Posts Tagged ‘settlement agreement’

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.

Divorce and Reformation of Settlement Agreement

Sunday, March 28th, 2010

I have previously written about vacating settlement agreements on the grounds of mutual mistake.  Here is a case where the court actually reformed the parties’ settlement agreement on the grounds of mutual mistake.

In Banker v. Banker, 53 A.D.3d 1105 (3rd Dept. 2008),  the parties’ oral stipulation of settlement, which was incorporated but not merged into their 2005 judgment of divorce, provided that the parties would subdivide a parcel of property located in Delaware County.  However, despite that provision, after the judgment of divorce was entered, the defendant refused to do so.  In response to a motion by plaintiff to enforce the stipulation, Supreme Court, in February 2006, ordered defendant to obtain subdivision approval from the Town.  The Planning Board denied defendant’s subsequent subdivision application after discovering that the property was encumbered by a restrictive covenant against further subdivision.  In March 2006, defendant moved to reargue and/or renew February 2006 order, and requested a hearing to determine equitable distribution.

Supreme Court reserved decision on all pending matters pertaining to the parties until an appraisal of the property was completed.  Because the parties could not agree on an appraiser, the court appointed one and directed the parties, once the appraisal was complete, to settle the matter in a private auction or buyout.  The appraiser completed the appraisal in June 2006.  By letter dated October 4, 2006, defendant requested the opportunity to offer further proof of value.  Plaintiff made a similar request and explained that the parties had not been able to settle the matter or agree on a private auction.

Plaintiff responded with a motion seeking that the parties’ interests in the property be declared in conformance with the terms set forth in the stipulation and the values established in the appraisal, as well as an order allowing her to buy out defendant’s share of the property.  Defendant opposed the motion, arguing that the appraisal should not be adopted without an opportunity by the parties to cross-examine the appraiser and submit other evidence of valuation.  Supreme Court ordered a hearing to permit the parties to cross-examine the appraiser, but made it clear that no other testimony or evidence of valuation would be permitted.

Following the hearing, at which Supreme Court again denied defendant’s request to submit further evidence, the court determined the interests of the parties in the property to be 83% for plaintiff and 17% for defendant.  The court, fixed the parties’ interests as indicated above, appointed a receiver, and ordered the   public sale of the property.  Defendant appealed.  The Appellate Division rejected defendant’s argument that Supreme Court exceeded its authority by reforming the parties’ stipulation of settlement.  Where, as here, a mutual mistake rendered a portion of the parties’ settlement agreement impossible or impracticable, “the relevant settlement provision was properly set aside”.  No dispute existed that the parties’ agreement to physically divide the property could not occur given the restrictive covenant; and even defendant was not attempting to have the parties’ stipulation enforced.  Thus, after giving the parties ample opportunity to reach a new agreement,  the trial court was correct to move forward by appointing an appraiser so that an equitable distribution of the property, in as close accordance as possible with the intent of the parties as expressed in their settlement, could be achieved.

The Appellate Division noted that to achieve reformation or recission of the stipulation of settlement, one of the parties should have commenced a plenary action, rather than proceeding by motion but, in the context of this matter, concluded the defect to be nonfatal.  However, the lower court erred in resolving this matter without a full hearing permitting the parties to offer proof of valuation.  The court is authorized to appoint an independent appraiser in a matrimonial action but, unless the parties have stipulated otherwise, the court must afford the parties the opportunity to review the appraisal, cross-examine the appraiser and offer additional evidence on valuation.  Although the record contained evidence that the parties consented to Supreme Court’s appointment of the appraiser, it did not suggest that the parties agreed to be bound by the resulting appraisal.

This is an example of a situation where the mutual mistake allowed the court to reform the parties’ settlement agreement.  While those circumstances tend to be limited, the lawyers in Banker recognized that since the property could not be subdivided, it had to be sold or one of the parties would buy out the other party’s interest.  The question of valuation was secondary to the remedy chosen by the court as a result of reformation of the agreement.  At the same time, it is rather surprising that neither divorce attorney was aware of the covenant, since both parties, presumably, had access to the real property records and the property’s abstract of title.

Determining Validity of Separation Agreements

Saturday, January 23rd, 2010

I have previously written about separation agreements and their validity, here, here and here.  Periodically, I see separation agreements that are extremely one-sided or I am asked to draft a separation agreement that is very one-sided.  In those situations a divorce lawyer is usually asked if the agreement can be set aside.  My usual response is that the court’s determination whether to set aside the agreement depends on a variety of factors.

The legal standard for setting aside separation agreements states that a separation agreement in a divorce proceeding may be vacated if it is manifestly unfair to one party because of the other’s overreaching or where its terms are unconscionable, or there exists fraud, collusion, mistake, or accident.  Separation agreements may be set aside as unconscionable if their terms evidence a bargain so inequitable that no reasonable and competent person would have consented to it.  Moreover, evidence that one attorney ostensibly represented both parties to a settlement agreement raises an inference of overreaching on the part of the party who is the prime beneficiary of the assistance of the attorney. Such an inference is, rebuttable, if it appears that the separation agreement is fair and equitable or that both parties freely agreed to it with a thorough understanding of its terms.

In a recent case of Pippis v. Pippis, 2010 N.Y. Slip. Op. 00492 (2nd Dept. 2010), the Appellate Division, Second Department vacated the separation agreement holding that plaintiff was guilty of overreaching with respect to the parties’ separation agreement.  The court found that the defendant was not represented by counsel at any point during the relevant time period.  According to the plaintiff, his attorney drafted the stipulation of settlement, and only one attorney was present at the signing.  Under these circumstances, and where the terms of the stipulation “evidence a bargain so inequitable” in favor of the plaintiff “that no reasonable and competent person” would have consented to the defendant’s end of the bargain, an inference of overreaching on the part of the husband was raised.  Since the plaintiff failed to rebut the inference, the Appellate Division held that the trial court properly determined that the stipulation was the product of his overreaching, and granted the defendant’s motion to set it aside.  The Appellate Division also held that the trial court properly rejected the plaintiff’s ratification argument, since the defendant “received virtually no benefits from the agreement and thus cannot be said to have ratified it”.

While occasionally I am asked to prepare a separation agreement in a situation where the opposing party is unrepresented, I advise my client that it is in his/her best interests that the other party is represented and that the agreement is not entirely one-sided.  As a divorce lawyer, I have to advise my client that any agreement that is extremely one-sided may be vacated by the court in any pending or subsequent divorce action.  If the agreement is reviewed by counsel and conveys some benefits to the other party, the likelihood of it being overturned by the court is greatly diminished.

Vacating Settlement Agreements on Grounds of Mutual Mistake

Sunday, December 27th, 2009

In is not unusual for a party to attempt to vacate a settlement agreement.  In order to do so, a party must meet a significant burden of proof that the agreement came as a result of a material, mutual mistake, fraud, or other relevant facts.  A interesting illustration of the above principles came in a recent decision, Simkin v. Blank, Sup. Co. New York County (December 22, 2009).

In 2006, Mr. Simkin, a partner at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison and his wife negotiated a settlement agreement in their divorce action.  One of the marital assets was an account the parties opened during their marriage with Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities LLC which was worth $5.4 million.  As part of a 2006 equitable distribution agreement, Mr. Simkin  paid Ms. Blank $2.7 million, which represented what he thought was his ex-wife’s fair share of their Madoff investments.

After Mr. Madoff’s arrest, Mr. Simkin attempted to reform the agreement, claiming it was based on a “material, mutual mistake” and resulted in a “windfall” for Ms. Blank. He argued that the agreement did not accomplish the parties’ goal of ensuring that each would keep approximately half of the marital assets.  Ms. Blank responded that as long as Mr. Simkin could have redeemed the account for the value that the parties agreed to on the cut-off date, he received what he bargained for. Noting that Mr. Simkin had liquidated part of his investment to fund his ex-wife’s equitable entitlement, the court pointed out that in 2006 and “the several years after that plaintiff maintained this investment,” the account “could have been redeemed for cash, presumably significantly in excess of its 2004 value.”  While Mr. Simkin claimed the Madoff account held no assets, he did not allege it had no value, the judge wrote.  “An investor’s ability to redeem an account for value, was the assumption on which the parties relied in dividing their property and in doing so they made no mistake,” the court found.

Justice Evans agreed with Ms. Blank holding that while Mr. Simkin’s decision to retain the Madoff account may have been “improvident,” that did not give the court an equitable basis to set the agreement aside. In dismissing Mr. Simkin’s complaint, Justice Evans wrote, “There is no evidence that defendant was unjustly enriched. In 2006, at the time of their agreement, each of the parties received the benefit of his and her bargain.”

The lesson of the above case is that clients and their divorce attorneys should be careful in fashioning settlement agreements.  Even when significant mistakes are made at the time the agreements are entered into, it is very difficult to set them aside, even in such extreme circumstances as described above.

Making Deals in Divorce and Subsequent Change in Circumstances

Sunday, August 23rd, 2009

I am asked occasionally whether a separation agreement, which was perhaps incorporated in the subsequent judgment of divorce, entered into years ago can be vacated because of subsequent changes in the parties’ circumstances.  My usual response is no, since in order to have the agreement vacated, the party must show grounds sufficient to vitiate a contract.  The burden of proof in those situations is very high and may also be subject to time limitations.  Similarly, with respect to modification of a child support obligation included in a stipulation or a separation agreement, the party must show an unreasonable and unanticipated change in circumstances since the time of the stipulation to justify a modification, and that the alleged changes in that party’s financial position was not of his/her own making. A recent decision by a trial court, Debreau v. Debreau, 2009 N.Y. Slip. Op. 51750 (Sup. Ct. Nassau Co.), demonstrated a good illustration of the above principles, holding that if the parties make a deal as a part of their divorce settlement, provided that the settlement was arrived at fairly, the settlement will stand despite the fact that the circumstances have changed.

In Debreau, the wife accepted title to the family home as prepayment for 15 years of child support.  After the house sold for only two-thirds of the value estimated at the time of the divorce, she sued for child support arrears.  The court held that “[t]he law is clear that both [the Domestic Relations Law] and the public policy in favor of finality require the enforcement of property distribution agreements pursuant to their terms, absent fraud, regardless of post-agreement changes in the values of the assets.”  The court stated that “[t]he law views the equitable distribution of marital assets as a snapshot, not a movie… If an agreement distributing marital assets is not subject to vacatur, on the date of its execution, on grounds sufficient to vitiate a contract, it may not be modified or set aside on the ground that future events have rendered the division of assets inequitable.”

When the parties divorced in 2007, they agreed by stipulation to allow the husband’s share of the marital home serve as a prepayment of the child support he would owe for the couple’s four children over the next 15 years. Mr. Deabreu’s child-support obligation was set at $2,972 per month, or a total of about $535,000. The parties agreed that the husband’s share of the $1.85 million Melville house, after paying off its $400,000 mortgage and other expenses, was comparable to that obligation. They therefore stipulated that his obligation would be met by transferring over title. In June 2008, the house sold for only $1.2 million, netting the wife $734,000 rather than the $1.45 million she had anticipated. Ms. Deabreu subsequently filed a motion seeking child support arrears of $484,492, the amount she contends her husband owes to her from 2006 through 2021.

The trial court rejected Ms. Deabreu’s motion, ruling that any shortfall in the sale of the house should be taken from the wife’s share of the marital assets, not from the husband’s prepayment of child support. “While the prepaid child support sum…was specified and fixed pursuant to the parties’ stipulation of settlement, the value of the marital assets distributed to each party was determined only as of the date of the stipulation,” Justice Falanga held. The sum that the wife was to receive for her marital share “was not guaranteed by the husband, but rather, was subject to various factors such as market fluctuations and the manner in which the premises was maintained.” The decision also mentioned that Ms. Deabreu was not without other methods of seeking redress. According to the decision, “[t]he receipt by the wife, upon the sale of the [house], of approximately $650,000.00 less than she expected when entering into a stipulation of settlement…may constitute an unanticipated and unreasonable change in her financial circumstances, and may have left her, as she has alleged in her within application, unable to provide for the financial needs of the parties’ four children, entitling her to seek an upward modification of child support.”

In my opinion, it is not likely that Ms. Debreau would be able to establish an unanticipated and unreasonable change in circumstances in the above situation.  I am also left wondering why the house was not sold earlier.  I also would like to know if Ms. Debreau entered into this stipulation after discussing the risk of decline in real estate values with her divorce lawyer. Personally, I don’t think that I would recommend this type of an arrangement to a client.  The risk of decline in the value of any asset subject to market forces is too great. As a divorce attorney, I would also be concerned about giving advice to the client to retain a fixed asset as a prepayment of future child support or maintenance obligation.

Family Court Lacks Power to Modify Maintenance Provision in Separation Agreement

Thursday, August 21st, 2008

In a recent decision, Johna M.S. v. Russell E.S., the Court of Appeals held that the Family Court lacks power to modify maintenance provisions contained in the parties’ separation agreement. The separation agreement that the wife and the husband both signed, explicitly stated that the wife is “completely disabled” and will be in need of maintenance “for the remainder of her life”. The agreement provided for current maintenance payments of $100.00 per week payable to the wife and recited that this being only a determination of her “present” need and his “present” economic circumstances. It further stated that the wife could if need be seek a “modification” of those sums in a “de novo” proceeding in a court of “appropriate jurisdiction”. A divided Court of Appeals held that the Family Court is not such an “appropriate” court and that in respect of spousal (as opposed to child) maintenance, family court lacks subject matter jurisdiction of a “modification”.

The Court pointed out that there was no risk that the wife would become a public charge. According to the Court of Appeals, the danger of a spouse becoming a public charge is the only circumstance in which, under Family Court Act § 463, the Family Court can modify a separation agreement when the matrimonial action has not been brought as of yet.

A key factor in Johna M.S. was that Family Court lacks “equity” jurisdiction. As Judge Smith points out in his dissent, the prior cases held that Family Court’s attempt to “modify” such a separation agreement amounts to a kind of “reformation or rescission”, which are equitable remedies: they seek to alter the parties’ agreement and there was no effort by the wife to do that here. On the contrary, the agreement itself contemplated modification, wholly negating the “equity” analogy. As a result, the disabled wife’s only choice is to either accept maintenance of $100.00 per week as permanent, or to sue in supreme court for a divorce or separation, where she will be able to seek a greater amount of maintenance.