Payments on Pre-Marital Debt and Right of Recoupment – Update

I have previously written about the case of Mahoney-Buntzman v. Mahoney, 51 A.D.3d 732 (2nd Dept. 2008), which stood for the proposition that that marital property used to pay one spouse’s obligations incurred either prior to the marriage, or benefitting only one spouse, could be recouped.  In Mahoney-Buntzman, the Appellate Division held that the husband’s maintenance obligation to his first wife and the boat loan constituted debts incurred by him prior to the parties’ marriage and were solely his responsibility. Accordingly, the court granted to the wife a credit for one half of the payments made.

Last week, the Court of Appeals issued its decision in Mahoney-Buntzman v. Mahoney, __ N.Y.2d __, 2009 N.Y. Slip. Op. 03629 (2009), and reversed the Appellate Division holding that that marital property used to pay maintenance and child support to the husband’s wife from a previous marriage should not be recouped to the marital estate.  The opinion used very broad language which is likely to eliminate any kind of recoupment of marital money expended for separate property purposes.  Specifically, the Court of Appeals held that:

[D]uring the life of any marriage, many payments are made, whether of debts old or new, or simply current expenses. If courts were to consider financial activities that occur and end during the course of a marriage, the result would be parties to a marriage seeking review of every debit and credit incurred. As a general rule, where the payments are made before either party is anticipating the end of the marriage, and there is no fraud or concealment, courts should not look back and try to compensate for the fact that the net effect of the payments may, in some cases, have resulted in the reduction of marital assets. Nor should courts attempt to adjust for the fact that payments out of separate property may have benefitted both parties, or even the non-titled spouse exclusively. The parties’ choice of how to spend funds during the course of the marriage should ordinarily be respected. Courts should not second-guess the economic decisions made during the course of a marriage, but rather should equitably distribute the assets and obligations remaining once the relationship is at an end.

Expenditures made during the life of the marriage towards maintenance to a former spouse, as well as payments made pursuant to a child support order, are obligations that do not enure solely to the benefit of one spouse. Payments made to a former spouse and/or children of an earlier marriage, even if made pursuant to court order, are not the type of liabilities entitled to recoupment.

This is not to say that every expenditure of marital funds during the course of the marriage may not be considered in an equitable distribution calculation. Domestic Relations Law § 236(B)(5)(d)(13) expressly and broadly authorizes the trial court to take into account “any other factor which the court shall expressly find to be just and proper” in determining an equitable distribution of marital property. There may be circumstances where equity requires a credit to one spouse for marital property used to pay off the separate debt of one spouse or add to the value of one spouse’s separate property (see e.g. Micha v Micha, 213 AD2d 956, 957-958 [3d Dept 1995]; Carney v Carney, 202 AD2d 907[3d Dept 1994]). Further, to the extent that expenditures are truly excessive, the ability of one party to claim that the other has accomplished a “wasteful dissipation of assets” (DRL 236 [B][5][d][11]) by his or her expenditures provides protection. The payment of maintenance to a former spouse, however, does not fall under either of these categories.

Thus, it is unlikely that any recoupment will be allowed by the courts in the future.  This decision makes it even more important that each marital estate is carefully scrutinized by an experienced divorce lawyer to establish the respective rights and obligations of the parties.

Separated Siblings and Their Right of Visitation

I occasionally see cases involving separated siblings.  In those situations, the parents, or the guardians of the children should be aware the siblings, or half-siblings have an independent right of visitation with each other. The Family Court has the same jurisdiction as the Supreme Court to determine visitation of minors, including visitation between siblings.  Family Court Act §651, Domestic Relations Law §71.  DRL §71 provides that “where circumstances show that conditions exist which equity would see fit to intervene, a brother or sister or a person on behalf of a child, whether by half or a whole blood, may apply to the family court [for visitation rights] as the best interest of the child may require.”  Thus, in cases involving sibling visitation, like grandparent visitation, the court must first determine whether equitable considerations grant a party standing to bring a petition and then, if so, whether it is in the best interests of the children to award such visitation.  E.S. v. P.D., 8 N.Y.3d 150 (2007).  The court in such a case is charged with determining what is in the best interests of all the children involved.  State ex rel. Noonan v. Noonan, 145 Misc.2d 638 (Sup. Ct. 1989).  The importance of sibling relationships has long been recognized by the courts of this state.  Eschbach v. Eschbach, 56 N.Y.2d 167 (1989).  This is manifested not only in preferring arrangements which allow siblings to live together, but also in ensuring that half-siblings have adequate contact with each other.  Olivier A. v. Christina A., 9 Misc 3d 1104 [A] (Sup. Ct. Suffolk Co. 2005).  The State’s recognition of the importance of siblings maintaining contact with each other is also manifested in Family Court Act §1027-a, which provides that foster care placement of a child with his or her siblings or half-siblings is presumptively in the child’s best interests. See also 18 NYCRR §431.10, which provides that a social services district must make diligent efforts to place siblings or half-siblings in foster care with each other unless such placement is determined to be detrimental to their best interests.

In a recent case, Isabel R. v. Meghan Mc., 23 Misc.3d 1102(A) (Fam. Ct. Dutchess Co. 2009), the court had to decide whether the half-siblings who were living in separate households after their parents’ breakup, were entitled to visitation with each other.  The court found that the evidence demonstrated that the children did indeed have a relationship until that relationship was unilaterally terminated by the mother after she and the children’s father split up.  While the mother argued that she has an absolute and unfettered right to determine whether sibling visitation should take place and that any direction by the court for sibling visitation would violate her constitutional rights. Relying on E.S. v. P.D., supra, the court held that mother’s constitutional argument was meritless and proceeded to decide whether visitation would be in the children’s best interests.  In considering the children’s best interests, the court has considered, among other factors, their prior relationship, the reason visitation was stopped, the reasons given and basis for the respondent’s decision to deny visitation at the present time, the views of the attorneys for the children, the future benefit to the children and the content of the Court’s in camera interviews. The children wished to see each other and expressed no negative feelings about doing so; the children have fond memories of times they spent together and activities they did together.  The court held that under those circumstances, visitation would be in the children’s best interests.

Parental Interference With Visitation and Suspension of Child Support

I have previously written that a child support obligation can be suspended or terminated in situations where the court makes a finding that the child has deliberately severed his/her relationship with a parent, thereby abandoning that parent. However, in order for a court to make a finding of abandonment, the child must be of employable age.

Even if the child is not of employable age, the non-custodial parent’s child support obligation can be suspended or terminated, if the breakdown in the parent-child relationship came as a result of the actions of the custodial parent.

In Ledgin v. Ledgin, 36 A.D.3d 669 (2nd Dept. 2007), the Appellate Division held that interference with visitation rights can be the basis for the cancellation of arrears of maintenance and the prospective suspension of both maintenance and child support. However, such relief is warranted only where the custodial parent’s actions rise to the level of “deliberate frustration” or “active interference” with the noncustodial parent’s visitation rights.

In Frances W. v Steven M., 15 Misc.3d 839 (Fam. Ct. Queens Co. 2007), the court held that petitioner was not entitled to child support where she intentionally aided her sister in brainwashing the child, who is almost 20 years old, into falsely believing that the father had sexually abused her when she was an infant, and otherwise poisoned the child’s relationship with respondent from the time she was four years old. The court stated that since petitioner was an active participant in destroying her niece’s relationship with the father, “she was precluded from obtaining child support from respondent as a matter of fundamental fairness.”

In S.M.B. v D.R.B, 17 Misc.3d 1132(A) (Fam. Ct. Onondaga Co. 2007), petitioner father sought vacatur of order of support contained in parties’ divorce judgment, which incorporated their opt-out agreement. Father began his action after the mother engaged in pattern of active interference and deliberate frustration of child’s relationship with father. Mother was very angry that father paid no more child support than what’s been ordered by court. Mother has withheld father’s access to child since she moved to Florida and remarried. The court found that mother’s acts of alienation were not isolated incidents but a continuing pattern. The court further found that the child now shows no interest in having relationship with father because of mother’s unfortunate endeavors. Father’s support obligation vacated since father met his burden of establishing that mother unjustifiably frustrated his right to reasonable access.

If the child is not of employable age, and the custodial parent did not interfere with the relationship between the non-custodial parent and the child, the non-custodial parent’s obligation to pay child support will not be terminated by the court. Foster v. Daigle, 25 A.D.3d 1002 (3rd Dept. 2006).

Since most of these cases are tried on the issue of parental interference, it is important that each such case, before it is brought, is carefully screened by an experienced family law lawyer. Because parental interference cases require a significant level of proof, it is important that a petitioner is represented by an attorney familiar with such cases.

Divorce, Equitable Distribution and Marital Fault

I am often asked whether as a lawyer, I am able to persuade the court to divide the parties’ assets unequally in situations where one of the parties had an affair, engaged in some acts of domestic violence, or committed repeated acts of verbal and emotional abuse. In nearly every case, my response is that in most of the cases, marital fault is irrelevant to the equitable distribution issues.

The New York State Legislature, in 1980, enacted the Equitable Distribution Law (“EDL”) (codified as Domestic Relations Law § 236 B). The adoption of which had been advocated because the traditional common law theory of property resulted in inequities upon the dissolution of a marriage. The EDL was premised on the entirely new theory that a marriage is an economic partnership to which both parties contribute as spouse, wage earner or homemaker, and mandates the equitable distribution of marital assets based upon the circumstances of each particular case. Under the EDL, the distribution of marital assets depends not only on the financial contribution of the parties but also on a wide range of non-enumerated services to the joint enterprise, such as homemaking, raising children and providing the emotional and moral support necessary to sustain the other spouse in coping with the vicissitudes of life outside the home. Domestic Relations Law §236(B)(5)(d) lists 13 factors to be considered when making an equitable distribution award, which factors encompass, among other things, the income and property of each party at the time of the marriage and at the time the divorce action was commenced, the duration of the marriage, the age and health of the parties, a maintenance award if one had been issued, and the non-titled spouse’s direct or indirect contributions to the marriage.

It is now recognized that marital fault may be taken into account under the EDL’s “catchall provision,” which allows for the consideration of “any other factor which the court shall expressly find to be just and proper” (DRL §236[B][5][d][13]). The criteria which must be considered when evaluating whether marital fault should play a role in any particular case were first stated by the Appellate Division, Second Department, in Blickstein v. Blickstein, 99 A.D.2d 287, appeal dismissed, 62 N.Y.2d 502 (1984), which stated that the “marital misconduct [must be] so egregious or uncivilized as to bespeak of a blatant disregard of the marital relationship – misconduct that shocks the conscience’ of the court thereby compelling it to invoke its equitable power to do justice between the parties” (Id. at 292). This guideline was explicitly adopted by the Court of Appeals in O’Brien v. O’Brien, 66 N.Y.2d 576, 589-590 (1985).

In McCann v McCann, 156 Misc.2d 540 (Sup. Ct. 1993), the court addressed issues of marital misconduct. In McCann, a husband had married with the express promise to his wife to make every effort to have children. He subsequently refused to fulfill that promise after several years of lying, and as a result his wife became infertile because of her advanced age. The court found that, while the husband’s misconduct showed “a blatant disregard for the marital relationship” and was “morally reprehensible,” it did not constitute egregious marital conduct sufficient to be considered in equitably distributing the marital assets. To be deemed egregious, the court concluded, conduct must “callously imperil[] the value our society places on human life and the integrity of the human body”.

The only cases in which reprehensible behavior has been deemed to constitute egregious fault sufficient to affect equitable distribution have involved extreme violence. In Havell v. Islam, 301 A.D.2d 339 (1st Dept. 2002), for example, the Appellate Division, First Department upheld the matrimonial court’s award of more than 95% of the marital estate to a wife where her husband beat her with a barbell and a piece of pipe, thereby breaking her nose, jaw and some of her teeth, causing multiple contusions and lacerations, along with neurological damage and other serious injuries. While the husband pleaded guilty to first-degree assault on his wife, the First Department accepted the lower court’s finding that the husband’s attack amounted to attempted murder and constituted egregious marital fault. Egregious fault has also been found in instances of rape, kidnapping , and protracted and severe physical abuse.

Conversely, conduct that courts have found not to be egregious include adultery , alcoholism, abandonment , and verbal harassment coupled with several acts of minor domestic violence.

A recent example of how high this standard is set, was demonstrated in Howard S. v. Lillian S., 2009 N.Y. Slip Op 01880 (1st Dept. 2009). In Howard S., the wife allegedly misrepresented to her husband that he was the biological father of one of their children, when in fact the child was conceived during her adultery and fathered by her lover.

The husband married the wife in May 1997 and they had four children. In February 2004, the wife had an extramarital affair with an unnamed man and became pregnant with a child, who was born in December 2004. Husband contends that the wife knew or should have known that husband was not the child’s biological father, but concealed that information from him.

According to the complaint, in February 2007, the wife began another affair which “continues to this day.” Wife also concealed this second adulterous relationship from husband, but in the spring of 2007, suggested that they separate and enter into a collaborative law process.

During this period husband had become suspicious about child’s parentage, allegedly due to all the jokes within the circle of family and friends that the child looked nothing like him. Without telling his wife, the husband, in February 2008, arranged for a DNA test of himself and the child. The test confirmed that he was not the child’s biological father. The wife now acknowledges that husband is not the child’s biological father, but claims that she learned this from the DNA test results and denies that she deliberately concealed the truth about the child’s parentage from her husband.

The divorce complaint filed by the husband asserted causes of action for divorce based on both cruel and inhuman treatment and adultery, and asserts a separate claim based on fraud. As damages for the fraud claim, husband seeks to recover his child support expenses for the child, the fees for the parties’ collaborative law process, and profits from the couple’s investments from the time of child’s conception until the commencement of the divorce action.

In May 2008, husband moved for “expanded discovery” to prove “defendant’s egregious fault,” the fraud claim, and her lack of contribution to and dissipation of the marital property. The lower court limited the recoverable damages to husband’s share of the fees for the collaborative law process. The court also denied the husband’s request for expanded discovery as to wife’s marital fault on the ground that her alleged misconduct did not constitute egregious fault and had no bearing on prospective spousal maintenance and equitable distribution. The husband appealed on the grounds that the court (1) erred by holding that he had failed to state a claim for egregious fault and (2) erred by holding that he could not recover child support payments and certain real estate investments as damages for his fraud claim.

The Appellate Division held that while the wife’s alleged misconduct could not be condoned and was clearly violative of the marital relationship, it did not rise to the level of egregious fault, since she neither endangered the lives or physical well-being of family members, nor deliberately embarked on a course designed to inflict extreme emotional or physical abuse upon them.

In view of the cases cited above, this result was almost certain from the beginning. As painful and harmful lies and deceit in a marriage may be, and Howard S. is as egregious of a case as I have ever seen, unless there was a significant violence between the parties, the court would not alter equitable distribution on the basis of marital fault. At the same time, New York’s equitable distribution principles do not require equal distribution, if other factors of the EDL can be satisfied. If you in a situation where you are dealing with these issues, and considering divorce, I suggest that you speak with an experienced New York divorce lawyer.

Unmarried Fathers, Child Support and Liability for Birth Expenses of the Child and the Mother

In a typical child support proceeding brought under the Article 4 of the Family Court Act, the child support is retroactive to the date of the filing of the child support petition.  The Family Court is generally unable to grant child support to a date preceding the filing, unless the child is receiving public assistance.   However, where the paternity is concerned, Family Court’s powers are much broader.  Paternity proceedings are governed by the Article 5 of the Family Court Act.  Article 5 contains two sections that address child support, including costs of birth and related expenses: Section 514 and Section 545.

Under Section 514 of the Family Court Act, the father is liable to pay the reasonable expenses of the mother’s confinement and recovery and such reasonable expenses in connection with her pregnancy, as the court in its discretion may deem proper.  What makes this significantly different from child support proceeding under Article 4 of the Family Court Act, usually Sections 412 and 413, is that the mother’s expenses typically occur well before the petition is filed and even before the child is born.  While Section 514 gives the Family Court at least some discretion in apportioning such expenses, if the mother was receiving public assistance during her pregnancy, the father may be liable to the social services district furnishing such medical assistance and to the state department of social services for the full amount of medical assistance so expended.  See Wayne County Dept. of Social Services ex rel. Van Dusen v. Petty, 273 A.D.2d 943 (4th Dept. 2000).

Under Section 545(1) of the Family Court Act, the father is responsible for child support, retroactive to the earlier of the date of the application for an order of filiation, or, if the children for whom support is sought are in receipt of public assistance, the date for which their eligibility for public assistance was effective.  However, under Section 545(2) of the Family Court Act, the Family Court’s discretionary powers are much broader.  Section 545(2) provides that the court, in its discretion, taking into consideration the means of the father and his ability to pay and the needs of the child, may direct the payment of a reasonable sum or periodic sums to the mother as reimbursement for the needs of the child accruing from the date of the birth of the child to the date of the application for an order of filiation.  In my experience, in dealing with a petition brought under Section 545, the Family Court unambiguously focuses on the unwed father’s present ability to pay, as measured by his current resources and his earning capacity, and not what the unwed father’s ability to pay was at the time of birth.  This may come as an unwelcome surprise to the unwed father, if the petition is brought several years after the child is born.

Yet another difference between proceedings brought under Article 5 of the Family Court Act and Article 4 of the Family Court Act is that under Section 517 of the Family Court Act, proceedings to establish the paternity of a child, and to establish liability for mother’s expenses, may be instituted during the pregnancy of the mother or after the birth of the child.

As a lawyer frequently dealing with these issues, I  evaluate my clients’ financial situation at the time of the child’s birth and the time the petition is brought, since the court will focus on my client’s ability to pay.  I also analyze the mother’s finances within the same time frame and also the proof of payment of medical bills.  Ocasionally, these cases are won and lost on the issue of admissibility of the medical bills.