Recoupment of Maintenance After Successful Appeal

I have previously written about recoupment of pendente lite maintenance in a divorce action after the entry of a final maintenance award. The recent decision by the Court of Appeals in Johnson v. Chapin, previously discussed in this post, allowed recoupment of pendente lite maintenance as an adjustment to the equitable distribution award.

But what happens if the permanent maintenance award is overturned on appeal? In Rader v. Rader, 54 A.D.3d 919 (2nd Dept. 2008), the Appellate Division, Second Department, held that public policy prohibits recoupment of both pendente lite and permanent maintenance paid pursuant to court order or judgment which is subsequently set aside on appeal.

In Rader, the plaintiff stopped paying the defendant maintenance in January 2006, contending that the parties’ judgment of divorce entered September 18, 1998 required him to pay maintenance only for a period of 10 years, retroactive to the commencement of the divorce action in January 1996. The defendant claimed that she was entitled to maintenance until July 2007-10 years after the date of the decision awarding her maintenance.

In an order dated July 7, 2006 the Supreme Court granted the defendant’s motion, directed the plaintiff to pay the defendant maintenance for a period of 10 years, retroactive to July 1997, when the decision awarding her maintenance was made, and granted the defendant leave to enter a money judgment for maintenance arrears, plus the sum of $1,500 as an attorney’s fee. A money judgment was subsequently entered on July 26, 2006. The plaintiff appealed, and after some additional litigation between the parties, ultimately paid the sum of $54,000 in maintenance for the period from July 2006 until April 2007, plus the sum of $2,000 as an attorney’s fee, for a total sum of $56,000, while the appeal was pending.

In a decision dated April 17, 2007, the Appellate Division reversed the money judgment, and modified the order dated July 7, 2006 upon finding that the plaintiff’s obligation to pay maintenance terminated on January 9, 2006, or 10 years after the divorce action was commenced. Subsequently, the plaintiff moved for reimbursement of the sums of $54,000 in maintenance and $2,000 in attorneys’ fees he paid. In opposition, the defendant noted, inter alia, that she already spent the disputed $56,000 on her living expenses and attorneys’ fees. The Supreme Court denied the plaintiff’s motion.

The Second Department held that there is a strong public policy against recoupment of both pendente lite and permanent maintenance paid pursuant to a court order or judgment which is subsequently set aside on appeal. The reason for this policy is that maintenance and child support payments are “deemed to have been devoted to that purpose, and no funds exist from which one may recoup moneys so expended” if the award is thereafter reversed or modified. The Court further noted that if there were unpaid arrears of other obligations, such as carrying charges for the marital residence, the payor spouse may be granted a credit against those arrears for maintenance paid pursuant to an order which was reversed on appeal.

Is Rader still good law after the Court of Appeals’ decision in Johnson v. Chapin?. I believe that it is, especially with respect to the final maintenance awards. However, it is likely that we will see divorce lawyers making arguments for recoupment even with respect to the final maintenance awards overturned on appeal. I am familiar with a divorce case that is currently pending here in Rochester that may raise issues identical to those in Rader after the Court of Appeals’ decision in Johnson v. Chapin. I will post on that case once it has been resolved.

Attorneys Fees Ordered in Family Court and Discharge in Chapter 7 Bankruptcy

I have previously written how the bankruptcy courts deal with attempted discharge of the so-called domestic support obligations. However, that post focused primarily on discharge of obligation that arose as a result of divorce proceedings and child support. Occasionally, I see an attempt to discharge an obligation arising out of Family Court proceedings, specifically, attorneys fees.

While it is clear that the child support or spousal support obligations are not dischargeable in bankruptcy as domestic support obligations, the question of attorneys fees granted in a child support or other proceeding in Family Court was less clear cut until Ross v. Sperow, 57 A.D.3d 1255 (3rd Dept. 2008), where the Appellate Division, Third Department, held that the award of counsel fees by the Family Court was, in part, “in the nature of support” and, therefore, excepted from discharge in bankruptcy.

In Ross, the mother filed a petition for violation of a prior order of custody and visitation in 2005. In response, multiple cross petitions were filed by the father alleging violations by the mother and seeking modification of custody. In an August 2006 order resolving the parties’ petitions, Family Court sustained the mother’s motion for counsel fees and ordered that the father pay $ 5,000 of her counsel fees. The father subsequently filed for bankruptcy under chapter 7 of the Bankruptcy Code and, in Schedule F of his petition, he listed the award of counsel fees as an unsecured debt. The father was discharged by order of the Bankruptcy Court in January 2007 and, shortly thereafter, the mother commenced the present proceeding in Family Court for the violation of a court order based upon the father’s failure to pay the counsel fees. Contending that the debt had been discharged in bankruptcy, the father moved to dismiss the petition. Family Court, among other things, concluded that the counsel fees awarded in its prior order were a nondischargeable domestic support obligation, denied the father’s motion and granted the mother’s petition in part, finding the father to be in violation of a prior order.

The Appellate Division noted that state and federal courts have concurrent jurisdiction over the issue of the dischargeablity of a particular debt following the discharge of the debtor in bankruptcy. It reviewed the father’s contention that the counsel fees, although awarded in the context of a Family Court proceeding regarding custody and visitation, were not “in the nature of support” for the parties’ children. The Court held that since the mother’s initial petition commencing the proceeding clearly raised issues of financial need and hardship and her motion for counsel fees, which was sustained by Family Court in the August 2006 order, proposed consideration of her circumstances as one basis for an award of counsel fees. The Court held that the term “in the nature of support” is to be given a broad interpretation in the context of the discharge of debt obligations in bankruptcy and agreed with Family Court’s determination that the award of counsel fees in its prior order was, in part, “in the nature of support” and, therefore, excepted from discharge in bankruptcy.

The real issue in this case is whether the custody petition really was in the nature of support. The mother’s lawyer was able to persuade the both the Family Court and the Appellate Division that it was. While the Appellate Division relied on the award of attorneys’ fees and the relevant standard under the Family Court Act, an argument can be made that the Court should have looked to the underlying proceeding only and that proceeding dealt exclusively with custody issues. One of the factors in any award of attorneys’ fees is ability to pay, so that can make an award of attorneys fees in any proceeding in Family Court to be in the nature of support.

Paying For Summer Camp and Child Support

As the end of the school year approaches, parents usually begin to look at various activities their children may participate in during the summer.  One such popular option is a summer camp, which may be a day camp or a sleep-away camp.  I am often asked who is obligated to pay for it.

I have previously written that under New York’s Child Support Standards Act, the parent paying child support is typically obligated to pay a portion of child care and other expenses.  In Micciche v. Micciche, 2009 NY Slip Op 03702 (2nd Dept. 2009), the Appellate Division affirmed the principle that the cost of the summer camp is considered to be a part of the  child care expense, and as such, both parties are required to contribute their pro-rata share in accordance with their income.

If there are no contrary provisions in the parties’ separation agreement or judgment of divorce, and one of the parents refuses to contribute his or her share of summer camp, I recommend that the other party discuss this issue with an experienced family law lawyer.  Sometimes, it only takes a letter from an attorney to resolve such disputes.

New York Child Support Add-Ons and Basics of Child Support

Under New York law, child support consists of two elements: “basic” child support and the “add-ons.”  Pursuant to Domestic Relations Law §240, New York requires that basic child support be calculated in two parts: (a) the support based on the total combined income of both parents up to $80,000; and (b) the support based on the total combined income of both parents over $80,000.  For both parents’ combined adjusted gross income over $80,000, the court has the discretion to apply the same statutory guidelines, and for all practical purposes will do so. See Cassano v. Cassano, 85 N.Y.2d 649 (1995).  The result will be the total combined basic child support attributable to both parents for the combined income in excess of $80,000.  From the combined basic child support as calculated under the statute, a pro-rata share of each parent’s income is calculated.  Each parent’s pro-rata share is a ratio equal to that parent’s adjusted gross income divided by the combined adjusted gross income for both parents.  That pro-rata share is used to calculate each parent’s share of child support add-ons.

The parent paying child support is also obligated to pay for his/her pro-rata share of the following add-ons.

Day Care

Domestic Relations Law §240 (1-b)(c)(4) and Domestic Relations Law §240 (1-b)(c)(6) provide that when a custodial parent is working, seeking work, or is in school or training which will lead to employment, reasonable day care expenses will be allocated in a ratio equal to the each parent’s income to the combined income.  Reasonable day care expenses vary and each situation should be discussed with an experienced family law lawyer to determine each party’s rights and responsibilities.

Health Care Expenses

Domestic Relations Law §240 (1)(d) provides that the cost of health care insurance shall be allocated in the same proportion as each parent’s income is to the combined parental income.  Domestic Relations Law §240 (1-b)(c)(5) provides that reasonable health care expenses not covered by insurance are allocated in the same proportion as each parent’s income is to the combined parental income.  Obviously, the parties can opt-out of the CSSA’s provisions with respect to the add-ons. Any provisions with respect to the cost of health insurance are enforceable just like child support provisions.

In Rochester and Monroe County, as well as in surrounding counties, the Supreme Court and Family Court usually require the non-custodial parent to carry health care insurance for the children.  However, similarly to child care, there may be situations where it is more beneficial financially for the custodial parent to pay for the cost of health insurance for the children and for the non-custodial parent to contribute his or her share.  The parties should be mindful of the cost of health care coverage and should discuss these issues with a family law attorney before entering into a separation agreement or agreeing to a judgment of divorce.

Educational and Extracurricular Expenses

In addition, the parents may be obligated to pay for the cost of extracurricular expenses and educational expenses, such as a private school or college.  I have previously discussed issues related to the college costs, and will address issues related to paying for a private school at a later date.

Overpayment of Pendente Lite Maintenance and Equitable Distribution

I have previously written that the Supreme Court has wide latitude in fashioning pendente lite (interim) maintenance awards while the divorce action is pending.  But what happens if the trial court ultimately decides that the pendente lite maintenance award was excessive?  The Court of Appeals recently addressed this issues in Johnson v. Chapin, 2009N.Y.  Slip. Op. 03630 (2009).

In Johnson, the Court of Appeals held that when a pendente lite award of maintenance is found at trial to be excessive or inequitable, the court may make an appropriate adjustment in the equitable distribution award.  Thus, the Court of Appeals held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in giving husband a credit representing the amount of the pendente lite maintenance he paid that exceeded what he was required to pay under the final maintenance award.  In determining the temporary maintenance award, Supreme Court imputed an average salary in excess of $2 million to husband. However, at trial, it was established that his income was significantly lower. Given the disparity in the maintenance amounts, under the circumstances of this case, it was appropriate for the husband to receive a credit for excessive maintenance paid.

This decision is significant since it reaffirms the principle that pendente lite awards are temporary and are subject to adjustment.  An experienced divorce lawyer will not rest after obtaining a favorable pendente lite relief for the client, but will continue to work to make sure that the any pendente lite maintenance, or other interim award, is preserved as a part of a final decision.

Economic Support and Equitable Distribution

I have previously written that New York’s equitable distribution law does not require equal distribution of marital assets.  This view has been confirmed by recent case, Glassberg v. Glassberg, Index No. 24307/05, __ Misc.3d __ (Sup. Ct. Suffolk Co. 2009).  A disbarred attorney who provided “limited, sporadic, unreliable and inconsistent” support to the “economic partnership” of a 17-year marriage should receive only 35 percent of the couple’s property.  The court found that during the marriage ” the Wife provided a substantial share of the financial and day-to-day support in maintaining the household … includ[ing] working full-time, being the primary caregiver for their son and … providing for the consistent and reliable income flow the family enjoyed.”

Marc Glassberg, an English teacher who went to law school at night, married Dorene Glassberg, a special education teacher, in 1988, a second marriage for both. The parties have one child, born in 1989. Ms. Glassberg filed for divorce in October 2005.  Mr. Glassberg, who was admitted into New York Bar in 1985, testified that he “never netted more than $30,000 annually in earnings as an attorney,” except in one instance.  He  testified that he ran his practice out of his basement and his car after being unable to afford a storefront office.  He resigned from the bar and was disbarred in 2000, as the result of disciplinary proceedings against him for failing to preserve client funds from the sale of a home. Since then, he has worked in a series of jobs, including stints at Godiva Chocolates and a card store.  In 1999, he took another job teaching English at a Bronx high school, commuting six hours a day but was fired in 2001 for misconduct. A teacher in Los Angeles since 2008, Mr. Glassberg reported an income of just over $64,000 in 2008.

Ms. Glassberg, on the other hand, earned more than $118,000, according to her 2007 tax return, as a long-term teacher.  Mr. Glassberg argued that he had been involved with his family and that despite his “hard luck, misfortune and indeed a ‘reversal of fortune,'” had striven to be a parent and provider. Ms. Glassberg countered that despite working full-time, she “engaged in virtually all of the household duties with no assistance” from Mr. Glassberg, including cooking, cleaning, yard work, laundry and “always” doing homework with their son. She conceded that Mr. Glassberg coached the son’s soccer team for two years and took out the garbage.

While Mr. Glassberg “surely exercised extremely poor judgment” in getting disbarred, he “nonetheless generally (although at times inconsistently) acted to earn income during the marriage”.  However, his role in running the day-to-day household and contributing to the economic partnership was “limited, sporadic, unreliable and inconsistent,” the judge concluded.  He awarded Ms. Glassberg 65 percent of the marital estate in equitable distribution.

The wife’s attorney argued that Mr. Glassberg’s conduct in losing his law license and getting fired from his New York teaching job should be considered wasteful dissipation of marital assets, reducing his share of the couple’s property. However, the court did not address these issues and instead held that Mr. Glassberg had not contributed equally to the economic partnership of the marriage.

This case demonstrates what I have previously written.  If one spouse’s economic contribution to the marriage was significantly less than that of the other spouse, the court has discretion to distribute marital property in accordance with each spouse’s economic contribution to the marriage.  An experienced divorce lawyer should be able to evaluate each situation and determine if such argument as advanced in Glassberg is warranted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Separated Siblings and Their Right of Visitation

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

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

Parental Interference With Visitation and Suspension of Child Support

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Divorce, Equitable Distribution and Marital Fault

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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