ combined adjusted gross income of $136,000. It stated that in awarding post-divorce income, the court can adjust the presumptive award based on a set of statutory factors if it finds that the presumptive award is unjust or inappropriate based on the circumstances of the parties.  If the parties’ combined adjusted gross income exceeds $136,000, the Commission recommended that the mathematical formula apply to that portion of the parties’ combined income which is at or less than $136,000, and that the court be guided by a set of factors in considering whether an additional award is justified based on any excess income.

The Commission also recommended that the duration of any post-divorce income award be based on consideration of the length of the marriage, the length of time necessary for the party seeking post-divorce income to acquire sufficient education or training to enable that party to find appropriate employment, the normal retirement age of each party as defined by the Internal Revenue Code and the availability of retirement benefits, and any barriers facing the party seeking post-divorce income with regard to obtaining appropriate employment, such as child care responsibilities, health, or age. The court would have to state the basis for the duration of the award in its decision granting the award. Further, the duration of temporary maintenance awards would be limited so that maintenance awards do not exceed the length of the marriage.

One suggestion that was made by the Commission that would be a significant departure from the existing law is that the Commission recommended that one party’s increased earning capacity, no longer be considered as a marital asset in equitable distribution under section 326B(5), and that any spousal contribution to the career or career potential of the other party be addressed in an award of post-divorce income. The concept of an “increased earning capacity”, also known as “enhanced earnings“, has created much prior litigation because of the asset’s intangible nature, the need for valuation, the speculative nature of its “value” as well as the costs associated with valuations, and problems of double counting increased earnings in awards of post-divorce income and child support.

The Commission additionally recommended that the provisions of a revised temporary maintenance statute in the Domestic Relations Law be mirrored in section 412 of the Family Court Act governing spousal support awards.

If the Legislature adopts the report, it is likely to represent some of the most significant changes to New York’s Family law since New York adopted its equitable distribution and child support statutes. It remains to be seen if the Legislature will accept some or all of the Commission’s recommendations.

Validity of Prenuptial Agreements in New York

Sunday, March 24th, 2013

I have previously written about prenuptial agreements and issues associated with them. Generally, in New York, a prenuptial agreement may be overturned only if the party challenging the agreement sustains the burden of proof, demonstrating that the agreement was the product of fraud, duress, or it was improperly executed.

In order to prove coercion or duress, a party must establish that he or she was somehow pressured into signing the agreement.  The threat that there will be no marriage unless the agreement is signed is not duress according to numerous court decisions.  If both of the parties were independently represented by counsel, and the agreement was the product of arm’s length negotiations, it may be nearly impossible to prove that the prenuptial agreement was procured by duress.

However, a recent appellate decision, Cioffi-Petrakis v. Petrakis, 2013 N.Y. Slip. Op. 01057 (2nd Dept. 2013), broke with the long-established line of cases and upheld a Long Island judge’s decision to void an prenuptial agreement that the wife of a millionaire says she was forced into signing by false promises made by her husband-to-be, 4 days before the wedding. The wife claimed that she believed her husband to be when he told her orally that his lawyers had made him get a prenuptial agreement signed to protect his business and promised to destroy the document once they had children and put her name on the deed to the house. She also claimed that her future husband gave her an ultimatum four days before the wedding for which her father had already paid $40,000, telling her to sign the document or it wouldn’t occur.

While the appellate decision is extremely brief, the trial decision is fairly detailed and provided the facts stated above. The key factor according to the trial judge was what he called a fraudulently induced contract and detrimental reliance on the part of the wife. Fraudulent inducement was the oral promise made by the husband to be and, according to the trial court, the bride relied upon that promise. However, most agreements in New York provide that the parties are only relying on the written representations contained in the agreement, and they are not relying on promises or representations not contained in the prenuptial agreement.

This decision is unprecedented. It is likely to create a great deal of litigation in cases where a party feels that his or her prenuptial agreement is unconscionable. I also suspect that it may get appealed to the Court of Appeals.

 

There Is No Right to Grounds Trial In A No-Fault Divorce Case

Sunday, January 6th, 2013

I have previously written on the issue of whether there was a right to trial in a divorce case brought under the no-fault grounds. Earlier, trial level decisions were split, with some courts holding that a party was still required to establish no-fault grounds at trial, and other courts holding that a sworn statement that the marriage was irretrievably broken for a period of 6 months or longer was sufficient to establish that party’s right to divorce.

Finally, the Appellate Division, Fourth Department, issued a decision resolving this issue. In Palermo v. Palermo, 2012 N.Y. Slip Op. 07528 (4th Dept. 2012), the court affirmed Justice Dollinger’s decision holding that there is no right to dispute an allegation of irretrievable breakdown under the no-fault divorce ground provided by DRL §170(7). Appellate Division agreed with the key language in Justice Dollinger’s decision which stated that:

Under DRL §170(7), the grounds cannot be disputed. Either a party swears the marriage is irretrievably broken or they do not. The grounds are established by the oath; there is no legislative requirement of a judicial finding on the reliability or veracity of the oath.

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.

The Appellate Division’s decision in Palermo is significant since it clarifies the Legislature’s intent in creating a true no-fault divorce in New York. Further, as a result, the parties will be able to avoid costly grounds trials that usually result in added animosity between the parties.

Statute of Limitations and No-Fault Divorce

Monday, September 3rd, 2012

Since no-fault divorce became law in New York State almost 2 years ago, it was still unclear whether a statute of limitations would apply to to a cause of action under Domestic Relations Law §170(7), specifically, allegations that the relationship between the parties was irretrievably broken. Basically, this question can be asked in this way: from what date does the clock begin to run on this cause of action and when does the clock expire?  The answer was recently given by the Appellate Division, Fourth Department.

In a recent case, Tuper v. Tuper, 2012 N.Y. Slip Op 04467 (4th Dept. 2012), the Appellate Division held that the statute of limitations under DRL §170(7) does not begin to run while the relationship between the parties remain broken.  Specifically, the court held that a cause of action for divorce under the no-fault statute should be treated similarly to a cause of action for divorce based upon imprisonment of a spouse (DRL §170 (3), which is also governed by the five-year statute of limitations set forth in section 210).  In holding so, the Fourth Department relied upon the Court of Appeals’ decision in Covington v. Walker, 3 N.Y.3d 287, 291 (2004), which held that a cause of action for divorce based on imprisonment “continues to arise anew for statute of limitations purposes on each day the defendant spouse remains in prison for three or more consecutive years’ until the defendant is released.” The Appellate Division stated that “[l]ike a spouse serving a life sentence, an irretrievable breakdown in a married couple’s relationship is a continuing state of affairs that, by definition, will not change. After all, the breakdown is “irretrievable.” It thus stands to reason that a cause of action under the no-fault statute may be commenced at any time after the marriage has been “broken down irretrievably for a period of at least six months”.

I think that this is the correct result.  Alternatively, a contrary ruling would force a spouse to unwillingly remain in a dead marriage. If the accrual date of a no-fault cause of action were to be determined to arise only on the day that the relationship initially became irretrievably broken, assuming that an exact date could even be identified, the only couples who could get divorced under the no-fault statute would be those whose relationships irretrievably broke down within the past five years but not within the last six months. Couples whose relationships irretrievably broke down more than five years ago would have to remain married.  Clearly, the New York Legislature did not intend such result in passing the no-fault statute.

A Cause of Action for DRL 170(7) Can Be Added to A Divorce Complaint Filed Prior to October 2010

Sunday, April 22nd, 2012

One of the more interesting procedural issues that arose after the New York State Legislature added a cause of action under Domestic Relations Law §170(7), irretrievably broken marriage for a period of 6 months or longer, is whether this cause of action can be introduced in divorce actions filed prior to the statute’s enactment. At least one court addressed this issue by holding that a separate action can be filed by the defendant alleging a cause of action under DRL §170(7), and the two actions can be consolidated.

A recent decision by Justice Richard A. Dollinger of the Monroe County Supreme Court,  G.C. v. G.C., 2012 N.Y. Slip Op 50653(U) (Sup. Ct. Monroe. Co. 2012), held that a defendant in a divorce action, filed prior to the enactment of the no-fault statute, can assert a counterclaim based on no-fault grounds.  Specifically, Justice Dollinger reviewed the procedural aspects related to counterclaims and analyzed whether such counterclaim would prejudice plaintiff’s substantive rights in the divorce.

The facts of the case are as follows. The plaintiff brought a divorce action prior to October 10, 2010. He alleged that his wife had engaged in cruel and inhuman treatment toward him. The wife answered the complaint, denying the specific allegations, and has stated that she would contest the grounds for the divorce.  Meanwhile the parties lived apart and the wife moved to Ohio.

The husband moved to amend the complaint to assert two new grounds: a ground under Section §170(2) for abandonment and a claim under Section §170(7) for an “irretrievably broken” marriage. The wife opposed the abandonment amendment, claiming that the husband can not allege abandonment when it occurred during a year after the filing of complaint and that its assertion, now, after the action has been pending for more than two years, is untimely and prejudicial. The wife also opposed the amendment on the grounds of Section §170(7), arguing that this recently-enact statutory amendment can not be asserted in this action because the complaint was filed prior to the effective date of the change. She argued that the husband, in order to pursue this claim, needed to file a new complaint. The husband argued that if he files the new complaint with a Section §170(7) cause of action, he could then move for consolidation under CPLR §602(a), and the cases would likely be consolidated because they involve the same facts.

CPLR §3025(b), by its express language, envisions that other causes of actions, based on developing facts that occur during the pendency of the action, can be the subject of a proposed amendment to the original compliant. The statute uses the terms “subsequent transactions or occurrences” as the basis for a proposed amendment. The statute also permits an amendment “at any time.” CPLR §3025(b).

A cause of action under Domestic Relations Law §170(2) requires allegations that a spouse’s actual physical departure from the marital residence for one year is unjustified, voluntary, without consent of the plaintiff spouse, and with the intention of the departing spouse not to return. The amended complaint, on its face, met this minimal pleading requirement since it alleged that the wife left the marital residence in 2009, has not returned and her leaving was without justification.

In October, 2010, the Legislature added a statutory change to the Domestic Relations Law which created “no-fault divorce” and permitted one party to be granted the divorce upon a sworn declaration that the marriage was “irretrievably broken for a period in excess of six months” and the parties had agreed on all the issues related to support and equitable distribution. DRL §170(7). The statutory amendment states that the “act . . . shall apply to matrimonial actions commenced after the effective date.”, specifically after October 12, 2010. The Legislature apparently intended not allow litigants to simply amend their complaints, after the amendment took effect, and allow those claims to proceed to adjudication on the basis of the new “no-fault” allegations by claiming that the six months of “irretrievable breakdown” included time before the effective date of the amendment.

After reviewing statutory history, Justice Dollinger held that the husband was not seeking any relief other than that sought in the original complaint: a divorce and accompanying property distribution. By virtue of the statutory change, the husband, having waited six months after its effective date, can now meet the time requirement of six months because all of the time accrued after the amendment took effect. Justice Dollinger further found that  the husband was merely seeking to “invoke what the Legislature extended to him: a cause of action that has ripened because more than six months have passed since the date of the amendment and during that time, the husband swears that his marriage has been irretrievably broken.”

I think that this was the right result. If a party is able to assert a cause of action under DRL §170(7), the length and expense of the case are likely to be reduced since a trial on the issue of grounds will no longer be required.  This is likely to result in shorter and less costly divorce cases.

 

Changes in Temporary Maintenance and Child Support Statutes

Sunday, March 18th, 2012

Because of the language in the statute providing for cost of living adjustments, temporary maintenance guidelines income cap was raised from $500,000 to $524,000. The “cap” on each spouses annual income, to be utilized in calculating temporary maintenance orders, has increased from $500,000 to $524,000 effective January 31, 2012 in accordance with Domestic Relations Law § 236 [B][5-a][b][5]. The statute provided that:

Beginning January 31, 2010 and every two years thereafter, the income cap increases by the product of the average annual percentage changes in the consumer price index for all urban consumers (CPI-U) as published by the united states department of labor bureau of labor statistics for the two year period rounded to the nearest one thousand dollars. The office of court administration is required to determine and publish the income cap. See Domestic Relations Law § 236[B], [5-a][b][5].

Similarly, the child support cap was modified as well. The “combined parental income amount” utilized in calculating child support orders has increased from $130,000 to $136,000 effective January 31, 2012. The amount of the “combined parental income” is established by Domestic Relations Law § 240 (1-b) (2) as the amount set forth in Social Services Law § 111-I (2) (b). Domestic Relations Law § 240 (1-b) (2) provides that the amount established shall be multiplied by the appropriate child support percentage and such amount shall be prorated in the same proportion as each parent’s income is to the combined parental income. Social Services Law § 111-I (2)(b) provides that the $130,000 cap is increased automatically on January 31, 2012 and on January 31 every two years thereafter by the product of the average annual percentage changes in the consumer price index for all urban consumers (CPI-U) as published by the United States Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics for the two year period rounded to the nearest one thousand dollars.

While the change in the temporary maintenance cap is not likely to be applicable in vast majority of divorce cases, the change in the basis economic support amount applicable to child support cases is likely to be significant in a large number of cases in Family Court and Supreme Court.

Ratification of Settlement and Separation Agreement

Saturday, January 14th, 2012

I have previously written about settlement agreements, their contents, modification, validity, and formalities related to their execution.

Even in situations where the agreement may have not been executed properly or otherwise invalid, if the party does not promptly act to challenge the agreement and accepts its benefits, the court may refuse to vacate the agreement. This is the situation that the Appellate Division, Second Department, addressed in Kessler v. Kessler, 89 A.D.3d 687 (2nd Dept. 2011).

In Kessler, the parties’ separation agreement was incorporated but not merged into the judgment of divorce. The parties entered into the separation agreement on June 10, 1980, after 25 years of marriage. The parties’ separation agreement, provided that the plaintiff husband would, among other things, make payments to the defendant wife for her support and maintenance and for the mortgage and carrying costs relating to the marital residence, where the defendant continued to reside. The plaintiff complied with the terms of the separation agreement and, in 2009, he commenced this action for a conversion divorce. In response to the plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment, the defendant submitted an affidavit asserting that the plaintiff had procured the separation agreement through fraud and duress, and that the agreement was unconscionable.

The defendant alleged, among other things, that the plaintiff had concealed from her his vast wealth, and had induced her to enter into the separation agreement at a time when, unbeknownst to her, New York’s equitable distribution law was about to be enacted. The Supreme Court granted the plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment, and subsequently entered a judgment of divorce, which, inter alia, directed the parties to comply with the terms of the separation agreement which was incorporated, but not merged into, the judgment of divorce. The defendant appealed.

The Appellate Division held that party who “accepts the benefits provided under a separation agreement for any considerable period of time” is deemed to have ratified the agreement and, thus, “relinquishes the right to challenge that agreement”. By contrast, when a party “received virtually no benefits from the agreement,” he or she “cannot be said to have ratified it”.

The Appellate Division further stated that assuming the truth of the allegations set forth in the defendant’s affidavit, the benefits she received pursuant to the separation agreement were far less than those she likely would have received had there been an equitable distribution of the assets accumulated during the marriage. The record, however, did not support a finding that the defendant received “virtually no benefits” from the agreement. Moreover, while “a spouse will not necessarily be held to have ratified an agreement if it is found to be the product of duress and overreaching”, the disadvantage to the defendant created by the alleged fraud and duress in this case cannot be deemed to have persisted throughout the 29-year period during which the defendant accepted the benefits of the separation agreement without challenging it.

The court held that the plaintiff made a prima facie showing that the defendant ratified the separation agreement and that the trial court properly granted the plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment.

There is a simple rule that applies to settlement and separation agreements. The party receiving substantial benefits under the agreement can’t challenge the agreement after a substantial period of time passes.

Statute of Limitations and QDROs

Saturday, June 11th, 2011

One of the questions that I was asked several times during the last year was whether there is a statute of limitations applicable to Qualified Domestic Relations Orders (QDROs)? This question usually come up in situations where one former spouse was entitled to a portion of the other former spouse’s retirement benefits, however, the QDRO was never done, and a substantial period of time has passed. If there was an applicable statute of limitations, the former spouse who has failed to act would lose his or her right to collect a portion of the former spouse’s retirement.

However, a couple of recent decisions made it clear that with respect to QDROs, there is no applicable statute of limitations and a QDRO can be submitted to the court at any time. In Denaro v. Denaro, 2011 N.Y. Slip. Op. 04409 (2nd Dept 2011), the Appellate Division, Second Department, held that “the statute of limitations does not bar issuance of the QDRO.”  Relying on Bayen v Bayen, 81 A.D.3d 865 (2nd Dept. 2011), the court held that ”[M]otions to enforce the terms of a stipulation of settlement are not subject to statutes of limitation… [B]ecause a QDRO is derived from the bargain struck by the parties at the time of the judgment of divorce, there is no need to commence a separate action in order for the court to formalize the agreement between the parties in the form of a QDRO”. Id. (citations omitted.)

While I would not recommend to anyone delaying preparing and submitting a QDRO, any such submission is not going to be barred by a statute of limitations. At the same time, any late submission is likely to cause another set of problems if the retirement asset is in pay status  and payments are being made to the other spouse.