Posts Tagged ‘grounds’

There Is No Right to Grounds Trial In A No-Fault Divorce Case

Sunday, January 6th, 2013

I have previously written on the issue of whether there was a right to trial in a divorce case brought under the no-fault grounds. Earlier, trial level decisions were split, with some courts holding that a party was still required to establish no-fault grounds at trial, and other courts holding that a sworn statement that the marriage was irretrievably broken for a period of 6 months or longer was sufficient to establish that party’s right to divorce.

Finally, the Appellate Division, Fourth Department, issued a decision resolving this issue. In Palermo v. Palermo, 2012 N.Y. Slip Op. 07528 (4th Dept. 2012), the court affirmed Justice Dollinger’s decision holding that there is no right to dispute an allegation of irretrievable breakdown under the no-fault divorce ground provided by DRL §170(7). Appellate Division agreed with the key language in Justice Dollinger’s decision which stated that:

Under DRL §170(7), the grounds cannot be disputed. Either a party swears the marriage is irretrievably broken or they do not. The grounds are established by the oath; there is no legislative requirement of a judicial finding on the reliability or veracity of the oath.

As the no-fault statute requires, in order for a judgment of divorce to be entered, all the issues relating to the divorce, including equitable distribution, maintenance, child custody and support need to be resolved before a party can be granted a divorce.

The Appellate Division’s decision in Palermo is significant since it clarifies the Legislature’s intent in creating a true no-fault divorce in New York. Further, as a result, the parties will be able to avoid costly grounds trials that usually result in added animosity between the parties.

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

Sunday, April 22nd, 2012

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.

 

Can a Divorce on No-Fault Grounds Be Opposed?

Saturday, April 9th, 2011

One question that so far has not been resolved with any degree of certainty by the courts is whether in a divorce action brought pursuant to the new no-fault divorce statute requires specific proof that the parties’ marriage was irretrievably broken for a period of six months or longer. It is an important question since in the past divorce attorneys were able to challenge grounds for divorce and force plaintiffs to establish that there were adequate grounds for divorce. In a significant number of cases, grounds trials were held for economic reasons, i.e., the monied spouse did not want to divide assets and/or pay spousal maintenance.

Six months after the no-fault statute was enacted by the New York’s legislature, we are learning that the courts are divided on this issue, with some courts requiring proof that the marriage was actually irretrievably broken for a period of six months or longer, and with some courts holding that there is no defense to the no-fault grounds.

In Strack v. Strack, 2011 N.Y. Slip. Op. 21033 (Sup. Ct. Essex Co. 2011), the court held that the question of whether the marriage was irretrievably broken was a question of fact requiring a trial.

The facts in Strack are as follows. The parties were married on May 25, 1963 and plaintiff sought a divorce based upon the no-fault grounds contained within Domestic Relations Law §170 (7). Defendant moved to dismiss the complaint, contending (1) that the complaint lacked specificity; (2) that the conduct alleged in the complaint was barred by the five-year statute of limitations; and (3) that the complaint failed to state a cause of action for divorce under Domestic Relations Law §170 (7).

Effective relative to actions commenced on or after October 12, 2010, Domestic Relations Law §170 (7) permits divorce where “[t]he relationship between husband and wife has broken down irretrievably for a period of at least six months, provided that one party has so stated under oath.” This additional ground for divorce has given parties the option of securing a divorce without alleging fault.

Here, the allegations in the complaint were as follows:

The relationship between husband and wife has broken down such that it is irretrievable and has been for a period of at least six months. For a period of time greater than six months, Defendant and Plaintiff have had no emotion in their marriage, and have kept largely separate social schedules and vacation schedules. Each year Plaintiff and Defendant live separately throughout most of the winter months. Though they share the residence for several months out of the year, Plaintiff and Defendant have not lived as husband and wife for a period of time greater than six months. Plaintiff believes the relationship between she and Defendant has broken down such that it is irretrievable and that the relationship has been this way for a period of time greater than six months.

Having decided that the above allegations stated a cause of action and were not barred by the statute of limitations, the court stated that Domestic Relations Law §170 (7) is not a panacea for those hoping to avoid a trial. Rather, it is simply a new cause of action subject to the same rules of practice governing the subdivisions which have preceded it. By referring to Domestic Relations Law §173 which provides that “[i]n an action for divorce there is a right to trial by jury of the issues of the grounds for granting the divorce” and, here, the Legislature failed to include anything in Domestic Relations Law §170 (7) to suggest that the grounds contained therein are exempt from this right to trial.  The court further held that since the phrase “broken down such that it is irretrievable” is nowhere defined in the statute, the determination of whether a breakdown of a marriage is irretrievable is a question to be determined by the finder of fact.

In a more recent decision, A.C. v. D.R., 2011 N.Y Slip. Op. 21113 (Sup. Ct. Nassau Co. 2011), the court held that once the plaintiff makes a sworn allegation that the marriage had irretrievably broken down, a trial not required, and there is no defense to the action. The court held that the only requirement to satisfy the no-fault ground for divorce is a party’s sworn statement alleging that the marriage has irretrievably broken down. Specifically, the court stated:

It is sufficient that one or both of the parties subjectively decide that their marriage is over and there is no hope for reconciliation.  In other words, a plaintiff’s self-serving declaration about his or her state of mind is all that is required for the dissolution of a marriage on grounds that it is irretrievably broken.

As the no-fault statute requires, in order for a judgment of divorce to be entered, all the issues relating to the divorce, including equitable distribution, maintenance, child custody and support need to be resolved before a party can be granted a divorce.

While I am not aware of the court decisions on this issue here in Rochester, I hope that the courts will grant divorce solely on the party’s subjective allegation that the marriage has irretrievably broken down. Since the trial courts are split on the issue, it is likely that appellate courts will have to address this issue eventually.  I hope that the holding of the more recent case will be widely adopted follwint he Legislature’s intent in creating a true no-fault divorce in New York.

Major Changes in New York’s Family Law Are Now In Effect

Wednesday, October 13th, 2010

Today is the day when New York’s family law begins a new era. The no-fault divorce law is now in effect and grounds for divorce will no longer preclude someone from obtaining a divorce.    In addition to the new no-fault divorce legislation, three new laws applicable to divorces and child support proceedings became effective including:

1.   a new procedure and formula for setting awards of temporary maintenance while a divorce is pending;
2.  a presumption toward grating attorneys fees to the less monied spouse during the divorce; and
3.   new circumstances for reviewing and modifying child support awards.

Here is the summary of the most important provisions of the new laws:

No-Fault Divorce

There is a new no-fault cause of action for divorce that can be granted if the spouse filing for divorce makes a sworn statement that the marriage has irretrievably broken down for a period of six months preceding the commencement of the divorce action.

Temporary Maintenance

The new law provides that maintenance is to be awarded during the divorce when one parties’ income is less than 2/3of the other spouse’s income.

The amount of maintenance is determined by the following formula as the lesser of a) 30% of the payor’s income minus 20% of the non-payor’s income or b) 40% of the combined income minus the non payor’s income.

Attorneys Fees

The  attorneys fee bill creates a  presumption that the “monied”  spouse should pay to the “non-monied” spouse interim attorneys fees in all divorce or family law case.  The purpose of the law is to make both spouses to be able to litigate their divorce case on equal basis.

Modification of Child Support

The Family Court Act (“FCA”) and matching provisions of the Domestic Relations Law (“DRL”) were amended to allow modification of an order of child support due to “substantial change in circumstances” which is now defined in a change in either party’s gross income by 15% or more.  Also, if three years have passed since the last order was entered, modified, or adjusted, the court can modify an order entered after October 13, 2010 order, unless the parties specifically opt-out of that provisions.  Additionally, a reduction in a party’s income shall not be considered as a ground for modification, unless it was involuntary and the party has made diligent attempts to secure employment.

As I have written previously, these are important development in New York’s family law and I think that it will take some time to assess their impact.  At the same time, I think that they will be welcomed by divorce lawyers in this state and will make divorce easier for the divorcing spouses. With respect to the bill establishing the formula for temporary maintenance, it is highly likely that any such temporary maintenance award is going to be used by the courts as a basis for a permanent maintenance award.

No-Fault Divorce Becomes Law In New York

Sunday, August 15th, 2010

The no-fault divorce bill has been signed by the Governor Patterson and will go into effect in 60 days.  That means that starting on October 13, 2010, someone who wants to be divorced in New York will no longer be required to make allegations of martial fault by the other spouse and will only be required to swear that the relationship between husband and wife has  broken  down  irretrievably  for  a period of at least six months.  The new law will apply to the divorce actions commenced on or after such effective date.

In addition, the Governor signed legislation that will revise the process for setting awards of temporary maintenance while a divorce is pending, by creating a formula and list of factors that would presumptively govern such awards. This would allow for speedy resolution of the maintenance issue, and prevent less well-off parties to divorce proceedings from falling into poverty during litigation, because they lack the resources to obtain a temporary maintenance order. Another bill would create a presumption that a less monied spouse in a divorce case is entitled to payment of attorneys’ fees. Under current law, a party that cannot afford to secure representation in a divorce proceeding must make an application for fees at the end of the process, which can force a poor individual to proceed without a lawyer, or to surrender on important issues due to lack of means. Provisions of the Domestic Relations Law related to temporary maintenance and attorneys fees will go into effect in 60 days as well.

These are important development in New York’s family law and I think that it will take some time to assess their impact.  At the same time, I think that they will be welcomed by divorce lawyers in this state and will make divorce easier for the divorcing spouses. With respect to the bill establishing the formula for temporary maintenance, it is highly likely that any such temporary maintenance award is going to be used by the courts as a basis for a permanent maintenance award.

Another Update On No-Fault Divorce In New York

Monday, July 5th, 2010

I have previously written about the slow progress of no-fault divorce legislation though New York’s Senate and Assembly here and here. Finally, it appears that New York is on the cusp of passing no-fault divorce law and joining the rest of the country.

On July 1, 2010, the Assembly passed no-fault divorce bill, which previously was approved in the Senate. If signed by Gov. David Paterson, New York would no longer be the only state that doesn’t allow no-fault divorce.

Under no-fault divorce, couples would be allowed to divorce after six months and the resolution of all financial issues. They would not have to prove fault, such as abandonment or adultery, or develop a separation agreement and live apart for at least a year in order to get divorced. Proponents said the changes would save time and money and court resources.

The Assembly and Senate previously approved two other bills related to no-fault divorce. One would require counsel fees to be awarded at the beginning of a divorce process and the other would address issues related to spousal support. The measure dealing with spousal support would establish temporary spousal maintenance while the divorce proceeding is pending, revise factors for final maintenance awards and require the Law Revision Commission to study the economic consequences of divorce and maintenance actions.

While the elimination of marital fault is extremely important and would greatly benefit people seeking divorce here in Rochester and elsewhere in New York State, it is the bill dealing with temporary spousal support that is likely to present some significant legal issues if it becomes law.

The bill is interesting since unlike the existing law regarding temporary spousal support, it utilizes a formula to calculate a temporary spousal support award. The amount of spousal support and its duration are calculated on the basis of a formula as follows:

3 5-A. TEMPORARY MAINTENANCE AWARDS. A. EXCEPT WHERE THE PARTIES HAVE
4 ENTERED INTO AN AGREEMENT PURSUANT TO SUBDIVISION THREE OF THIS PART
5 PROVIDING FOR MAINTENANCE, IN ANY MATRIMONIAL ACTION THE COURT SHALL
6 MAKE ITS AWARD FOR TEMPORARY MAINTENANCE PURSUANT TO THE PROVISIONS OF
7 THIS SUBDIVISION.
8 B. FOR PURPOSES OF THIS SUBDIVISION, THE FOLLOWING DEFINITIONS SHALL
9 BE USED:
10 (1) “PAYOR” SHALL MEAN THE SPOUSE WITH THE HIGHER INCOME.
11 (2) “PAYEE” SHALL MEAN THE SPOUSE WITH THE LOWER INCOME.
12 (3) “LENGTH OF MARRIAGE” SHALL MEAN THE PERIOD FROM THE DATE OF
13 MARRIAGE UNTIL THE DATE OF COMMENCEMENT OF ACTION.
14 (4) “INCOME” SHALL MEAN:
15 (A) INCOME AS DEFINED IN THE CHILD SUPPORT STANDARDS ACT AND CODIFIED
16 IN SECTION TWO HUNDRED FORTY OF THIS ARTICLE AND SECTION FOUR HUNDRED
17 THIRTEEN OF THE FAMILY COURT ACT; AND
18 (B) INCOME FROM INCOME PRODUCING PROPERTY TO BE DISTRIBUTED PURSUANT
19 TO SUBDIVISION FIVE OF THIS PART.
20 (5) “INCOME CAP” SHALL MEAN UP TO AND INCLUDING FIVE HUNDRED THOUSAND
21 DOLLARS OF THE PAYOR’S ANNUAL INCOME; PROVIDED, HOWEVER, BEGINNING JANU-
22 ARY THIRTY-FIRST, TWO THOUSAND TWELVE AND EVERY TWO YEARS THEREAFTER,
23 THE PAYOR’S ANNUAL INCOME AMOUNT SHALL INCREASE BY THE PRODUCT OF THE

EXPLANATION–Matter in ITALICS (underscored) is new; matter in brackets
[ ] is old law to be omitted.
LBD17166-10-0
A. 10984–B 2

1 AVERAGE ANNUAL PERCENTAGE CHANGES IN THE CONSUMER PRICE INDEX FOR ALL
2 URBAN CONSUMERS (CPI-U) AS PUBLISHED BY THE UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF
3 LABOR BUREAU OF LABOR STATISTICS FOR THE TWO YEAR PERIOD ROUNDED TO THE
4 NEAREST ONE THOUSAND DOLLARS. THE OFFICE OF COURT ADMINISTRATION SHALL
5 DETERMINE AND PUBLISH THE INCOME CAP.
6 (6) “GUIDELINE AMOUNT OF TEMPORARY MAINTENANCE” SHALL MEAN THE SUM
7 DERIVED BY THE APPLICATION OF PARAGRAPH C OF THIS SUBDIVISION.
8 (7) “GUIDELINE DURATION” SHALL MEAN THE DURATIONAL PERIOD DETERMINED
9 BY THE APPLICATION OF PARAGRAPH D OF THIS SUBDIVISION.
10 (8) “PRESUMPTIVE AWARD” SHALL MEAN THE GUIDELINE AMOUNT OF THE TEMPO-
11 RARY MAINTENANCE AWARD FOR THE GUIDELINE DURATION PRIOR TO THE COURT’S
12 APPLICATION OF ANY ADJUSTMENT FACTORS AS PROVIDED IN SUBPARAGRAPH ONE OF
13 PARAGRAPH E OF THIS SUBDIVISION.
14 (9) “SELF-SUPPORT RESERVE” SHALL MEAN THE SELF-SUPPORT RESERVE AS
15 DEFINED IN THE CHILD SUPPORT STANDARDS ACT AND CODIFIED IN SECTION TWO
16 HUNDRED FORTY OF THIS ARTICLE AND SECTION FOUR HUNDRED THIRTEEN OF THE
17 FAMILY COURT ACT.
C. THE COURT SHALL DETERMINE THE GUIDELINE AMOUNT OF TEMPORARY MAINTE-
19 NANCE IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE PROVISIONS OF THIS PARAGRAPH AFTER DETER-
20 MINING THE INCOME OF THE PARTIES:
21 (1) WHERE THE PAYOR’S INCOME IS UP TO AND INCLUDING THE INCOME CAP:
22 (A) THE COURT SHALL SUBTRACT TWENTY PERCENT OF THE INCOME OF THE PAYEE
23 FROM THIRTY PERCENT OF THE INCOME UP TO THE INCOME CAP OF THE PAYOR.
24 (B) THE COURT SHALL THEN MULTIPLY THE SUM OF THE PAYOR’S INCOME UP TO
25 AND INCLUDING THE INCOME CAP AND ALL OF THE PAYEE’S INCOME BY FORTY
26 PERCENT.
27 (C) THE COURT SHALL SUBTRACT THE INCOME OF THE PAYEE FROM THE AMOUNT
28 DERIVED FROM CLAUSE (B) OF THIS SUBPARAGRAPH.
29 (D) THE GUIDELINE AMOUNT OF TEMPORARY MAINTENANCE SHALL BE THE LOWER
30 OF THE AMOUNTS DETERMINED BY CLAUSES (A) AND (C) OF THIS SUBPARAGRAPH;
31 IF THE AMOUNT DETERMINED BY CLAUSE (C) OF THIS SUBPARAGRAPH IS LESS THAN
32 OR EQUAL TO ZERO, THE GUIDELINE AMOUNT SHALL BE ZERO DOLLARS.
33 (2) WHERE THE INCOME OF THE PAYOR EXCEEDS THE INCOME CAP:
34 (A) THE COURT SHALL DETERMINE THE GUIDELINE AMOUNT OF TEMPORARY MAIN-
35 TENANCE FOR THAT PORTION OF THE PAYOR’S INCOME THAT IS UP TO AND INCLUD-
36 ING THE INCOME CAP ACCORDING TO SUBPARAGRAPH ONE OF THIS PARAGRAPH, AND,
37 FOR THE PAYOR’S INCOME IN EXCESS OF THE INCOME CAP, THE COURT SHALL
38 DETERMINE ANY ADDITIONAL GUIDELINE AMOUNT OF TEMPORARY MAINTENANCE
39 THROUGH CONSIDERATION OF THE FOLLOWING FACTORS:
40 (I) THE LENGTH OF THE MARRIAGE;
41 (II) THE SUBSTANTIAL DIFFERENCES IN THE INCOMES OF THE PARTIES;
42 (III) THE STANDARD OF LIVING OF THE PARTIES ESTABLISHED DURING THE
43 MARRIAGE;
44 (IV) THE AGE AND HEALTH OF THE PARTIES;
45 (V) THE PRESENT AND FUTURE EARNING CAPACITY OF THE PARTIES;
46 (VI) THE NEED OF ONE PARTY TO INCUR EDUCATION OR TRAINING EXPENSES;
47 (VII) THE WASTEFUL DISSIPATION OF MARITAL PROPERTY;
48 (VIII) THE TRANSFER OR ENCUMBRANCE MADE IN CONTEMPLATION OF A MATRIMO-
49 NIAL ACTION WITHOUT FAIR CONSIDERATION;
50 (IX) THE EXISTENCE AND DURATION OF A PRE-MARITAL JOINT HOUSEHOLD OR A
51 PRE-DIVORCE SEPARATE HOUSEHOLD;
52 (X) ACTS BY ONE PARTY AGAINST ANOTHER THAT HAVE INHIBITED OR CONTINUE
53 TO INHIBIT A PARTY’S EARNING CAPACITY OR ABILITY TO OBTAIN MEANINGFUL
54 EMPLOYMENT. SUCH ACTS INCLUDE BUT ARE NOT LIMITED TO ACTS OF DOMESTIC
55 VIOLENCE AS PROVIDED IN SECTION FOUR HUNDRED FIFTY-NINE-A OF THE SOCIAL
56 SERVICES LAW;

In some respects, having a formula creates some predictability with respect to temporary spousal support awards that has been missing in the present law. At the same time, the blind application of the formula is likely to cause a different set of problems. If the bill passes, how these provisions are going to be interpreted by the courts is somewhat uncertain. As far as the divorce lawyers are concerned, this is likely to force divorce lawyers to spend even more time counseling clients with respect to temporary spousal support and post-divorce spousal support issues.

Grounds for Divorce Revisited

Monday, April 26th, 2010

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.

Update on Progress of New York’s No-Fault Divorce Legislation

Sunday, March 14th, 2010

I have previously written about the lack of no-fault divorce in New York and the highly uncertain future of the bills creating no-fault divorce in New York.  Earlier this month, the New York State Senate Committee on the Judiciary advanced legislation (S.3890/A.9753), sponsored by Senator Ruth Hassell-Thompson and Assemblyman Jonathan Bing, that would allow a judgment of divorce to be granted to either a husband or a wife without assigning fault to either party.  The legislation now moves to the full Senate for consideration.

The legislation would allow for divorce when a marriage is irretrievably broken for a period of at least six months, provided that one party has so stated under oath.  A judgment of divorce can then only be granted if the following issues have been resolved: the equitable distribution of marital property, the payment or waiver of spousal support, the payment of child support, the payment of counsel and expert fees and expenses, and infant custody and visitation rights.  The bill is supported by the New York State Bar Association.

However, the fate of the legislation is still highly uncertain. The bill is opposed by New York State chapter of NOW, as well as other groups.

Grounds for Divorce, Truthfulness, Paternity and Consequences

Friday, January 15th, 2010

I have previously written how New York’s fault system of divorce which requires the parties to satisfy grounds requirements tends to result in unneeded matrimonial litigation and, in some case, leave the parties married despite the fact that the marriage died many years ago.  A recent decision brought a new twist on an all too common situation.

In Andrew T. v Yana T., 2009 N.Y. Slip. Op. 29530 (Sup. Ct. N.Y. Co. 2009), the parties were married in in 2006.  In September of 2007, the plaintiff husband brought a divorce action on the grounds of constructive abandonment.  On March 19, 2008, defendant-wife gave birth to a baby boy.  This event not only predated the divorce judgment dissolving the parties’ marriage, but was prior to defendant having signed her affidavit and the parties having entered their separation and property settlement agreement. According to plaintiff, he was never aware that defendant was pregnant and he only learned about the child after the parties were already divorced. There was no father listed on child’s birth certificate.

Once plaintiff learned of the existence of the child, he petitioned the court for an order directing paternity testing.  Defendant opposed the motion contending that the child, who was not born until March 19, 2008, cannot possibly be plaintiff’s.  Defendant further argued that if plaintiff is taking the position that the child is plaintiff’s child, this means that the sworn statements in his verified complaint concerning the lack of sexual relations with defendant must be untrue.  As a result, defendant cross-moved for an order finding that plaintiff has violated Penal Law section 210.10, perjury in the second degree.

Defendant’s argument was predicated on the fact that with respect to plaintiff’s cause of action for constructive abandonment, plaintiff alleged in his verified complaint “that commencing on or about August 1, 2006, and continuing for a period of more than one (1) year immediately prior to commencement of this action, the defendant refused to have sexual relations with the plaintiff despite plaintiff’s repeated requests to resume such relations.”  The complaint stated that there were no children of the marriage.  Defendant had neither interposed an answer to the complaint nor in any other way sought to contest the divorce.  Instead she provided plaintiff with an affidavit in which she admitted service of the summons and complaint “based upon the following grounds: constructive abandonment DRL §170(2).”

Following the execution of defendant’s affidavit and the parties’ agreement, plaintiff promptly placed the case on the uncontested matrimonial calendar for submission. This meant that neither party had to appear in court to give testimony because the application for the divorce judgment was to be decided on the papers alone.  On July 29, 2008, a judge signed the judgment dissolving the marriage between the parties by reason of the constructive abandonment of plaintiff by defendant. The judgment stated that there are no known children of the marriage and none are expected.

While defendant’s argument was creative, the trial court judge did not accept it, pointing out that the defendant has not presented any evidence to exclude plaintiff as defendant did not present any evidnce other than relying on plaintiff’s verified complaint.

In addition, the court stated that the presumption of legitimacy, the child’s best interests and plaintiff”s request for paternity testing were interrelated.  Plaintiff was already presumed to be child’s father by virtue of having been married to the child’s mother when the child was born.  The child’s best interests lie in having his parentage confirmed, his father’s name listed on his birth certificate, and his rights and status attendant to the father-son relationship fully established.  A positive paternity test would provide the means by which any doubt as to whether plaintiff is the child’s father.

With respect to defendant’s cross-motion seeking a finding that the plaintiff committed perjury, a felony, the court stated the following:

Suffice it to say that if the District Attorney was intent on prosecuting all the people who, within the context of uncontested divorce proceedings, falsely claim not to have had sexual relations with their spouses, there would be little time left for pursuing other crimes. As with a revelation that a husband or wife has committed the crime of adultery by having had sex outside the marriage, there are instances of wrongdoing that do not demand the attention of the People of the State of New York in order to keep our society safe and secure.  This is one of them.

The court further addressed New York’s lack of no-fault divorce in rather strong terms:

If New York was like every other state, even those that some might think of as legally and socially backward, and had a true no-fault ground for divorce, such as “irreconcilable differences” ( Mississippi) or “incompatibility” (Oklahoma), the situation here, as difficult as it already is involving a battle over a child, could have been that less complicated. This is because plaintiff would never have had to make the representations that he did about his sex life with defendant just so a New York court could free the parties from a marriage that neither side wished to continue.

Unfortunately, our state, which prides itself on being so forward-thinking in so many ways, is positively regressive as concerns the institution of marriage. When it comes to forming the marriage bond, we do not allow loving, consenting adults who happen to be of the same sex to enjoy the same rights as others. When it comes to dissolving the marriage bond, we do not allow no-longer-loving, consenting adults to obtain a divorce for reasons that are real rather than fabricated so as to meet some archaic legal requirement. It is clearly time for the Empire State, as it is known, to reject a view of marriage that is more reflective of the time of the Empire of Queen Victoria than it is of the second decade of the 21st Century and at long last adopt the reforms that bar associations and citizens groups of all kinds have been demanding for years. Until that happens, the integrity of our legal system here in New York will continue to be needlessly compromised.

defendant contends that the child, who was not born until March 19, 2008, cannot possibly be his. Defendant further submits that if plaintiff is taking the position that Ethan is his child, this means that the sworn statements in his verified complaint concerning the lack of sexual relations must be untrue. As a result, defendant cross-moves for an order finding that plaintiff has violated Penal Law section 210.10, perjury in the second degree.
FACTS
The parties were married on July 1, 2006, in New York City. Fifteen months later, on or about September 7, 2007, plaintiff commenced an action for divorce based on two of the statutory grounds. One was the constructive abandonment of plaintiff by defendant for a period of one year proceeding commencement of the action (DRL §170[2])[FN2]; the other was the cruel and inhuman treatment of plaintiff by defendant (DRL §170[1]). Plaintiff ultimately relied solely on the first cause of action, constructive abandonment, in seeking the divorce.
With respect to his cause of action for constructive abandonment, plaintiff alleged in his verified complaint “that commencing on or about August 1, 2006, and continuing for a period of more than one (1) year immediately prior to commencement of this action, the defendant refused to have sexual relations with the plaintiff despite plaintiff’s repeated requests to resume such relations.” The complaint states that there are no children of the marriage.
Defendant neither interposed an answer to the complaint nor in any other way sought to contest the divorce. Instead she provided plaintiff with an affidavit in which she admitted service of the summons and complaint “based upon the following grounds: constructive abandonment DRL §170(2).” She further stated that she was consenting to the matter being placed immediately on the uncontested divorce calendar. On the same day defendant signed the affidavit, June 2, 2008, the parties, both of whom were represented by counsel, executed a [*3]separation and property settlement agreement. The agreement states that “the parties agree that the Wife shall consent to an uncontested divorce judgment being entered against her under this Index Number based upon the grounds of constructive abandonment set forth in the first cause of action of the Verified Complaint.” As with defendant’s affidavit, no mention is made of children, either born or expected.
Following the execution of defendant’s affidavit and the parties’ agreement, plaintiff promptly placed the case on the uncontested matrimonial calendar for submission. This meant that neither party had to appear in court to give testimony because the application for the divorce judgment was to be decided on the papers alone. On July 29, 2008, a judge of this court signed the judgment dissolving the marriage between the parties by reason of the constructive abandonment of plaintiff by defendant. The judgment states that there are no known children of the marriage and none are expected.
On March 19, 2008, defendant gave birth to a baby boy, Ethan. This event not only predated the divorce judgment dissolving the parties’ marriage, but was prior to defendant having signed her affidavit and the parties having entered their separation and property settlement agreement. According to plaintiff, he was never aware that defendant was pregnant and he only learned about the child after the parties were already divorced. There is no father listed on Ethan’s birth certificate.

As far divorce litigation is concerned, the above represents an extreme example of a problem that divorce lawyers often face.  If New York were to adopt some version of no-fault divorce, a great deal of litigation could be eliminated.

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

Saturday, November 21st, 2009

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.