Vacating Settlement Agreements on Grounds of Mutual Mistake

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.

Domestic Relations Law §255, Settlement Agreements and Judgments of Divorce

On October 9, 2009, Domestic Relations Law §255 will become effective.  DRL §255 is a replacement of DRL §177 which required:

1. Prior to accepting and entering as a judgment any stipulated agreement between the parties in the action for divorce, the judge shall insure that there is a provision in such agreement relating to health care of each individual.  Such statement shall either (a) provide for the future coverage of the individual; or (b) state that the individual is aware that he or she will no longer be covered by his or her spouse’s health insurance plan and that the individual will be responsible for his or her own health insurance coverage. Every agreement accepted by the court must contain the following statement, signed by each party, to ensure that the provisions of this subdivision are adhered to:

I, (spouse), fully understand that upon the entrance of this divorce agreement, I may no longer be allowed to receive health coverage under my former spouse’s health insurance plan. I may be entitled to purchase health insurance on my own through a COBRA plan, if available, otherwise I may be required to secure my own health insurance.

(Spouse’s signature) (Date)

2. Prior to rendering a decision in an action for divorce, the judge shall ensure that he or she notifies both parties that once the judgment is entered, a person may or may not be eligible to be covered under his or her spouse’s health insurance plan, depending on the terms of the plan. If, prior to accepting an agreement and entering the judgment thereon, the judge determines that the provisions of this section have not been met, the judge shall require the parties to comply with the provisions of subdivision one of this section and may grant a thirty day continuance to afford the parties an opportunity to procure their own health insurance coverage.

DRL§177 has been repealed to resolve the numerous practical problems it presented to the litigants.  Typical problems involved modifying previously executed separation and property settlement agreements.  Its replacement, DRL §255 provides as follows:

A Court, prior to signing a judgment of divorce or separation, or a judgment annulling a marriage or declaring the nullity of a void marriage, shall ensure that:

1. Both parties have been notified, at such time and by such means as the Court shall determine, that once the Judgment is signed, a party thereto may or may not be eligible to be covered under the other party’s health insurance plan, depending on the terms of the plan. Provided, however, service upon the defendant, simultaneous with the service of the summons, of a notice indicating that once the judgment is signed, a party thereto may or may not be eligible to be covered under the other party’s health insurance plan depending on the terms of the plan, shall be deemed sufficient notice to a defaulting defendant.

2. If the parties have entered into Stipulation of Settlement/Agreement on or after the effective date of this section resolving all of the issues between the parties, such settlement/agreement entered into between the parties shall contain a provision relating to the health care coverage of each party; and that such provision shall either (A) provide for the future coverage of each party, or (B) state that each party is aware that he or she will no longer be covered by the other party’s health insurance plan and that each party shall be responsible for his or her own health insurance coverage, and may be entitled to purchase health insurance on his or her own through a COBRA option, if available. The requirements of this subdivision shall not be waived by either party or counsel and, in the event it is not complied with, the Court shall require compliance and may grant a thirty-day continuance to afford the parties an opportunity to procure their own health insurance coverage.

As a result of its enactment, this section of the Domestic Relations Law will give judges greater discretion in insuring the time and method of notification of health insurance provisions and will eliminate DRL §177′ mandatory language, and replace with several different options that provide notification of the parties with respect to their health care coverage.   As stated in the Legislative Memorandum:

In sum, this measure should guarantee the most efficient processing of divorce actions while achieving section 177’s original objective, viz., to insure an awareness of the impact of divorce proceedings upon health insurance coverage, at less cost to and with fewer complications for the divorce litigants the statute sought to protect.

Divorce attorneys will have a greater degree of flexibility in providing appropriate notification during the course of divorce and that will certainly benefit their clients.

Making Deals in Divorce and Subsequent Change in Circumstances

I am asked occasionally whether a separation agreement, which was perhaps incorporated in the subsequent judgment of divorce, entered into years ago can be vacated because of subsequent changes in the parties’ circumstances.  My usual response is no, since in order to have the agreement vacated, the party must show grounds sufficient to vitiate a contract.  The burden of proof in those situations is very high and may also be subject to time limitations.  Similarly, with respect to modification of a child support obligation included in a stipulation or a separation agreement, the party must show an unreasonable and unanticipated change in circumstances since the time of the stipulation to justify a modification, and that the alleged changes in that party’s financial position was not of his/her own making. A recent decision by a trial court, Debreau v. Debreau, 2009 N.Y. Slip. Op. 51750 (Sup. Ct. Nassau Co.), demonstrated a good illustration of the above principles, holding that if the parties make a deal as a part of their divorce settlement, provided that the settlement was arrived at fairly, the settlement will stand despite the fact that the circumstances have changed.

In Debreau, the wife accepted title to the family home as prepayment for 15 years of child support.  After the house sold for only two-thirds of the value estimated at the time of the divorce, she sued for child support arrears.  The court held that “[t]he law is clear that both [the Domestic Relations Law] and the public policy in favor of finality require the enforcement of property distribution agreements pursuant to their terms, absent fraud, regardless of post-agreement changes in the values of the assets.”  The court stated that “[t]he law views the equitable distribution of marital assets as a snapshot, not a movie… If an agreement distributing marital assets is not subject to vacatur, on the date of its execution, on grounds sufficient to vitiate a contract, it may not be modified or set aside on the ground that future events have rendered the division of assets inequitable.”

When the parties divorced in 2007, they agreed by stipulation to allow the husband’s share of the marital home serve as a prepayment of the child support he would owe for the couple’s four children over the next 15 years. Mr. Deabreu’s child-support obligation was set at $2,972 per month, or a total of about $535,000. The parties agreed that the husband’s share of the $1.85 million Melville house, after paying off its $400,000 mortgage and other expenses, was comparable to that obligation. They therefore stipulated that his obligation would be met by transferring over title. In June 2008, the house sold for only $1.2 million, netting the wife $734,000 rather than the $1.45 million she had anticipated. Ms. Deabreu subsequently filed a motion seeking child support arrears of $484,492, the amount she contends her husband owes to her from 2006 through 2021.

The trial court rejected Ms. Deabreu’s motion, ruling that any shortfall in the sale of the house should be taken from the wife’s share of the marital assets, not from the husband’s prepayment of child support. “While the prepaid child support sum…was specified and fixed pursuant to the parties’ stipulation of settlement, the value of the marital assets distributed to each party was determined only as of the date of the stipulation,” Justice Falanga held. The sum that the wife was to receive for her marital share “was not guaranteed by the husband, but rather, was subject to various factors such as market fluctuations and the manner in which the premises was maintained.” The decision also mentioned that Ms. Deabreu was not without other methods of seeking redress. According to the decision, “[t]he receipt by the wife, upon the sale of the [house], of approximately $650,000.00 less than she expected when entering into a stipulation of settlement…may constitute an unanticipated and unreasonable change in her financial circumstances, and may have left her, as she has alleged in her within application, unable to provide for the financial needs of the parties’ four children, entitling her to seek an upward modification of child support.”

In my opinion, it is not likely that Ms. Debreau would be able to establish an unanticipated and unreasonable change in circumstances in the above situation.  I am also left wondering why the house was not sold earlier.  I also would like to know if Ms. Debreau entered into this stipulation after discussing the risk of decline in real estate values with her divorce lawyer. Personally, I don’t think that I would recommend this type of an arrangement to a client.  The risk of decline in the value of any asset subject to market forces is too great. As a divorce attorney, I would also be concerned about giving advice to the client to retain a fixed asset as a prepayment of future child support or maintenance obligation.

Equitable Distribution, Maintenance and Health Insurance – Upcoming Changes in the Domestic Relations Law

I am asked frequently what happens to health insurance as a result of divorce.  My usual response is that once the judgment of divorce is entered, if you were receiving health insurance benefits through your spouse, you will lose your right to receiving this coverage in the future, unless you elect to receive COBRA coverage.

In fact, the disclosure of the above facts has been formalized in Domestic Relations Law §177 which provides that prior to accepting and entering as a judgement any stipulated agreement between the parties in an action for divorce, the judge shall ensure that there is a  provision  in  such agreement  relating to the health care coverage of each individual. Such statement shall either (a) provide for the future coverage of the individual; or (b) state that the individual is aware that he or she will no longer be covered by his or her spouse’s health  insurance plan and that the individual will be responsible for his or her own health insurance coverage. Every agreement accepted by the court  must  contain a specific statement, signed by each party, to ensure that the provisions of this subdivision are adhered to.

At the same time, since in most situations the health insurance is tied to one or both spouses’ employment, the Domestic Relations Law did not provide any formal way to include the loss of health insurance coverage into either maintenance or equitable distribution calculations.  This is about to change.  Effective September 21, 2009, an additional subsection of Domestic Relations Law §236 will be going into effect and will require the trial court to consider the loss of health insurance coverage as a factor in fashioning equitable distribution and maintenance awards.  Specifically, the new statute will provide as follows:

AN ACT to amend the domestic relations law, in relation  to  maintenance

and equitable distribution of marital property

THE  PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF NEW YORK, REPRESENTED IN SENATE AND ASSEM-

BLY, DO ENACT AS FOLLOWS:

1    Section 1.  Subparagraphs 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 and  13  of  para-

2  graph  d  of  subdivision  5  of  part  B of section 236 of the domestic

3  relations law, subparagraph 13 as renumbered by chapter 884 of the  laws

4  of 1986, are renumbered subparagraphs 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 and 14,

5  and a new subparagraph 5 is added to read as follows:

6    (5)  THE  LOSS  OF  HEALTH  INSURANCE BENEFITS UPON DISSOLUTION OF THE

7  MARRIAGE;

8    S 2. Subparagraph 10 of paragraph a of subdivision  6  of  part  B  of

9  section  236 of the domestic relations law, as amended by chapter 884 of

10  the laws of 1986, is amended to read as follows:

11    (10) any transfer or encumbrance made in contemplation of a matrimoni-

12  al action without fair consideration; [and]

13    S 3. Subparagraph 11 of paragraph a of subdivision  6  of  part  B  of

14  section  236 of the domestic relations law is renumbered subparagraph 12

15  and a new subparagraph 11 is added to read as follows:

16    (11) THE LOSS OF HEALTH INSURANCE BENEFITS  UPON  DISSOLUTION  OF  THE

17  MARRIAGE; AND

18    S  4.  This  act  shall take effect on the sixtieth day after it shall

19  have become a law and shall apply to any action or proceeding  commenced

20  on or after such effective date.

EXPLANATION–Matter in ITALICS (underscored) is new; matter in brackets

[ ] is old law to be omitted.

The bill memo provided the following justification for the bill:

The Equitable Distribution and Maintenance factors have not been updated much since their introduction close to 30 years ago.  While loss of health insurance was not one of the factors added at the time, in light of the health care crisis and rising costs of access to health insurance, loss of health insurance is a critical factor that should be considered by courts in making determinations relating to equitable  distribution and maintenance. The impact of a divorce can be challenging for families and the added loss of health insurance can be financially devastating. The proposal in this bill, to add loss of health insurance as a factor to be considered for equitable distribution and maintenance determinations, is essential to address the realities of our current times. This legislation is intended to promote the health, safety and financial stability of the parties post divorce.

I believe that the above will be a helpful addition to the Domestic Relations Law since, as a divorce lawyer, I have dealt frequently with situations where the parties who wanted to be divorced could not do so, solely due to the fact that the loss of health insurance coverage would be devastating to one of the parties. In those situations, I have counseled clients to enter into separation agreements and the parties would live pursuant to such agreements without getting divorced for very significant periods of time.  This allowed for retention of employer provided health care coverage.  While I am happy to see the changes to the Domestic Relations Law §236, at the same time, this provision may be a paper tiger primarily due to the cost of obtaining health insurance coverage on the open market.

As a result of the new provisions, divorce attorneys will have to carefully review the issues related to their clients’ health insurance coverage, the availability of replacement coverage and its costs, and the likely impact of those issues on maintenance and equitable distribution.

I should note one more thing related to the issues discussed above.  Effective on October 11, 2009, Domestic Relations Law § 177 has been repealed, and replaced by Domestic Relations Law §255. The new statute, while mostly similar, adds additional procedural requirements that need to be complied with, sometimes as early as the time of service. Domestic Relations Law §255, subdivision 1 provides that prior to signing a judgment of divorce or separation, or a judgment annulling a marriage or declaring the nullity of a void marriage, the court must ensure that both parties have been notified, at such time and by such means as the court determines, that once the judgment is signed, a party thereto may or may not be eligible to be covered under the other party’s health insurance plan, depending on the terms of the plan. In the case of a defaulting defendant, service upon the defendant, simultaneous with the service of the summons, of a notice indicating that once the judgment is signed, a party thereto may or may not be eligible to be covered under the other party’s health insurance plan, depending on the terms of the plan, shall be deemed sufficient notice to a defaulting defendant.

Domestic Relations Law §255, subdivision 2 provides that if the parties have entered into a stipulation of settlement or agreement, on or after its effective date, resolving all of the issues between the parties, the stipulation of settlement or agreement must contain a provision relating to the health care coverage of each party. The provision must either: (a) provide for the future coverage of each party, or (b) state that each party is aware that he or she will no longer be covered by the other party’s health insurance plan and that each party shall be responsible for his or her own health insurance coverage, and may be entitled to purchase health insurance on his or her own through a COBRA option, if available. The requirements subdivision 2 may not be waived by either party or counsel. In the event that it is not complied with, the court must require compliance and may grant a thirty day continuance to afford the parties an opportunity to procure their own health insurance coverage.

Modification of Child Support Orders and Family Court’s Jurisdiction

I frequently see child support petitions in Family Court seeking to modify child support provisions of either judgments of divorce, or stipulations or settlement agreements incorporated in the judgments of divorce. Sometimes these petitions argue that the child support provisions of the judgment of divorce, stipulation or settlement agreement are invalid as violating the Child Support Standards Act. Unfortunately, if brought in the Family Court, these petitions suffer from certain jurisdictional defects as demonstrated in Savini v. Burgaleta, 34 A.D. 686 (2nd Dept. 2006).

In Savini, in 1996, the father entered into a stipulation with the mother which provided that the father would “pay to the [mother] as and for child support 29 percent of his gross salary as defined under the Child Support Standards Act on a weekly basis calculated on actual income.” That stipulation was later incorporated but did not merge into a judgment of divorce.

In a 1997 handwritten agreement, which was neither incorporated nor merged into the divorce judgment, the mother allegedly agreed, inter alia, to accept the sum of $200 per week from the father as child support and not to commence any proceeding to recover the difference between that amount and the percentage of gross salary specified in the prior stipulation.

Subsequently, a child support proceeding was commenced in the Family Court by the mother, and the Family Court Support Magistrate, sua sponte, determined that “the prior Judgment of Divorce and the stipulations did not comply with the Child Support Standards Act” and therefore informed the parties that she would consider the issue of child support de novo. She directed the father, in the interim, to pay child support in the amount $446.15 per week effective February 11, 2005. After a hearing, the Support Magistrate determined, in relevant part, that the father should pay $559.78 per week in child support until June 29, 2005, and $482.57 thereafter, and made the order retroactive to the date of the petition. The Support Magistrate also awarded the mother an attorney’s fee in the sum of $11,990.

The father filed various objections to the Support Magistrate’s findings and order. He claimed that the Support Magistrate was without jurisdiction to hold a de novo hearing on the issue of child support as if the judgment of divorce had never existed. By order entered February 8, 2006, the Family Court, inter alia, denied the father’s objections and father appealed.

The Appellate Division agreed with the father that the Family Court was without subject matter jurisdiction, in effect, to vacate as illegal so much of the judgment of divorce as directed the father to pay child support and, thereafter, to determine the issue of child support de novo. What is particularly interesting in this case was its reasoning.  The Appellate Division made this determination on constitutional grounds, stating that New York Constitution, article 6, §13 (c) provides that the Family Court is vested with limited jurisdiction “to determine, with the same powers possessed by the [S]upreme [C]ourt, the following matters when referred to the [F]amily [C]ourt from the [S]upreme [C]ourt: . . . in actions and proceedings for . . . divorce, . . . applications to fix temporary or permanent support . . . or applications to enforce judgments and orders of support”. Similarly, Family Court Act §466 provides, in relevant part, that, unless the Supreme Court directs otherwise, the Family Court may entertain an application to enforce an order or decree of the Supreme Court granting support, or an application to modify such order or decree “on the ground that there has been a subsequent change of circumstances and that modification is required.” The Supreme Court’s judgment of divorce provided, in relevant part, that the Supreme Court “retain[ed] jurisdiction of the matter concurrently with the Family Court for the purpose of specifically enforcing such of the provisions of the stipulation of child support as are capable of specific enforcement, to the extent permitted by law”.

The Court held that “nowhere in the Constitution, in the Family Court Act, or in the judgment of divorce itself, is the Family Court empowered, in effect, to invalidate a stipulation incorporated into the judgment of divorce entered by the Supreme Court. Significantly, the purpose of the mother’s petition was to enforce the terms of the stipulation of October 29, 1996 – not to have it declared illegal. Had either party questioned the legality of the stipulation, the issue should have been determined by the Supreme Court, which had issued the judgment in which the stipulation was incorporated. Accordingly, the Family Court was without jurisdiction to invalidate the stipulation and determine the child support issue de novo.”

What makes this situation different from typical modification of child support, which I previously discussed, here and here, is that fact that the provisions of the judgment apparently violated the Child Support Standards Act. In those situations, the Supreme Court has the jurisdiction to vacate any child support provisions of the judgment and recalculate child support de novo, going back to the original date of the judgment or the parties’ agreement.  The Family Court does not have the jurisdiction to do so. Accordingly, this is an important procedural point that should be familiar to most divorce and family law lawyers handling child support issues.  If the provisions of the judgment of divorce dealing with child support violate the Child Support Standards Act, the proper venue to address such issues lies in the court that issued the judgment of divorce.

Downward Modification of Child Support

I have mentioned last week that I have been seeing a significant increase in Family Court and Supreme Court filings seeking downward modification of child support. Most of these filings were brought on by a non-custodial parent after a loss of employment. In today’s economy, a loss of employment is not uncommon, so the courts are dealing with a significant rise in downward modification petitions.

There are two different situations that may arise when a non-custodial parent seeks downward modification of child support. First, if the child support was established by a stipulation or an agreement, that parent must establish that the loss of employment represents an unreasonable and unanticipated change in circumstances since the time of the stipulation to justify a modification, and that the alleged changes in that party’s financial position was not of his/her own making. See Connolly v. Connolly, 39 AD3d 643 (2nd Dept. 2007); Terjesen v. Terjesen, 29 A.D.3d 705 (2nd Dept. 2007). Additionally the party who lost employment will also have to establish that he/she used his/her best efforts to obtain employment commensurate with his/her qualifications and experience. Cox v. Cox, 20 A.D.3d 527 (2nd Dept. 2005). Further, allegations of a reduction in actual income are insufficient to support an application for a downward modification, as a matter of law, where contractual support obligations are based on a payor’s ability to earn rather than on his or her actual income at the time of the execution of such stipulation or agreement. Ellenbogen v. Ellenbogen, 6 A.D.3d 1026 (3rd Dept. 2004).

If the child support order was set by the court after a hearing, the parent seeking the modification of a child support obligation has the burden of establishing that there has been a substantial and unforeseen change in circumstances warranting a change in the support obligation. See Ketchum v. Crawford, 1 A.D.3d 359 (2nd Dept. 2003); Cadwell v. Cadwell, 294 AD2d 434 (2nd Dept. 2002). This standard is much easier to meet than the one applicable to the situations where child support was set by a stipulation or an agreement.

Depending on the circumstances, a downward modification case will fall in one of the two situations discussed above. Before commencing any proceeding, discuss your situation with an experienced New York family law lawyer to make sure that the proceedings are properly commenced and that you can meet the applicable legal standard.

Overpayment of Child Support and Right of Recoupment

Periodically, I am asked about situations where an overpayment of child support has taken place. Most of the time in those situations, I, as a lawyer, have to deliver to the client the unpleasant news that the amount overpaid cannot be recovered. This is true whether the child support was being paid pusuant to a judgment of divorce, separation agreement, or an order of Family Court. With respect to child support, there is a strong public policy against restitution or recoupment of any overpayment. See Katz v. Katz, 55 A.D.3d 680 (2nd Dept. 2008). The strong public policy considerations as decided by the New York courts, prevent recoupment or refund of child support paid. However, a parent may be entitled to a credit, enabling him or her to re-coup the overpayment of the child support payments against his/her share of the statutory add-on expenses – the portion of child support intended to cover child care and a child’s educational and special needs. See Coull v. Rottman, 35 AD3d 198 (1st Dept. 2007).

There are also certain limited circumstances in which a refund of child support may take place. For example, a refund may be directed when there was a mathematical error in the calculation of the amount of support (Colicci v. Ruhm, 20 AD3d 891 (4th Dept. 2005); when the support amount in the final order of support is less than in the temporary award (Maksimyadis v. Maksimyadis, 275 AD2d 459 (1st Dept. 2000)); or when it is shown that the subject child is not the biological child of the payor and there is no finding of estoppel (Thomas v. Commissioner of Social Services, 287 AD2d 642 (2nd Dept. 2001). There may be another category of cases where a refund of child support may be ordered. In Spencer v. Spencer, previously discussed on this blog, the Court of Appeals hinted that the recoupment may be available where it is ultimately determined that New York court lacked jurisdiction to order payment of child support.

If you are in a situation where you believe that child support was or is being overpaid, speak with an experienced family law attorney and find out what your options are and what can done in your particular case.

Basics of Bankruptcy Discharge and Domestic Support Obligations

On occasion, a divorce may result in one or both of the parties filing for bankruptcy, often without an adequate understanding of the limited relief available in the bankruptcy court. The Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005 (“BAPCPA”) directly addressed issues related to the dischargeability of marital debt and support obligations, as well as to the effect of the automatic stay on collection and enforcement proceedings out of divorce and family law litigation.

Under bankruptcy law, a “domestic support obligation” is any debt incurred before or after a bankruptcy filing that is owed to or recoverable by a spouse, former spouse, child or governmental unit; in the nature of alimony, maintenance or support; and established pursuant to the terms of a divorce decree, separation agreement, property settlement agreement, court order or administrative determination.

In Chapter 7 bankruptcy, essentially all marital and domestic relations obligations are not dischargeable, regardless of whether they are support in nature, property divisions or “hold harmless” agreements, provided they were incurred by the debtor in the course of a matrimonial proceeding or a divorce action which resulted in a separation agreement, divorce decree, court order or administrative determination.

A debtor’s obligation to pay marital debts directly to a third party ( ie., pay the mortgage on former marital residence) and to hold the former spouse harmless on said debts is also deemed to be non-dischargeable if the obligation has the effect of providing support to the former spouse. A debtor’s duty to pay the following expenses are usually deemed to be in the nature of support and not dischargeable: educational expenses of a minor child; medical insurance coverage for a minor child; and life insurance, with the minor children as beneficiaries.

Attorney’s fees owed by debtor to his own lawyer are clearly dischargeable in bankruptcy, but as a general rule, attorney’s fees owed by debtor to a former spouse’s attorney are not dischargeable, if the underlying legal proceeding resulted in the entry of an order or judgment directing payment of maintenance or spousal support to the former spouse.

The division of a debtor’s pension benefits during the divorce action is usually accomplished by entering a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (“QDRO”). Since division of a pension is considered to be a transfer by debtor of a present interest in his pension, and as such, it is not a debt that can be discharged in bankruptcy.

In Chapter 13 bankruptcy, past due domestic support obligations owed by a debtor are not dischargeable, unless they are paid in full over the life of the Chapter 13 plan. However, if a debt created by a separation agreement or judgment of divorce is not in the nature of support, it sometimes can be discharged in Chapter 13 without being paid in full.

For a Chapter 13 Plan to be confirmed by the Bankruptcy Court, it must: pay in full to the former spouse all domestic support obligations owed by debtor at the time of the bankruptcy filing, and the debtor must be current on all domestic support obligations incurred after the bankruptcy filing.

A Chapter 13 Plan, even if confirmed by the bankruptcy court, is subject to dismissal if the debtor fails to pay any post-petition or post-confirmation domestic support obligations, and a Chapter 13 discharge will not be entered by the bankruptcy court unless and until a debtor certifies that all domestic support obligations have been paid and that the debtor is current on such obligations.

The automatic stay created by a bankruptcy filing bars the commencement or continuation of most legal proceedings, but it has no effect on a proceeding to establish paternity; to establish or modify a child support order, determine child custody or visitation issues, or dissolve a marriage, except to the extent that such proceeding may seek to determine a division of marital property in which the bankruptcy estate also has an interest. In those situations, the divorce can be granted without first obtaining relief from the automatic stay, but the marital property cannot be divided without obtaining such relief.

The automatic stay also does not prevent the post-petition collection of domestic support obligations such as alimony or child support from any property belonging to the debtor, providing that the bankruptcy estate does not also have an interest in the same property; from automatic wage deduction orders created by a statute or judicial or administrative order; from the interception of debtor’s federal or state income tax refunds, or
from the withholding, suspension or restriction of a debtor’s driver’s license or professional or occupational license. Therefore, Bankruptcy Court does not offer much protection for someone seeking to avoid the domestic support obligations.

The above rules will apply to the proceedings in New York State courts. In Ross v. Sperow, 57 A.D.3d 1255 (3rd Dept. 2008), the Appellate Division had to address a situation where one of the parties was seeking to enforce a counsel fee award after the other party filed for bankruptcy. In Ross, multiple violation petitions had been filed by the parties over the course of several years. In August 2006, Family Court upheld mother’s motion for counsel fees and directed father to pay $5,000 of the mother’s counsel fees. Father filed for a Chapter 7 bankruptcy thereafter, and listed the award of counsel fees as an unsecured debt. Father’s bankruptcy was discharged in January 2007. Mother brought a violation petition which alleged that father failed to pay the counsel fees. Father moved to dismiss petition on ground that he discharged counsel fee award in bankruptcy. The Appellate Division stated that state and federal courts have concurrent jurisdiction over issue of dischargabilityof a particular debt and held that domestic support obligations in the nature of support are exempt from discharge in bankruptcy. While father contended that counsel fees incurred were for custody and visitation proceeding, the record reveals that mother’s initial petition commencing the proceeding raised issues of financial need and hardship. According to the Appellate Division, term “in the nature of support” is broadly interpreted in the context of discharge of debt obligations in bankruptcy and held that the award of counsel fees was in part in the nature of support, and as such, exempt from discharge in bankruptcy.

Downward Modification of Maintenance

In these uncertain economic times, someone obligated to pay maintenance may lose a job, experience significant investment losses, or suffer other adverse financial events. Can something be done about maintenance under those circumstances? The answer, as I have often written, depends on the specific facts.

A party seeking the reduction of a maintenance obligation bears the burden of establishing a substantial change of circumstances. Klapper v. Klapper, 204 A.D.2d 518 (2d Dept. 1994). In Klapper, the Second Department held that, in determining whether there was a substantial change in circumstances sufficient to warrant downward modification, the change is to be measured by a comparison between the payor’s financial circumstances at the time of the motion for downward modification and at the time of divorce or, as the case may be, the time that the order of which modification is sought was made.” Id. at 519. The Appellate Division, Fourth Department utilized the same standard of review in Able v. Able, 245 A.D.2d 1026 (4th Dept. 1997).

In Simmons v. Simmons, 26 A.D.3d 883 (4th Dept. 2006), defendant lost his job and subsequently moved for a downward modification of his maintenance obligation. The Appellate Division held that since despite defendant’ diligent job search, he had little prospect of finding employment at a salary comparable to his salary at the time of the divorce, the downward modification was warranted.

The party seeking to modify the maintenance provisions of a judgment of divorce in which the terms of a stipulation of settlement have been incorporated but not merged, must demonstrate that the continued enforcement of the party’s maintenance obligations would create an “extreme hardship”. Beard v. Beard, 300 A.D.2d 268 (2d Dept. 2002) (the proper amount of support payable is determined not by a parent’s current economic situation, but by a parent’s assets and earning powers). See also, Domestic Relations Law § 236(B)(9)(b).

A reduction in the payor’s income will not result in decreased maintenance where it is the result of a voluntary action, such as self-imposed retirement. Fendsack v. Fendsack, 290 A.D.2d 682 (3d Dept. 2002); DiNovo v. Robinson, 250 A.D.2D 898 (3d Dept. 1998). In Dallin v. Dallin, 250 A.D.2d 847 (2d Dept. 1998), the Second Department held that Family Court properly rejected the father’s claims that his financial situation, prolonged unemployment, and illnesses warranted a drastic reduction of his maintenance and child support obligations. The father had failed to produce any competent evidence to support his claim that he used his best efforts to obtain employment commensurate with his qualifications and experience or that his medical conditions rendered him unemployable.

In Lenigan v. Lenigan, 146 Misc.2d 627 (Sup.Ct., Albany County 1990), the defendant sought to reduce his maintenance and child support obligations. The defendant claimed that, in the prior three months, his compensation as a stock broker had been reduced. It is well settled that the party seeking to obtain a reduction of support bears the burden of establishing a substantial change of circumstances. Id. A drastic change in income can constitute a substantial change of circumstances. Id. In Lenigan, the defendant was a stockbroker, and by the very nature of his business, his income would fluctuate throughout the year. The Supreme Court held that, adopting the defendant’s theory of allowing a modification based upon temporary fluctuations in income would lead to a ludicrous result. Although the defendant asserted a three-month lull in business, there was nothing to establish that sales would not pick up in the following months.

In conclusion, an experienced divorce lawyer faced with a significant change in client’s economic situation, must carefully construct an argument for the court that the change was not created by his/her client, that the change is significant, that it is likely to last for a some time, and that the client has exhausted all other alternatives.
In Watrous v. Watrous, 292 A.D.2d 691 (3d Dept. 2002), at age 55, the plaintiff voluntarily retired from State employment and, shortly thereafter, moved to terminate or, in the alternative, reduce his maintenance obligation. The plaintiff asserted as a substantial change in circumstances that he took early retirement due to his poor health and would be experiencing a significant reduction in income. A hearing was held and, at the close of plaintiff’s proof, Supreme Court granted defendant’s motion to dismiss, finding that plaintiff had failed to establish a sufficient change in circumstances. The Third Department affirmed on appeal, stating that a maintenance obligation established by a judgment of divorce will not be modified absent clear and convincing proof of a substantial change in circumstances. The record revealed that, at the time of the divorce, Supreme Court was aware of both the medical restrictions on plaintiff’s employment and the possibility that his poor health might cause him to retire early. Accordingly the circumstances existing at the time of the plaintiff’s application for downward modification were foreseeable, and anticipated at the time of the parties’ divorce. Furthermore, the record was devoid of evidence that the reduction in the plaintiff’s income would substantially diminish his standard of living or his ability to satisfy his maintenance obligation. The Third Department therefore concluded that the plaintiff failed to establish a substantial change in circumstances.

Opt-Out Agreements and the Scope of the Child Support Standards Act

If parties choose to deviate from the provisions of the Child Support Standards Act with respect to the child support paid, such deviation will be upheld by the court provided the parties complied with such formalities as including calculations of the presumptive child support amount and the reasons for deviating from the CSSA. However, the parties frequently choose not only to deviate from the child support amount calculations, and add-ons such as child care and health care costs, but also to make recalculations of child support an annual or semi-annual event, or to include other items not included within the scope of the CSSA.

In Fasano v. Fasano, 43 A.D.3d 988 (2nd Dept. 2007), the parties included an annual cost-of-living-adjustment (“COLA”), with respect to the child support paid by the non-custodial parent. The Second Department found that the parties to the agreement did not opt out of the CSSA standards with respect to basic child support, but that the COLA provision included in the agreement represented potential future deviations from the CSSA basic child support obligation. The agreement did not state the reasons for including the COLA provisions. The Appellate Division held that the COLA provision represented an opt-out from the CSSA and was directly related to the child support. Since the reasons for including the COLA provision were not included in the agreement, the opt-out was invalid. The court vacated the COLA provision, while the basic child support provision of the agreement was not vacated.

However, not all provisions dealing with financial support of the children are considered to be within the scope of the CSSA. In Cimons v. Cimons, 53 A.D.3d 125 (2nd Dept. 2008), the Second Department held that the obligation to provide for the future college expenses of the children was not part of the parties’ basic child support obligation and therefore was not subject to the CSSA requirement that any deviation from statutorily-mandated child support obligations must be recited and explained in a stipulation of settlement. While the parties’ agreement regarding basic child support violated the CSSA by failing to recite and explain the reasons for the deviation, the provision concerning future college expenses was enforceable. The court held that unlike the basic obligation to provide child support, payment for a child’s college education is not mandatory. Absent a voluntary agreement, a parent might be required to provide support for his or her child’s attendance at college, but the determination of that obligation is dependent upon the exercise of the court’s discretion in accordance with Domestic Relations Law §240(1- b)(c)(7). The court further noted that the determination as to which additional aspects, if any, of the parties’ stipulation must be vacated along with the basic child support provision depends on the circumstances of the particular case and the nature of the obligations addressed in the other provisions of a stipulation. Some provisions may be so directly connected or intertwined with the basic child support obligation that they necessarily must be recalculated along with the basic support obligation. It found that unlike child care expenses and unreimbursed health care expenses, education expenses were not directly connected to the basic child support calculation and did not require the appropriate opt-out language.

The above cases represent the dangers involved any time the parties attempt to either opt-out from the CSSA or attempt to include items outside of the scope of the CSSA in their agreement. Any such agreement must be carefully drafted to make sure that it is not subsequently challenged and invalidated.