A professional practice is an asset which may be valued and equitably distributed in a divorce. Generally, that value is a function of the income generated by the practice after deducting reasonable compensation being paid to the professional. However, once valued, the income attributable to ownership of the practice may not also be the basis on which to award spousal maintenance.

Take the September 10, 2015 decision of the Appellate Division, Third Department, in Mula v. Mula. There, after 42 years of marriage, the husband commenced this action for a divorce. The wife counterclaimed for divorce and, by agreement, the parties were awarded mutual divorces on the grounds of irretrievable breakdown. During the marriage, the husband earned his C.P.A. license in 1981 and became the sole proprietor of an accounting practice in 1997. During the course of the marriage, the wife was primarily involved with the upkeep of the parties’ home and raising their three children.

Among other rulings, Ulster County Supreme Court Justice Anthony McGinty awarded the wife durational maintenance of $1,500 per month.

On appeal, the Third Department reduced this award to $1,000 per month, holding that Justice McGinty had double-counted the value of the husband’s professional practice. The lower court had valued the income generated by the practice as an asset and equitably distributed that asst. However, Justice McGinty also deemed the husband’s income to include the entire income generated by the practice when calculating the maintenance award to the wife.

The accounting practice was valued at $255,000. Apparently, the husband’s C.P.A. license was separately valued at $39,000.The husband contended on appeal that Justice McGinty had erred when calculating maintenance by failing to reduce his available income to reflect the court’s distributive award of his professional practice and license.

At issue is the rule against double counting, which provides that once a court converts a specific stream of income into an asset, that income may no longer be calculated into the maintenance formula and payout.

The husband’s solely-owned accounting firm was a service business for purposes of this rule.


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Calculator formulaOn June 24, 2015, the New York State Senate passed Bill A7645-2015 relating to the duration and amount of temporary and post-divorce spousal maintenance. The bill passed the State Assembly on June 15th. It awaits approval by Governor Cuomo.

The law’s formulas apply to actions commenced on or after the 120th day after they become law (except for the temporary maintenance formulas which apply to actions commenced on or after the 30th day after they become law). The new law may not be used as a basis to change existing orders and agreements.

The law will undoubtedly be the subject of numerous articles and legal seminars. Years of decisions will be forthcoming that particularly focus on matters of discretion, just as they followed the enactment of the Child Support Standards Act in 1989.

Before getting to the new formulas, the law eliminates a major thorn in side of the matrimonial bench and bar: When equitably distributing the assets of the parties, the court is no longer to consider as a marital asset the value of a spouse’s enhanced earning capacity arising from a license, degree, celebrity goodwill, or career enhancement (however, it may be condidered when making other distributive awards).

As to maintenance, the following highlights may be noted, many of which are contained in the Sponsor’s Memo:


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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.


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A couple that used “employment” of the ex-wife by the ex-husband as a device to provide post-remarriage support to the ex-wife was bound to employment rules. The wife could be fired for misconduct. So held the Appellate Division, Fourth Department, in its September 26, 2014 decision in Anderson v. Anderson.

The Separation and Property

The parties were divorced in August, 2012 pursuant to a judgment that incorporated a September, 2008 Memorandum of Understanding. The Memorandum provided for maintenance payments to the wife in a specified sum until, as pertinent here, “[the wife] cohabits with an individual for any period in excess of 75 days within any 6-month period of

Two decisions within the last 10 days confirm the need for agreements relating to support to be in (an acknowledged) writing, and then incorporated in a court order.

In one, the Second Department affirmed the award of maintenance arrears without a hearing despite the claimed reduction of maintenance under an oral modification of the parties’ separation agreement. In the second, Albany County Family Court Judge W. Dennis Duggan directed a father to pay 71% of his older son’s private middle school expense, despite the mother’s conceded agreement to pay the full tuition.

In its January 30, 2103 decision in Parker v. Navarra, the Second Department affirmed the award of maintenance arrears by Dutchess County Supreme Court Justice James V. Brands. The ex-husband alleged that he and his ex-wife had orally modified the maintenance provisions of their separation agreement and, alternatively, that the ex-wife should be equitably estopped from enforcing the maintenance provisions of the separation agreement. The ex-husband had requested an evidentiary hearing so that he could present the testimony of witnesses on those issues. Justice Brands denied the request for an evidentiary hearing, awarding arrears on the basis of the parties’ submissions.

The Second Department affirmed, noting that the ex-husband failed to make a showing sufficient to entitle him to a hearing on this issue:

Where, as here, the parties’ separation agreement contains a provision that expressly provides that modifications must be in writing, an alleged oral modification is enforceable only if there is part performance that is unequivocally referable to the oral modification. The defendant did not demonstrate that the plaintiff’s acceptance of reduced monthly maintenance payments was unequivocally referable to an alleged oral modification by, for example, demonstrating that consideration was given in exchange for the plaintiff’s alleged oral agreement to accept reduced maintenance payments.

Moreover, to establish a defense of equitable estoppel, the ex-husband was required to have shown that the ex-wife’s conduct induced his significant and substantial reliance upon an oral modification. Again, the ex-husband was required to have shown that the conduct relied upon to establish estoppel was not otherwise  compatible with the agreement as written.


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In a January 15, 2013 decision in Alvarado v. Alvarado, Richmond County Supreme Court Justice Catherine M. DiDomenico, held that the husband’s veteran’s and Social Security disability benefits are separate property for purposes of equitable distribution. Moreover, the veteran’s disability benefits could not be considered on a maintenance award. The Social Security benefits could.

As discussed in the comment, below (far more detailed than may be appropriate for this blog), veteran’s disability payments should be able to be considered when making maintenance awards in divorce actions.

In Alvarado, as a result of his military service in the United States Marine Corps prior to the marriage, the husband was now receiving monthly veteran’s disability benefits. The husband successfully argued to Justice DiDomenico that the veteran’s benefits were not to be considered. The Uniformed Services Former Spouse’s Protection Act (USFSPA) declared them to be separate property. 10 U.S.C. § 1408. The Court rejected the wife’s argument that veteran’s disability payments should be considered for purposes of maintenance.

Congress enacted USFSPA in direct response to the 1981 U.S. Supreme Court decision in McCarty v. McCarty, 453 U.S. 210, which had held that federal law as it then existed completely pre-empted the application of state divorce property law to military retirement pay. USFSPA authorized state courts to treat disposable retired pay as marital property. However, Federal disability benefits remained excluded, and any military retirement pay waived in order for the retiree to receive veterans’ disability benefits also remained excluded. Mansell v. Mansell, 490 U.S. 581 (1989).

Justice DiDomenico noted that while the Second Department had yet to address the issue, the Third and Fourth Departments had held that state courts are prohibited from distributing veteran’s disability benefits in an action for divorce. The Court cited Hoskins v. Skojec, 265 AD2d 706 (3d Dept. 1999), leave to appeal denied,  94 NY2d 758 (2000), and Newman v. Newman, 248 AD2d 990 (4th Dept. 1998). Similarly, Justice DiDomenico ruled, Social Security Disability Benefits are separate property and are not subject to equitable distribution. DRL § 236 (B) (1) (d) (2); Miceli v. Miceli, 78 AD3d 1023 (2d Dept. 2010).

However, as Justice DiDomenico held, Social Security Disability Benefits are to be considered by the Court when determining a payor spouse’s ability to pay maintenance, citing Cerabona v. Cerabona, 302 AD2d 346 (2d Dept. 2003). and Carl v. Carl, 58 AD3d 1036 (3d Dept. 2009).  Justice DiDomenico also noted that in Carl, it was stated that while disability benefits obtained from other sources may be considered for purposes of maintenance, veteran’s disability payments are precluded from consideration.


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