Grounds for Divorce Revisited

I have previously discussed New York’s grounds for divorce and lack of no-fault divorce.  While the cases have traditionally stated that the longer is the duration of the marriage, the higher is the burden of plaintiff with respect to the grounds such as cruel and inhuman treatment.  Recently, I came across the case that left me surprised despite handling many divorce cases here in Rochester over the last 14 years.

In S.K. v. I.K., 2010 N.Y. Slip. Op. 50556(U) (Sup. Ct. Nassau Co. 2010), the plaintiff husband was seeking a divorce on the grounds of cruel and inhuman treatment after 29 years of marriage.  One of the grounds alleged was cruel and inhuman treatment.  Specifically, the husband testified that wife was extremely physically abusive, and that in August of 2005, she attempted to attack him with a Japanese sword.  Husband testified that wife could have killed him if not for the parties’ daughter’s intervention.  He testified that the sharp edge of the sword came within a few inches of his chest. He testified that wife came to the marital residence around 1:00 p.m., and when husband questioned her as to where she had been, wife refused to answer, and stated that she did not have to tell him. He testified that wife began acting “crazy” and began yelling and screaming at him. She then came after him waving her hands and pounding on his chest, striking him repeatedly.  He testified that at the start of the confrontation, the parties were in the kitchen, but that upon escalation of the incident, he ran to the master bedroom, and fearing for his safety, he locked himself in the bedroom for his protection.  He testified that wife began pounding on the door and kicking it with her feet, while screaming and insisting that he open the door.  Husband testified that he heard the parties’ daughter come out of her bedroom, and that she was pleading for the wife to stop.  Fearing that wife would hurt their daughter, he came out of the bedroom and walked towards the kitchen where the wife was holding the large Japanese sword, while their daughter was trying to block wife and stop her from moving forward. Husband testified that he observed the wife pushing their daughter back in an attempt to reach the bedroom, but when she saw husband in the kitchen, she began to charge at him and waive the sword through the sides of their daughter’s body. He testified that the wife became frantic in her attempts to reach him and almost did hit him on the head and parts of his chest.  He testified that he slowly retreated back in the bedroom and locked himself in for the night, fearing that the wife would come back and hurt him in the middle of the night. He did not call the police at any point in this incident, nor did he testify as to any actual injuries inflicted by the wife upon him during the course of the incident.

The parties’ children testified and corroborated the husband’s testimony.  The wife denied the allegations of Husband with respect to the incident involving the Japanese sword.

The trial court, after hearing all of the testimony involving the Japanese sword, held that the husband did not sustain his burden of proof with respect to physical or mental injuries. The testimony was that no one sustained any physical injuries, neither party was seen at a hospital or by any doctor.  The court stated that the husband never contacted the police nor did he seek protection from the Family Court, and he testified that he continuously pleaded with the wife to return to the marital residence to work on their marriage.

Husband provided no testimony from any physicians nor did he produce any medical records.  Accordingly, the trial court held that the husband failed to establish a prima facie showing of cruel and inhuman treatment by the wife, and dismissed that cause of action.

What is surprising about this case is that there was corroborated testimony that the wife engaged in conduct that would have likely resulted in a serious injury or death of the husband, were it not interrupted by the parties’ daughter.  If attempting to kill or seriously injure your spouse with a sword is not cruel and inhuman treatment, it is hard to conceve of the conduct that would actually amount to cruel and inhuman treatment.

In my view, the cases such as S.K. continue to reiterate the need for New York to pass no-fault divorce legislation.  At the same time, the husband’s divorce lawyer should have presented testimony with respect to how this attack affected the husband.  It should have been possible to have the husband evaluated by a psychologist and have psychologist’s testimony presented to the court.  As a postscript, while the trial court did not grant divorce on the grounds of cruel and inhuman treatment, the divorce was ultimately granted on the grounds of abandonment because the wife moved for a period of time to Virginia and said move was unjustified and without an intention to return.

The irony of all of the above is that this case is not unique.  While the facts in S.K. are shocking, there are many marriages that have ended many years ago but cannot be legally dissolved.  Until New York does something about its grounds requirements, similar cases will continue to take place.

Appreciation of Separate Property and Equitable Distribution

One issue that periodically comes up in my divorce practice here in Rochester has to do with appreciation of separate property during the marriage.  I have previously written about this issue in the past.  A recent case decided by the Appellate Division, Third Department, Albanese v. Albanese, 2010 N.Y. Slip. Op. 00036 (3rd Dept. 2009), has illustrated a related aspect of this issue.  In Albanese, the critical issue before the court was whether or not the wife’s lawyer was able to establish how much the husband’s law practice has appreciated during the marriage.  In this type of situation, the divorce attorney has to be concerned about two different valuations.  The first one is the valuation of the business at the time of the marriage, and the second one is the valuation of the business at the time of commencement of the divorce action.

However, during the trial, the wife’s divorce attorney appears to have not established what the value of the law practice was at the time of the marriage.  The Appellate Division stated,

Here, the only evidence in the record regarding the value of defendant’s law practice related to the purported value at the time the divorce action was commenced. Plaintiff, who was represented by seasoned counsel and retained an experienced expert, presented no proof of a baseline value at the time of the marriage or of an appreciation in the value of the practice during the marriage. While plaintiff’s role as homemaker and mother to the parties’ children established that she was entitled to a share of any appreciation, there was no evidence offered from which appreciation could be found. Under such circumstances, an award for the value of the law practice was inappropriate.  (Citations omitted).

In such situations, the non-titled spouse bears the burden of proof, and any appreciation in value of such separate property may be subject to distribution if there is a nexus between the titled spouse’s efforts and the increase in value and those efforts were aided or facilitated by the nontitled spouse.  However, without the starting point value, the non-titled spouse simply could not prove her case. As a result, the wife has received no portion of the law practice that has likely appreciated since the parties’ marriage in 1987.

The above illustrates that sometimes even the most obvious issues occasionally escape the attention of counsel.  Therefore, the Appellate Division’s reference to the plaintiff’s attorney as “seasoned counsel” and her expert as “experienced expert” indicates its likely surprise that this issue was overlooked during the trial.

What Is Required to Obtain Divorce On Constructive Abandonment Grounds in New York

I have previously written about New York’s grounds for divorce, including constructive abandonment.  Simply put, constructive abandonment occurs when one spouse refuses to have sexual relations with the other, without excuse or justification, for a period of one year preceding the filing of the action for divorce.  Further, case law has established that the abandonment must continue despite repeated requests from the other spouse for resumption of cohabitation. When looking at divorce actions based on constructive abandonment grounds, a lawyer must make an inquiry whether spousal relations were requested, how many times, and over what period of time.   Until recently, it was not clear how many times a spouse must make such request.  The courts have held previously that “..evidence that the other spouse refused a single request to engage in sexual relations is insufficient to establish a cause of action on the grounds of constructive abandonment.”  Archibald v. Archibald, 15 A.D.3d 431 (2nd Dept. 2005).

The answer to this question has been somewhat clarified by a recent decision.  In BM v. MM, 2009 N.Y. Slip. Op. 29235 (Sup. Ct Nassau Co. 2009), the court held that a husband’s refusal to have sex with his wife three times within a year was enough to grant the wife divorce on the grounds of constructive abandonment.  The wife testified that she could remember three occasions where she made such requests which the defendant denied and the court credited her testimony. The husband argued that since the wife had made no attempt during the last five years to have sex with him, the grounds for constructive abandonment were not established. The court held that it has recognized that there comes a time in such relationships where it would clearly be futile for one spouse to continue to ask the other to engage in sexual relations. It further found that where the defendant, on his own, moved out of the marital bedroom and into a room on a separate floor and refuses a request, after that the plaintiff should be relieved of any requirement to continue to ask for sexual relations.

The above facts demonstrate that a New York divorce lawyer must be prepared to present specific factual testimony in order to obtain a divorce on the grounds of constructive abandonment. Unfortunately, it also demonstrates that in order to establish constructive abandonment grounds in New York, requires intrusions into marital privacy and disclosure of information most parties would rather keep private. The decision discussed above reinforces my opinion that New York needs to abandon its fault grounds for divorce. No-fault divorce, based upon the breakdown of a marriage, would dispense with the need for intrusions into the marital relationship. Forcing parties to accept fault or be found at fault is time consuming and costly, and generates unnecessary bitterness during the divorce process.