Particularly in the Second Department, the last few years have brought a host of cases threatening the enforceability of prenuptial agreements. To review a few just type “prenup” in the keyword search at right. It’s going to get worse.

New York’s Domestic Relations Law §236(B)(3) provides that prenuptial and other marital agreements executed with proper formalities are valid and may include

(1) a contract to make a testamentary provision of any kind, or a waiver of any right to elect against the provisions of a will;

(2) provision for the ownership, division or distribution of separate and marital property;

(3) provision for the amount and duration of maintenance or other terms and conditions of the marriage relationship, subject to the provisions of section 5-311 of the general obligations law, and provided that such terms were fair and reasonable at the time of the making of the agreement and are not unconscionable at the time of entry of final judgment;

and (4) provision for the custody, care, education and maintenance of any child of the parties, subject to the provisions of section two hundred forty of this article.

The December 24, 2014 decision of the First Department in Anonymous v. Anonymous, is a case in point.

In this matrimonial action the wife had sought, among other things, to set aside the parties’ prenuptial agreement.Ruling on several motions, Supreme Court, New York County Justice Ellen Gesmer upheld the validity generally of the the prenuptial agreement, but held the issue of the current unconscionability of the spousal support provision would be resolved at trial.

Continue Reading Litigating Prenuptial Agreements Is Going To Get Messier

The November 12, 2014 decision of the Appellate Division, Second Department, in Bibeau v. Sudick reversed the granting of summary judgment upholding the validity a 2000 prenuptial agreement, remanding the matter for a hearing on that issue.

In September 28, 2000, two days before their wedding, the 70-year old future husband and the 38-year old future wife executed a premarital agreement. It provided that in the event of a divorce, the wife would receive, in lieu of maintenance, support, and equitable distribution, the sum of $25,000 for each year of the marriage. The parties also agreed to waive their interest in the elective share of each other’s estate, and to make no claim to property titled in the other’s name.

According to financial statements attached to the premarital agreement, the future husband had assets of more than $10,000,000, while the future wife had assets of approximately $170,000. The agreement was signed in the office of the husband’s attorney, in the presence of another attorney who was purportedly representing the wife.

At the time of the marriage, the wife, who had a background in marketing works of fine art to corporations, had recently opened an art gallery in California. She closed this business and relocated to Pine Bush, New York, in order to reside with the husband in preparation for their marriage, and assist him in his business endeavors. These included real estate development, as well as breeding thoroughbred horses and managing polo ponies.

In October, 2010, within days of New York’s adoption of no-fault divorce, the husband commenced this action for divorce. There were no children of the marriage.

Continue Reading Another Prenup Bites the Dust, Maybe

The third of four decisions this month with an international context was decided by New York County Supreme Court Justice Manuel J. Mendez.

In Bond v Lichtenstein (pdf), decided July 15, 2014, Justice Mendez granted a mother summary judgment in lieu of complaint under C.P.L.R. §3213 domesticating a $570,110.05 Hong Kong judgment for child support arrears.

The parties lived together for approximately one year beginning in April of 2006. The mother is a citizen of the United Kingdom and the father is a citizen of the United States. Not long after the mother found out she was pregnant, the relationship fell apart, and by April of 2007, the parties had separated.

On August 31, 2007, their female child was born in England. The mother currently resides with the daughter in Hong Kong and with another man.

On November 21, 2008, the mother commenced child support and paternity proceedings in England. There was a trial and resulting December 3, 2010 Support Order from the High Court of England.

The parties then entered into a consent summons for the purpose of obtaining a “mirror order” in Hong Kong reflecting the support obligations obtained by the mother in England and vacating the English Order. In November of 2012, the father submitted to jurisdiction in Hong Kong for obtaining the “mirror order” and resolving other related issues.

In May of 2013, the proceeding brought before the High Court of Hong Kong resulted in a four-day trial concerning child support. The father appeared for the trial by video. He submitted evidence and was represented by attorneys. On June 28, 2013, the High Court of Hong Kong, by Deputy High Court Judge, Bebe Pui Ying Chu, rendered an 87-page Opinion.

Continue Reading Melting Pot (Part 3 of 4): Domesticating the Foreign Child Support Judgment

After surgically excising eight words, Saratoga County Supreme Court Justice Thomas D. Nolan, Jr., in his February 7, 2014 decision in Zinter v. Zinter, upheld the balance of a prenuptial agreement. Those words had given the husband the unconscionable power to control whether earnings and other after-marriage acquired property would be placed into joint or indiviual accounts, and thus marital or separate property.

In this divorce action, the parties were married on December 23, 2005. The wife was then 29 years old, a music teacher with a Master’s degree, and reported a net worth of $71,500.00. The husband was then 35 years old, a college graduate, and an officer and part owner of his family-owned and operated business, with a reported net worth of approximately $2.7 million.

The husband had retained an attorney to prepare a prenuptial agreement. In November 2005, both the prospective husband and prospective wife met with that attorney to review the proposed agreement. At the time, the wife was not represented by counsel. The husband’s attorney provided the wife with the names of three attorneys experienced in matrimonial law. Shortly thereafter, she retained one of them, with whom the wife met three times before the agreement was signed four days before the marriage.

Continue Reading Court Strikes Prenup Provision Giving Husband the Power to Determine Whether After-Marriage Acquired Property was Marital or Separate

The alleged failure of the mediator and the husband’s counsel to advise the husband that a court need not apply the C.S.S.A. formula to the husband’s entire agreed-upon income of $1,200,000.00 per year income is not a basis to set aside a divorce settlement agreement, or its $29,500.00 per month child support obligation. So held Westchester County Supreme Court Justice Lawrence H. Ecker in his January 16, 2014 opinion in A.B. v. Y.B.

The couple involved separated after 12 years of marriage. Following three years of mediation, the parties entered into an agreement that resolved issues of custody and access to the parties’ three children, maintenance, child support, and equitable distribution. The husband is a 50% equity partner in a brokerage firm. The wife is owner and operator of her own business.

Upholding the agreement, Justice Ecker took pains to quote several of its provisions. One acknowledged that the parties had waived the “compulsory financial disclosure” requirements of the Domestic Relations Law and court rules, and agreed not to exchange Net Worth Statements. Nonetheless, the parties represented to each other that each made a full and complete disclosure of assets, liabilities, income and expenses, and that they relied on the information provided.

The agreement recited the husband’s disclosure, to the best of his knowledge, of his gross personal 2010 income as approximately $156,427.00. The parties agreed to use the 2010 income because their 2011 income was not yet available. The Husband disclosed that in no event was his income from any and all sources more than $156,427.00 in said year.

Nonetheless, for purposes of the agreement, the parties agreed to use an imputed income of$1,200,000 in computing the child support calculation under the Child Support Standards Act.

The parties acknowledged that they reached their agreement with the aid of the mediator, but that the mediator provided no legal representation to either of the parties. Further, although “the mediator may have provided information or opinions concerning the state of the law generally, neither party has relied upon such information or opinions in executing this Agreement.”

The parties further represented that each had ample opportunity to obtain independent legal counsel, and counsel [apparently recommended by the mediator] for each spouse was named.

As to the basic child support obligation, the agreement provided it was agreed that the the husband’s would pay $29,500 per month [$354,000 per year] for 12 years, 5 months, subject to a cost of living increase biennially. The husband was further responsible for 100% of discretionary expenses and add-on expenses, including private school tuition for all three children, private college expenses, camp and summer programs, religion education expenses, Bar and Bat Mitzvah expenses, health insurance and unreimbursed medical expenses.

Continue Reading Claimed Ignorance of C.S.S.A. Treatment of Income Over Cap Not Basis to Set Aside Divorce Settlement Agreement

The failure of the now-deceased wife to disclose that she was suffering from terminal cancer at the time the parties entered their divorce settlement agreement was not a basis to set aside that agreement. So held the Appellate Division Second Department in its August 28, 2013 decision in Petrozza v. Franzen.

Richmond County Supreme Court Justice John A. Fusco had granted summary judgment dismissing the complaint in the husband’s plenary action to rescind the agreement brought against the executors of the wife’s estate. The husband had alleged that his wife had fraudulently and actively concealed her illness. That illness resulted in the wife’s death after the execution of the settlement agreement, but before the entry of a final judgment of divorce.

Affirming that dismissal, the Second Department noted that to demonstrate fraud, a plaintiff must show that the defendant “knowingly misrepresented or concealed a material fact for the purpose of inducing [him] to rely upon it, and that [he] justifiably relied upon such misrepresentation or concealment to his . . . detriment.”

Continue Reading Concealing Terminal Cancer Not Basis to Invalidate Divorce Settlement

In its February 20, 2013 decision in Cioffi-Petrakis v. Petrakis, the Second Department affirmed the decision of former Nassau County Supreme Court Justice Anthony J. Falanga which set aside the parties’ prenuptial agreement. Indeed, decisions over the past year indicate that there may be a pendulum swinging towards easing the burden on the party (generally, the wife) attacking such agreements.

For example, in its December 5, 2012 decision in Petracca v. Petracca, the Second Department affirmed the decision of Nassau County Supreme Court Justice Jeffrey S. Brown that set aside a postnuptial agreement due to the husband’s overreaching at the time of signing some 16 years earlier (see the blog post of December 10, 2012: “Postnuptial Agreement Vacated for Overreachong 16 Years After Entry).

In Cioffi-Petrakis, the wife contended that her husband had reneged on his oral promise to tear up their prenuptial agreement once she had children made shortly before the pre-nuptial agreements’s execution (the parties now have two sons and a daughter). That promise was not referenced in the parties’ written agreement entered just four days before the parties’ marriage. Moreover, the parties had disclaimed reliance upon oral statements by either party, a relatively standard provision in the agreement, itself. Nevertheless, the Second Department agreed with Justice Falanga that the evidence supported the wife’s claim that she had been fraudulently induced to accept the deal.

Ironically, three years earlier (72 A.D.3d 868, 898 N.Y.S.2d 861), the Second Department affirmed Justice Falanga’s prior order dismissing the wife’s causes of action which attacked the very same agreement on the grounds of unconscionability. There, the Second Department was satisfied with the record’s demonstration that the wife was represented by independent counsel during the prenuptial agreement negotiations (her counsel signed the agreement as a witness). Moreover, the agreement itself recited that the wife entered into it “freely, voluntarily and with full knowledge of all circumstances having a bearing on this agreement.” At that time, the Second Department opined that the wife was provided with meaningful bargained-for benefits, including a one-third interest in one of the defendant’s businesses. The wife had advanced nothing but conclusory and unsubstantiated assertions insufficient to defeat the husband’s motion for summary judgment dismissing the cause of action to set aside the parties’ prenuptial agreement on the ground of unconscionability.

Continue Reading Is it Open Season on Prenuptial Agreements?

contract ripped by angry woman.jpgIn its December 5, 2012 decision in Petracca v. Petracca, the Second Department affirmed the decision of Nassau County Supreme Court Justice Jeffrey S. Brown that set aside a postnuptial agreement due to the husband’s overreaching at the time of signing.

Four months after the parties’ 1995 marriage, they entered into a postnuptial agreement. The agreement provided that the jointly-owned marital residence, which had just been purchased for approximately $3.1 million and which was subsequently renovated at a cost of between $3 million and $5 million, was the husband’s separate property.

The agreement further provided that if the parties divorced, the wife, who had not been employed other than as a homemaker since just before the marriage, would waive her interest in any business in which the husband had an interest, including any appreciation in the value of such interests accruing during the marriage. At the time the agreement was entered into, the husband valued his interests in these business entities at over $10 million. The wife also waived any and all rights she had to the husband’s estate, including her right to an elective share. At the time the agreement was entered into the husband valued his net worth at more than $22 million.

Finally, the agreement provided that if the parties divorced, the wife would waive maintenance, except in the sum of between $24,000 and $36,000 per year, for varying lengths of time, depending on the duration of the marriage.

In 2008, the wife commenced this action for a divorce. In his answer, the husband sought enforcement of the postnuptial agreement. A hearing was held to determined its validity.

The wife testified that her husband had bullied her into signing agreement, shortly after she had suffered a miscarriage, by threatening that they would not have any children and that the marriage would be over if she did not sign. The wife further testified that she signed the agreement within days of receiving it and, although she reviewed some portions of it, she did not understand its terms and did not consult an attorney. At the hearing, the wife also demonstrated that the statement of the husband’s net worth contained in the agreement was inaccurate at the time it was made, and was undervalued by at least $11 million.

For his part, the husband denied any knowledge of his wife’s miscarriage. He had wanted the postnuptial agreement in order to protect his son from a prior marriage. The husband testified that the parties had discussed the issue of entering into a postnuptial agreement prior to the marriage and that they had negotiated the postnuptial agreement over the course of many weeks.

The husband’s attorney drafted the agreement. Although she had not disclosed the name, the husband believed that his wife had consulted with her own attorney.

Continue Reading Postnuptial Agreement Vacated for Overreaching 16 Years After Entry

Connolly Francesca.jpgThere are may circumstances which courts recognize warrant revisiting a divorce resolution. On the other hand, ongoing litigation is often unfounded and a result of the anger, bitterness, sadness, desire for revenge, etc.

In her February 3, 2012 decision in D.W. v. R.W., Westchester County Supreme Court Justice Francesca E. Connolly imposed $17,500.00 in sanctions and another $42,707.29 in counsel fees against a pro se (self-represented) ex-wife who refused to abide by repeated rulings requiring the ex-wife to discontinue her attacks on a divorce settlement reached over seven years earlier.

Following that settlement, the ex-wife had engaged in extensive post-judgment litigation to vacate the underlying agreement on the grounds that she lacked the mental capacity to understand and agree, and that the agreement was unfair, unconscionable, the product of overreaching, fraud, or some variation thereof. Her numerous attempts to challenge the stipulation were considered and rejected by several lower and appellate courts.

Nevertheless, in October, 2010, the ex-wife commenced another action against 23 defendants, including her ex-husband, her children, her former in-laws, her ex-husband’s former attorneys, and other entities. In an 81-page complaint, she claimed breach of contract and fraud for the failure to disclose various assets during the divorce proceedings. She claimed to have discovered documents showing the fraud by going through her ex-husband’s garbage cans outside his residence.

Continue Reading Sanctions and Fees Totaling $60,000 Imposed Against Ex-Wife; Divorce Litigation Often Keeps Going, and Going, and Going . . .

Green Card.jpgQueen County Supreme Court Justice Pam Jackman-Brown did not say that Claudette Medley’s marriage to Maurice Medley was a fraudulent attempt to take advantage of immigration rules. However, in her November, 2011 decision in Medley v. Medley, Justice Jackman-Brown made it clear that this was not a marriage made in heaven.

Ms. Medley migrated to the United States in 1988 under a temporary Visa with a work permit. In 1995, Claudette met her future husband. They began dating after a second meeting a year later. After three months of dating, in early 1997, Claudette showed Maurice a letter from the Immigration and Naturalization Service informing Claudette that her Visa status had expired. Claudette and Maurice discussed how to change Claudette’s status, after which the parties immediately planned their wedding. The day before the marriage, the couple discussed a pre-nuptial agreement. Claudette hand-wrote the agreement under which “neither party would take any legal action to seek the other’s assets.” The agreement, though not notarized (a requirement for it to be an enforceable prenuptial agreement under New York’s Domestic Relations Law §236B(3), was signed by both parties. One day later, the parties were married.

Ten years later, Claudette started her action for divorce. Justice Jackman-Brown found that the parties had indeed lived their lives in a manner consistent with their written agreement. Each engaged in separate investment ventures, buying and selling investment properties. The couple kept all their incomes separate from each other.  There was “no credible evidence that the parties spent any significant time together but rather maintained a separate business lifestyle. At most the parties had a sparse emotional life but it was impacted by a clear separate financial life.” The parties lived together only for the 28 months prior to the divorce filing.

Tax records were filed improperly. Claudette misrepresented her status to enable her son, not of the marriage, to get a scholarship to attend private school.

Although this Court will not define or marshal what is a “married life,” the cliché “you know it when you see it” can be inferred in this case. These parties engaged in a pattern of behavior that was inconsistent of any semblance of a marriage life in its ordinary and reasonable meaning.

Maurice was willing to abide by the agreement, although not technically enforceable. He did not claim to be entitled to any of Claudette’s income, investment, enhanced earnings, or real estate license (during the marriage, Claudette had obtained a college degree). On the other hand, Claudette wanted more. She did not get it.

The Court recognized that the assets acquired during the marriage, including retirement benefits, were “marital property” under New York law (D.R.L. §236B[1][c]).  However, after considering statutory factors, Justice Jackman-Brown denied equitable distribution of the assets. The overwhelming factor was that parties conducted themselves in a manner inconsistent with an “economic partnership.” Throughout their marriage, these parties lived consistently with that handwritten agreement signed the day before their marriage: neither party would claim the other’s assets. The Court ruled that each party would keep his or her own property.

Justice Jackman-Brown’s restraint was remarkable; true judicial temperament. My decision probably would have read, simply, “Are you kidding me?” and that’s only if I were able to show some restraint.

Green-card marriage fraud is a serious problem. Marriage to a U.S. citizen entitles one to apply immediately for Permanent Residency (USCIS). A 2006 USA Today editorial commented that marriage-based immigration fraud has largely gone unnoticed, despite the fact that marriage-based immigration accounted for more than a third of all legal immigration. In 2004, for example, Homeland Security reported that it completed investigations of only 1% of marriage-based green cards.

Nevertheless. marriage fraud is being prosecuted. For example, last Wednesday, a Connecticut resident from Morocco was sentenced to three months in federal prison and will be deported for his role in a marriage fraud scheme. A group of Alabama convictions were also recently reported.

Justice Jackman-Brown showed us that it is not beyond the power and discretion of New York courts to equitably dissolve marriages of opportunity or convenience. Perhaps it was also appropriate for the Court to forward its decision to the office of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), Homeland Security, the IRS, etc.