What Is Required For A Document To Be Accepted As A Separation Agreement?

Periodically, I see documents that were prepared by the parties on their own while attempting to resolve whatever legal issues they were facing.  Occasionally, the parties will prepare their own separation agreements.  Unfortunately, in many cases, those self-prepared separation agreements do not meet the statutory requirement applicable to either child support, maintenance, or other significant issues.  A recent example of why such self-prepared agreements are problematic was illustrated in a recent case, Scully v. Haar,  2009 N.Y. Slip. Op. 08261 (4th Dept. 2009).

Plaintiff and defendant were married on May 8, 1993 and have three minor children.  The parties have lived apart since March 2005.  On March 4, 2005, plaintiff commenced an action for divorce.  After extensive and ultimately futile negotiations between the parties, plaintiff filed a complaint on August 11, 2006, that did not specify any misconduct on the part of defendant but requested that plaintiff be awarded custody of the parties’ children.  On September 15, 2006, Supreme Court granted defendant’s motion to dismiss the complaint based on the insufficiency of plaintiff’s allegations but “retained jurisdiction over ancillary issues.”

Thereafter, the parties entered into the agreement, the preamble to which provides that “the parties are now desirous of resolving custody and ancillary issues without a trial.”  The agreement granted sole custody of the parties’ children to defendant and establishes a detailed access schedule for plaintiff.  It further provided that the agreement “shall be submitted to any court in which either [p]arty may seek a judgment or decree of divorce and . . . shall be incorporated in such judgment or decree by reference.”  The agreement was signed by both parties, notarized, and filed with the Erie County Clerk’s Office on May 11, 2007.

On May 13, 2008, just over one year after the agreement was filed, plaintiff commenced this action fo divorce based on Domestic Relations Law §170(6), alleging that the parties had lived separate and apart pursuant to an agreement for a period of a year or more.  A copy of the agreement was attached to the complaint.  Defendant moved to dismiss the complaint on the ground that the agreement was not a “written agreement of separation” within the meaning of section 170(6) because it addressed only parenting issues, it did not expressly recite the parties’ intent to live separate and apart, and it was not intended to serve as a separation agreement.  Plaintiff cross-moved for summary judgment on the complaint, contending that the terms of the agreement clearly established that the parties were living separate and apart.  The trial court denied the relief requested by the plaintiff.

Domestic Relations Law §170(6) sets forth one of the two “no-fault” grounds for divorce in New York State.  Specifically, that section provides that an action for divorce may be maintained on the ground that “[t]he husband and wife have lived separate and apart pursuant to a written agreement of separation . . ., for a period of one or more years after the execution of such agreement”.  The section further provides that the agreement must be signed by the parties and “acknowledged or proved in the form required to entitle a deed to be recorded”. Moreover, the agreement must be filed in the office of the clerk of the county in which either party resides.

The Appellate Division affirmed the lower court’s decision holding that “No-fault divorce applies only where there is a previous decree of separation or a written separation agreement, as required by statute [and, here, t]he parties have neither”.  Plaintiff attempted to rely on a “Parenting Plan Agreement” executed by the parties after an earlier divorce action commenced by plaintiff was dismissed and the court in that action retained jurisdiction over ancillary issues.  The agreement related solely to matters of custody and visitation and, although it was signed and acknowledged by the parties and filed with the County Clerk by plaintiff, it neither purported to be a separation agreement as that term is generally understood, nor made any explicit reference to the parties’ separation.  The Fourth Department concluded, particularly in light of the circumstances in which the agreement was made, that the agreement did not “evidenc[e] the parties’ agreement to live separate and apart, [and] thus [it did not] satisfy[ ] the statutory requirement [with] respect to a separation agreement”.

As I stated previously, it important that the parties understand that New York does not make it easy for someone to prepare and execute a valid separation agreement.  In my opinion, even if someone decides to follow a self-help approach, any document should be reviewed by a family law lawyer to make sure that it fully represents the parties’ intent and complies with applicable law.  While it may be tempting for someone to do it for a variety of reasons, any future disputes involving such documents is likely to require involvement of lawyers.

All concur except Peradotto, J., who dissents and votes to reverse in accordance with the following Memorandum: I respectfully dissent and would reverse because I agree with plaintiff that the 30-page “Parenting Plan Agreement” (agreement) at issue in this matter constitutes a “written agreement of separation” within the meaning of Domestic Relations Law § 170 (6).
Plaintiff and defendant were married on May 8, 1993 and have three minor children. The parties have lived apart since March 2005. On March 4, 2005, plaintiff commenced an action for [*2]divorce by summons with notice. After extensive and ultimately futile negotiations between the parties, plaintiff filed a complaint on August 11, 2006 that did not specify any misconduct on the part of defendant but requested that plaintiff be awarded custody of the parties’ children. On September 15, 2006, Supreme Court granted defendant’s motion to dismiss the complaint based on the insufficiency of plaintiff’s allegations but, as noted by the majority, “retained jurisdiction over ancillary issues.”
Thereafter, the parties entered into the agreement, the preamble to which provides that “the parties are now desirous of resolving custody and ancillary issues without a trial.” The agreement, inter alia, grants sole custody of the parties’ children to defendant and establishes a detailed access schedule for plaintiff. It further provides that the agreement “shall be submitted to any court in which either [p]arty may seek a judgment or decree of divorce and . . . shall be incorporated in such judgment or decree by reference.” The agreement was signed by both parties, notarized, and filed with the Erie County Clerk’s Office on May 11, 2007.
On May 13, 2008, just over one year after the agreement was filed, plaintiff commenced this action for divorce based on Domestic Relations Law § 170 (6), alleging that the parties had lived separate and apart pursuant to an agreement for a period of a year or more. A copy of the agreement was attached to the complaint. Defendant moved to dismiss the complaint on the ground that the agreement was not a “written agreement of separation” within the meaning of section 170 (6) because it addressed only parenting issues, it did not expressly recite the parties’ intent to live separate and apart, and it was not intended to serve as a separation agreement. Plaintiff cross-moved for summary judgment on the complaint, contending that the terms of the agreement clearly established that the parties were living separate and apart.
The court granted defendant’s motion to dismiss the complaint and denied plaintiff’s cross motion. Although the court acknowledged that an agreement need not be in any specific form to qualify as a “written agreement of separation” pursuant to Domestic Relations Law § 170 (6), the court determined that defendant did not consent to the termination of the marriage by signing the agreement.
Domestic Relations Law § 170 (6) sets forth one of the two “no-fault” grounds for divorce in New York State. Specifically, that section provides that an action for divorce may be maintained on the ground that “[t]he husband and wife have lived separate and apart pursuant to a written agreement of separation . . ., for a period of one or more years after the execution of such agreement” (id.). The section further provides that the agreement must be signed by the parties and “acknowledged or proved in the form required to entitle a deed to be recorded” (id.). Moreover, the agreement must be filed in the office of the clerk of the county in which either party resides (id.).
Here, it is undisputed that the parties have lived separate and apart since March 2005, well in excess of the statutory period (see Domestic Relations Law § 170 [6]). It is also undisputed that the agreement was signed by both parties, acknowledged in the requisite manner, and filed in the County Clerk’s Office (see id.). Thus, the only issue before this Court is whether the agreement qualifies as a “written agreement of separation” pursuant to the statute (id.). In my view, the legislative history and intended purpose of Domestic Relations Law § 170 (6), the important public policies underlying the “no fault” divorce grounds, and the Court of Appeals’ precedent confirming the limited function of the written agreement, compel the conclusion that the agreement in this case constitutes a “written agreement of separation” within the meaning of section 170 (6).
In Gleason v Gleason (26 NY2d 28, 35), decided shortly after the enactment of Domestic [*3]Relations Law § 170, the Court of Appeals recognized that the “real purpose” of the statute’s no-fault provisions was “to sanction divorce on grounds unrelated to misconduct.” As the Court explained: “Implicit in the statutory scheme is the legislative recognition that it is socially and morally undesirable to compel couples to a dead marriage to retain an illusory and deceptive status and that the best interests not only of the parties but of society itself will be furthered by enabling them to extricate themselves from a perpetual state of marital limbo’ ” (id.).
Thus, it is the physical separation of the parties, not the written agreement, that supplies the ground for a divorce pursuant to Domestic Relations Law § 170 (6) (see Christian v Christian, 42 NY2d 63, 69; Littlejohns v Littlejohns, 76 Misc 2d 82, 86, affd on opn of Korn, J., 42 AD2d 957). Indeed, the written agreement “is simply intended as evidence of the authenticity and reality of the separation” (Gleason, 26 NY2d at 35; see Christian, 42 NY2d at 69; Harris v Harris, 36 AD2d 594). As the Court of Appeals reaffirmed in Christian, “[t]he vital and operative’ fact[] in subdivision (6) divorce cases[] is the actual living apart of the parties——pursuant to the separation agreement . . . Put a bit differently, the function of the document is merely to authenticate the fact of separation’ ” (42 NY2d at 69). The statutory requirement that the parties live separate and apart for the prescribed period pursuant to a written agreement is unique to New York State and “reflects legislative concern over the fraud and collusion which historically infected divorce actions involving adultery” (id. at 68; see Littlejohns, 76 Misc 2d at 86 [“the written agreement serves primarily as a means of preventing fraudulent or collusive claims of separation and so discourages quickie’ divorces”]).
The statute does not define the term “written agreement of separation,” nor does it set forth any specific provisions that are required in such an agreement (see Littlejohns, 76 Misc 2d at 86). In light of the limited function of the written separation agreement, i.e., to document and authenticate the physical separation of the parties, and the public policy underlying the statute, “the courts, where the parties have parted permanently, should not be excessively rigid or demanding in determining whether a writing satisfies the statutory requirement for an agreement of separation’ ” (id. at 87). All that a party seeking a divorce pursuant to Domestic Relations Law § 170 (6) must prove “is that there is some kind of formal document of separation” (Gleason, 26 NY2d at 37). As one court aptly observed: “Too great stress has been placed upon the instrument, the indicia of proof of the separation of the parties, rather than the fact of separation. It is not the decree, judgment, or agreement that is the essence of the ground for divorce. They are merely the documentary proof” (Markowitz v Markowitz, 77 Misc 2d 586, 587-588).
In light of the legislative history and manifest purpose of Domestic Relations Law § 170 (6) and the decisions of the Court of Appeals that liberally construe the documentation requirement, I cannot agree with the majority’s conclusion that the agreement in this case does not constitute a “written agreement of separation” within the scope of the statute. The agreement clearly and unambiguously “contemplate[s] permanent separation” (Morhaim v Morhaim, 56 AD2d 550, 552 [Silverman, J., dissenting], revd on dissenting mem of Silverman, J., 44 NY2d 785, rearg denied 44 NY2d 949). Implicit and recognized throughout the agreement is that the parties were in fact living apart when they entered into the agreement and that they intended to continue to live apart for years to come. The agreement lists separate addresses for plaintiff and defendant in its preamble and repeatedly references the parties’ separate residences throughout the remainder of the document. In setting forth plaintiff’s visitation schedule, the agreement recites that “[a]ll access shall take place away from the custodial residence of [defendant].” The article of the agreement establishing plaintiff’s access schedule includes a clause that the parties are free to agree on additional access “without setting a precedent for other calendar years,” thus emphasizing the long-term duration of the physical separation. [*4]
Moreover, the agreement specifically contemplates the possibility of the parties’ eventual divorce and the remarriage of either or both of the parties. In particular, the agreement states that “the provisions of this [a]greement shall be submitted to any court in which either [p]arty may seek a judgment or decree of divorce and . . . shall be incorporated in such judgment or decree by reference and shall not merge . . . .” With respect to the possible remarriage of either of the parties, the agreement provides that the parties’ children “shall not, for any purpose or for any reason, assume or use the name of any subsequent Husband of [defendant].” Thus, viewed as a whole, the agreement “can be consistent only with the fact of the parties’ then existing and continued separation” (Littlejohns, 76 Misc 2d at 86).
The fact that the agreement is not entitled a “separation agreement” and does not explicitly recite that the parties shall live separate and apart is of no moment (see Sint v Sint, 225 AD2d 606, 607). ” [T]he validity of the agreement . . . depend[s] upon the existence of the fact [of living apart], not upon a recital of it’ ” (Morhaim, 56 AD2d at 552; see Littlejohns, 76 Misc 2d at 85). Here, the agreement serves as ” evidence of the authenticity and reality of the separation’ ” (Christian, 42 NY2d at 68, quoting Gleason, 26 NY2d at 35), thereby fulfilling the statutory purpose.
Contrary to the contention of defendant, it is irrelevant whether she intended the agreement to serve as the predicate for a subsequent divorce action pursuant to Domestic Relations Law § 170 (6). Indeed, the Court of Appeals has held that Domestic Relations Law § 170 (5), which supplies the other “no-fault” ground for divorce, i.e., that the parties have lived apart pursuant to a decree or judgment of separation for a certain period of time, applied retroactively to separation decrees rendered prior to the enactment of the statute (Gleason, 26 NY2d at 34-36). The Court in Gleason recognized that the defendant wife who prevailed in a separation action commenced prior to the enactment of section 170 (5) “had no warning that the separation decree granted to her might later furnish basis or ground for divorce by [her] guilty’ husband” (id. at 40). Likewise, in Morhaim, the First Department noted that the six-year delay between the execution and filing of the written separation agreement in question “may indicate that the parties at the time of the execution of the agreement did not realize that the agreement might qualify as a separation agreement under the no-fault divorce statute. But that does not alter the legal effect of the agreement or the public policy involved” (56 AD2d at 552 [emphasis added]).
In sum, the agreement in this case “evidenced the parties’ actual and continued separation and thus satisfied the requirements of the statute” (id.; see Littlejohns, 76 Misc 2d at 86-87). I therefore would reverse the order, deny defendant’s motion to dismiss, reinstate the complaint, grant plaintiff’s cross motion for summary judgment on the complaint, and remit the matter to Supreme Court to grant judgment in favor of plaintiff and to determine the remaining issues.
Entered: November 13, 2009
Patricia L. Morgan
Clerk of the Court

Can Social Abandonment By A Spouse Be Sufficient As Grounds For Divorce?

While New York continues to be the last state that insists upon fault-based divorce, that has not stopped various attempts to broaden present grounds for divorce available under the Domestic  Relations Law.  In a recent decision, Davis v. Davis, 2009 N.Y. Slip. Op. 08579 (2nd Dept. 2009), the Appellate Division, Second Department, held that “social abandonment” of one spouse by the other, does not meet the definition of constructive abandonment, and can not be used as grounds for divorce.  This case demonstrates why divorce lawyers and their clients, here in Rochester and elsewhere in New York, can be in situation where they cannot get their clients divorced, despite significant breakdowns in marital relationships.

In Davis, the wife alleged that the husband refused to engage in social interaction with the wife by:

refusing to celebrate with her or acknowledge Valentine’s Day, Christmas, Thanksgiving, and the wife’s birthday, by refusing to eat meals together, by refusing to attend family functions or accompany the wife to movies, shopping, restaurants, and church services, by leaving her once at a hospital emergency room, by removing the wife’s belongings from the marital bedroom, and by otherwise ignoring her.  The parties have been married for 41 years and they reside at the same address.

The above claims were included as a part of the wife’s cause of action for constructive abandonment.  The husband filed a pre-answer motion pursuant to CPLR §3211(a)(7) to dismiss the constructive abandonment cause of action and, alternatively, moved for summary judgment dismissing that cause of action. The husband, while contesting many of the wife’s factual allegations of “social abandonment,” argued that the complaint fails to state a cause of action for a divorce based on “constructive abandonment.”

Domestic Relations Law §170 sets forth six statutory grounds on which a spouse may seek to divorce another. The abandonment ground for divorce, set forth in Domestic Relations Law §170(2), provides that an action for a divorce may be maintained based upon “[t]he abandonment of the plaintiff by the defendant for a period of one or more years.”   The essence of abandonment is the refusal of one spouse to fulfill “basic obligations springing from the marriage contract”.  The court noted that a viable cause of action under Domestic Relations Law §170(2) has been recognized in three different factual forms: (1)  a defendant spouse’s actual physical departure from the marital residence that is unjustified, voluntary, without consent of the plaintiff spouse, and with the intention of the departing spouse not to return; (2) the defendant spouse locks the plaintiff spouse out of the marital residence, absent justification or consent;  (3) “constructive abandonment,” which has been defined as the refusal by a defendant spouse to engage in sexual relations with the plaintiff spouse for one or more years prior to the commencement of the action, when such refusal is unjustified, willful, and continual, and despite repeated requests for the resumption of sexual relations.

the complaint alleges that the husband refused to engage in social interaction with the wife by refusing to celebrate with her or acknowledge Valentine’s Day, Christmas, Thanksgiving, and the wife’s birthday, by refusing to eat meals together, by refusing to attend family functions or accompany the wife to movies, shopping, restaurants, and church services, by leaving her once at a hospital emergency room, by removing the wife’s belongings from the marital bedroom, and by otherwise ignoring her. The parties have been married for 41 years and they reside at the same address.
The husband filed a pre-answer motion pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(7) to dismiss the constructive abandonment cause of action and, alternatively, moved for summary judgment dismissing that cause of action pursuant to CPLR 3212. The husband, while contesting many of the wife’s factual allegations of “social abandonment,” argued that the complaint fails to state a cause of action for a divorce based on “constructive abandonment.” The wife opposed dismissal arguing, [*2]inter alia, that social abandonment has been recognized as a ground for divorce in fairly recent trial-level decisions rendered by the Supreme Courts in Nassau, Queens, and Westchester Counties.

After analyzing the applicable case law and plain language of the statute, the Appellate Division concluded that the plaintiff’s allegations of social abandonment may appropriately be viewed as merely another way of claiming “irreconcilable differences” between spouses, that do not constitute a cognizable ground for divorce. The plaintiff’s allegations of a “social abandonment,” designed to mimic the abandonment language of Domestic Relations Law §170(2), “elevated the artificial title of the claim over the substance of the causes of action that are statutorily recognized and understood.”

The Appellate Division further noted that there are several reasons why the courts have not recognized social abandonment as a cognizable ground for divorce, including the longevity of the current definitional understanding of constructive abandonment; its concern for a judicial usurpation of legislative authority; the fact that a social abandonment of one spouse by another is a provision of the marriage contract that necessarily equates with a spouse’s refusal to engage in sexual relations.; and the practical difficulties associated with trying to define a social abandonment cause of action, and of how courts might conceptualize the cause as separate and distinct from traditional notions of constructive abandonment.  In court’s view, “social abandonment” cannot be easily defined and therefore defies consistent and easily applied definitional interpretation, resulting in the courts examining the conduct of couples on a case-by-case basis, and presenting significant variations as to “the degree of social interaction involving family events, meals, holidays, religious activities, spousal expectations, cultural differences, and communications.”

The Davis case is just one more illustration of the fact that New York needs to abandon its fault-based grounds for divorce.  No-fault divorce would significantly reduce divorce litigation and make clients’, and attorneys’, lives less frustrating.  Unfortunately, the New York Legislature has not shown much interest in this issue over the years.  What is also interesting, is that the Second Department’s position in Davis appears to be contrary to the Third Department’s position in Dunne v. Dunne, 47 A.D.3d 1056 (3rd Dept. 2008), discussed in an earlier post, which held constructive abandonment has taken place in a situation where one spouse took an uncompromising position that plaintiff choose to either adhere to the advice of his treating physicians or cease taking his anxiety medication in order to return to the marital residence, thereby risking his well-being. If forcing a party to choose between taking a medication and returning to the marital residence amounted to “an unreasonable condition as a term of their relationship,” which violated marital obligation to the husband, I believe that a refusal to participate in various activities with the spouse represents a similar violation of marital obligation.

Non-Titled Spouse, Enhanced Earnings and Substantial Contribution

I have previously written about several issues related to distribution of enhanced earnings during the equitable distribution portion of the divorce action here, here, here and here.  One of the critical issues facing a divorce lawyer, seeking seeking equitable distribution of a portion of such earnings for his/her client, is the burden of proof with respect to the non-titled spouse’s contribution to enhanced earning capacity.  The non-titled spouse seeking a distributive share of enhanced earnings must demonstrate that he/she made a substantial contribution to the titled party’s acquisition of that marital asset.

In Kriftcher v. Kriftcher, 59 A.D.3d 392 (2nd Dept. 2009,) the trial court awarded the plaintiff-wife $828,699.20 as her 40% share of the husband’s enhanced earning capacity, an attorney’s fee of $30,000, declined to award her maintenance, awarded her $1,229.71 per week in child support, and failed to award her equitable distribution of the husband’s bonus for the calendar year 2005, which the husband received in 2006.  The Appellate Division found that trial court correctly concluded that the enhanced earnings resulting from the law degree and license obtained by the husband during the marriage were marital property subject to equitable distribution.  Nevertheless, it is incumbent upon the non-titled party seeking a distributive share of such assets to demonstrate that they made a substantial contribution to the titled party’s acquisition of that marital asset, and where only modest contributions are made by the non-titled spouse toward the other spouse’s attainment of a degree or professional license, and the attainment is more directly the result of the titled spouse’s own ability, tenacity, perseverance and hard work, it is appropriate for courts to limit the distributed amount of that enhanced earning capacity.  Here, the wife’s minimal contributions to the husband’s obtaining of his degree and license entitled her to a share of only 10% in the enhanced earnings that have resulted.

In determining the appropriate amount and duration of maintenance, the court is required to consider, among other factors, the standard of living of the parties during the marriage and the present and future earning capacity of both parties.  Although the wife earned a teaching license during the course of the marriage, she was, at present, primarily a homemaker, who worked only part-time as a substitute teacher earning approximately $10,000 per year.  In sharp contrast, the husband was an attorney making approximately $500,000 per year. It held that a maintenance award of $1,000 per week for 10 years was appropriate.

The above decision is a good illustration of the recent trend where the non-titled spouse has to present evidence of his/her contribution toward creation of the other spouse’s enhanced earning capacity.  When handling such situations, divorce attorney would do well to learn everything there is to know regarding non-titled spouse’s involvement in the titled spouse’s efforts to obtain a license or degree that ultimately resulted in enhanced earning capacity.

Child Support and High Income Non-Custodial Parent

I have previously written about various child support issues, here, here, here and here.  While the number of issues is substantial, one situation that comes up periodically, is the one where the non-residential parent earns a substantial income, placing the combined parental income well in excess of the basis economic support under the Child Support Standards Act.  While the income limit for basic economic support under the CSSA is about to increase substantially, what happens in situations where the nonresidential parent earns several hundred thousands dollars or more per year?

In a recent decision,  Jackson v. Tompkins, 2009 N.Y. Slip. Op. 06550 (2nd Dept. 2009), the Appellate Division, Second Department, held that in high income cases, appropriate determination under F.C.A. §413(1)(f) for an award of child support on parental income in excess of $80,000 should be based upon child’s actual needs and amount required for child to live an appropriate lifestyle, rather than upon wealth. See, Brim v. Combs, 25 A.D.3d 691, 693 (2nd Dept. 2006).  The Appellate Division affirmed the Family Court’s order which directed that the father pay $6,700 in monthly child support.

The above decision is consistent with the prior cases, such as Cassano,  and its progeny.  The Appellate Division cited Brim v. Combs in reaching its holding.  That case makes for an interesting reading since the respondent in Brim v. Combs was Sean “Puffy” Combs.  In Brim, the mother’s net worth statement and her extensive testimony at the hearing established that her expenses related to the child were $19,148.74 per month, exclusive of the child’s educational, health, medical, dental, school transportation, school supplies/books, security, and summer camp expenses, which in any case are paid by the father. The court further noted that this amount was deemed admitted as fact by the father due to his failure to comply with the compulsory financial disclosure requirements of Family Court Act § 424-a. Accordingly, the Appellate Division held that the Family Court erred in awarding $35,000 in monthly child support to the mother. Instead, the mother should have been awarded monthly child support in the sum of $19,148.74 to satisfy the child’s actual needs and to afford him an appropriate lifestyle (see Family Ct Act § 413).

Thus, if you earn a substantial income and you are obligated to pay child support, your family law attorney would do well to know what are the child’s needs and what are the actual expenses  associated with child, and be prepared to challenge any unsubstantiated claims at a hearing.

Enforcement of Child Support Arrears and Chapter 13 Bankruptcy

Support Magistrate determined that respondent willfully failed to pay $7,814.90 in child support arrears, and referred matter to Family Court for confirmation. Respondent’s commencement of Chapter 13 bankruptcy stays all actions and proceedings to collect pre-petition claims against debtor and his property. See, 11 USC § 362[a][1]. Although Family Court is precluded from exercising its enforcement powers pursuant to FCA § 454 to recover arrears while Chapter 13 bankruptcy plan is in effect, Family Court finds that it is not prohibited to confirm finding of willful violation already made by Support Magistrate and hold enforcement in abeyance pending completion of the Chapter 13 bankruptcy plan.
In the Matter of a Support Proceeding Marcia T., Petitioner,
v.
Raymond W., Respondent.
F-01769-08/08A
Family Court, Albany County
Decided on September 1, 2009
CITE TITLE AS: Matter of Marcia T. v Raymond W.
Marcia T., Matter of, v Raymond W., 2009 NY Slip Op 51883(U). Parent and Child-Support-Bankruptcy Proceedings Not Bar to Recovery of Arrears under Prior Determination of Support Magistrate. (Fam Ct, Albany County, Sept. 1, 2009, Maney, J.)
APPEARANCES OF COUNSEL
Bixby, Crable & Stiglmeier, PLLC (Carol Stiglmeier of counsel) for Marcia T.
Jeffrey S. Berkun, Esq. for Raymond W.
OPINION OF THE COURT
Gerard E. Maney, J.
By order dated January 14, 2009, the Support Magistrate determined that respondent Raymond W. willfully failed to obey an order of the Court pursuant to Family Court Act § 156 by failing to pay $7,814.90 in child support arrears. The matter was referred to this Judge for confirmation in accordance with Family Court Act § 439 (a).
Counsel for respondent maintains that because respondent filed for Chapter 13 Bankruptcy relief in November 2008, the confirmation hearing must be stayed. Counsel argues that the bankruptcy code contains an automatic stay provision that provides that the filing of a bankruptcy petition operates as a stay of actions or proceeding to recover a claim against the debtor that arose prior to the commencement of the case. Although certain exceptions to the automatic stay provisions exist, counsel argues that none apply in the instant family court proceeding.
The court agrees with counsel that the commencement of a case under Chapter 13 of the United States Bankruptcy Code stays all actions and proceedings to collect pre-petition claims *2 against the debtor and his property (11 USC §362 [a] [1]) or to obtain possession and control of property of the estate (11 USC §362 [a] [3]). The property of the estate, which is broadly defined, specifically includes “earnings” (11 USC §541 [a] [6]; §1306 [a];). Because payments to creditors must come from the debtor’s post-petition earnings, those earning are property of the Chapter 13 estate (11 USC §1306 [a] [2]). Thus, “[t]he claimant seeking to collect arrearages in support obligations is not free to pursue the Chapter 13 debtor’s post-petition earnings” (Margaret Howard, A Bankruptcy Primer for the Family Lawyer, Family Law Quarterly, Volume 31, Number 3, Fall 1997, at 380).
Although the court finds that it is precluded from exercising its enforcement powers pursuant to Family Court Act §454 to recover arrears while the Chapter 13 bankruptcy plan is in effect, it does not find that it is prohibited by the bankruptcy laws from confirming the finding of a willful violation already made by the Support Magistrate and holding its authority to enforce such finding in abeyance pending completion of the Chapter 13 bankruptcy plan.
It is this court’s understanding that petitioner has filed a claim in the bankruptcy proceeding for the support arrears and that such arrears will be payable under the bankruptcy plan. If the payment of arrears is not satisfied when the Chapter 13 bankruptcy plan is closed, petitioner may move to restore the matter to the family court calendar to have the court exercise its enforcement powers to compel the payment of arrears.
Accordingly, after examination and inquiry into the facts and circumstances of the case and after hearing the proofs and testimony offered in relation thereto and based on evidence that a lawful order of support was in effect and respondent had the ability to pay but willfully failed to do so, it is
ADJUDGED that Raymond W. failed to obey the order of this court for the support of his children , A. W. and S. W., and that such failure was willful;
ORDERED that the determination of the Support Magistrate pursuant to Family Court Act § 156 made herein that Raymond W. willfully failed to obey an order of the court is hereby confirmed; and it is further
ORDERED that if the payment of arrears as set forth in the Support Magistrate’s January 14, 2009 order is not satisfied when respondent’s Chapter 13 bankruptcy plan is closed, petitioner may move to restore the matter to the family court calendar to have the court exercise its enforcement powers pursuant to Family Court Act §454.

I have previously written about several different situations involving interaction between New York’s Family Law and bankruptcy.  The basics of divorce and bankruptcy were addressed in this post,  the issues related to the bankruptcy court’s handling of domestic support obligations were addressed in this post, and the issues related to attorneys fees and bankruptcy were addressed in this post.  Because of the complexity of the issues involved, New York courts continue to decide cases were the family law and bankruptcy law interact.  A recent case of Marcia T. v. Raymond W., 24 Misc.3d 1245(A) (Fam. Ct. Monroe Co. 2009), addressed whether Chapter 13 bankruptcy stay prevented recovery of child support arrears and a finding of willful failure to pay.

Respondent father filed for Chapter 13 Bankruptcy relief in November 2008.  Petitioner mother brought a willful violation petition based upon the father’s failure to pay several thousand dollars in child support arrears.  Support Magistrate determined that respondent willfully failed to pay $7,814.90 in child support arrears, and referred matter to Family Court for confirmation in accordance with Family Court Act § 439(a).  Respondent’s lawyer argued that because of Chapter 13 filing, the confirmation hearing must be stayed since automatic stay prevents recovery of any claims that arose prior to the commencement of the bankruptcy case.

The Family Court held that respondent’s commencement of Chapter 13 bankruptcy and resulting automatic stay stops all actions and proceedings to collect pre-petition claims against debtor and his property.   Because payments to creditors must come from the debtor’s post-petition earnings, those earning are property of the Chapter 13 estate, pursuant to 11 U.S.C. §1306 (a)(2).  Thus, the claimant seeking to collect arrearages in support obligations is not free to pursue the Chapter 13 debtor’s post-petition earnings.  It further held that although Family Court is precluded from exercising its enforcement powers pursuant to FCA §454 to recover arrears while Chapter 13 bankruptcy plan is in effect, Family Court found that it is not prohibited to confirm finding of willful violation already made by Support Magistrate and hold enforcement in abeyance pending completion of the Chapter 13 bankruptcy plan.

The court further noted that petitioner has filed a claim in the bankruptcy proceeding for the support arrears and that such arrears will be payable under the bankruptcy plan. If the payment of arrears is not satisfied when the Chapter 13 bankruptcy plan is closed, petitioner may move to restore the matter to the family court calendar to have the court exercise its enforcement powers to compel the payment of arrears.

The above is an excellent illustration of how a Chapter 13 bankruptcy can be utilized to prevent serious problems that a finding of willful violation may present.  Further, since the typical Chapter 13 plan lasts for 5 years, this allows the party paying child support to extend payment of child support arrears over 5 years.  A family law lawyer needs to be familiar with bankruptcy law issues since it is not uncommon for these areas of law to interplay.

Divorce, Equitable Distribution and Wasteful Dissipation

“Wasteful dissipation”
(i.e., DRL 236 (B)(5)(d)(11), hereinafter referred to as “Factor
11”) is a term of art that has never been defined with any real
precision, however. It can apparently consist of gambling and
poor business judgment, as well as other forms of economic
misconduct. Given the absence of appellate leadership in
establishing a reliable equation to which we practitioners can
refer, what may or may not constitute marital waste remains as
much a mystery as how that waste will ultimately affect equitable
distribution.
Until an ambitious Appellate Court commits itself to developing
a more reliable methodology for sniffing out marital waste, the
lower courts can be assured that the litigious will continue to
make a stink. Conclusion: Attorneys seeking to avoid being a
waste of marital funds themselves tend to mine any negative
impact on the marital estate that can be traced to the dubious
conduct of the other spouse. Hopeful that an adjustment to a
client’s equitable entitlement might be sparked by blaming the
other spouse for a decline in the overall value of the marital
estate, an unpredictable Factor 11 claim all too frequently becomes
an opportunity to leverage an outcome on a whim or whiff.Wife’s Inability to Testify with Specificity as to How She Spent the Proceeds of Loan Suggested She Dissipated Marital Assets in Contemplation of Divorce.
In Abrams v Abrams, — N.Y.S.2d —-, 2008 WL 5376644 (N.Y.A.D. 2 Dept.) the Appellate Division pointed out that “The overriding purpose of a maintenance award is to give the spouse economic independence, and it should be awarded for a duration that would provide the recipient with enough time to become self-supporting”. It held that the trial court properly awarded the former wife maintenance, but it improvidently exercised its discretion in extending the duration of the maintenance award beyond five years, and concluded that an award of $2,500 per month for five years was appropriate. It also found that the former husband correctly contended that he was entitled to a portion of the proceeds of a home equity loan that the wife obtained with respect to certain investment residential property, especially in light of the wife’s inability to testify with specificity as to how she spent the proceeds of that loan. This suggested that the wife dissipated these marital assets in contemplation of divorce. The judgment was modified to award the husband a credit which represented his share of the proceeds of that loan, after accounting for the taxes paid by the wife on both the marital residence and the investment residential property. It noted that a parent has no legal obligation to provide for or contribute to the support of a child over the age of 21 Therefore, the court erred

One issue that tends to come up in divorce case is wasteful dissipation.  While I mentioned it in the past, this post will address it in greater detail.

Wasteful dissipation is one of the statutory factors that must be considered by a trial court upon rendering a determination of the equitable distribution of marital assets as set forth in Domestic Relations Law §236(B)(5)(d):

(1) the income and property of each party at the time of marriage, and at the time of the commencement of the action; (2) the duration of the marriage and the age and health of both parties; (3) the need of a custodial parent to occupy or own the marital residence and to use or own its household effects; (4) the loss of inheritance and pension rights upon dissolution of the marriage as of the date of issolutio;(5) any award of maintenance under subdivision six of this part; (6) any equitable claim to, interest in, or direct or indirect contribution made to the acquisition of such marital property by the party not having title, including joint efforts or expenditures and contributions and services as a spouse, parent, wage earner and homemaker, and to the career or career potential of the other party; (7) the liquid or non-liquid character of all marital property; (8) the probable future financial circumstances of each party; (9) the impossibility or difficulty of evaluating any component asset or any interest in a business, corporation or profession, and the economic desirability of retaining such asset or interest intact and free from any claim or interference by the other party; (10) the tax consequences to each party; (11) the wasteful dissipation of assets by either spouse; (12) any transfer or encumbrance made in contemplation of a matrimonial action without fair consideration; (13) any other factor which the court shall expressly find to be just and proper.

“Wasteful dissipation” is a term commonly used to describe a spouse’s unnecessary or unjustified use of marital money to justify a disproportionate equitable distribution. What makes wasteful dissipation problematic from a lawyer’s point of view is that its definition is vague and imprecise.  It can consist of gambling and poor business judgment, as well as other forms of financial or economic misconduct.  While the appellate courts have not given a precise definition of what actions by a spouse fall within the scope of wasteful dissipation, the trial courts and divorce attorneys deal with this issue frequently.  This also provides a significant opportunity for prolonging divorce litigation.  At times, a party will look for situations where any negative impact on the marital estate can be traced to the imperfect conduct of the other spouse.  Divorce lawyers may seek to improve their clients’ equitable distribution award may blame the other spouse for a decline in the overall value of the marital estate.

With respect to a business, wasteful dissipation may occur if a party fails to recoup a value from an unsuccessful business or “it necessarily is a wasteful dissipation of assets to fail to recoup the value of a profitable business, such as plaintiff’s masonry business. ” Scala v. Scala, 59 A.D.3d 1042 (4th Dept. 2009).  Failure to take care or repair a marital property also may amount to a wasteful dissipation.

In a recent decision, Abrams v. Abrams, 57 A.D.3d 809 (2nd Dept. 2008), the Appellate Division held that the wife’s inability to testify with specificity as to how she spent the proceeds of loan suggested she dissipated marital assets in contemplation of divorce. The Appellate Division pointed out that “the former husband correctly contended that he was entitled to a portion of the proceeds of a home equity loan that the wife obtained with respect to certain investment residential property, especially in light of the wife’s inability to testify with specificity as to how she spent the proceeds of that loan. This suggested that the wife dissipated these marital assets in contemplation of divorce. The judgment was modified to award the husband a credit which represented his share of the proceeds of that loan, after accounting for the taxes paid by the wife on both the marital residence and the investment residential property.”

A party’s use of marital assets to pay for “basic living expenses” does not constitute wasteful dissipation.  Damas v. Damas, 51 A.D.3d 709 (2nd Dept. 2008).

If a party makes financial decisions and acts in such way that the marital estate is diminished, that party should be ready to provide a legitimate explanation for his or her actions. The client is well advised to make a full disclosure of all such activities to the divorce lawyer and to provide a detailed explanation for the course of action taken.

Division of Pension, Personal Injury Compensation and Separate Property

The court effectively delegates to a pension plan administrator the obligation to apportion a disability pension plan between the separate property component of compensation for injury and the marital property portion related to deferred compensation for past services.
2. The court holds that the economic loss component (compensation for lost wages) of an award from the 9-11 Victim Compensation Fund is separate property just as is the non-economic loss component for pain and suffering.

A recent decision of the Appellate Division, Second Department, Howe v. Howe, 2009 N.Y. Slip Op. 06804 (2nd Dept. 2009), addressed some of the issues dealing with equitable distribution of personal injury compensation.  Mr. Howe was a New York City firefighter who was injured as a result of the events of 9/11 and subsequently retired on a disability pension.  As a result of his injuries, he also received September 11th Victim Compensation Award.

The trial court found the entire pension to be a part of the marital estate and awarded the wife “her Majauskas” share. On appeal, the husband argued that the lack of expert testimony or evidence in the record by which the nondisability portion of the pension can be distinguished from the disability portion is not fatal to his separate property claim, since that distinction can be made by the pension administrator in the same manner as it makes the familiar calculation of the marital pension share under Majauskas.

The manner in which disability pensions are treated for equitable distribution purposes is well established. “[P]ension benefits or vested rights to those benefits, except to the extent that they are earned or acquired before marriage or after [the] commencement of a matrimonial action, constitute marital property”. Dolan v. Dolan, 78 NY2d 463, 466 (1991). However, “[t]o the extent that a disability pension constitutes compensation for personal injuries, that compensation is separate property’ which is not subject to equitable distribution”. Mylett v. Mylett, 163 A.D.2d 463, 464-465  (3rd Dept. 1990). According to the Second Department, the division, into two separate post-marital accounts, of what was the nondisability pension of one spouse during the marriage, is accomplished by the plan administrator, without the intervention of the court, pursuant to a qualified domestic relations order, consistent with Majauskas, which the administrator either prepares or, more frequently, approves. For that order to satisfy the relevant requirement of the Internal Revenue Code, it need only specify “the amount or percentage of the participant’s benefits to be paid by the plan to each such alternate payee, or the manner in which such amount or percentage is to be determined” (26 U.S.C. § 414[p][2][B] [emphasis supplied]).

In addition to his disability pension, the plaintiff received an award from the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund as a result of injuries he suffered. The administrator of that fund specifically designated a portion of that award, in the amount of $127,571, as compensation for economic loss. The Supreme Court held that the economic component of the award constitutes “compensation for personal injuries” within the meaning of Domestic Relations Law § 236(B)(1)(d)(2) and, on that basis, treated the award as the separate property of the plaintiff.

According to the Second Department, the phrase “compensation for personal injuries,” however, is not without ambiguity. It can be read equally clearly as encompassing the entire award in a personal injury action or as limiting the marital share of that award to the portion constituting compensation for the actual injuries, i.e., the pain and suffering component. While a definition of the term separate property as “any recovery in a personal injury action” would be clear, that is not the phrase the Legislature used and viewing the phrase “compensation for personal injuries” as including the economic component of a personal injury award and, therefore, the separate property of the injured spouse is, according to the court, was clearly inconsistent with the logic of the Equitable Distribution Law. While the logic of the Equitable Distribution Law thus suggests the conclusion that the economic portion of a personal injury award should be marital property, however, according to the Second Department, the legislative history compels the contrary result.

This particular finding that the compensation for economic loss is separate property of the party is very significant.  It is also likely to create a new set of issues that lawyers in the Fourth, Third, and First Appellate Divisions will have to address since the existing precedent in those departments runs contrary to this decision.  Because of the apparent conflict between the departments, this issue is also likely to be appealed to the Court of Appeals.

Joint Bank Accounts and Creation of Marital Property

One issue that often comes up in divorce cases has to do with transformation of separate property into marital property.  This situation was dealt with by the Appellate Division, Fourth Department, in Bailey v. Bailey, 48 AD3d 1123 (4th Dept. 2008).  In Bailey, the Appellate Division held that although the court properly determined that plaintiff was entitled to retain the amount of $43,000 she had removed from the parties’ joint HSBC checking accounts containing $66,000, the court erred in allocating the entire amount as separate property.  “The creation of a joint account vests in each tenant a present unconditional property interest in an undivided one half of the money deposited, regardless of who puts the funds on deposit.  The creation of a joint account vests in each tenant a present unconditional property interest in an undivided one half of the money deposited, regardless of who puts the funds on deposit” (Parry v. Parry, 93 A.D.2d 989, 990; see Nasca v. Nasca, 302 A.D.2d 906).  Therefore, each party was entitled to a distributive award of $33,000 from that account.

The issue of transmutation, as the process of changing the status of property from separate to marital is commonly referred to, may appear in many cases and under many different circumstances.  It is not uncommon for such separate property as gifts, inheritances, and personal injury award to lose their status as separate property.  Therefore, if a party has even a suspicion that there may be a divorce in foreseeable future, that party would do well to discuss these issues with a divorce lawyer and to keep that property in an account titled solely in that party’s name.  The alternative is if that property is placed in a joint account for reasons other that convenience, as defined by the courts, that party will likely be making a gift of one half of the property if divorce is commenced.  Any such issues should be discussed with an experienced family law lawyer.  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.

Upcoming Changes to New York’s Child Support Statute

New York’s child support statute has been long criticized for its its $80,000.00 cap on the basic economic child support.  The critics have argued that since the statute was enacted approximately 20 years ago, the basic economic child support cap figure was too low.  New York Legislature apparently heard those concerns.  Laws of 2009, Chapter 343  enacted the “child support modernization act” which amended  the provisions of the Child Support Standards Act to raise the cap on combined parental income to $130,000.00, effective January 31, 2010, and to provide for the adjustment of the $130,000.00 cap every two years to reflect changes in the Consumer Price Index.  The child support percentages of payments that non-custodial parents are obligated to make toward child support were not modified by the amendments.  Domestic Relations Law §240 (1-b) (2) and Family Court Act §413 (1) (c) (2) were each amended to provide that the court shall multiply the combined parental income up to the amount set forth in Social Services Law §111-i, (2) (b).  Social Services Law §111-i (2)(b) provides that the combined parental income amount to be reported in the child support standards chart and utilized in calculating orders of child support in accordance with Domestic Relations Law §240 (1-b) (2) and Family Court Act §413 (1) (c) (2) shall be one hundred thirty thousand dollars; and that beginning January 31, 2012 and every two years thereafter, the combined parental income amount shall increase 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.  These amendments take effect on January 31, 2010.

While I view the changes as necessary to keep up with economic changes, once the two year recalculation provision takes effect, it is going to make more difficult for family law lawyers to calculate the appropriate child support figures.

Modification of Visitation Based On the Age of the Child

It is no uncommon to see vistation arrangements involving very young child.  While family lawyers can plan for many different situations, not everything can be planned for or predicted.  What happens to such arrangements when the child gets older?

In a recent case of Sett v. Balcom, 64 A.D.3d 934 (3rd Dept. 2009), the Appellate Division, Third Department, had to address issues related to visitation arrangments put in place when the child was a year old.  Initially, the father was granted two-hour Sunday visitation the mother’s residence, and the mother received sole custody.  The order also permitted unsupervised and additional visitation but only at the mother’s sole discretion.  As the child was now 5 years old, the father brought a modification petition, prompted by the mother’s persistent refusals to permit expanded visitation, and sought joint custody and increased visitation, including overnight visitation.

Following a fact-finding hearing at which both parties testified, Family Court denied the father’s request for joint custody but granted him additional visitation, including overnight visitation.

The Applellate Division held that sound and substantial basis found in record to support Family Court’s decision to modify visitation on ground that petitioner made sufficient showing of change in circumstances warranting modification to promote child’s best interests.  Initial restrictions on father’s visitation stemmed from child’s young age at time and father not having meaningful contact with daughter.  At the time the modification petition was brought, the father was gainfully employed, involved in a stable relationship, lives in home with bedroom for child and enjoys cordial relationship with mother and extended family.  Moreover, when the mother was asked about her objections to increased visitation, the mother’s only stated concern was that the child might be uncomfortable. The mother never voiced any concern about the father’s ability to parent or the child’s safety in his presence. Moreover, again when asked, she raised only two minor concerns about his home, one of which was that it lacked toys. The mother also conceded that the child should have a close relationship with the father and that they played well together during visits.

According to the Appellate Division, nothing in the record—including potential reticence typical of a young child—revealed that expanded visitation would be harmful or detrimental to the child.

Therefore, if you are dealing with a custody and visitation arrangement that entered when the child was young, that arrangement might be ripe for modification. If you believe that a change would be appropriate, discuss your situation with an experienced family law attorney.