In a lengthy, thoughtful August 29, 2017 opinion in S.M. v. M.R., Richmond County (Staten Island) Supreme Court Justice Catherine M. DiDomenico resolved the financial issues incident to the parties’ divorce. Among the issues were those that arose from parties’ family and financial ties to Egypt, the absence of proof on various financial matters, and the wife’s 1999 medical degree in Egypt, all but abandoned since moving to the United States in 2002 resulting in her current need for rehabilitative maintenance.

The final issue tackled by the Court was the wife’s request for an award of counsel fees in the sum of $43,000 for her attorney’s handling of the entirety of this divorce proceeding. The wife based her claim upon the fact that she was the non-monied spouse in this action (D.R.L. §237[a]). In support of her claim, the wife submitted a copy of her attorneys’ retainer agreement, together with legal billing.

The husband objected to any award on the basis of the language of that retainer agreement: the wife and her attorney had agreed to “cap” counsel fees at the sum of $10,000.

You agree to pay Your Attorney for legal services at the rate of $250.00 per billable hour and $750.00 per each half-day appearance in Court by Steven Scavuzzo Esq. The foregoing rates are valid for services rendered in calendar years 2013 and 2014. In the event that such rates are modified you will be advised and requested to execute an amendment reflecting the new rates. Legal fees in this matter shall be capped at $10,000, not including costs, disbursements, post-judgment enforcement and any appeal You wish to pursue.”

The husband argued that this cap should inure to his benefit; that as the wife can never be charged more than $10,000 for the divorce proceeding, as a matter of law he cannot be responsible for any more than that amount. The wife’s attorney should be prohibited from seeking an award of counsel fees by the clear language of his own retainer agreement

Continue Reading Husband Benefits From Wife’s Retainer Agreement Cap On Counsel Fees

In its December 14, 2016 decision in Piza v. Baez-Piza, the Appellate Division, Second Department, stated that a father was required to prove a change of circumstances before modifying a prior award of temporary custody. The court also held that where a wife’s attorney did not comply with billing rules, a trial court could not award the wife counsel fees in excess of the retainer amount initially paid by the wife to her attorney.

The parties were married in 1996 and later separated. The husband commenced this action for a divorce in 2010. They have a son, who is now 17 years old.

The parties cross-appealed from their judgment of divorce entered in the Supreme Court, Suffolk County (Marlene L. Budd, J.), that was entered upon a decision after trial of Justice Stephen M. Behar. That decision:

  • awarded the plaintiff custody of the parties’ child;
  • directed the defendant to pay child support in the sum of $293.20 per month;
  • awarded the mother $150 per week for the period of April 26, 2010, through July 11, 2016; and
  • awarded the wife an additional $7,500 in attorney’s fees for legal services provided following an earlier award of $3,500 in attorney’s fees.

Continue Reading The Burden At Trial to Change Temporary Custody Award; Counsel Fees Where Rules Not Followed

The wife’s failure to send notice of default as required by the parties’ divorce judgment resulted in no award of counsel fees on her enforcement application. So held the Appellate Division, Second Department, in its August, 2015 decision in Taormina v. Taorminareversing the wife’s $7,781.25 counsel fee award by Westchester Supreme Court Acting Justice Janet C. Malone.

The wife had sought an award of a counsel fee pursuant to the parties’ judgment of divorce in connection with the husband’s alleged defaults as to certain obligations set forth in that judgment. The judgment, however, required the nondefaulting party to give notice of alleged defaults by certified mail. It was undisputed that the wife did not give such notice. Accordingly, the wife was not entitled to an award of a counsel fee pursuant to the terms of the judgment.

Moreover, as the record did not reflect that the husband’s defaults were “willful” within the meaning of Domestic Relations Law §237(c), that statute did not provide a proper alternative basis for the award of a counsel fee to the wife. Therefore, Justice Malone erred in awarding the wife a counsel fee.

Rocco V. Salerno, Jr., of Eastchester, represented the husband. Helene M. Selznick, of Somers, represented the wife.

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 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

Not according to Richmond County Civil Court Judge (and Acting Suprme Court Justice) Philip S. Straniere, seemingly running afoul of a contrary body of case law, particularly in the Second Department.

Small Claims Court proceedings may well be the only practical way to redress relatively modest, but often important breaches of divorce settlement agreements as to matters of support and property. Such proceedings are quick, inexpensive, can be pursued without lawyers, and do substantial justice. Eliminating Small Claims Court as a proper forum for such relief would often leave parties without a reasonable remedy.

In his February 19, 2014 decision in Pivarnick v. Pivarnick, Judge Strainiere, held that Small Claims Court was without subject matter jurisdiction to enforce a divorce settlement agreement.

Doing so, he vacated an arbitrator’s $4,000 award to an ex-wife for counsel fees she incurred in connection with her submission to the Supreme Court of a proposed Qualified Domestic Relations Order to implement a division of the ex-husband’s pension and her defense of the ex-husband’s motion to dismiss that proposed QDRO. The ex-wife had cross-moved for sanctions “in the form of ‘attorneys’ fees for his engagement in frivolous conduct.’” Those post-divorce Supreme Court submissions were resolved by a so-ordered stipulation under which the entitlement of the ex-wife to share in the ex-husband’s pension was restated. No reference in the stipulation was made to the wife’s “attorneys’ fee claim” by cross-motion.

Thereafter, the ex-wife sought her counsel fees in Small Claims Court. The arbitrator had awarded the claimant legal fees in the amount of $4,000.00 and dismissed the defendant’s counterclaim for his own counsel fees.

Continue Reading Does Small Claims Court Have Jurisdiction to Resolve Divorce Settlement Agreement Disputes?

The husband’s willingness to lie was only exceeded by his arrogance, which apparently permits him to believe that the court might possibly buy the bridge he is selling. The world in which Mr. Medina lives, is at best in a parallel universe.

So noted Justice Charles D. Wood, Supervising Judge of the Matrimonial Part of the Westchester County Supreme Court, in his December 17, 2013 decision in Medina v. Medina, when awarding the wife $53,000 of the $63,000 in counsel fees she incurred in this divorce action.

The parties were married in 2001. They had one child, now five years old. Both parties were 38 years old. The wife attained the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree in Poland. During the marriage, she earned her real estate license. For the last two years, she had worked selling real estate directly for a developer. After having worked in a sales position for another developer for six years, the wife gave birth in 2008 to the parties’ son, and only worked half the year. She also stayed home with the child in 2009. In 2011, she earned $87,000, and in 2010, $58,936.

Prior to the marriage, the husband held licenses to sell insurance, securities, and a Series 7 certification. The day before the January, 2011 commencement of this divorce action, the husband was laid off as an investment advisor with the firm for whom he had been working since 2006. In 2011, the husband worked for a securities firm, and earned $87,911.47. He now works for another securities firm, where his income is based solely on commissions.

A six-day trial was conducted on the issues of parental access, equitable distribution, allocation of marital debt and tax arrears, child support and maintenance (and arrears of both). Following a decision on these issues, a hearing was held on the wife’s application for counsel fees.

The wife had incurred counsel fees of over $63,000,based upon her counsel’s fee at $400 per hour. Of that sum, the wife had already paid $25,000.

Continue Reading Counsel Fees Awarded Against Husband Living in “Parallel Universe”

Mid-trial in a “high-end” matrimonial, it was held that the “monied” husband would not be required to continue to pay his wife’s continuing fees. Rather, in his October 10, 2013 decision in Sykes v. Sykes, Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Matthew F. Cooper held that such fees would be paid from $2 million in marital assets; each side to use half of the sum to pay his or her own outstanding and prospective counsel and expert fees, subject to reallocation after trial.

From the divorce action’s commencement in December, 2010, until February, 2013, just before the trial, Mr. Sykes had paid close to $1 million in counsel fees for himself and, voluntarily, for his wife. Then, in March 2013, the wife’s attorneys billed the husband $238,196 for their services rendered that month. He paid that bill in full. In April 2013, during which the first eight days of trial took place, the wife’s attorneys billed the husband $355,329 for their services. In addition, the husband was billed $74,853 for the wife’s experts’ services. Mr. Sykes, then decided he could no longer foot the litigation costs for both sides. He declined to pay the April 2013 bills or any subsequent bills incurred by the wife for her attorneys’ or experts’ services absent further order of the court.

Instead, Mr. Sykes, moved for an order authorizing him to release $2 million from marital funds and evenly share that amount with his wife so that each party could pay his or her own interim litigation expenses. He argued that not only had his income and personal funds significantly declined over the last two years, but that permitting the wife to proceed without “skin in the game” (a phrase attributed to Warren Buffett), enabled her to push forward with the litigation without any concern for its cost or any eye towards settlement.

Ms. Sykes opposed the release of the money for the payment of counsel and expert fees. She maintained that she had “skin in the game” by virtue of having to travel from France to make periodic court appearances; she was every bit as motivated as the husband to reach a fair resolution of the case. Moreover, Ms. Sykes argued that because she had no income other than the husband’s $75,000 monthly interim maintenance and child support support payments, she must be considered the nonmonied spouse. Thus, she was entitled under statutory and case law to have her husband pay her interim legal fees. Moreover, she claimed the law was clear: interim counsel fees must come from her husband’s income and separate funds rather than marital funds so as not to deplete her assets.

Continue Reading Wife Given “Skin In The Game” By Having To Pay Her Own Interim Counsel Fees Using Marital Assets

In its September 18, 2013 decision in Abramson v. Gavares, the Second Department briefly reviewed the interplay between prenuptial agreements and interim awards in divorce actions.

In this case, the parties were married in 2004 and hade one child, born in 2006. This divorce action was commenced in 2009 [before the 2010 laws on counsel fees and temporary maintenance].

On the wife’s motion for various relief pendente lite, Nassau County Supreme Court Justice Margaret C. Reilly had awarded the wife $4,250 per month temporary child support, $1,000 per month in temporary maintenance, and a $15,000 interim counsel fee. The husband was also directed to pay 100% of the costs of the court-appointed forensic evaluator and the attorney for the parties’ child.

On appeal, the husband challenged certain parts of the award on the basis of the prenuptial agreement entered into by the parties. The Second Department upheld the awards of child support and counsel fees, but struck the award of temporary maintenance.

Continue Reading Second Department Approves Interim Counsel Fee in Excess of Prenuptial Agreement’s Cap, But Reverses Award of Interim Spousal Maintenance

What does a court do with a wife who claims not to have discovered that she was a million-dollar winner of a May 19, 2011 lottery drawing until only days before the ticket would have expired a year later, and 11 months after she was awarded temporary support and counsel fees in her pending divorce action?

Almost a year ago, the media covered the claim of Lolymary Questel, a Queens pre-school teacher, that she discovered her million-dollar lottery ticket in her purse only days before the one-year deadline to produce the ticket to the Lottery Commission would have expired. “I was cleaning out an old bag and found some Lottery tickets,” explained Questel to the Lottery Commission. “I checked the drawing results on the Lottery’s website and realized one of the tickets was a million dollar winner.” Questel, a regular Mega Millions player, spent $1 on a set of Quick Pick numbers for the twice weekly drawing.

Seven months before the drawing, Ms. Questel’s husband had commenced his divorce action on October 28, 2010 (just weeks after New York’s no-fault law went into effect).

On June 22, 2011, 5 weeks after the lottery drawing, Queens County Supreme Court Justice Pam B. Jackman-Brown awarded Ms. Questel temporary maintenance of $127.39 per week and $4,500.00 in interim counsel fees. In April, 2011, less than a month before the drawing, Mr. and Ms. Questel had entered a Stipulation under which Mr. Questel agreed to pay C.S.S.A.-formula interim child support and his then  77% pro rata share of educational, extracurricular, summer camp and unreimbursed health expenses.

Continue Reading Wife Wins Million-Dollar Lottery While Divorce Action Is Pending