Enforceability of Prenuptial Agreements

Prenuptial agreements can be used to resolve issues related to spousal maintenance, equitable distribution, and other issues that may come up in the event the parties decide to divorce. While I have previously written about different issues involving validity and enforceability of prenuptial agreements, and how the courts would analyze them, a recent case raised an issue of what happens to the prenuptial agreement if a claim is made that the parties verbally agreed to revoke it.

In Braha v. Braha, 45 Misc 3d 1211(A) (Sup Ct. Kings Co. 2014), the wife claimed that the parties agreed to revoke their prenuptial agreement which was then torn in pieces and thrown off the honeymoon cruise ship. The agreement, which was entered by the parties shortly before the marriage after an engagement of less than three week, was signed by the bride after the groom told her that his father “threatened to cut him off” if he did not sign a prenuptial agreement. According to the wife, the parties never intended agreement to be enforceable and did not even attempt to negotiate it.

After twelve years of marriage, when the husband filed for divorce, he asked the court to enforce the agreement. The wife argued that she was fraudulently induced to sign the agreement after the husband told her that the agreement would never be enforced and that once on their honeymoon, the parties had torn up the agreement and threw it into the ocean. The husband pointed out to the court that both parties were represented by counsel and was able to produce an original agreement.

In rejecting the wife’s claims that parties orally agreed that they would not be bound by the agreement, the judge noted that the prenuptial agreement contained the boilerplate provision that:

This Agreement contains the entire understanding of the parties with respect to the matters set forth herein, including, without limitation, the rights of the party with respect to the property of the other party. There are no representations, warranties, promises, covenants or understandings, oral or otherwise, other than those expressly set forth herein.

The court further held that ripping up the agreement and throwing it into the ocean did not revoke the agreement since it provided that:

Neither this Agreement [nor] any provisions hereof, including without limitation, this article, may be altered, modified, terminated, or revoked, except by an instrument executed and acknowledged by both parties with the same formalities as this Agreement.

According to the terms of the agreement, the only way this agreement could have been revoked is in writing, signed and properly acknowledged by the parties.

The takeaway from Braha is that when it comes to prenuptial agreements, anything and everything has to be done in writing, signed and properly acknowledged. The parties should negotiate their agreements and not rely on oral statements. If there is a divorce action in the future, unless the agreement was properly revoked, it will be offered in court.

Duration of Residency in New York as Prerequisite to Divorce Action

In order to have a valid divorce action in New York, certain residential requirements have to be satisfied. Domestic Relations Law §230 requires that:

1. You and your spouse were married in New York, and either of you is a resident of New York when the divorce action is started and has been a resident of New York for a continuous period of one year immediately before the commencement of the divorce action;
2. You and your spouse have resided in New York as husband and wife, and either of you is a resident of New York when the divorce action is started and has been a resident of New York for a continuous period of one year immediately preceding the beginning of the divorce action;
3. The grounds for divorce occurred in New York, and either you or your spouse has been a resident of New York for a continuous period of at least one year immediately before the beginning of the divorce action;
4. The grounds for divorce occurred in New York, and both you and your spouse are residents of New York at the time of the commencement of the divorce action;
5. Either you or your spouse has been a resident of New York for a continuous period of at least two years immediately preceding the commencement of the divorce action.

The statute requires that the residency be continuous. What happens if the party spends significant periods of time outside of New York?

In Murjani v. Murjani, 2014 N.Y. Slip. Op. 08366 (1st Dep’t. 2014), the Appellate Division held that durational residency requirements were satisfied by the defendant, despite the fact that defendant would spend significant periods of time in India and elsewhere. The court held that since defendant had maintained a permanent residence in New York and would return there with regularity, those facts satisfied continuous residency requirements. Thus, as long as permanent residence is being maintained in New York, and the party either returns or intends to return there, Domestic Relations Law §230 is satisfied and a divorce action can be maintained.

Statement That Marriage Was Irretrievably Broken Is Sufficient to Establish Cause of Action For Divorce

I have previously written about the issues associated with the grounds for divorce under the no-fault statute (Domestic Relations Law §170(7)). Prior decisions associated with issue were trial level decisions and, therefore, there were subject to potentially different result after appellate review. Now, there is some finality to this issue. Two recent appellate decision held specifically that a statement under oath that the marriage was irretrievably broken for a period of six months or longer was sufficient to establish a cause of action under Domestic Relations Law §170(7).

In Trbovich v. Trbovich, 122 A.D.3d 1381 (4 Dep’t. 2014) the Appellate Division, Fourth Department, affirmed an order which denied the plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment seeking a divorce pursuant to Domestic Relations Law §170(7). It agreed with plaintiff that the relationship has broken down irretrievably for a period of at least six months opposing spouse in a no-fault divorce action pursuant to Domestic Relations Law §170(7) is not entitled to litigate the other spouse’s sworn statement, and indicated that to the extent that its decision in Tuper v. Tuper, 98 A.D.3d 55, 59 (4th Dep’t 2012) suggested otherwise, it declined to follow it. Nevertheless, the Appellate Division held that plaintiff was not entitled to summary judgment under Domestic Relations Law §170(7) at this juncture of the litigation because the ancillary issues had not been resolved by the parties or determined by the court.

In Hoffer-Adou v. Adou, 2014 Slip.Op.  07436 (1 Dep’t. 2014) the Appellate Division held that contrary to the husband’s contention, the wife was entitled to a judgment of divorce under the no-fault provision of DRL §170(7), since her statement under oath that the marriage was irretrievably broken for a period of six months was sufficient to establish her cause of action for divorce as a matter of law. Trial court’s grant of the divorce did not contradict DRL §170(7)’s requirement that “[n]o judgment of divorce shall be granted under this subdivision unless and until the economic issues of equitable distribution of marital property, the payment or waiver of spousal support, the payment of child support, the payment of counsel and experts’ fees and expenses as well as the custody and visitation with the infant children of the marriage have been resolved by the parties, or determined by the court and incorporated into the judgment of divorce.” The parties’ separation agreement resolved the issues of child custody and support. Their subsequent commencement in the Family Court of proceedings concerning these issues did not render the court without authority to grant the divorce, since non-compliance with/or enforcement of, the separation agreement is not an element of Domestic Relations Law §170(7).

Thus, as long as the party seeking divorce is able to make a sworn statement that the marriage was irretrievably broken for a period of six months, that party will receive a divorce once all other issues have been resolved. There is no way for the defendant to challenge that statement, and the court will not permit introduction of testimony challenging it. This follows the intent of the no-fault statute to prevent grounds trials.

Temporary Maintenance and Payment of Additional Expenses by Monied Spouse

One issue that comes up fairly often in divorce cases is the issue of whether the monied spouse who is paying temporary maintenance is also responsible for additional expenses incurred by the non-monied spouse. At least some of the prior decisions held that when the temporary maintenance is being paid, the recipient was responsible for his or her living expenses, including any mortgage payments or housing expenses.

However, it appears that at least some of the appellate decisions hold otherwise. In Vistocco v. Jardin,116 A.D.3rd 842 (N.Y.A.D. 2 Dept.), the parties were married in 1995 and had three unemancipated children. The wife made a request for temporary maintenance as well as for payment of carrying costs on the marital residence. The trial court awarded the defendant $3,000 per week for child support and $3,000 per week in temporary spousal maintenance, directed the plaintiff to pay the mortgage and taxes on the marital residence where the defendant resided with the parties’ children, directed the plaintiff to pay the defendant’s car insurance, and awarded the defendant interim counsel fees and expert fees in the sums of $12,500 and $3,500, respectively. The Appellate Division affirmed.

The plaintiff argued that the Supreme Court erred in directing him to pay, in addition to spousal maintenance, the mortgage and taxes on the marital residence and the defendant’s car insurance. He contended that the pendente lite maintenance award is intended to cover the defendant’s basic living expenses, which include the mortgage, property taxes, and her car insurance. The Appellate Division held that the formula to determine temporary spousal maintenance that is outlined in Domestic Relations Law § 236(B)(5-a)(c) is intended to cover all of a  payee spouse’s basic living expenses, including housing costs, the costs of food and clothing, and other usual expenses (see  Khaira v. Khaira, 93 AD3d 194). It further held that it may be appropriate to direct payment by the monied spouse of the mortgage and taxes on the marital residence and other expenses of the nonmonied spouse under certain circumstances (see id.). In light of the evidence that the plaintiff’s income exceeded $500,000 and the gross disparity between the plaintiff’s income and the defendant’s income, the trial court properly awarded additional support in the form of a directive to the plaintiff to pay the mortgage and taxes on the marital residence (Domestic Relations Law § 236[B][5-a][c][2][a][ii] ), as well as the defendant’s car insurance.

Unfortunately, until the Court of Appeals hears a case involving these issues, it is likely that there will not be uniformity among the trial court decisions. If you are non-monied spouse, you have nothing to lose by making a request for carrying costs of the marital residence, provided that there is financial wherewithal on the part of the monied spouse. Ultimately, a decision of whether such additional should be requested should be made on case by case basis.

Standard of Living, Diminished Income, Spousal Maintenance and Child Support

The courts in New York have had some difficulty dealing with situations were a claim of recently diminished income has been presented to the court in response to a temporary spousal support application. In most situations, the courts would either impute income or deny downward modification. The courts have been concerned with the parties’ standard of living for the non-monied spouse and the children despite  the claims of the income-producing spouse of diminished resources and/or income. One trial decision, S.A. v. L.A., 2 Misc.3d 7441 (Sup. Ct. Westchester Co.), illustrates the situation where the present financial situation – the husband earning a lot less income than existed throughout the marriage, has led the court consider present circumstances and to caution the non-monied spouse that she would have to deal with a new economic reality.

In considering interim spousal support, the court had to determine if it would apply the husband’s 2012 income of $819,049 or his far lesser annualized 2013 income imputed at $240,000. The husband was 56 years old and employed in the financial services industry. The wife was 64 years old stay-at-home wife and mother, who has not had any significant for 23 years of the marriage. The husband claimed that he was terminated from his old job through no fault of his own and he was forced to find new employment at a much lower rate of pay. The wife argued that he had voluntarily left his former employment.

The court had to address the principles of utilizing the current income as opposed to the income on the last tax return on a presumptive temporary maintenance calculation. The court determined that according to the language of the Domestic Relations Law §240 (1-b) (b) (5), the income rules applicable in child support proceedings may be used to determine an application for temporary spousal maintenance, as is available for interim child support.

The second part of the court’s analysis, and of great significance, was the court’s view of the parties’ present diminished financial situation from their historic standard of living even as measured by the immediately preceding year. The reduction in the family’s income from the husband’s 2012 adjusted gross income of $819,049.00 to the annualized 2013 income of $240,000.00, was accepted by the court. As result, instead of presumptive temporary support of $17,000.00 per month as requested by the wife, the court awarded $5,737.00 per month. The court further found that with the requested amount of $17,000.00 exceeded the wife’s legitimate monthly expenses, rendering the presumptive award unjust and inappropriate. The court ruled that the issue of whether the husband had been discharged or voluntarily separated from his old employment was reserved for trial.

In its decisions, the court stated that:

The court recognizes that the spousal support provisions in this decision and order will greatly affect the parties’ respective post-separation standards of living. They need to consider the financial predicament they are in, and how to deal with the future. They are now suffering the consequences of their prior high standard of living. It is beyond dispute that two cannot live as cheaply as one, and that “hardship” at any economic level follows drastic losses of income. It is time for the parties to recognize the financial reality they may well face in the future, given their ages, work experience and future prospects for employment. The court urges that the parties’ focus should be on financial planning with asset and debt liquidation. The continuance of this costly litigation will not heal their wounds, both economic and emotional, already suffered, but rather will exacerbate them.

The decision in S.A. v L.A. illustrates that during the difficult economic times, the parties may have to temper their expectations. If a monied spouse can not earn past levels of income through no fault of his or her own, the non-monied spouse is likely to have to share the hardship as well.

Transmutation of Separate Property into Marital Property

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

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

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

Update on Duration of Maintenance

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

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

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

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

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

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

Future Changes to Spousal Maintenance

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

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

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

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

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

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

Statute of Limitations and No-Fault Divorce

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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