I have previously written about exclusive possession of a marital residence during a pending divorce action. The applicable standard requires a showing of a marital strife and that the parties were unable to coexist in the same house. I recently had an opportunity to litigate this issue in a situation where the parties’ conduct has not arisen to the level of marital strife, but the conflict was affecting the parties’ children. Justice Richard A. Dollinger of the Monroe County Supreme Court reviewed and addressed this issue in L.M.L.v. H.T.N. a/k/a H.T.N., 57 Misc.3d 1207(A) (Sup. Ct. Monroe County 2017).
Having reviewed the history of the marital strife standard, Justice Dollinger wrote that lower courts have generally required more evidence of “strife” than the “petty harassments such as the hostility and contempt admittedly demonstrated herein that are routinely part and parcel of an action for divorce.” However, he also noted that even minimal levels of domestic discord impact children living in a besieged household. Given those circumstances, he wrote that:
The harm of a hostile home environment – populated with foul words, disparaging comments, loud demeaning voices, frequent arguments and verbal fights – and the fear for safety of the mother and the children rise, in this court’s view, to the level of domestic violence that [*10]mandates court intervention.Second, this court concedes that simply separating the parents may not end the torrent of verbal abuse directed at the other parent: even in new separate residences, a parent can unleashed verbal abuse and make demeaning comments about the other parent. The children will be exposed to that language, perhaps even harsher than what would be uttered in the company of both parents. But, the children will be spared the retort, the rising voices, the angry face-to-face confrontations that ensue when a parent begins a verbal argument. This difference — between the comments of separated parents living in separate residences and confrontations of parents living in the same residence — may be seem of minor importance to the judiciary, but it would seem to be easily classified as in the “better interests” of the children.
Justice Dollinger summarized the issues before the court as “[t]he mere suggestion that “exclusive use” should hinge, in any fashion, on the “voluntary establishment of an alternative residence” also suggests that preventing domestic violence may depend, in part, on the untenable notion that the convenience of one party’s ability to secure short-term housing away from the home is somehow more important than the emotional security of the children.” The above holding represents a significant departure from the existing standard. I agree with the decision and have always thought that the marital strife standard was unduly restrictive. I will be interested to see if this decision will be followed by other court in pending divorce cases.
I am often asked by a party to a divorce action if the other party can be forced to leave the marital residence. My usual response is that it can be done under the appropriate circumstances. Exclusive use and occupancy of the marital residence may be awarded during pendency of a divorce action upon a showing that a spouse’s presence has caused domestic strife and/or that the spouse has voluntarily established an alternative residence. See, Domestic Relations Law §234; Annexstein v. Annexstein, 202 A.D.2d 1062 (4th Dept. 1994). The standard for granting exclusive possession is a flexible one and may include any circumstance warranting judicial intervention. See, Grogg v. Grogg, 152 A.D.2d 802 (3rd Dept. 1989) (The presence of marital strife can be a recognized standard for an award of exclusive possession). In I.Q. v. A.Q., 228 A.D.2d 301 (1st Dept. 1996), where there was no dispute of a significant potential for strife should defendant return, and no genuine issue raised that defendant’s exclusion from the marital residence would cause him more than minimal disruption, the motion court’s award of temporary exclusive possession, without a hearing, was a proper exercise of discretion. Id.
Similarly, in Iuliano v. Iuliano, 30 A.D.3d 737 (3rd Dept. 2006), testimony clearly demonstrated the existence of marital strife between the parties requiring an award of exclusive possession to insure the personal safety of the parties. Given the disparate financial circumstances of the parties, the award of exclusive possession to defendant was deemed to be proper. Id. In Mitzner v. Mitzner, 228 A.D.2d 483 (2nd Dept. 1996), the Supreme Court was found to have properly awarded the defendant temporary exclusive possession of the marital residence, given the domestic strife caused by the plaintiff’s presence in the home and the fact that he had voluntarily established an alternative residence. Id. See, also, Block v. Block, 245 A.D.2d 153 (1st Dept. 1997) (In light of husband’s admission that due to marital strife, he voluntarily vacated the marital residence shortly after signing a one-year sub-lease for an apartment, and the unrebutted expert evidence concerning the impact of the domestic strife on the wife prior to the husband’s departure and the potential harm to the wife and children if the husband returned, the motion court erred in not granting the wife’s cross-motion for exclusive occupancy of the marital residence and in granting the husband’s motion for complete access thereto).
If the presence of one party has caused significant domestic strife in the marital residence and that party has sufficient means to secure an alternate residence, the other party may be granted exclusive use and occupancy of the marital residence. During a divorce, exclusive possession is one of the most important tools available to a divorce lawyer to improve client’s position, and to force the other party to establish a separate household. Grant of exclusive possession is likely to have significant consequences with respect to custody, visitation, temporary maintenance and other issues. Since the grant of exclusive possession under Domestic Relations Law §234 is within the court’s discretion, it is difficult to have it overturned on appeal.