## New Temporary Maintenance – How Does It Work?

Among recent changes to New York’s divorce laws, the legislature amended provisions of the Domestic Relations Law that deal with temporary spousal maintenance.  DRL §236(B)(5-a)(c) presently includes a formula which, if applied according to the statute, results in the presumptively correct amount of temporary maintenance. DRL §236(B)(5-a)(c)(1) describes how those provisions are applied:

(a) the court shall subtract twenty percent of the income of the payee from thirty percent of the income up to the income cap of the payor.
(b) the court shall then multiply the sum of the payor’s income up to and including the income cap and all of the payee’s income by forty percent.
(c) the court shall subtract the income of the payee from the amount derived from clause (b) of this subparagraph.
(d) the guideline amount of temporary maintenance shall be the lower of the amounts determined by clauses (a) and (c) of this subparagraph; if the amount determined by clause (c) of this subparagraph is less than or equal to zero, the guideline amount shall be zero dollars.

According to the legislative documents, the legislature intended that the temporary maintenance guidelines would only result in an award when there is an income gap between the two parties such that the less-monied spouse’s income is less than two thirds of the more-monied spouse’s income. For instance, if the payor’s annual income is \$60,000 per year, the guidelines will only result in an award if the payee’s annual income is less than \$40,000. The numerical guideline is only applied to the payor’s income up to \$500,000 of her/his income, with a set of factors to be applied by the court to determine any additional amount of temporary maintenance on the payor’s income above this \$500,000 cap.

Here are some examples of how the statute works:

Example 1

Step # 1: Determine Respective and Combined Income:
Payor‘s Income \$60,000
Payee‘s Income \$30,000
Combined Income \$90,000
Step # 2: Perform Calculation # 1: (Subtract twenty percent of the income of the payee from thirty percent of the income up to the income cap of the payor.):
30% of Payor‘s Income (30% x \$60,000) = \$18,000
Minus
20% of Payee‘s Income (20% x \$30,000) = \$6,000
Result of Calculation # 1: \$12,000
Step # 3: Perform Calculation # 2: (Multiply the sum of the payor’s income up to and including the income cap and all of the payee’s income by forty percent):
Payor‘s Income = \$60,000
Plus
Payee‘s Income = \$30,000
Combined Income Equals \$ 90,000
Multiplied by 40% (\$ 90,000 x 40%) = \$36,000
Subtract Payee‘s Income from Product:
(\$36,000 minus \$30,000 = \$6,000)
Result of Calculation # 2: \$6,000

Because paragraph (d) provides that the guideline amount of temporary maintenance shall be the lower of the amounts determined by clauses (a) and (c) of this subparagraph; if the amount determined by clause (c) of this subparagraph is less than or equal to zero, the guideline amount shall be zero dollars, and because Calculation # 2 is the lesser amount, specifically, \$6,000, Calculation # 2 controls, and the temporary maintenance award would be \$6,000.

Example 2

Step # 1: Determine Respective and Combined Income:
Payor‘s Income \$120,000
Payee‘s Income \$80,000
Combined Income \$200,000
Step # 2:
Perform Calculation # 1: (Subtract twenty percent of the income of the payee from thirty percent of the income up to the income cap of the payor.):
30% of Payor‘s Income (30% x \$120,000) = \$36,000
Minus
20% of Payee‘s Income (20% x \$80,000) = \$16,000
Result of Calculation # 1: \$20,000
Step # 3: Perform Calculation # 2: (Multiply the sum of the payor’s income up to and including the income cap and all of the payee’s income by forty percent):
Payor‘s Income = \$120,000
Plus
Payee‘s Income = \$80,000
Combined Income Equals \$200,000
Multiplied by 40% (\$ 200,000 x 40%) = \$ 80,000
Subtract Payee‘s Income from Product:
(\$80,000 minus \$80,000 = \$0)
Result of Calculation # 2: \$0

Because paragraph (d) provides that the guideline amount of temporary maintenance shall be the lower of the amounts determined by clauses (a) and (c) of this subparagraph; if the amount determined by clause (c) of this subparagraph is less than or equal to zero, the guideline amount shall be zero dollars, and because Calculation # 2 is the lesser amount, specifically, zero, Calculation # 2 controls and the temporary maintenance award would be zero.

Example 3

Step # 1: Determine Respective and Combined Income:
Payor‘s Income \$100,000
Payee‘s Income \$20,000
Combined Income \$120,000
Step # 2: Perform Calculation # 1: (Subtract twenty percent of the income of the payee from thirty percent of the income up to the income cap of the payor.):
30% of Payor‘s Income (30% x \$100,000) = \$30,000
Minus
20% of Payee‘s Income (20% x \$200,000) = \$4,000
Result of Calculation # 1: \$26,000
Step # 3: Perform Calculation # 2: (Multiply the sum of the payor’s income up to and including the income cap and all of the payee’s income by forty percent):
Payor‘s Income = \$100,000
Plus
Payee‘s Income = \$20,000
Combined Income Equals \$120,000
Multiplied by 40% (\$120,000 x 40%) = \$48,000
Subtract Payee‘s Income from Product \$100,000
(\$48,000 minus \$20,000 = \$28,000)
Result of Calculation # 2: \$28,000

Because paragraph (d) provides that ―the guideline amount of temporary maintenance shall be the lower of the amounts determined by clauses (a) and (c) of this subparagraph; if the amount determined by clause (c) of this subparagraph is less than or equal to zero, the guideline amount shall be zero dollars,and because Calculation # 1 is the lesser amount, specifically, \$26,000, Calculation # 1 controls and the temporary maintenance award would be \$26,000.

There are several issues that are not addressed by the new statute. Initially, prior to its enactment, judges had discretion to set temporary awards based upon the actual needs of the parties. Under the prior statute, temporary maintenance was awarded to allow the non-monied spouse to preserve his or her financial circumstances and maintain the prior lifestyle during the divorce. While the goal of the prior statute was laudatory, unfortunately, the temporary maintenance awards varied greatly from case to case.

Since the new statute creates uniformity by using a formula, temporary maintenance awards are going to be consistent as far as their amount is concerned. At the same time, the new statute doe snot address duration of the maintenance and length of the marriage of the parties. For temporary maintenance purposes, a spouse in a long term marriage would receive the same temporary maintenance award as a spouse in a short term marriage. This is likely to create an incentive for parties in a short term marriage and their lawyers to extend the divorce action as long as possible.

Another problem with the new statute is that it applies to the first \$500,000 of income, someone married to person who earns well in excess of that figure would receive less under the new statute than he or she would be entitled to receive under the old law, when the full income was used for determining temporary maintenance.

Finally, the temporary maintenance statute creates certain expectations on part of both litigants and judges. For litigants, there is now an expectation that any maintenance will be at the level set by the temporary maintenance formula. For judges, it is an easy way to set the final maintenance award.

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

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.

## For Unmarried Couples, Promise to Support Your Significant Other Is Not Binding

Marriage of the parties creates binding legal obligations and rights between spouses, including an obligation to support your spouse financially, as well as the right to division of jointly acquired assets in the event of divorce.  Once in a while, I am asked about a situation where the parties have been in a relationship for a long time and have treated their relationship as a marriage, but did not actually get married.  In this situation, my usual answer is that neither party has acquired a right to support from the other party, and any assets that one of the parties accumulated will remain assets of that party, unless titled in both parties’ names.

A good illustration of the above took place in a recent case of M. v. F., 27 Misc.3d 1205(A) (Sup.Ct. New York Co. 2010).  In M. v. F., the parties resided together for approximately 13 years between 1994 and 2007, and have a child together.  They have never been married to each other.  The girlfriend argued that the boyfriend told her that he would always take care of her, that they would combine their efforts and earnings, and what was his was hers.  Once the parties split up, the girlfriend asked for a portion of the boyfriend’s assets, a portion of the profits from his business, and other financial support.

After the girlfriend commenced an action to obtain financial relief under various causes of action, the trial court held that the boyfriend’s promise to support his girlfriend if they ever broke up are unenforceable.  The girlfriend is not entitled to “equitable distribution” of the assets acquired during the relationship.  The court held that such statements as “I will always take care of you” and “everything that we put in, we will enjoy together” do not constitute legally binding promises.

Specifically, the court stated that even “an explicit promise that, upon separation, [the plaintiff] would be entitled to ‘equitable distribution’ of their assets, it would be unenforceable, as it would be contrary to the long-standing law and policy in New York that unmarried partners are not entitled to the same property and financial rights upon termination of the relationship as married people.”   According to the court, the absence of a marriage is the determinative factor of her property rights.  The court stated that “Unless and until the law imposes equitable distribution on unmarried couples, in New York, as least, the legal status of marriage remains vitally important to establishing the economic rights of members of a couple.”

This case illustrates the fact that marriage is the critical legal event that creates financial rights and obligations between the parties that can be enforced by the courts.  For those couples who choose to cohabit, without getting married, each party should be able to rely on their own ability to earn and not to expect any financial assistance from the other party in the event of breakup.  With respect to M. v. F., the answer would likely be different if there was a written agreement to provide support.  Any such agreement, assuming properly created and executed, would probably enforceable as any other contract.

## Equitable Distribution, Maintenance and Health Insurance – Upcoming Changes in the Domestic Relations Law

I am asked frequently what happens to health insurance as a result of divorce.  My usual response is that once the judgment of divorce is entered, if you were receiving health insurance benefits through your spouse, you will lose your right to receiving this coverage in the future, unless you elect to receive COBRA coverage.

In fact, the disclosure of the above facts has been formalized in Domestic Relations Law §177 which provides that prior to accepting and entering as a judgement any stipulated agreement between the parties in an action for divorce, the judge shall ensure that there is a  provision  in  such agreement  relating to the health care coverage of each individual. Such statement shall either (a) provide for the future coverage of the individual; or (b) state that the individual is aware that he or she will no longer be covered by his or her spouse’s health  insurance plan and that the individual will be responsible for his or her own health insurance coverage. Every agreement accepted by the court  must  contain a specific statement, signed by each party, to ensure that the provisions of this subdivision are adhered to.

At the same time, since in most situations the health insurance is tied to one or both spouses’ employment, the Domestic Relations Law did not provide any formal way to include the loss of health insurance coverage into either maintenance or equitable distribution calculations.  This is about to change.  Effective September 21, 2009, an additional subsection of Domestic Relations Law §236 will be going into effect and will require the trial court to consider the loss of health insurance coverage as a factor in fashioning equitable distribution and maintenance awards.  Specifically, the new statute will provide as follows:

AN ACT to amend the domestic relations law, in relation  to  maintenance

and equitable distribution of marital property

THE  PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF NEW YORK, REPRESENTED IN SENATE AND ASSEM-

BLY, DO ENACT AS FOLLOWS:

1    Section 1.  Subparagraphs 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 and  13  of  para-

2  graph  d  of  subdivision  5  of  part  B of section 236 of the domestic

3  relations law, subparagraph 13 as renumbered by chapter 884 of the  laws

4  of 1986, are renumbered subparagraphs 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 and 14,

5  and a new subparagraph 5 is added to read as follows:

6    (5)  THE  LOSS  OF  HEALTH  INSURANCE BENEFITS UPON DISSOLUTION OF THE

7  MARRIAGE;

8    S 2. Subparagraph 10 of paragraph a of subdivision  6  of  part  B  of

9  section  236 of the domestic relations law, as amended by chapter 884 of

10  the laws of 1986, is amended to read as follows:

11    (10) any transfer or encumbrance made in contemplation of a matrimoni-

12  al action without fair consideration; [and]

13    S 3. Subparagraph 11 of paragraph a of subdivision  6  of  part  B  of

14  section  236 of the domestic relations law is renumbered subparagraph 12

15  and a new subparagraph 11 is added to read as follows:

16    (11) THE LOSS OF HEALTH INSURANCE BENEFITS  UPON  DISSOLUTION  OF  THE

17  MARRIAGE; AND

18    S  4.  This  act  shall take effect on the sixtieth day after it shall

19  have become a law and shall apply to any action or proceeding  commenced

20  on or after such effective date.

EXPLANATION–Matter in ITALICS (underscored) is new; matter in brackets

[ ] is old law to be omitted.

The bill memo provided the following justification for the bill:

The Equitable Distribution and Maintenance factors have not been updated much since their introduction close to 30 years ago.  While loss of health insurance was not one of the factors added at the time, in light of the health care crisis and rising costs of access to health insurance, loss of health insurance is a critical factor that should be considered by courts in making determinations relating to equitable  distribution and maintenance. The impact of a divorce can be challenging for families and the added loss of health insurance can be financially devastating. The proposal in this bill, to add loss of health insurance as a factor to be considered for equitable distribution and maintenance determinations, is essential to address the realities of our current times. This legislation is intended to promote the health, safety and financial stability of the parties post divorce.

I believe that the above will be a helpful addition to the Domestic Relations Law since, as a divorce lawyer, I have dealt frequently with situations where the parties who wanted to be divorced could not do so, solely due to the fact that the loss of health insurance coverage would be devastating to one of the parties. In those situations, I have counseled clients to enter into separation agreements and the parties would live pursuant to such agreements without getting divorced for very significant periods of time.  This allowed for retention of employer provided health care coverage.  While I am happy to see the changes to the Domestic Relations Law §236, at the same time, this provision may be a paper tiger primarily due to the cost of obtaining health insurance coverage on the open market.

As a result of the new provisions, divorce attorneys will have to carefully review the issues related to their clients’ health insurance coverage, the availability of replacement coverage and its costs, and the likely impact of those issues on maintenance and equitable distribution.

I should note one more thing related to the issues discussed above.  Effective on October 11, 2009, Domestic Relations Law § 177 has been repealed, and replaced by Domestic Relations Law §255. The new statute, while mostly similar, adds additional procedural requirements that need to be complied with, sometimes as early as the time of service. Domestic Relations Law §255, subdivision 1 provides that prior to signing a judgment of divorce or separation, or a judgment annulling a marriage or declaring the nullity of a void marriage, the court must ensure that both parties have been notified, at such time and by such means as the court determines, that once the judgment is signed, a party thereto may or may not be eligible to be covered under the other party’s health insurance plan, depending on the terms of the plan. In the case of a defaulting defendant, service upon the defendant, simultaneous with the service of the summons, of a notice indicating that once the judgment is signed, a party thereto may or may not be eligible to be covered under the other party’s health insurance plan, depending on the terms of the plan, shall be deemed sufficient notice to a defaulting defendant.

Domestic Relations Law §255, subdivision 2 provides that if the parties have entered into a stipulation of settlement or agreement, on or after its effective date, resolving all of the issues between the parties, the stipulation of settlement or agreement must contain a provision relating to the health care coverage of each party. The provision must either: (a) provide for the future coverage of each party, or (b) state that each party is aware that he or she will no longer be covered by the other party’s health insurance plan and that each party shall be responsible for his or her own health insurance coverage, and may be entitled to purchase health insurance on his or her own through a COBRA option, if available. The requirements subdivision 2 may not be waived by either party or counsel. In the event that it is not complied with, the court must require compliance and may grant a thirty day continuance to afford the parties an opportunity to procure their own health insurance coverage.

## Pendente Lite Motions And Available Relief

A divorce case could easily last for a year or, occasionally, much longer. Therefore, it is common for the parties to seek various forms of relief from the court while the action is pending.  This type of relief is commonly referred to as pendente lite and is usually obtained by making a motion, brought by an order to show cause.  Such motion is usually supported by affidavits, exhibits, and statements of net worth. A pendente lite motion may seek such things as temporary custody of children, temporary schedule of visitation with the minor children, temporary child support, temporary maintenance, exclusive possession of the marital residence, temporary order of protection, interim award of attorneys fees, interim award of expert fees, and an order restraining marital assets.  Since pendente lite motions are made on expedited basis, not all facts may be known at the time the motion is brought.  Once the relief sought in the pendente lite is granted, the court’s decision is unlikely to be reversed on appeal since numerous cases have held that the proper remedy for objections to a pendente lite order is a plenary trial.  As the court stated in Penavic v. Penavic, 60 A.D.3d 1026 (2nd Dept. 2009), “[t]he best remedy for any perceived inequities in the pendente lite award is a speedy trial, at which the disputed issues concerning the parties’ financial capacity and circumstances can be fully explored.” After the final decision is made, the trial court has the power to adjust the pendente lite relief.

The most significant form of pendente lite relief in many cases is temporary maintenance.  As the court stated in Mueller v. Mueller, 61 A.D.3d 652 (2nd Dept. 2009), “pendente lite awards should be an accommodation between the reasonable needs of the moving spouse and the financial ability of the other spouse . . . with due regard for the  preservation standard of living”. It is the burden of the party seeking pendente lite relief to demonstrate the need for the award sought. The standard of living previously enjoyed by the parties is a relevant consideration in assessing the reasonable needs of a temporary maintenance applicant.

One critical issue that can be addressed by a pendente lite motion is preservation of marital assets. Pursuant to Domestic Relations Law § 234, a court has broad discretion in matrimonial actions to issue injunctive relief in the interest of justice to preserve marital assets pending equitable distribution. Place v. Seamon, 59 A.D.3d 913 (3rd Dept. 2009). Such request for restraints on property transfers can be granted upon the movant demonstrating that the spouse to be enjoined “is attempting or threatening to dispose of marital assets so as to adversely affect the movant’s ultimate rights in equitable distribution”.

Pendente lite financial relief is usually retroactive to the date of filing of the motion.

For many, getting exclusive occupancy of the marital residence during the pendency of a divorce action can be as important as the ultimate divorce itself. Yet the emotional need to be free of the company of one’s spouse is never enough. The courts do not lightly infringe upon the right of a spouse to remain in his or her home even where, for example, that spouse continues an adulterous relationship, or the marital residence was owned by the other spouse prior to the marriage.

Where both parties remain in the home when the application for temporary exclusive occupancy is brought before the court, the party seeking occupancy must show that the other party is a threat to the safety of person(s) or property. The party seeking such relief must present detailed allegations supported by third party affidavits, police reports and/or hospital records may be needed to convince the court that the application is not an effort to force the other party out of the house. Even then, if the other party contradicts the allegations of the application with his or her own sworn affidavit, the court may order that a hearing be held to resolve the conflicting versions of the facts. Occasionally, the evidence of the threat to safety is sufficiently persuasive that a court will dispense with the requirement of a hearing, and grant an order of exclusive occupancy based only upon a review of the papers submitted. As I have written before, such relief can also be obtained from the Family Court on expedited basis and, occasionally, on ex parte basis,  if the safety of a party is at issue.

A pendente lite motion which requests either child support, maintenance or attorneys fees, must include a statement of net worth as an exhibit, even if the statement of net worth has been filed separately.

One form of relief that is typically not available as a part of a pendente lite application, is the order directing the sale of the marital residence. Such relief can only be obtained after trial.

If a party decides to violate the pendente lite order, the proper application is contempt. Shammah v. Shammah, 22 Misc.3d 822 (Sup. Ct. Nassau Co. 2008).

Usually, a pendente lite motion sets up the parties’ positions with respect to critical issues in their divorce case.  If a lawyer is successful in obtaining the relief sought, his/her client’s position going forward will better and the client’s negotiating posture may improve significantly.  Most  divorce attorneys recognize this and are careful in making pendente lite motions.

## Recoupment of Maintenance After Successful Appeal

I have previously written about recoupment of pendente lite maintenance in a divorce action after the entry of a final maintenance award. The recent decision by the Court of Appeals in Johnson v. Chapin, previously discussed in this post, allowed recoupment of pendente lite maintenance as an adjustment to the equitable distribution award.

But what happens if the permanent maintenance award is overturned on appeal? In Rader v. Rader, 54 A.D.3d 919 (2nd Dept. 2008), the Appellate Division, Second Department, held that public policy prohibits recoupment of both pendente lite and permanent maintenance paid pursuant to court order or judgment which is subsequently set aside on appeal.

In Rader, the plaintiff stopped paying the defendant maintenance in January 2006, contending that the parties’ judgment of divorce entered September 18, 1998 required him to pay maintenance only for a period of 10 years, retroactive to the commencement of the divorce action in January 1996. The defendant claimed that she was entitled to maintenance until July 2007-10 years after the date of the decision awarding her maintenance.

In an order dated July 7, 2006 the Supreme Court granted the defendant’s motion, directed the plaintiff to pay the defendant maintenance for a period of 10 years, retroactive to July 1997, when the decision awarding her maintenance was made, and granted the defendant leave to enter a money judgment for maintenance arrears, plus the sum of \$1,500 as an attorney’s fee. A money judgment was subsequently entered on July 26, 2006. The plaintiff appealed, and after some additional litigation between the parties, ultimately paid the sum of \$54,000 in maintenance for the period from July 2006 until April 2007, plus the sum of \$2,000 as an attorney’s fee, for a total sum of \$56,000, while the appeal was pending.

In a decision dated April 17, 2007, the Appellate Division reversed the money judgment, and modified the order dated July 7, 2006 upon finding that the plaintiff’s obligation to pay maintenance terminated on January 9, 2006, or 10 years after the divorce action was commenced. Subsequently, the plaintiff moved for reimbursement of the sums of \$54,000 in maintenance and \$2,000 in attorneys’ fees he paid. In opposition, the defendant noted, inter alia, that she already spent the disputed \$56,000 on her living expenses and attorneys’ fees. The Supreme Court denied the plaintiff’s motion.

The Second Department held that there is a strong public policy against recoupment of both pendente lite and permanent maintenance paid pursuant to a court order or judgment which is subsequently set aside on appeal. The reason for this policy is that maintenance and child support payments are “deemed to have been devoted to that purpose, and no funds exist from which one may recoup moneys so expended” if the award is thereafter reversed or modified. The Court further noted that if there were unpaid arrears of other obligations, such as carrying charges for the marital residence, the payor spouse may be granted a credit against those arrears for maintenance paid pursuant to an order which was reversed on appeal.

Is Rader still good law after the Court of Appeals’ decision in Johnson v. Chapin?. I believe that it is, especially with respect to the final maintenance awards. However, it is likely that we will see divorce lawyers making arguments for recoupment even with respect to the final maintenance awards overturned on appeal. I am familiar with a divorce case that is currently pending here in Rochester that may raise issues identical to those in Rader after the Court of Appeals’ decision in Johnson v. Chapin. I will post on that case once it has been resolved.

## Overpayment of Pendente Lite Maintenance and Equitable Distribution

I have previously written that the Supreme Court has wide latitude in fashioning pendente lite (interim) maintenance awards while the divorce action is pending.  But what happens if the trial court ultimately decides that the pendente lite maintenance award was excessive?  The Court of Appeals recently addressed this issues in Johnson v. Chapin, 2009N.Y.  Slip. Op. 03630 (2009).

In Johnson, the Court of Appeals held that when a pendente lite award of maintenance is found at trial to be excessive or inequitable, the court may make an appropriate adjustment in the equitable distribution award.  Thus, the Court of Appeals held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in giving husband a credit representing the amount of the pendente lite maintenance he paid that exceeded what he was required to pay under the final maintenance award.  In determining the temporary maintenance award, Supreme Court imputed an average salary in excess of \$2 million to husband. However, at trial, it was established that his income was significantly lower. Given the disparity in the maintenance amounts, under the circumstances of this case, it was appropriate for the husband to receive a credit for excessive maintenance paid.

This decision is significant since it reaffirms the principle that pendente lite awards are temporary and are subject to adjustment.  An experienced divorce lawyer will not rest after obtaining a favorable pendente lite relief for the client, but will continue to work to make sure that the any pendente lite maintenance, or other interim award, is preserved as a part of a final decision.

## Long Term Separation, Maintenance and Problems of Proof

I have previously discussed how the courts determine maintenance amounts in divorce cases. One of the critical factors in court’s evaluation of whether maintenance is appropriate or necessary, is the parties’ standard of living. However, there are many situations where the parties have been separated for a significant period of time. Under those circumstances, in Dowd v. Dowd, 58 A.D.3d 1057 (3rd Dept. 2009), the Appellate Division, Third Department, held that where the parties were separated for a long period of time, their pre-separation standard of living should not be considered.

In Dowd, the parties were married in 1976, were separated in 1999 and were divorced in 2007. According to the court, the standard of living during marriage was not a consideration given parties’ long separation. During the separation, the wife, who was 49, was supported, in part, by her live-in boyfriend, and had sporadic employment history involved low-wage jobs. Neither party graduated from high school. By time of trial, the husband, who was 50, was earning approximately \$60,000 per year, working for manufacturer of heavy equipment. The wife also received distributive award of \$100,000.

Supreme Court initially awarded defendant wife \$500 maintenance per month until she is eligible for Social Security retirement benefits at age 62 in 2019 and, thereafter, reduced it to \$250 per month, until she is eligible for health care benefits through Medicare at age 65 in 2022. The Appellate Division reduced the duration of the maintenance award to 5 years. It held that the standard of living during marriage was not a consideration given the parties’ long separation. Further, since the purpose of maintenance is to provide financial support for recipient spouse, while spouse gains skills and employment necessary to become self-sufficient, that particular factor was not applicable in this situation since the wife should be able to support herself. The court also noted that there was no competent medical proof with respect to the health problems claimed by the wife.

It should be noted that the Appellate Division split 3 to 2 in this case. The vigorous dissent stated that the lower court did not abuse its discretion in its award of maintenance to the wife, arguing that she was suffering from several medical conditions, impairing her ability to work and making it unlikely that she would become self -supporting.

It is worth noting that Dowd may have been decided the other way, if there was admissible proof that the wife was suffering from a medical condition, or conditions, that would prevent her from being gainfully employed. Such admissible proof inevitably involves testimony of a medical professional. Any divorce lawyer who is making an argument that his or her client is unable to work for medical reasons must be ready present testimony of a medical professional. Similarly, if a claim for rehabilitative maintenance is being presented to the court, an attorney must be prepared to present testimony of a vocational expert. While experts can charge significant fees, the case may turn on such testimony.

## Basics of Bankruptcy Discharge and Domestic Support Obligations

On occasion, a divorce may result in one or both of the parties filing for bankruptcy, often without an adequate understanding of the limited relief available in the bankruptcy court. The Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005 (“BAPCPA”) directly addressed issues related to the dischargeability of marital debt and support obligations, as well as to the effect of the automatic stay on collection and enforcement proceedings out of divorce and family law litigation.

Under bankruptcy law, a “domestic support obligation” is any debt incurred before or after a bankruptcy filing that is owed to or recoverable by a spouse, former spouse, child or governmental unit; in the nature of alimony, maintenance or support; and established pursuant to the terms of a divorce decree, separation agreement, property settlement agreement, court order or administrative determination.

In Chapter 7 bankruptcy, essentially all marital and domestic relations obligations are not dischargeable, regardless of whether they are support in nature, property divisions or “hold harmless” agreements, provided they were incurred by the debtor in the course of a matrimonial proceeding or a divorce action which resulted in a separation agreement, divorce decree, court order or administrative determination.

A debtor’s obligation to pay marital debts directly to a third party ( ie., pay the mortgage on former marital residence) and to hold the former spouse harmless on said debts is also deemed to be non-dischargeable if the obligation has the effect of providing support to the former spouse. A debtor’s duty to pay the following expenses are usually deemed to be in the nature of support and not dischargeable: educational expenses of a minor child; medical insurance coverage for a minor child; and life insurance, with the minor children as beneficiaries.

Attorney’s fees owed by debtor to his own lawyer are clearly dischargeable in bankruptcy, but as a general rule, attorney’s fees owed by debtor to a former spouse’s attorney are not dischargeable, if the underlying legal proceeding resulted in the entry of an order or judgment directing payment of maintenance or spousal support to the former spouse.

The division of a debtor’s pension benefits during the divorce action is usually accomplished by entering a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (“QDRO”). Since division of a pension is considered to be a transfer by debtor of a present interest in his pension, and as such, it is not a debt that can be discharged in bankruptcy.

In Chapter 13 bankruptcy, past due domestic support obligations owed by a debtor are not dischargeable, unless they are paid in full over the life of the Chapter 13 plan. However, if a debt created by a separation agreement or judgment of divorce is not in the nature of support, it sometimes can be discharged in Chapter 13 without being paid in full.

For a Chapter 13 Plan to be confirmed by the Bankruptcy Court, it must: pay in full to the former spouse all domestic support obligations owed by debtor at the time of the bankruptcy filing, and the debtor must be current on all domestic support obligations incurred after the bankruptcy filing.

A Chapter 13 Plan, even if confirmed by the bankruptcy court, is subject to dismissal if the debtor fails to pay any post-petition or post-confirmation domestic support obligations, and a Chapter 13 discharge will not be entered by the bankruptcy court unless and until a debtor certifies that all domestic support obligations have been paid and that the debtor is current on such obligations.

The automatic stay created by a bankruptcy filing bars the commencement or continuation of most legal proceedings, but it has no effect on a proceeding to establish paternity; to establish or modify a child support order, determine child custody or visitation issues, or dissolve a marriage, except to the extent that such proceeding may seek to determine a division of marital property in which the bankruptcy estate also has an interest. In those situations, the divorce can be granted without first obtaining relief from the automatic stay, but the marital property cannot be divided without obtaining such relief.

The automatic stay also does not prevent the post-petition collection of domestic support obligations such as alimony or child support from any property belonging to the debtor, providing that the bankruptcy estate does not also have an interest in the same property; from automatic wage deduction orders created by a statute or judicial or administrative order; from the interception of debtor’s federal or state income tax refunds, or
from the withholding, suspension or restriction of a debtor’s driver’s license or professional or occupational license. Therefore, Bankruptcy Court does not offer much protection for someone seeking to avoid the domestic support obligations.

The above rules will apply to the proceedings in New York State courts. In Ross v. Sperow, 57 A.D.3d 1255 (3rd Dept. 2008), the Appellate Division had to address a situation where one of the parties was seeking to enforce a counsel fee award after the other party filed for bankruptcy. In Ross, multiple violation petitions had been filed by the parties over the course of several years. In August 2006, Family Court upheld mother’s motion for counsel fees and directed father to pay \$5,000 of the mother’s counsel fees. Father filed for a Chapter 7 bankruptcy thereafter, and listed the award of counsel fees as an unsecured debt. Father’s bankruptcy was discharged in January 2007. Mother brought a violation petition which alleged that father failed to pay the counsel fees. Father moved to dismiss petition on ground that he discharged counsel fee award in bankruptcy. The Appellate Division stated that state and federal courts have concurrent jurisdiction over issue of dischargabilityof a particular debt and held that domestic support obligations in the nature of support are exempt from discharge in bankruptcy. While father contended that counsel fees incurred were for custody and visitation proceeding, the record reveals that mother’s initial petition commencing the proceeding raised issues of financial need and hardship. According to the Appellate Division, term “in the nature of support” is broadly interpreted in the context of discharge of debt obligations in bankruptcy and held that the award of counsel fees was in part in the nature of support, and as such, exempt from discharge in bankruptcy.

## Downward Modification of Maintenance

In these uncertain economic times, someone obligated to pay maintenance may lose a job, experience significant investment losses, or suffer other adverse financial events. Can something be done about maintenance under those circumstances? The answer, as I have often written, depends on the specific facts.

A party seeking the reduction of a maintenance obligation bears the burden of establishing a substantial change of circumstances. Klapper v. Klapper, 204 A.D.2d 518 (2d Dept. 1994). In Klapper, the Second Department held that, in determining whether there was a substantial change in circumstances sufficient to warrant downward modification, the change is to be measured by a comparison between the payor’s financial circumstances at the time of the motion for downward modification and at the time of divorce or, as the case may be, the time that the order of which modification is sought was made.” Id. at 519. The Appellate Division, Fourth Department utilized the same standard of review in Able v. Able, 245 A.D.2d 1026 (4th Dept. 1997).

In Simmons v. Simmons, 26 A.D.3d 883 (4th Dept. 2006), defendant lost his job and subsequently moved for a downward modification of his maintenance obligation. The Appellate Division held that since despite defendant’ diligent job search, he had little prospect of finding employment at a salary comparable to his salary at the time of the divorce, the downward modification was warranted.

The party seeking to modify the maintenance provisions of a judgment of divorce in which the terms of a stipulation of settlement have been incorporated but not merged, must demonstrate that the continued enforcement of the party’s maintenance obligations would create an “extreme hardship”. Beard v. Beard, 300 A.D.2d 268 (2d Dept. 2002) (the proper amount of support payable is determined not by a parent’s current economic situation, but by a parent’s assets and earning powers). See also, Domestic Relations Law § 236(B)(9)(b).

A reduction in the payor’s income will not result in decreased maintenance where it is the result of a voluntary action, such as self-imposed retirement. Fendsack v. Fendsack, 290 A.D.2d 682 (3d Dept. 2002); DiNovo v. Robinson, 250 A.D.2D 898 (3d Dept. 1998). In Dallin v. Dallin, 250 A.D.2d 847 (2d Dept. 1998), the Second Department held that Family Court properly rejected the father’s claims that his financial situation, prolonged unemployment, and illnesses warranted a drastic reduction of his maintenance and child support obligations. The father had failed to produce any competent evidence to support his claim that he used his best efforts to obtain employment commensurate with his qualifications and experience or that his medical conditions rendered him unemployable.

In Lenigan v. Lenigan, 146 Misc.2d 627 (Sup.Ct., Albany County 1990), the defendant sought to reduce his maintenance and child support obligations. The defendant claimed that, in the prior three months, his compensation as a stock broker had been reduced. It is well settled that the party seeking to obtain a reduction of support bears the burden of establishing a substantial change of circumstances. Id. A drastic change in income can constitute a substantial change of circumstances. Id. In Lenigan, the defendant was a stockbroker, and by the very nature of his business, his income would fluctuate throughout the year. The Supreme Court held that, adopting the defendant’s theory of allowing a modification based upon temporary fluctuations in income would lead to a ludicrous result. Although the defendant asserted a three-month lull in business, there was nothing to establish that sales would not pick up in the following months.

In conclusion, an experienced divorce lawyer faced with a significant change in client’s economic situation, must carefully construct an argument for the court that the change was not created by his/her client, that the change is significant, that it is likely to last for a some time, and that the client has exhausted all other alternatives.
In Watrous v. Watrous, 292 A.D.2d 691 (3d Dept. 2002), at age 55, the plaintiff voluntarily retired from State employment and, shortly thereafter, moved to terminate or, in the alternative, reduce his maintenance obligation. The plaintiff asserted as a substantial change in circumstances that he took early retirement due to his poor health and would be experiencing a significant reduction in income. A hearing was held and, at the close of plaintiff’s proof, Supreme Court granted defendant’s motion to dismiss, finding that plaintiff had failed to establish a sufficient change in circumstances. The Third Department affirmed on appeal, stating that a maintenance obligation established by a judgment of divorce will not be modified absent clear and convincing proof of a substantial change in circumstances. The record revealed that, at the time of the divorce, Supreme Court was aware of both the medical restrictions on plaintiff’s employment and the possibility that his poor health might cause him to retire early. Accordingly the circumstances existing at the time of the plaintiff’s application for downward modification were foreseeable, and anticipated at the time of the parties’ divorce. Furthermore, the record was devoid of evidence that the reduction in the plaintiff’s income would substantially diminish his standard of living or his ability to satisfy his maintenance obligation. The Third Department therefore concluded that the plaintiff failed to establish a substantial change in circumstances.