Posts Tagged ‘new york’

Tracing Method of Dividing Defined Contribution Retirement Assets

Sunday, September 28th, 2014

I have previously written about division of marital retirement assets which is traditionally done by computing a time based coverture fraction pursuant to the New York Court of Appeals’ decision in Majauskas v. Majauskas, 61 N.Y.2d 481 (1984). Majauskas was the seminal New York case that decided that the portion of the spouse’s pension or a retirement plan such as 401k, earned during the marriage, is marital property subject to equitable distribution. To the extent that a pension was earned or 401k contributions were made during the marriage, they are, for purposes of New York law, are considered to be marital property. The Majauskas decision sets forth the formula that normally is to be followed in dividing retirement assets and consists of a fraction computed on the basis of duration of the marriage and duration of the party’s employment.

While Majauskas has been the prevailing law for the last 30 years, a recent decision suggests that with regard to defined contribution retirement plans such as 401k or 403b plans, or their equivalents, the trial court has discretion to utilize a tracing method of equitable distribution. According to Jennings v. Brown, 43 Misc.3d 1229(A) (Sup. Ct. Seneca Co. 2014), “a small minority of cases have started to hold that use of a time-based fraction to determine the marital share of a defined contribution plan is permitted”. Tracing would allow the court to treat appreciation on any separate property portion of such retirement assets as separate property, thereby reducing the non-titled party’s interest in the asset. The court observed that utilization of time coverture fraction methodology utilized by the Court of Appeals in Majauskas may result in overvaluation of non-vested party’s interest and tracing method would remedy that problem.

In Jennings, the plaintiff argued that the tracing method should be utilized to establish defendant’s interest in plaintiff’s 401k plan. However, while accepting tracing methodology as valid, the court held that it was constrained by the terms of the parties’ judgment of divorce which referenced Majauskas method of dividing retirement assets.

While Jennings is a trial level decision, and I question at least one of the cases it relies on, it suggests that with regard to defined contribution retirement funds, tracing method could be accepted by the trial court. Under appropriate circumstances, tracing method may greatly benefit the titled spouse. It also suggests that when the case is tried, the party seeking to utilize tracing method will need to present expert testimony on this issue. In Jennings, an affidavit of a CPA was presented to the court.  Since Jennings is a trial level decision, it remains to be seen whether the appellate courts will agree with its reasoning.

Ratification of Settlement and Separation Agreement

Saturday, January 14th, 2012

I have previously written about settlement agreements, their contents, modification, validity, and formalities related to their execution.

Even in situations where the agreement may have not been executed properly or otherwise invalid, if the party does not promptly act to challenge the agreement and accepts its benefits, the court may refuse to vacate the agreement. This is the situation that the Appellate Division, Second Department, addressed in Kessler v. Kessler, 89 A.D.3d 687 (2nd Dept. 2011).

In Kessler, the parties’ separation agreement was incorporated but not merged into the judgment of divorce. The parties entered into the separation agreement on June 10, 1980, after 25 years of marriage. The parties’ separation agreement, provided that the plaintiff husband would, among other things, make payments to the defendant wife for her support and maintenance and for the mortgage and carrying costs relating to the marital residence, where the defendant continued to reside. The plaintiff complied with the terms of the separation agreement and, in 2009, he commenced this action for a conversion divorce. In response to the plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment, the defendant submitted an affidavit asserting that the plaintiff had procured the separation agreement through fraud and duress, and that the agreement was unconscionable.

The defendant alleged, among other things, that the plaintiff had concealed from her his vast wealth, and had induced her to enter into the separation agreement at a time when, unbeknownst to her, New York’s equitable distribution law was about to be enacted. The Supreme Court granted the plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment, and subsequently entered a judgment of divorce, which, inter alia, directed the parties to comply with the terms of the separation agreement which was incorporated, but not merged into, the judgment of divorce. The defendant appealed.

The Appellate Division held that party who “accepts the benefits provided under a separation agreement for any considerable period of time” is deemed to have ratified the agreement and, thus, “relinquishes the right to challenge that agreement”. By contrast, when a party “received virtually no benefits from the agreement,” he or she “cannot be said to have ratified it”.

The Appellate Division further stated that assuming the truth of the allegations set forth in the defendant’s affidavit, the benefits she received pursuant to the separation agreement were far less than those she likely would have received had there been an equitable distribution of the assets accumulated during the marriage. The record, however, did not support a finding that the defendant received “virtually no benefits” from the agreement. Moreover, while “a spouse will not necessarily be held to have ratified an agreement if it is found to be the product of duress and overreaching”, the disadvantage to the defendant created by the alleged fraud and duress in this case cannot be deemed to have persisted throughout the 29-year period during which the defendant accepted the benefits of the separation agreement without challenging it.

The court held that the plaintiff made a prima facie showing that the defendant ratified the separation agreement and that the trial court properly granted the plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment.

There is a simple rule that applies to settlement and separation agreements. The party receiving substantial benefits under the agreement can’t challenge the agreement after a substantial period of time passes.

Does Family Court Have Jurisdiction Over Family Offenses Committed Outside of New York?

Sunday, December 12th, 2010

In a recent case, the Appellate Division had to decide whether the Family Court has subject matter jurisdiction over family offense proceedings where the alleged acts occurred outside of the state and even outside of the country.  In Richardson v. Richardson, 2010 N.Y. Slip. Op. 07943 (2nd Dept 2010), the court held that Family Court Act §812 grants the Family Court subject matter jurisdiction to hear such proceedings, and that the Family Court properly exercised jurisdiction over the parties’ petitions, despite the fact that the acts alleged occurred on the island territory of Anguilla.

On March 4, 2009, petitioners filed three separate family offense petitions seeking the entry of orders of protection. The alleged family offenses included, inter alia, assault, harassment, and menacing. The petitions detailed certain incidents which allegedly occurred on February 19, 2009, on the island of Anguilla.

The Appellate Division began its decision by stating that the Family Court is a court of limited jurisdiction constrained to exercise only those powers conferred upon it by the state Constitution or by statute.  Included within the actions and proceedings over which the Family Court has been given subject matter jurisdiction are family offense proceedings. Pursuant to the New York State Constitution, family offense proceedings are to determine “as may be provided by law . . . crimes and offenses by or against minors or between spouses or between parent and child or between members of the same family or household” (N.Y. Const, art VI, § 13 [b] [7]). In light of the provision stating “as may be provided by law,” the grant of jurisdiction to the Family Court over family offense proceedings is permissive and requires legislative action to be implemented.

Family Court Act Article 8 delineates the parameters of the Family Court’s subject matter jurisdiction. The Family Court Act and the Criminal Procedure Law provide the criminal court and the Family Court with “concurrent jurisdiction” over certain enumerated criminal offenses when allegedly committed by one family member against another. Thus, while a family member may choose to seek redress for a family offense in the Family Court, a parallel criminal proceeding also is available. Indeed, the Legislature has specifically authorized a petitioner to commence a family offense proceeding in either or both Family Court and criminal court. Moreover, each court has the authority to issue temporary or final orders of protection.

Family Court Act § 812(1) provides:

Jurisdiction. The family court and the criminal courts shall have concurrent jurisdiction over any proceeding concerning acts which would constitute disorderly conduct, harassment in the first degree, harassment in the second degree, aggravated harassment in the second degree, sexual misconduct, forcible touching, sexual abuse in the third degree, sexual abuse in the second degree as set forth in subdivision one of section 130.60 of the penal law, stalking in the first degree, stalking in the second degree, stalking in the third degree, stalking in the fourth degree, criminal mischief, menacing in the second degree, menacing in the third degree, reckless endangerment, assault in the second degree, assault in the third degree or an attempted assault between spouses or former spouses, or between parent and child or between members of the same family or household except that if the respondent would not be criminally responsible by reason of age pursuant to section 30.00 of the penal law, then the family court shall have exclusive jurisdiction over such proceeding. Notwithstanding a complainant’s election to proceed in family court, the criminal court shall not be divested of jurisdiction to hear a family offense proceeding pursuant to this section.

Furthermore, Family Court Act § 812(2)(b) provides: “[t]hat a family court proceeding is a civil proceeding and is for the purpose of attempting to stop the violence, end the family disruption and obtain protection.” There is no geographic limitation in Family Court Act § 812, or elsewhere in the Family Court Act, as to where a family offense is to have occurred in order to confer subject matter jurisdiction upon the Family Court. Family Court Act, Article 8, as enacted in 1962, was intended by the New York State Legislature to provide “practical help” to domestic violence victims through the use of civil proceedings in the Family Court.

The history of Family Court Act § 812, provides no indication that the Legislature intended to prohibit the Family Court from exercising jurisdiction over family offenses where the alleged acts occurred in another state or country. However, a question that arises is whether the geographic or territorial limitation on the jurisdiction of the criminal court also limits the jurisdiction of the Family Court. Criminal Procedure Law § 20.40(1)(a) provides, in pertinent part, that “[a] person may be convicted in an appropriate criminal court of a particular county, of an offense . . . when conduct occurred within such county sufficient to establish [a]n element of such offense.”

The Appellate Division concluded “[t]hus, to the extent that the appellant contends that the geographic limitation on the jurisdiction of the criminal court also applies to limit the jurisdiction of the Family Court over family offense proceedings, we hold that contention to be without merit.”

Therefore, if an act that would give a rise to an order of protection takes place anywhere, the party against whom it is committed can seek an order of protection in New York’s Family Court, provided that other procedural requirements are met and personal jurisdiction is obtained.

Equitable Distribution of Businesses and Enhanced Earning Capacity Does Not Always Mean Equal Distribution

Sunday, October 10th, 2010

I have previously written about equitable distribution issues here and here.  One of the most important issues that divorce attorneys have to address in dealing with equitable distribution is division of businesses or enhanced earning capacity arising as a result of acquisition of a professional degree or a license by one of the spouses.

In distributing marital property of almost every variety, the courts have focused on the relative significance of the non-titled spouse’s contribution toward the marriage, which would almost always result in equal or almost equal distribution.  However, with respect to distribution of business interests and enhanced earning capacity, as of late, the courts have focused on the degree to which the non-titled spouse’s efforts contributed toward the acquisition of each specific asset.

In the past, the non-titled spouse’s contributions to the other party’s business, career or degree, usually resulted in equal distribution of those assets.  However, the recent trend in court decisions has been to grant the non-titled spouse less than one half of the asset.

The courts have described their reasoning as follows: “[a]lthough in a marriage of long duration, where both parties have made significant contributions to the marriage, a division of marital assets should be made as equal as possible. . . there is no requirement that the distribution of each item of marital property be made on an equal basis.”  Kaplan v. Kaplan, 51 A.D.3d 635, 637 (2d Dept. 2008). In equitably distributing a spouse’s business interest, the court must consider the direct contributions the non-titled spouse made to the business as well as the indirect contributions to the ma-rital partnership, including homemaking, parenting, and providing the necessary emotional and moral support to sustain the titled spouse in carrying on the business.  Price v. Price, 69 N.Y.2d 8, 15 (1986).
Unlike other marital assets, in valuing a non-titled spouse’s share in a spouse’s business interest, the trend has been toward awards between 25% and 35% to the non-titled spouse. Chalif v. Chalif, 298 A.D.2d 348, 349, (2d Dept. 2002)(25% award to wife of husband’s medical practice and enhanced earning capacity); Granade-Bastuck v. Granade-Bastuck, 249 A.D.2d 444, 445 (2d Dept. 1998)(25% award to plaintiff of defendant’s law practice); Giokas v. Giokas, 73 A.D.3d 688 (2d Dept. 2010)(10% award to wife of husband’s business); Kerrigan v. Kerrigan, 71 A.D.3d 737 (2d Dept. 2010)(35% award to wife of the husband’s business); Ciampa v. Ciampa, 47 A.D.3d 745, 747 (2d Dept. 2008)(35% award to wife of husband’s business); Kaplan v. Kaplan, 51 A.D.3d 635, 637 (2d Dept. 2008)(30% award to wife of the husband’s dental practice).

This has been a trend state-wide and has been followed by the Appellate Division, Fourth Department, which is located here in Rochester, New York, and to which decisions from Allegany, Cattaraugus, Cayuga, Chautauqua, Erie, Genesee, Herkimer, Jefferson, Lewis, Livingston, Monroe, Niagara, Oneida, Onondaga, Ontario, Orleans, Oswego, Seneca, Steuben, Wayne, Wyoming and Yates Counties are appealed to.

As a result, the non-titled spouses and their divorce lawyers have an uphill fight if they try to obtain a substantial share of such assets as a spouse’s business, educational degrees or professional licenses.

No-Fault Divorce Becomes Law In New York

Sunday, August 15th, 2010

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

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

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

Disability Payments, Divorce and Equitable Distribution

Saturday, January 2nd, 2010

I have previously written about different classes of property that most of the time will be considered to be separate property of the party during the divorce.  Periodically, divorce lawyers have to deal with situations where one of the parties becomes disabled during the marriage and begins to receive disability payments, either social security disability or payments under a private disability insurance policy.

In a recent case, Masella v. Masella, 2009 N.Y. Slip. Op 08190 (2nd Dept. 2009), the Appellate Division, Second Department, held that the proceeds of the defendant’s disability insurance policies are his separate property. Similarly, the court held that the proceeds of the defendant’s Social Security disability benefits also are his separate property, and are not subject to equitable distribution.  The reason that Social Security benefits are not subject to equitable distribution, is because Social Security benefits are not a pension.  With respect to the disability insurance, any disability insurance payments constitute compensation for personal injury and would not be subject to equitable distribution.

In a situation where one of the parties is disabled and is receiving disability payments, the other party might not be able to obtain equitable distribution of such payment, regardless of the amount received.  While some may argue that this may not be fair to the other party, the above principles are uniformly applied in New York divorces and are unlikely to be overturned in the future.  When handling similar situations, divorce attorneys will need to investigate the source of payments, the reasons for them and try to figure out if the income can be reached in some other way, perhaps by a spousal maintenance claim.

Return From Military Service and Reconsideration of Custody Orders

Sunday, December 20th, 2009
Laws of 2009, Ch 473, effective November 15, 2009, amended the Domestic Relations Law, the Family Court Act and the Military Law to provide that the return of a parent from activation or deployment by the military will automatically be considered a ‘substantial change in circumstance’ for seeking reconsideration of a custody or visitation order. The amendment changes the law enacted last year which requires that all child custody orders issued when a parent is on active military duty be deemed temporary and subject to revision when the parent returns to civilian life.
Laws of 2009, Ch 473, § 1 amended Domestic Relations Law § 75-l ( entitled Military service by parent; effect on child custody
orders) to provide unless the parties have otherwise stipulated or agreed, if an order was issued under Domestic Relations Law § 75-l, the return of the parent from active military service, deployment or temporary assignment shall be considered a substantial
change in circumstances. Upon the request of either parent, the court shall determine on the basis of the child’s best interests whether the custody judgment or order previously in effect should be modified.
Laws of 2009, Ch 473, § 2 amended Domestic Relations Law 240, subdivision 1 to add a new paragraph (a-2) to read as follows:
(a-2) Military service by parent; effect on child custody orders.
(1) During the period of time that a parent is activated, deployed or temporarily assigned to military service, such that the parent’s ability to continue as a joint caretaker or the primary caretaker of a minor child is materially affected by such military service, any orders issued pursuant to this section, based on the fact that the parent is activated, deployed or temporarily assigned to military service, which would materially affect or change a previous judgment or order regarding custody of that parent’s child or children as such judgment or order existed on the date the parent was activated, deployed, or temporarily assigned to military service, shall be subject to review pursuant to subparagraph three of this paragraph. Any relevant provisions of the Service Member’s Civil Relief Act shall apply to all proceedings governed by this section.
(2) During such period, the court may enter an order to modify custody if there is clear and convincing evidence that the modification is in the best interests of the child. An attorney for the child shall be appointed in all cases where a modification is sought during such military service. Such order shall be subject to review pursuant to subparagraph three of this paragraph. When entering an order pursuant to this section, the court shall consider and provide for, if feasible and if in the best interests of the child, contact between the military service member and his or her child, including, but not limited to, electronic communication by e-mail, webcam, telephone, or other available means. During the period of the parent’s leave from military service, the court shall consider the best interests of the child when establishing a parenting schedule, including visiting and other contact. For such purposes, a “leave from military service” shall be a period of not more than three months.
(3) Unless the parties have otherwise stipulated or agreed, if an order is issued pursuant to this paragraph, the return of the parent from active military service, deployment or temporary assignment shall be considered a substantial change in circumstances. Upon the request of either parent, the court shall determine on the basis of the child’s best interests whether the custody judgment or order previously in effect should be modified.
(4) This paragraph shall not apply to assignments to permanent duty stations or permanent changes of station.
Laws of 2009, Ch 473, § 3 amended Family Court Act § 651 to add a new subdivision (f) which reads exactly the same as Domestic Relations Law 240, subdivision 1 (a-2).

On November 15, 2009, amendments to the Domestic Relations Law, the Family Court Act and the Military Law became effective that provide that the return of a parent from activation or deployment by the military will automatically be considered a “substantial change in circumstance” for seeking reconsideration of a custody or visitation order.  The amendments change the law enacted last year which requires that all child custody orders issued when a parent is on active military duty are deemed temporary and subject to revision when the parent returns to civilian life.

Specifically, Domestic Relations Law §75-l ( entitled Military service by parent; effect on child custody orders) provides that unless the parties have otherwise stipulated or agreed, if an order was issued under Domestic Relations Law §75-l, the return of the parent from active military service, deployment or temporary assignment shall be considered a substantial change in circumstances.  Upon the request of either parent, the court shall determine on the basis of the child’s best interests whether the custody judgment or order previously in effect should be modified.

Domestic Relations Law §240(1), was amended to add a new paragraph (a-2) as follows:

(a-2) Military service by parent; effect on child custody orders.

(1) During the period of time that a parent is activated, deployed or temporarily assigned to military service, such that the parent’s ability to continue as a joint caretaker or the primary caretaker of a minor child is materially affected by such military service, any orders issued pursuant to this section, based on the fact that the parent is activated, deployed or temporarily assigned to military service, which would materially affect or change a previous judgment or order regarding custody of that parent’s child or children as such judgment or order existed on the date the parent was activated, deployed, or temporarily assigned to military service, shall be subject to review pursuant to subparagraph three of this paragraph. Any relevant provisions of the Service Member’s Civil Relief Act shall apply to all proceedings governed by this section.

(2) During such period, the court may enter an order to modify custody if there is clear and convincing evidence that the modification is in the best interests of the child. An attorney for the child shall be appointed in all cases where a modification is sought during such military service. Such order shall be subject to review pursuant to subparagraph three of this paragraph. When entering an order pursuant to this section, the court shall consider and provide for, if feasible and if in the best interests of the child, contact between the military service member and his or her child, including, but not limited to, electronic communication by e-mail, webcam, telephone, or other available means. During the period of the parent’s leave from military service, the court shall consider the best interests of the child when establishing a parenting schedule, including visiting and other contact. For such purposes, a “leave from military service” shall be a period of not more than three months.

(3) Unless the parties have otherwise stipulated or agreed, if an order is issued pursuant to this paragraph, the return of the parent from active military service, deployment or temporary assignment shall be considered a substantial change in circumstances. Upon the request of either parent, the court shall determine on the basis of the child’s best interests whether the custody judgment or order previously in effect should be modified.

(4) This paragraph shall not apply to assignments to permanent duty stations or permanent changes of station.

The Family Court Act § 651 was amended to add a new subdivision (f) which contains identical language as Domestic Relations Law §240(1) (a-2).

If you are in the military service, the amendments provide some degree of comfort that any changes to the preexisting custody arrangements as a result of being called to the active duty can be reevaluated.  At the same time, in order to do so, the service person will be required to go to court and is likely to require assistance of a family law lawyer.

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

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

Saturday, November 21st, 2009

While New York continues to be the last state that insists upon fault-based divorce, that has not stopped various attempts to broaden present grounds for divorce available under the Domestic  Relations Law.  In a recent decision, Davis v. Davis, 2009 N.Y. Slip. Op. 08579 (2nd Dept. 2009), the Appellate Division, Second Department, held that “social abandonment” of one spouse by the other, does not meet the definition of constructive abandonment, and can not be used as grounds for divorce.  This case demonstrates why divorce lawyers and their clients, here in Rochester and elsewhere in New York, can be in situation where they cannot get their clients divorced, despite significant breakdowns in marital relationships.

In Davis, the wife alleged that the husband refused to engage in social interaction with the wife by:

refusing to celebrate with her or acknowledge Valentine’s Day, Christmas, Thanksgiving, and the wife’s birthday, by refusing to eat meals together, by refusing to attend family functions or accompany the wife to movies, shopping, restaurants, and church services, by leaving her once at a hospital emergency room, by removing the wife’s belongings from the marital bedroom, and by otherwise ignoring her.  The parties have been married for 41 years and they reside at the same address.

The above claims were included as a part of the wife’s cause of action for constructive abandonment.  The husband filed a pre-answer motion pursuant to CPLR §3211(a)(7) to dismiss the constructive abandonment cause of action and, alternatively, moved for summary judgment dismissing that cause of action. The husband, while contesting many of the wife’s factual allegations of “social abandonment,” argued that the complaint fails to state a cause of action for a divorce based on “constructive abandonment.”

Domestic Relations Law §170 sets forth six statutory grounds on which a spouse may seek to divorce another. The abandonment ground for divorce, set forth in Domestic Relations Law §170(2), provides that an action for a divorce may be maintained based upon “[t]he abandonment of the plaintiff by the defendant for a period of one or more years.”   The essence of abandonment is the refusal of one spouse to fulfill “basic obligations springing from the marriage contract”.  The court noted that a viable cause of action under Domestic Relations Law §170(2) has been recognized in three different factual forms: (1)  a defendant spouse’s actual physical departure from the marital residence that is unjustified, voluntary, without consent of the plaintiff spouse, and with the intention of the departing spouse not to return; (2) the defendant spouse locks the plaintiff spouse out of the marital residence, absent justification or consent;  (3) “constructive abandonment,” which has been defined as the refusal by a defendant spouse to engage in sexual relations with the plaintiff spouse for one or more years prior to the commencement of the action, when such refusal is unjustified, willful, and continual, and despite repeated requests for the resumption of sexual relations.

the complaint alleges that the husband refused to engage in social interaction with the wife by refusing to celebrate with her or acknowledge Valentine’s Day, Christmas, Thanksgiving, and the wife’s birthday, by refusing to eat meals together, by refusing to attend family functions or accompany the wife to movies, shopping, restaurants, and church services, by leaving her once at a hospital emergency room, by removing the wife’s belongings from the marital bedroom, and by otherwise ignoring her. The parties have been married for 41 years and they reside at the same address.
The husband filed a pre-answer motion pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(7) to dismiss the constructive abandonment cause of action and, alternatively, moved for summary judgment dismissing that cause of action pursuant to CPLR 3212. The husband, while contesting many of the wife’s factual allegations of “social abandonment,” argued that the complaint fails to state a cause of action for a divorce based on “constructive abandonment.” The wife opposed dismissal arguing, [*2]inter alia, that social abandonment has been recognized as a ground for divorce in fairly recent trial-level decisions rendered by the Supreme Courts in Nassau, Queens, and Westchester Counties.

After analyzing the applicable case law and plain language of the statute, the Appellate Division concluded that the plaintiff’s allegations of social abandonment may appropriately be viewed as merely another way of claiming “irreconcilable differences” between spouses, that do not constitute a cognizable ground for divorce. The plaintiff’s allegations of a “social abandonment,” designed to mimic the abandonment language of Domestic Relations Law §170(2), “elevated the artificial title of the claim over the substance of the causes of action that are statutorily recognized and understood.”

The Appellate Division further noted that there are several reasons why the courts have not recognized social abandonment as a cognizable ground for divorce, including the longevity of the current definitional understanding of constructive abandonment; its concern for a judicial usurpation of legislative authority; the fact that a social abandonment of one spouse by another is a provision of the marriage contract that necessarily equates with a spouse’s refusal to engage in sexual relations.; and the practical difficulties associated with trying to define a social abandonment cause of action, and of how courts might conceptualize the cause as separate and distinct from traditional notions of constructive abandonment.  In court’s view, “social abandonment” cannot be easily defined and therefore defies consistent and easily applied definitional interpretation, resulting in the courts examining the conduct of couples on a case-by-case basis, and presenting significant variations as to “the degree of social interaction involving family events, meals, holidays, religious activities, spousal expectations, cultural differences, and communications.”

The Davis case is just one more illustration of the fact that New York needs to abandon its fault-based grounds for divorce.  No-fault divorce would significantly reduce divorce litigation and make clients’, and attorneys’, lives less frustrating.  Unfortunately, the New York Legislature has not shown much interest in this issue over the years.  What is also interesting, is that the Second Department’s position in Davis appears to be contrary to the Third Department’s position in Dunne v. Dunne, 47 A.D.3d 1056 (3rd Dept. 2008), discussed in an earlier post, which held constructive abandonment has taken place in a situation where one spouse took an uncompromising position that plaintiff choose to either adhere to the advice of his treating physicians or cease taking his anxiety medication in order to return to the marital residence, thereby risking his well-being. If forcing a party to choose between taking a medication and returning to the marital residence amounted to “an unreasonable condition as a term of their relationship,” which violated marital obligation to the husband, I believe that a refusal to participate in various activities with the spouse represents a similar violation of marital obligation.