Duration of Residency in New York as Prerequisite to Divorce Action

In order to have a valid divorce action in New York, certain residential requirements have to be satisfied. Domestic Relations Law §230 requires that:

1. You and your spouse were married in New York, and either of you is a resident of New York when the divorce action is started and has been a resident of New York for a continuous period of one year immediately before the commencement of the divorce action;
2. You and your spouse have resided in New York as husband and wife, and either of you is a resident of New York when the divorce action is started and has been a resident of New York for a continuous period of one year immediately preceding the beginning of the divorce action;
3. The grounds for divorce occurred in New York, and either you or your spouse has been a resident of New York for a continuous period of at least one year immediately before the beginning of the divorce action;
4. The grounds for divorce occurred in New York, and both you and your spouse are residents of New York at the time of the commencement of the divorce action;
5. Either you or your spouse has been a resident of New York for a continuous period of at least two years immediately preceding the commencement of the divorce action.

The statute requires that the residency be continuous. What happens if the party spends significant periods of time outside of New York?

In Murjani v. Murjani, 2014 N.Y. Slip. Op. 08366 (1st Dep’t. 2014), the Appellate Division held that durational residency requirements were satisfied by the defendant, despite the fact that defendant would spend significant periods of time in India and elsewhere. The court held that since defendant had maintained a permanent residence in New York and would return there with regularity, those facts satisfied continuous residency requirements. Thus, as long as permanent residence is being maintained in New York, and the party either returns or intends to return there, Domestic Relations Law §230 is satisfied and a divorce action can be maintained.

Statement That Marriage Was Irretrievably Broken Is Sufficient to Establish Cause of Action For Divorce

I have previously written about the issues associated with the grounds for divorce under the no-fault statute (Domestic Relations Law §170(7)). Prior decisions associated with issue were trial level decisions and, therefore, there were subject to potentially different result after appellate review. Now, there is some finality to this issue. Two recent appellate decision held specifically that a statement under oath that the marriage was irretrievably broken for a period of six months or longer was sufficient to establish a cause of action under Domestic Relations Law §170(7).

In Trbovich v. Trbovich, 122 A.D.3d 1381 (4 Dep’t. 2014) the Appellate Division, Fourth Department, affirmed an order which denied the plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment seeking a divorce pursuant to Domestic Relations Law §170(7). It agreed with plaintiff that the relationship has broken down irretrievably for a period of at least six months opposing spouse in a no-fault divorce action pursuant to Domestic Relations Law §170(7) is not entitled to litigate the other spouse’s sworn statement, and indicated that to the extent that its decision in Tuper v. Tuper, 98 A.D.3d 55, 59 (4th Dep’t 2012) suggested otherwise, it declined to follow it. Nevertheless, the Appellate Division held that plaintiff was not entitled to summary judgment under Domestic Relations Law §170(7) at this juncture of the litigation because the ancillary issues had not been resolved by the parties or determined by the court.

In Hoffer-Adou v. Adou, 2014 Slip.Op.  07436 (1 Dep’t. 2014) the Appellate Division held that contrary to the husband’s contention, the wife was entitled to a judgment of divorce under the no-fault provision of DRL §170(7), since her statement under oath that the marriage was irretrievably broken for a period of six months was sufficient to establish her cause of action for divorce as a matter of law. Trial court’s grant of the divorce did not contradict DRL §170(7)’s requirement that “[n]o judgment of divorce shall be granted under this subdivision unless and until the economic issues of equitable distribution of marital property, the payment or waiver of spousal support, the payment of child support, the payment of counsel and experts’ fees and expenses as well as the custody and visitation with the infant children of the marriage have been resolved by the parties, or determined by the court and incorporated into the judgment of divorce.” The parties’ separation agreement resolved the issues of child custody and support. Their subsequent commencement in the Family Court of proceedings concerning these issues did not render the court without authority to grant the divorce, since non-compliance with/or enforcement of, the separation agreement is not an element of Domestic Relations Law §170(7).

Thus, as long as the party seeking divorce is able to make a sworn statement that the marriage was irretrievably broken for a period of six months, that party will receive a divorce once all other issues have been resolved. There is no way for the defendant to challenge that statement, and the court will not permit introduction of testimony challenging it. This follows the intent of the no-fault statute to prevent grounds trials.

Tracing Method of Dividing Defined Contribution Retirement Assets

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.

Temporary Maintenance and Payment of Additional Expenses by Monied Spouse

One issue that comes up fairly often in divorce cases is the issue of whether the monied spouse who is paying temporary maintenance is also responsible for additional expenses incurred by the non-monied spouse. At least some of the prior decisions held that when the temporary maintenance is being paid, the recipient was responsible for his or her living expenses, including any mortgage payments or housing expenses.

However, it appears that at least some of the appellate decisions hold otherwise. In Vistocco v. Jardin,116 A.D.3rd 842 (N.Y.A.D. 2 Dept.), the parties were married in 1995 and had three unemancipated children. The wife made a request for temporary maintenance as well as for payment of carrying costs on the marital residence. The trial court awarded the defendant $3,000 per week for child support and $3,000 per week in temporary spousal maintenance, directed the plaintiff to pay the mortgage and taxes on the marital residence where the defendant resided with the parties’ children, directed the plaintiff to pay the defendant’s car insurance, and awarded the defendant interim counsel fees and expert fees in the sums of $12,500 and $3,500, respectively. The Appellate Division affirmed.

The plaintiff argued that the Supreme Court erred in directing him to pay, in addition to spousal maintenance, the mortgage and taxes on the marital residence and the defendant’s car insurance. He contended that the pendente lite maintenance award is intended to cover the defendant’s basic living expenses, which include the mortgage, property taxes, and her car insurance. The Appellate Division held that the formula to determine temporary spousal maintenance that is outlined in Domestic Relations Law § 236(B)(5-a)(c) is intended to cover all of a  payee spouse’s basic living expenses, including housing costs, the costs of food and clothing, and other usual expenses (see  Khaira v. Khaira, 93 AD3d 194). It further held that it may be appropriate to direct payment by the monied spouse of the mortgage and taxes on the marital residence and other expenses of the nonmonied spouse under certain circumstances (see id.). In light of the evidence that the plaintiff’s income exceeded $500,000 and the gross disparity between the plaintiff’s income and the defendant’s income, the trial court properly awarded additional support in the form of a directive to the plaintiff to pay the mortgage and taxes on the marital residence (Domestic Relations Law § 236[B][5-a][c][2][a][ii] ), as well as the defendant’s car insurance.

Unfortunately, until the Court of Appeals hears a case involving these issues, it is likely that there will not be uniformity among the trial court decisions. If you are non-monied spouse, you have nothing to lose by making a request for carrying costs of the marital residence, provided that there is financial wherewithal on the part of the monied spouse. Ultimately, a decision of whether such additional should be requested should be made on case by case basis.

Standard of Living, Diminished Income, Spousal Maintenance and Child Support

The courts in New York have had some difficulty dealing with situations were a claim of recently diminished income has been presented to the court in response to a temporary spousal support application. In most situations, the courts would either impute income or deny downward modification. The courts have been concerned with the parties’ standard of living for the non-monied spouse and the children despite  the claims of the income-producing spouse of diminished resources and/or income. One trial decision, S.A. v. L.A., 2 Misc.3d 7441 (Sup. Ct. Westchester Co.), illustrates the situation where the present financial situation – the husband earning a lot less income than existed throughout the marriage, has led the court consider present circumstances and to caution the non-monied spouse that she would have to deal with a new economic reality.

In considering interim spousal support, the court had to determine if it would apply the husband’s 2012 income of $819,049 or his far lesser annualized 2013 income imputed at $240,000. The husband was 56 years old and employed in the financial services industry. The wife was 64 years old stay-at-home wife and mother, who has not had any significant for 23 years of the marriage. The husband claimed that he was terminated from his old job through no fault of his own and he was forced to find new employment at a much lower rate of pay. The wife argued that he had voluntarily left his former employment.

The court had to address the principles of utilizing the current income as opposed to the income on the last tax return on a presumptive temporary maintenance calculation. The court determined that according to the language of the Domestic Relations Law §240 (1-b) (b) (5), the income rules applicable in child support proceedings may be used to determine an application for temporary spousal maintenance, as is available for interim child support.

The second part of the court’s analysis, and of great significance, was the court’s view of the parties’ present diminished financial situation from their historic standard of living even as measured by the immediately preceding year. The reduction in the family’s income from the husband’s 2012 adjusted gross income of $819,049.00 to the annualized 2013 income of $240,000.00, was accepted by the court. As result, instead of presumptive temporary support of $17,000.00 per month as requested by the wife, the court awarded $5,737.00 per month. The court further found that with the requested amount of $17,000.00 exceeded the wife’s legitimate monthly expenses, rendering the presumptive award unjust and inappropriate. The court ruled that the issue of whether the husband had been discharged or voluntarily separated from his old employment was reserved for trial.

In its decisions, the court stated that:

The court recognizes that the spousal support provisions in this decision and order will greatly affect the parties’ respective post-separation standards of living. They need to consider the financial predicament they are in, and how to deal with the future. They are now suffering the consequences of their prior high standard of living. It is beyond dispute that two cannot live as cheaply as one, and that “hardship” at any economic level follows drastic losses of income. It is time for the parties to recognize the financial reality they may well face in the future, given their ages, work experience and future prospects for employment. The court urges that the parties’ focus should be on financial planning with asset and debt liquidation. The continuance of this costly litigation will not heal their wounds, both economic and emotional, already suffered, but rather will exacerbate them.

The decision in S.A. v L.A. illustrates that during the difficult economic times, the parties may have to temper their expectations. If a monied spouse can not earn past levels of income through no fault of his or her own, the non-monied spouse is likely to have to share the hardship as well.

Updates to New York’s Child Support Standards Chart

According to the Child Support Standards Chart, prepared by New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, Division of Child Support Enforcement, and released March 12, 2014, the 2014 poverty income guideline amount for a single person as reported by the United States Department of Health and Human Services is $11,670 and the 2014 self-support reserve is $15,755. These numbers are highly relevant for child support calculations and may have a role in determining child support arrears in situations where payor’s income is less than the guideline amount for a single person. The Chart is found at this link. The Child Support Standards Chart is released each year on or before April 1.

Additionally, as required by the Child Support Standards Act, the combined parental income amount used to calculate basis economic support has been changed to $141,000. This figure is adjusted every two years (effective January 31st) based on the average annual percent changes to the federal Department of Labor’s Consumer Price Index for Urban Consumers. The basic economic support figure is highly relevant in the cases where combined parental income is substantially in excess of it since the court may utilize parental income in excess of the basic economic support figure under appropriate circumstances.

Surrogacy and Adoption

One area where New York still lags behind other states has to do with surrogacy contracts. New York does not recognize surrogacy contracts statutorily since it deems the underlying surrogacy contracts to be against public policy, and they are void and unenforceable in New York. See N.Y. Dom. Rel. L. § 122. However, what happens to a child born as a result of such contract?

In a recent decision, Matter of J.J., 2014 N.Y. Slip. Op. 24089 (Fam. Ct. Queens Co. 2014), New York Family Court held that a child born as a result of a surrogacy contract can be adopted in the State of New York, notwithstanding the fact that such contract would be void and unenforceable.  In that decision, Judge Salinitro held that a man may legally adopt his husband’s biological twins even though they were born to a woman under a surrogacy agreement that is illegal in New York State. According to the court, the best interests of the twins is the most important consideration in weighing the adoption petition, not the surrogacy agreement that resulted in their birth. According to the decision, a home study provided to the court showed that the children are thriving in the care of the parents.

Thus, the court stated that it is not being asked to enforce the surrogacy contract that forms the basis for the adoption, nor does the relief sought include claims relating to the surrogacy agreement itself. Rather, the case involved proposed adoptive parent who wanted to have equivalent legal status as the birth parent, and is prepared to assume the rights and responsibilities that accompany legal parentage.

Therefore, the surrogacy agreement with the woman who bore the children in Mumbai, India, in 2013 was of no consequence to the adoption. The court specifically found that “where a surrogacy contract exists and an adoption has been filed to establish legal parentage, such surrogacy contract does not foreclose an adoption from proceeding”.

Section 122 of Domestic Relations Law declares that “surrogate parenting contracts are hereby declared contrary to the public policy of this state, and are void and unenforceable”. The judge said she found a “paucity” of previous rulings in New York on surrogacy and none directly focused on surrogacy contracts in the adoption context. Accordingly, she called the issue before her an apparent question of first impression in New York courts.

I think that the judge made the right decision. Given that the law does not always keep up with changes in medical technology and society, the courts have to step in and address these types of issues.

Transmutation of Separate Property into Marital Property

One of the basic theories in equitable distribution and divorce litigation is that of transmutation. Transmutation theory holds that by their actions, the parties are able to modify the status of the property they own from separate property to marital property. Most of the time transmutation occurs when the parties commingle separate property with marital property or place what otherwise be separate property into both parties’ names.  This was demonstrated in Fehring v. Fehring, 58 A.D.3d 1061 (3rd Dept. 2009), where the money received on account of personal injuries by the husband, would be initially classified as his separate property. However, the husband deposited check in brokerage account held and used jointly by the parties. In January 2006, husband used $50,000 from account to purchase real property. The court held that transferring separate property assets into a joint account raises rebutable presumption that funds are marital property subject to equitable distribution and that the husband failed to rebut presumption of marital property given commingling of funds. It held that the lower court providently exercised discretion in distributing equally the value of interest in real property purchased with funds held in joint account.

Another example of how separate property may become a marital asset was addressed in a recent decision from the Appellate Division, Fourth Department. In Foti v. Foti, 2014 N.Y. Slip Op 00835 (4th Dept. 2014), defendant received several pieces of real property as gift from her father. Subsequently, tax losses associated with those properties were taken on the parties’ joint income tax returns. The court held that there was a question of fact whether defendant commingled her interests in the entities with marital property and whether a joint federal tax return in which defendant reported her interest in the entities as tax losses, precluded her from taking “a position contrary to a position taken in an income tax return”.

Unfortunately, the Foti decision does not give us enough facts to find out exactly what the tax returns stated. Nonetheless, this shows that even a seemingly innocuous act of filing a tax return may change the status of the property. In my view, decisions like this one, could have been prevented if the parties had signed either a prenuptial or a postnuptial agreement. If you are contemplating divorce, be careful to avoid taking any action that converts your separate property to marital property. Once transmutation takes place, it is highly unlikely that you would be able to change the property’s status back to separate property, even with a lawyer’s assistance.

Minors and Rescission of Acknowledgment of Paternity

A recent bill signed into law by Governor Cuomo, allows minors who acknowledged paternity of their children to have a brief period of time when they turn 18 to seek to rescind that acknowledgment . Family Court Act §516-a will permit young men who signed the acknowledgment of paternity up to 60 days, starting on their 18th birthday, to file a petition seeking to vacate.

Under the present law, if someone over the age of eighteen has signed an acknowledgment of paternity, the signatory may seek to rescind the acknowledgment by filing a petition with the court to vacate the acknowledgment within the earlier of sixty days of the date of signing the acknowledgment or the date of an administrative or a judicial proceeding (including, but not limited to, a proceeding to establish a support order) relating to the child in which the signatory is a party. The “date of an administrative or a judicial proceeding” means the date by which the respondent is required to answer the petition.

Sponsors of the legislation had said that seeking a rescission of paternity will not necessarily extinguish the paternal rights but could result in a judge ordering a DNA test to conclusively establish or disprove parenthood. Signing the acknowledgment of paternity is a serious matter since it carries responsibilities, such as paying child support for non-custodial children until they turn 21.

According to the legilative history of the statute, the change was prompted by the recognition that minors often sign acknowledgments without guidance from their parents or other adults, or sign them for children they know are not theirs without realizing the long-term ramifications. If acknowledgment is signed and, subsequently, there is evidence that the party who signed it is not the birth father, it may be too late to do anything about it.

A safer course of action is not to sign an acknowledgment. If the acknowledgment of paternity is not signed, then paternity will needs to be established, and Family Court is the proper venue for filing a paternity petition. If the either parent files a petition for Paternity, then the father can either consent to paternity or, if he does not, the court can order Genetic Marker (DNA) Test to confirm that he is actually the biological father. Generally, the DNA test is conclusive evidence of who the biological parent is. However, before the DNA test is ordered by the court, it will have to address any equitable estoppel issues that may arise.  Assuming that equitable estoppel issues have been resolved, and the DNA test takes place, then the Court will issue an Order of Filiation, which is provided to the DHMH for the issuance of a new birth certificate.

Equitable estoppel in those situations may be raised both offensively and defensively by either the man initially believed to be the biological father or the man believed to be the true biological father.  Not all fathers cooperate since an Order of Filiation typically results in an order for child support and, possibly, a liability for birth expenses.

There Is No Right to Grounds Trial In A No-Fault Divorce Case

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.