Posts Tagged ‘New York family law’

Update on Duration of Maintenance

Saturday, October 26th, 2013

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 in terms of both amount and duration.

Thus, family law attorneys have to rely on court decisions as a basis for estimating likely spousal maintenance awards. In Monroe County, in a typical maintenance case, it is likely that a spouse who is entitled to receive maintenance is likely to receive spousal maintenance with length of one third duration of the marriage.  This rule of thumb has been utilized by a number trial court judges and lawyers. However, not every trial judge subscribes to it, and each judge’s views of maintenance are likely to impact such awards.

In a recent case, Zufall v. Zufall, 2013 NY Slip Op 06142 (4th Dept. 2013),  The Appellate Division, Fourth Department, has confirmed this. In Zufall, the parties were married for 21 years and have five children, one of whom was emancipated. During the marriage, plaintiff was primarily a homemaker, raising the parties’ children while defendant worked as a correction officer. Shortly before divorce action was commenced, defendant retired at the age of 50 after 25 years of service. Plaintiff has been determined by the Social Security Administration to be 50% disabled, and she receives partial Social Security disability benefits of $622 per month plus workers’ compensation benefits of $400 per month. She also works 20 hours per week as a bartender, earning $5 per hour plus tips.

The court stated that after considering the statutory factors enumerated in Domestic Relations Law § 236 (B) (6) (a) — particularly, the length of the marriage; the income and property of the parties, including the marital property distributed by the court; and the present and future earning capacity of the parties,  ”[w]ith respect to the duration of maintenance, however, we agree with defendant that the court’s award is excessive insofar as the court ordered defendant to pay maintenance until plaintiff turns 62, i.e., for approximately 18 years. We conclude that a term of seven years from the date of commencement of the action “should afford the plaintiff a sufficient opportunity to become self-supporting”.”

Given the circumstances, the trial level award of 18 years of maintenance was probably too long.  As a result, it appears that the Appellate Division, Fourth Department, has adopted a bright line rule of awarding spousal maintenance for one third of the duration of the marriage.

It will be interesting to see if this standard will survive any changes to the Domestic Relations Law that may come as a result of the Law Revision Commission’s report issued in May.

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.

Statute of Limitations and No-Fault Divorce

Monday, September 3rd, 2012

Since no-fault divorce became law in New York State almost 2 years ago, it was still unclear whether a statute of limitations would apply to to a cause of action under Domestic Relations Law §170(7), specifically, allegations that the relationship between the parties was irretrievably broken. Basically, this question can be asked in this way: from what date does the clock begin to run on this cause of action and when does the clock expire?  The answer was recently given by the Appellate Division, Fourth Department.

In a recent case, Tuper v. Tuper, 2012 N.Y. Slip Op 04467 (4th Dept. 2012), the Appellate Division held that the statute of limitations under DRL §170(7) does not begin to run while the relationship between the parties remain broken.  Specifically, the court held that a cause of action for divorce under the no-fault statute should be treated similarly to a cause of action for divorce based upon imprisonment of a spouse (DRL §170 (3), which is also governed by the five-year statute of limitations set forth in section 210).  In holding so, the Fourth Department relied upon the Court of Appeals’ decision in Covington v. Walker, 3 N.Y.3d 287, 291 (2004), which held that a cause of action for divorce based on imprisonment “continues to arise anew for statute of limitations purposes on each day the defendant spouse remains in prison for three or more consecutive years’ until the defendant is released.” The Appellate Division stated that “[l]ike a spouse serving a life sentence, an irretrievable breakdown in a married couple’s relationship is a continuing state of affairs that, by definition, will not change. After all, the breakdown is “irretrievable.” It thus stands to reason that a cause of action under the no-fault statute may be commenced at any time after the marriage has been “broken down irretrievably for a period of at least six months”.

I think that this is the correct result.  Alternatively, a contrary ruling would force a spouse to unwillingly remain in a dead marriage. If the accrual date of a no-fault cause of action were to be determined to arise only on the day that the relationship initially became irretrievably broken, assuming that an exact date could even be identified, the only couples who could get divorced under the no-fault statute would be those whose relationships irretrievably broke down within the past five years but not within the last six months. Couples whose relationships irretrievably broke down more than five years ago would have to remain married.  Clearly, the New York Legislature did not intend such result in passing the no-fault statute.

Same Sex Marriage Bill Passes in New York

Monday, July 4th, 2011

On June 24, 2011, New York Senate voted, 33-29, to give final approval to a bill, A-08354, that recognizes same sex marriage in New York. Govenor Andrew M. Cuomo immediately signed the bill which will become effective in 30 days.

The bill, codified as the Marriage Equality Act amends the Domestic Relations Law to provide:

• A marriage that is otherwise valid shall be valid regardless of whether the parties to the marriage are of the same or different sex

• No government treatment or legal status, effect, right, benefit, privilege, protection or responsibility relating to marriage shall differ based on the parties to the marriage being the same sex or a different sex

• All relevant gender-specific language set forth in or referenced by New York law shall be construed in a gender-neutral manner

• No application for a marriage license shall be denied on · the ground that the parties are of the same or a different sex

Under the bill, the rights under same-sex marriage will include:

• Employer-sponsored health insurance.

• Equitable property distribution, maintenance, custody and visitation if the couple divorces.

• A presumption that a child in a dissolved marriage is the child of both parents.

• Statutory inheritance rights.

• The right to bring a claim for the wrongful death of a spouse.

• The right to seek Workers’ Compensation death benefits.

• The spousal privilege in legal proceedings.

Can a Child Bring Petition Seeking Modification of Custody?

Saturday, June 18th, 2011

While the vast majority of cases petitions seeking to modify custody are brought by parents, can any one else bring a petition seeking to modify custody? I have written previously about petitions brought by non-parents, such as grandparents or someone who has a relationship with a child. A recent decision brought forth yet another party who can bring a petition seeking to modify custody – a child himself. In a recent decision, Trosset v. Susan A., 2011 N.Y. Slip. Op. 21151 (Fam Ct. Otsego Co. 2011), the court held that a child had standing to bring a petition seeking modification of present custodial arrangement. In Trossett, the child’s attorney filed a petition to modify prior court order. Respondent moved to dismiss the petition arguing that child’s attorney lacks standing to file petition concerning custody on behalf of child. The court held that  ”[w]hile absence of specific authority regarding custody and visitation is problematic, absence of statute granting child standing, such standing depends upon whether party has alleged facts showing disadvantage to himself or herself.” (citations omitted).  According to the decision, the attorney for child made allegations that directly relate to child’s desire to live with father. The court opined that the child has stake in outcome sufficient to confer standing upon him to file petition, or by child’s attorney on child’s behalf.

The decision does not provide much in a way of facts or legal authority for the court’s decision, however, I would guess that the child was older and, therefore, would have an opportunity to have input on any custody decisions. In addition, I would think that the parties were involved in court proceedings previously since the child had an attorney representing him.

Since the decision dealt with procedural issues related arising out of petition being filed by attorney for the child, we may never know how the case was resolved. However, I suspect that this issue may be appealed in the future and we may learn of further developments in the case.

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.

Update on Dissolution of Out-of-State Civil Unions

Saturday, April 3rd, 2010

I have previously written regarding the problem posed by out-of-state civil unions.  Under New York law, while such unions are recognized through the principles of comity, New York does not have any legislation that addresses how these unions may be dissolved once one or both of the parties reside in New York.

The prior decision, made by the trial court, stated that the court would have jurisdiction to address dissolution of the civil union.  However, the court was searching for the way to accomplish this and suggested that the complaint be pled to seek dissolution of a civil union, as opposed to a divorce, as a complaint was plead initially.  As a trial court decision, B.S. v. F.B., did not carry a significant weight of authority and would not be binding on other trial courts.

Now we have the first appellate level decision to address this issue.  In Dickerson v. Thompson, 2010 N.Y. Slip. Op. 02052 (3rd Dept. 2010), the Appellate Division, Third Department, held that New York court have subject matter jurisdiction “to entertain an action for equitable and declaratory relief seeking dissolution of a civil union validly entered into outside of this state.”  The court did not determine the scope of the relief that may be available in such action.

What is obvious from the decision is that the Appellate Division believed that the courts had authority to handle such cases, but was struggling come up with the way to accomplish the dissolution.  What makes it difficult, is the fact that when a divorce takes place, the court will address such issues as custody, child support, spousal maintenance, and equitable distribution.  All of the above issues are resolved in accordance with the provisions of the Domestic Relations Law.  What is unknown is how the courts will handle custody, child support, spousal maintenance and equitable distribution in dissolution of a civil union, something that apparently carries less weight in New York courts than a traditional marriage.  Does entering into a civil union create a potential entitlement to a spousal maintenance?  I don’t know the answer to that question, I suspect that the courts do not know the answer to it either.  It is quite likely that New York legislature will have to address these issues and, until then, the courts will try to come up with some ways of addressing these issues.

For a divorce lawyer, the above represents an excellent example of uncertainty created by the lack of uniformity in the states’ treatment of same-sex relationships. It also brings up a host of interesting legal issues that attorneys must recognize in handling similar situations.

Divorce, Separation and Selection of Tax Status for Filing

Saturday, February 27th, 2010

I have previously discussed some of the tax issues related to divorce, maintenance and dependency exemptions.  As the tax season approaches, here is some additional information that may be of assistance.

In a typical divorce, unless the parties have been legally separated prior to December 31, they are still able file a joint return.   By filing a joint return, both spouses will be jointly and separately liable for any errors, omissions or deficiencies on the tax return.   If the parties are going through divorce, the issues related to division of any tax refunds may also become complicated.

If you are legally separated from your spouse, you are able to file as a head of household if you provided more than half the cost of keeping up a home for a child, dependent parent, or other qualifying relative for more than half the year.  According to the IRS, to claim head of household, you must either be unmarried or considered unmarried on the last day of the year.  In addition, the Abandoned Spouse rule may be applicable.   In order to qualify under the rule, if you and your spouse lived apart for the last six months of the year, you would be considered unmarried for the purpose of this filing status under the Abandoned Spouse rule.  If you meet the other two requirements for this status, you would be eligible to file as Head of Household.  The other two requirements are as follows:  1) paying more than half of the cost of keeping up a home as of the last day of the tax year;  2) a dependent child or other relative lived with you for more than half the year or you have a dependent parent (dependent parents are not required to live with you).

A party is required to file as single if he or she was unmarried as of December 31, or if legally separated as of the end of the year and does not qualify for another filing status.

There are other tax advantages and disadvantages that depend on the filing status elected by the party.  Please note that the above discussion is not tax advice, and these issues should be discussed with your tax professional.

Constructive Emancipation, Burden of Proof and Contact With the Child By Non-Custodial Parent

Saturday, December 12th, 2009

I often see cases involving constructive emancipation which typically arise when the child refuses to have contact with the non-custodial parent.  If the contact cannot be reestablished after a period of time, the non-custodial parent can move to terminate the child support obligation, assuming that the non-custodial parent was not at fault for the breakdown in the relationship and the child is of the employeable age.  Burden of proof ofconstructive  emancipation rests on party making the assertion.  Constructive emancipation cases are not easy to prove and are factually intensive.  I have previously written about various issues in constructive emancipation here.

A recent example of such case was Dewitt v. Giampietro, 66 A.D.3d 773 (2nd Dept. 2009).  According to the Appellate Division, although the daughter refused to have contact with the father after some incident which was not described, the father ceased making attempts to reestablish contact with daughter after approximately one month.  According to the Appellate Division, one month period of trying to reestablish a relationship with the daughter could not be considered as a serious effort by the father.  The court also noted that the daughter testified that she loved her father and would be willing to re-establish visitation gradually through counseling.   According to the Appellate Division, the child’s reluctance to see parent is not considered to be abandonment.

Accordingly, if a non-custodial parent is in a situation where the child of employable age, generally high school graduate or older, is refusing to have any contact with the parent, the parent must keep on trying to reestablish contact for a period of time in excess of several months.  Any such contact may take several different forms, and phone calls, email, letters, postcards, and even text messages may be utilized.  It is important that the parent remembers the child’s birthdays and other special occasions.  Generally, the courts are reluctant to terminate child support and will do so only if the non-custodial parent will demonstrate that the continuing pursuit of the relationship with the child would be fruitless.

What Is Required For A Document To Be Accepted As A Separation Agreement?

Sunday, November 29th, 2009

Periodically, I see documents that were prepared by the parties on their own while attempting to resolve whatever legal issues they were facing.  Occasionally, the parties will prepare their own separation agreements.  Unfortunately, in many cases, those self-prepared separation agreements do not meet the statutory requirement applicable to either child support, maintenance, or other significant issues.  A recent example of why such self-prepared agreements are problematic was illustrated in a recent case, Scully v. Haar,  2009 N.Y. Slip. Op. 08261 (4th Dept. 2009).

Plaintiff and defendant were married on May 8, 1993 and have three minor children.  The parties have lived apart since March 2005.  On March 4, 2005, plaintiff commenced an action for divorce.  After extensive and ultimately futile negotiations between the parties, plaintiff filed a complaint on August 11, 2006, that did not specify any misconduct on the part of defendant but requested that plaintiff be awarded custody of the parties’ children.  On September 15, 2006, Supreme Court granted defendant’s motion to dismiss the complaint based on the insufficiency of plaintiff’s allegations but “retained jurisdiction over ancillary issues.”

Thereafter, the parties entered into the agreement, the preamble to which provides that “the parties are now desirous of resolving custody and ancillary issues without a trial.”  The agreement granted sole custody of the parties’ children to defendant and establishes a detailed access schedule for plaintiff.  It further provided that the agreement “shall be submitted to any court in which either [p]arty may seek a judgment or decree of divorce and . . . shall be incorporated in such judgment or decree by reference.”  The agreement was signed by both parties, notarized, and filed with the Erie County Clerk’s Office on May 11, 2007.

On May 13, 2008, just over one year after the agreement was filed, plaintiff commenced this action fo divorce based on Domestic Relations Law §170(6), alleging that the parties had lived separate and apart pursuant to an agreement for a period of a year or more.  A copy of the agreement was attached to the complaint.  Defendant moved to dismiss the complaint on the ground that the agreement was not a “written agreement of separation” within the meaning of section 170(6) because it addressed only parenting issues, it did not expressly recite the parties’ intent to live separate and apart, and it was not intended to serve as a separation agreement.  Plaintiff cross-moved for summary judgment on the complaint, contending that the terms of the agreement clearly established that the parties were living separate and apart.  The trial court denied the relief requested by the plaintiff.

Domestic Relations Law §170(6) sets forth one of the two “no-fault” grounds for divorce in New York State.  Specifically, that section provides that an action for divorce may be maintained on the ground that “[t]he husband and wife have lived separate and apart pursuant to a written agreement of separation . . ., for a period of one or more years after the execution of such agreement”.  The section further provides that the agreement must be signed by the parties and “acknowledged or proved in the form required to entitle a deed to be recorded”. Moreover, the agreement must be filed in the office of the clerk of the county in which either party resides.

The Appellate Division affirmed the lower court’s decision holding that “No-fault divorce applies only where there is a previous decree of separation or a written separation agreement, as required by statute [and, here, t]he parties have neither”.  Plaintiff attempted to rely on a “Parenting Plan Agreement” executed by the parties after an earlier divorce action commenced by plaintiff was dismissed and the court in that action retained jurisdiction over ancillary issues.  The agreement related solely to matters of custody and visitation and, although it was signed and acknowledged by the parties and filed with the County Clerk by plaintiff, it neither purported to be a separation agreement as that term is generally understood, nor made any explicit reference to the parties’ separation.  The Fourth Department concluded, particularly in light of the circumstances in which the agreement was made, that the agreement did not “evidenc[e] the parties’ agreement to live separate and apart, [and] thus [it did not] satisfy[ ] the statutory requirement [with] respect to a separation agreement”.

As I stated previously, it important that the parties understand that New York does not make it easy for someone to prepare and execute a valid separation agreement.  In my opinion, even if someone decides to follow a self-help approach, any document should be reviewed by a family law lawyer to make sure that it fully represents the parties’ intent and complies with applicable law.  While it may be tempting for someone to do it for a variety of reasons, any future disputes involving such documents is likely to require involvement of lawyers.

All concur except Peradotto, J., who dissents and votes to reverse in accordance with the following Memorandum: I respectfully dissent and would reverse because I agree with plaintiff that the 30-page “Parenting Plan Agreement” (agreement) at issue in this matter constitutes a “written agreement of separation” within the meaning of Domestic Relations Law § 170 (6).
Plaintiff and defendant were married on May 8, 1993 and have three minor children. The parties have lived apart since March 2005. On March 4, 2005, plaintiff commenced an action for [*2]divorce by summons with notice. After extensive and ultimately futile negotiations between the parties, plaintiff filed a complaint on August 11, 2006 that did not specify any misconduct on the part of defendant but requested that plaintiff be awarded custody of the parties’ children. On September 15, 2006, Supreme Court granted defendant’s motion to dismiss the complaint based on the insufficiency of plaintiff’s allegations but, as noted by the majority, “retained jurisdiction over ancillary issues.”
Thereafter, the parties entered into the agreement, the preamble to which provides that “the parties are now desirous of resolving custody and ancillary issues without a trial.” The agreement, inter alia, grants sole custody of the parties’ children to defendant and establishes a detailed access schedule for plaintiff. It further provides that the agreement “shall be submitted to any court in which either [p]arty may seek a judgment or decree of divorce and . . . shall be incorporated in such judgment or decree by reference.” The agreement was signed by both parties, notarized, and filed with the Erie County Clerk’s Office on May 11, 2007.
On May 13, 2008, just over one year after the agreement was filed, plaintiff commenced this action for divorce based on Domestic Relations Law § 170 (6), alleging that the parties had lived separate and apart pursuant to an agreement for a period of a year or more. A copy of the agreement was attached to the complaint. Defendant moved to dismiss the complaint on the ground that the agreement was not a “written agreement of separation” within the meaning of section 170 (6) because it addressed only parenting issues, it did not expressly recite the parties’ intent to live separate and apart, and it was not intended to serve as a separation agreement. Plaintiff cross-moved for summary judgment on the complaint, contending that the terms of the agreement clearly established that the parties were living separate and apart.
The court granted defendant’s motion to dismiss the complaint and denied plaintiff’s cross motion. Although the court acknowledged that an agreement need not be in any specific form to qualify as a “written agreement of separation” pursuant to Domestic Relations Law § 170 (6), the court determined that defendant did not consent to the termination of the marriage by signing the agreement.
Domestic Relations Law § 170 (6) sets forth one of the two “no-fault” grounds for divorce in New York State. Specifically, that section provides that an action for divorce may be maintained on the ground that “[t]he husband and wife have lived separate and apart pursuant to a written agreement of separation . . ., for a period of one or more years after the execution of such agreement” (id.). The section further provides that the agreement must be signed by the parties and “acknowledged or proved in the form required to entitle a deed to be recorded” (id.). Moreover, the agreement must be filed in the office of the clerk of the county in which either party resides (id.).
Here, it is undisputed that the parties have lived separate and apart since March 2005, well in excess of the statutory period (see Domestic Relations Law § 170 [6]). It is also undisputed that the agreement was signed by both parties, acknowledged in the requisite manner, and filed in the County Clerk’s Office (see id.). Thus, the only issue before this Court is whether the agreement qualifies as a “written agreement of separation” pursuant to the statute (id.). In my view, the legislative history and intended purpose of Domestic Relations Law § 170 (6), the important public policies underlying the “no fault” divorce grounds, and the Court of Appeals’ precedent confirming the limited function of the written agreement, compel the conclusion that the agreement in this case constitutes a “written agreement of separation” within the meaning of section 170 (6).
In Gleason v Gleason (26 NY2d 28, 35), decided shortly after the enactment of Domestic [*3]Relations Law § 170, the Court of Appeals recognized that the “real purpose” of the statute’s no-fault provisions was “to sanction divorce on grounds unrelated to misconduct.” As the Court explained: “Implicit in the statutory scheme is the legislative recognition that it is socially and morally undesirable to compel couples to a dead marriage to retain an illusory and deceptive status and that the best interests not only of the parties but of society itself will be furthered by enabling them to extricate themselves from a perpetual state of marital limbo’ ” (id.).
Thus, it is the physical separation of the parties, not the written agreement, that supplies the ground for a divorce pursuant to Domestic Relations Law § 170 (6) (see Christian v Christian, 42 NY2d 63, 69; Littlejohns v Littlejohns, 76 Misc 2d 82, 86, affd on opn of Korn, J., 42 AD2d 957). Indeed, the written agreement “is simply intended as evidence of the authenticity and reality of the separation” (Gleason, 26 NY2d at 35; see Christian, 42 NY2d at 69; Harris v Harris, 36 AD2d 594). As the Court of Appeals reaffirmed in Christian, “[t]he vital and operative’ fact[] in subdivision (6) divorce cases[] is the actual living apart of the parties——pursuant to the separation agreement . . . Put a bit differently, the function of the document is merely to authenticate the fact of separation’ ” (42 NY2d at 69). The statutory requirement that the parties live separate and apart for the prescribed period pursuant to a written agreement is unique to New York State and “reflects legislative concern over the fraud and collusion which historically infected divorce actions involving adultery” (id. at 68; see Littlejohns, 76 Misc 2d at 86 ["the written agreement serves primarily as a means of preventing fraudulent or collusive claims of separation and so discourages quickie' divorces"]).
The statute does not define the term “written agreement of separation,” nor does it set forth any specific provisions that are required in such an agreement (see Littlejohns, 76 Misc 2d at 86). In light of the limited function of the written separation agreement, i.e., to document and authenticate the physical separation of the parties, and the public policy underlying the statute, “the courts, where the parties have parted permanently, should not be excessively rigid or demanding in determining whether a writing satisfies the statutory requirement for an agreement of separation’ ” (id. at 87). All that a party seeking a divorce pursuant to Domestic Relations Law § 170 (6) must prove “is that there is some kind of formal document of separation” (Gleason, 26 NY2d at 37). As one court aptly observed: “Too great stress has been placed upon the instrument, the indicia of proof of the separation of the parties, rather than the fact of separation. It is not the decree, judgment, or agreement that is the essence of the ground for divorce. They are merely the documentary proof” (Markowitz v Markowitz, 77 Misc 2d 586, 587-588).
In light of the legislative history and manifest purpose of Domestic Relations Law § 170 (6) and the decisions of the Court of Appeals that liberally construe the documentation requirement, I cannot agree with the majority’s conclusion that the agreement in this case does not constitute a “written agreement of separation” within the scope of the statute. The agreement clearly and unambiguously “contemplate[s] permanent separation” (Morhaim v Morhaim, 56 AD2d 550, 552 [Silverman, J., dissenting], revd on dissenting mem of Silverman, J., 44 NY2d 785, rearg denied 44 NY2d 949). Implicit and recognized throughout the agreement is that the parties were in fact living apart when they entered into the agreement and that they intended to continue to live apart for years to come. The agreement lists separate addresses for plaintiff and defendant in its preamble and repeatedly references the parties’ separate residences throughout the remainder of the document. In setting forth plaintiff’s visitation schedule, the agreement recites that “[a]ll access shall take place away from the custodial residence of [defendant].” The article of the agreement establishing plaintiff’s access schedule includes a clause that the parties are free to agree on additional access “without setting a precedent for other calendar years,” thus emphasizing the long-term duration of the physical separation. [*4]
Moreover, the agreement specifically contemplates the possibility of the parties’ eventual divorce and the remarriage of either or both of the parties. In particular, the agreement states that “the provisions of this [a]greement shall be submitted to any court in which either [p]arty may seek a judgment or decree of divorce and . . . shall be incorporated in such judgment or decree by reference and shall not merge . . . .” With respect to the possible remarriage of either of the parties, the agreement provides that the parties’ children “shall not, for any purpose or for any reason, assume or use the name of any subsequent Husband of [defendant].” Thus, viewed as a whole, the agreement “can be consistent only with the fact of the parties’ then existing and continued separation” (Littlejohns, 76 Misc 2d at 86).
The fact that the agreement is not entitled a “separation agreement” and does not explicitly recite that the parties shall live separate and apart is of no moment (see Sint v Sint, 225 AD2d 606, 607). ” [T]he validity of the agreement . . . depend[s] upon the existence of the fact [of living apart], not upon a recital of it’ ” (Morhaim, 56 AD2d at 552; see Littlejohns, 76 Misc 2d at 85). Here, the agreement serves as ” evidence of the authenticity and reality of the separation’ ” (Christian, 42 NY2d at 68, quoting Gleason, 26 NY2d at 35), thereby fulfilling the statutory purpose.
Contrary to the contention of defendant, it is irrelevant whether she intended the agreement to serve as the predicate for a subsequent divorce action pursuant to Domestic Relations Law § 170 (6). Indeed, the Court of Appeals has held that Domestic Relations Law § 170 (5), which supplies the other “no-fault” ground for divorce, i.e., that the parties have lived apart pursuant to a decree or judgment of separation for a certain period of time, applied retroactively to separation decrees rendered prior to the enactment of the statute (Gleason, 26 NY2d at 34-36). The Court in Gleason recognized that the defendant wife who prevailed in a separation action commenced prior to the enactment of section 170 (5) “had no warning that the separation decree granted to her might later furnish basis or ground for divorce by [her] guilty’ husband” (id. at 40). Likewise, in Morhaim, the First Department noted that the six-year delay between the execution and filing of the written separation agreement in question “may indicate that the parties at the time of the execution of the agreement did not realize that the agreement might qualify as a separation agreement under the no-fault divorce statute. But that does not alter the legal effect of the agreement or the public policy involved” (56 AD2d at 552 [emphasis added]).
In sum, the agreement in this case “evidenced the parties’ actual and continued separation and thus satisfied the requirements of the statute” (id.; see Littlejohns, 76 Misc 2d at 86-87). I therefore would reverse the order, deny defendant’s motion to dismiss, reinstate the complaint, grant plaintiff’s cross motion for summary judgment on the complaint, and remit the matter to Supreme Court to grant judgment in favor of plaintiff and to determine the remaining issues.
Entered: November 13, 2009
Patricia L. Morgan
Clerk of the Court