Legal feesIn its May 1, 2015 decision in Mura v. Mura, the Appellate Division, Fourth Department, affirmed an order of Monroe County Supreme Court Justice Richard A. Dollinger that enforced an ex-wife’s attorney’s charging lien against a fund from which child support arrears were to be paid.

The parties were divorced in 1993. The Monroe County judgment of divorce awarded the wife child support and ordered the husband to pay $25,226.72 in child support arrears that had accrued from the commencement of the divorce action through entry of the judgment.

For 16 years, the child support obligation was not enforced. In April 2011, the wife hired Mark Chauvin Bezinque, Esq., to recover the accumulated child support arrears that, with interest, totaled $549,403.62 as of September 2011.

At the time, the husband owned real property in Ontario County. Bezinque filed the judgment in Ontario County and commenced actions in both Ontario County and Monroe County to restrain the sale of the Ontario property. While those proceedings were ongoing, the husband sold the property in violation of a court order. Upon Bezinque’s motion, the husband’s share of the proceeds from the sale of the home was placed in escrow “in anticipation of a final judgment for unpaid child support.” Bezinque referred the wife to another law firm for the preparation of executions and levies against the escrowed funds held by the husband’s then attorneys, and requested payment of the outstanding balance of his legal fees from those funds. The wife did not respond to that request. Bezinque thereafter moved by order to show cause seeking, inter alia, a charging lien pursuant to Judiciary Law § 475 against the escrowed funds sufficient to cover his outstanding fees. The wife opposed Bezinque’s motion.

Continue Reading Attorney's Charging Lien Enforced Against Child Support Arrears

In his February 26, 2013 decision in J.K.C. v T.W.C., Monroe County Supreme Court Justice Richard A. Dollinger held that an attorney could not have a charging lien under Section 475 of the Judiciary Law against the IRA received by his former client (the wife) as her marital share of the husband’s IRA. IRAs, generally, are exempt from creditor’s claims pursuant to CPLR §5205(c)(2).

The attorney had represented the wife in a divorce action. In the retainer agreement, the attorney noted that if fees were due and owing at the time of his discharge, the attorney had the right to seek a charging lien which the agreement described as “a lien upon the property that was awarded to you as a result of equitable distribution in the final order or judgment in the case.” The client also signed a “statement of client’s rights and responsibilities” which stated that a court could give the attorney a charging lien which “entitled your attorney to payment for services already rendered at the end of the case out of the proceeds of the final order or judgment.”

Justice Dollinger recognized several facts as pertinent to his analysis:

  • There was no evidence that the wife ever contested her attorney’s charges until after the judgment of divorce;
  • There was no allegation before the court that the wife ever agreed to pay the attorney’s fees specifically from the IRA account;
  • There was no evidence that the wife possesses any other assets, distributed under the divorce judgment, available to satisfy the charging lien; and
  • There was no allegation that the client, in the divorce judgment, engaged in any collusive or other improper behavior to thwart the attorney’s recovery of his fees.

Holding that a charging lien could not be asserted against an IRA, Justice Dolinger also considered:

  • The federal tax consequences on any withdrawal;
  • The penalty imposed when an unqualified withdrawals is made;
  • The actual ownership of the trust funds by the trustee;
  • The “anti-alienation” provisions of ERISA;
  • The wife’s never having “available cash proceeds” during the trustee-to-trustee transfer of the funds from the husband’s IRA to her own;
  • The broad language protecting IRA roll-overs from the reach of creditors in CPLR §5205;
  • The lack of express direction in Section 475 in the Judiciary Law to permit a charging lien against retirement funds; and
  • The lack of any provisions relating to a charging lien for attorneys fees under New York’s Domestic Relations Law.

Continue Reading Collecting Counsel Fees in Divorce Actions: Charging Lien Against IRA Denied