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.

Divorce and Reformation of Settlement Agreement

I have previously written about vacating settlement agreements on the grounds of mutual mistake.  Here is a case where the court actually reformed the parties’ settlement agreement on the grounds of mutual mistake.

In Banker v. Banker, 53 A.D.3d 1105 (3rd Dept. 2008),  the parties’ oral stipulation of settlement, which was incorporated but not merged into their 2005 judgment of divorce, provided that the parties would subdivide a parcel of property located in Delaware County.  However, despite that provision, after the judgment of divorce was entered, the defendant refused to do so.  In response to a motion by plaintiff to enforce the stipulation, Supreme Court, in February 2006, ordered defendant to obtain subdivision approval from the Town.  The Planning Board denied defendant’s subsequent subdivision application after discovering that the property was encumbered by a restrictive covenant against further subdivision.  In March 2006, defendant moved to reargue and/or renew February 2006 order, and requested a hearing to determine equitable distribution.

Supreme Court reserved decision on all pending matters pertaining to the parties until an appraisal of the property was completed.  Because the parties could not agree on an appraiser, the court appointed one and directed the parties, once the appraisal was complete, to settle the matter in a private auction or buyout.  The appraiser completed the appraisal in June 2006.  By letter dated October 4, 2006, defendant requested the opportunity to offer further proof of value.  Plaintiff made a similar request and explained that the parties had not been able to settle the matter or agree on a private auction.

Plaintiff responded with a motion seeking that the parties’ interests in the property be declared in conformance with the terms set forth in the stipulation and the values established in the appraisal, as well as an order allowing her to buy out defendant’s share of the property.  Defendant opposed the motion, arguing that the appraisal should not be adopted without an opportunity by the parties to cross-examine the appraiser and submit other evidence of valuation.  Supreme Court ordered a hearing to permit the parties to cross-examine the appraiser, but made it clear that no other testimony or evidence of valuation would be permitted.

Following the hearing, at which Supreme Court again denied defendant’s request to submit further evidence, the court determined the interests of the parties in the property to be 83% for plaintiff and 17% for defendant.  The court, fixed the parties’ interests as indicated above, appointed a receiver, and ordered the   public sale of the property.  Defendant appealed.  The Appellate Division rejected defendant’s argument that Supreme Court exceeded its authority by reforming the parties’ stipulation of settlement.  Where, as here, a mutual mistake rendered a portion of the parties’ settlement agreement impossible or impracticable, “the relevant settlement provision was properly set aside”.  No dispute existed that the parties’ agreement to physically divide the property could not occur given the restrictive covenant; and even defendant was not attempting to have the parties’ stipulation enforced.  Thus, after giving the parties ample opportunity to reach a new agreement,  the trial court was correct to move forward by appointing an appraiser so that an equitable distribution of the property, in as close accordance as possible with the intent of the parties as expressed in their settlement, could be achieved.

The Appellate Division noted that to achieve reformation or recission of the stipulation of settlement, one of the parties should have commenced a plenary action, rather than proceeding by motion but, in the context of this matter, concluded the defect to be nonfatal.  However, the lower court erred in resolving this matter without a full hearing permitting the parties to offer proof of valuation.  The court is authorized to appoint an independent appraiser in a matrimonial action but, unless the parties have stipulated otherwise, the court must afford the parties the opportunity to review the appraisal, cross-examine the appraiser and offer additional evidence on valuation.  Although the record contained evidence that the parties consented to Supreme Court’s appointment of the appraiser, it did not suggest that the parties agreed to be bound by the resulting appraisal.

This is an example of a situation where the mutual mistake allowed the court to reform the parties’ settlement agreement.  While those circumstances tend to be limited, the lawyers in Banker recognized that since the property could not be subdivided, it had to be sold or one of the parties would buy out the other party’s interest.  The question of valuation was secondary to the remedy chosen by the court as a result of reformation of the agreement.  At the same time, it is rather surprising that neither divorce attorney was aware of the covenant, since both parties, presumably, had access to the real property records and the property’s abstract of title.

Divorce, Monetary Obligations and Statute of Limitations

It is is not uncommon for a party to obtain a right to receive a sum of money in the judgment of divorce.  That right usually comes in situations where there are assets that are subject to equitable distribution.  It is also not uncommon for the parties to make their own agreements following the judgment of divorce as to how such sums of money will be paid.  One issue that would raise a concern for me would be a situation where the payment is extended over a long period of time.  It is a concern because a statute of limitations may come into play and, possibly, bar recovery.

In Woronoff v. Woronoff, 2010 N.Y. Slip. Op. 01479 (2nd Dept. 2010), the Appellate Division held that where a monetary award in the judgment of divorce is not reduced to a monetary judgment, such award is subject to a six year statute of limitations.  In Woronoff, the parties were divorced by judgment dated December 21, 1988, which provided, inter alia, that the plaintiff would pay the defendant the sum of $87,500 for her share of his businesses.  In 1990, the parties entered into an agreement which modified this portion of the judgment so as to, among other things, set forth a different payment schedule for the distributive award.  This agreement was not reduced to a court order.  The defendant never entered her distributive award as a money judgment nor sought to enforce collection thereof until 2007, when she obtained a clerk’s judgment against the plaintiff.  Thereafter, however, the plaintiff successfully moved to vacate the clerk’s judgment.

The plaintiff then commenced an action, inter alia, to recover damages for wrongful procurement of the clerk’s judgment including the counsel fees he expended in moving to vacate the clerk’s judgment.  The defendant’s first counterclaim asserted that the plaintiff had failed pay her the full amount of her distributive award for her share of his business, and alleged damages resulting therefrom in excess of $150,000.

The Appellate Division held that contrary to the defendant’s contention, the distributive award made to her in the divorce judgment for her share of the plaintiff’s business was not a “money judgment” subject to a 20-year statute of limitations.  Instead, her claim to enforce this award was governed by the six-year statute of limitations set forth in CPLR 213(1) and (2).  Accordingly, since the defendant did not seek to enforce her distributive award nor reduce it to a money judgment until well beyond six years after the divorce judgment was entered, and even well beyond six years after the parties entered into their modification agreement, the Supreme Court properly dismissed this counterclaim as time-barred.

The lesson of the above case for divorce lawyers is that in the event there is a monetary award in the judgment of divorce, it is a good idea to reduce it to a monetary judgment.  Alternatively, if the parties agree to extend the payment of the amount due beyond six years, such agreement should be reduced to writing and should include a provision specifically waiting statute of limitations.