Agreements and Stipulations

In its February 7, 2018 decision in Matter of Koegel, the Appellate Division, Second Department, held that defects in the acknowledgment forms in a 30-year old prenuptial agreement, i.e., the failure of the notary to recite that he knew the signatory, could be cured following the death of one of the parties.

Irene and John Koegel were married in August, 1984. Mr. Koegel had been widowed twice before marrying Irene. Mrs. Koegel had been widowed in July 1983. The Koegels were married for more than 29 years at the time of Mr. Koegel’s death in 2014. A month before their marriage, the Koegels had executed a prenuptial agreement.

Among other provisions the agreement provided that the parties ‘would not make a claim as a surviving spouse on any part of the estate of the other. Further, they irrevocably waived and relinquished ‘all right[s] to . . . any elective or statutory share granted under the laws of any jurisdiction.’ Both the decedent and Irene desired that their marriage ‘shall not in any way change their pre-existing legal right, or that of their respective children and heirs, in the property belonging to each of them at the time of said marriage or thereafter acquired.’

Continue Reading Defective Acknowledgment in Prenuptial Agreement Cured After 30 years

Where the results of a 2007 prenuptial agreement waiver of maintenance would be a risk that a mother of three children would become a public charge, the agreement would be set aside for being unconscionable at the time of divorce. So held the Appellate Division, Second Department, in its January 10, 2018 decision in Taha v. Elzemity.

The parties were married in 2007, and had three children. Shortly before their marriage, they entered into a prenuptial agreement. The agreement provided, inter alia, that each party waived the right to the other’s separate property in the event of separation or divorce; each party would keep separate bank accounts; and the husband’s maintenance obligation would be limited to a lump sum payment of $20,000.

In 2008, the parties moved into the marital residence, which was purchased with funds from the husband’s bank account, and the deed and mortgage were placed solely in his name.

The husband had been practicing medicine since 1987 and earned approximately $300,000 annually. The wife, who had been employed part-time as a sales person when the parties met, did not work outside the home during the marriage, but dedicated herself to the care of the household and the parties’ children, one with special needs.

In October 2013, the husband commenced this divorce action. The wife moved to set aside the prenuptial agreement, among other grounds, because it was unconscionable. The husband cross-moved for summary judgment determining that the prenuptial agreement was valid and enforceable. After a hearing, Supreme Court, Richmond County Justice Catherine M. DiDomenico found that the prenuptial agreement was not unconscionable. The wife appealed.

The Second Department reversed. It noted that:

An agreement between spouses or prospective spouses should be closely scrutinized, and may be set aside upon a showing that it is unconscionable, or the result of fraud, or where it is shown to be manifestly unfair to one spouse because of overreaching on the part of the other spouse.

Further, the Court stated, “an agreement is unconscionable if it is one which no person in his or her senses and not under delusion would make on the one hand, and no honest and fair person would accept on the other, the inequality being so strong and manifest as to shock the conscience and confound the judgment of any person of common sense.” Moreover:

An agreement that might not have been unconscionable when entered into may become unconscionable at the time a final judgment would be entered.

Here, the appellate court held that the wife met her burden of proof as to unconscionability. Contrary to the lower court’s determination, the wife established that the prenuptial agreement was, at the time this action was before the court, unconscionable.

Enforcement of the agreement would result in the risk of the wife’s becoming a public charge. The wife, who was unemployed, largely without assets, and the primary caregiver for the parties’ young children, would, under the prenuptial agreement, receive only $20,000, in full satisfaction of all claims, even though the husband earns approximately $300,000 annually as a physician. Accordingly, the wife’s motion to set aside the prenuptial agreement should have been granted.

Catherine S. Bridge, of Staten Island, represented the wife. Arnold E. DiJoseph, P.C., of Manhattan, of counsel to Kuharski, Levitz & Giovinazzo, represented the husband.

When negotiating a divorce settlement agreement, the parties should agree on whether or not all child support-related rights and obligations must be redetermined in the event the periodic basic child support obligation is modified.

Take the recent Appellate Division, Second Department, decision in Walsh v. Walsh. There the parties’ settlement agreement was incorporated, but not merged into their 2014 judgment of divorce. Under that agreement, the father was to pay $500 per month in child support.

After the parties divorced, the father began collecting Social Security benefits in addition to his salary, which caused his income to increase by more than 15%. In their agreement, the parties did not opt out of allowing the court to modify the support order, without requiring a party to allege or demonstrate a substantial change in circumstances, where either party’s gross income changed by 15% or more since the order was entered or modified. The mother petitioned for an upward modification of the father’s child support obligation.

Family Court Suffolk County Support Magistrate Kathryn L. Coward granted the upward modification on the basis of the father’s increased income. Calculating the father’s child support obligation under the Child Support Standards Act, the Magistrate awarded the mother $2,074 per month in child support.

The father objected to the Support Magistrate’s order. Family Court Judge Matthew G. Hughes denied the father’s objections. The father appealed. The Second Department affirmed.

Continue Reading Are The Various Types of Child Support Benefits Interrelated?

It is common for the parents of young children when entering a divorce settlement agreement to defer until the children approach college age the determination of the parents’ obligations to contribute. The language chosen to express that deferral may be significant.

The recent decision of the Appellate Division, Second Department, in Conroy v. Hacker, lets us know the agreement language is significant. But we are left asking what would have happened without it.

In Conroy, the parties were married in 1991 and were the parents of two children. Their 1999 divorce judgment incorporated, but did not merge, a 1998 separation agreement. As relevant here, the separation agreement stated:

The parties are not making any specific provisions for the payment of college expenses which may be incurred on behalf of the infant children because of the tender age of said children as of the date of this Agreement. The parties do, however, acknowledge an obligation on each of their parts to contribute to the children’s future college expenses in accordance with their financial abilities at that time.

Continue Reading Enforcing the Divorce Settlement Agreement To Defer Fixing College Obligations

Keep a secret

The failure of a spouse to disclose a material change in facts that occurred during settlement negotiations may result in an invalidation of the related settlement provisions.

So held the he Appellate Division, Third Department in its May 11, 2017 decision in Flikweert v. Berger, invalidating one paragraph of a divorce settlement separation agreement and remanding the matter to address the appropriate equitable distribution of the funds in issue.

The parties were married in 1997 and had one child. In June 2014, the wife commenced this action for a divorce. After extensive negotiations, the parties executed a separation agreement on September 15, 2015 that addressed issues including equitable distribution, child support, custody and spousal maintenance.

Paragraph 21 of the separation agreement concerned the wife’s ownership interest in her employer, a privately held company. The wife began employment with the company in February 2012. In August 2013, the wife was awarded unvested equity incentive units by the employer. By September 2015, half of the units were vested.

Continue Reading Keeping Secrets During Divorce Action Partially Invalidates Settlement

In its November 23, 2016 decision in Gardella v. Remizov, the Second Department upheld an improperly-executed 2002 postnuptial agreement on the basis of ratification, and a 2006 postnuptial agreement alleged to be unconscionable, but sent the matter back to the trial court for financial disclosure and an inquiry to consider the parties’ 2010 separation agreement.

The parties to this matrimonial action were married in 2000. In October 2002, the parties entered into a postnuptial agreement which provided, among other things, that the marital residence and the wife’s private medical practice were the wife’s separate property. In 2006, the parties entered into a second postnuptial agreement which provided that four parcels of real property in Florida acquired by the parties during the marriage had been purchased with the wife’s separate property, and further addressed the distribution of those four parcels in the event of a divorce.

In 2010, the parties entered into a separation agreement, which addressed, inter alia, issues of maintenance and equitable distribution of the parties’ respective assets. At the time, the wife, a neurologist, was earning approximately $600,000 per year, and the husband, a wine salesman, was earning approximately $40,000. The separation agreement provided, among other things, that the husband would have no interest in any of the assets acquired during the parties’ marriage, including six parcels of real property, the wife’s partnership interest in a neurological practice, and the wife’s bank and brokerage accounts. The husband also waived his right to spousal maintenance. The husband was not represented by counsel when he executed the separation agreement.

Continue Reading Upholding Marital Agreements: 2+ out of 3

A Thermos® keeps hot liquids hot and cold liquids cold. But how does it know?

When drafting a divorce settlement agreement (or any other contract), it is common to include conditions. But will the parties know when a condition has been met? How will the parties know if a promise has been kept? Sometimes it is obvious, or a party may think so. And sometimes it’s not.

Take the Second Department’s October 19th decision in Rosner v. Rosner. There the parties entered into a divorce stipulation of settlement. Pursuant to that agreement, the parties agreed that the husband would have the exclusive right to continue to reside in the former marital residence until five years from the execution of the stipulation, at which time the marital residence would be sold. The husband was required to pay all the expenses of the marital residence, except for the mortgage. The wife was required to pay the mortgage on the marital residence, as well as to pay the husband $1,500 in child support.

The stipulation also provided that if, “prior to the five years from the date of the execution” of the stipulation, the husband was “financially unable to pay for the expenses” of the marital residence, the marital residence would be sold.

In December 2013, the wife moved, among other things, to recover certain real estate taxes which the wife paid on the husband’s behalf, and to direct the sale of the former marital residence. After a hearing, Westchester County Supreme Court Justice Janet C. Malone granted those branches of the wife’s motion. The husband appealed.

A court should interpret a stipulation of settlement in accordance with its plain and ordinary meaning. Where such an agreement is clear and unambiguous on its face, the intent of the parties must be gleaned from the four corners of the instrument, and not from extrinsic evidence.

The Second Department affirmed, holding that the wife had established that the husband “failed to pay certain real estate taxes on the former marital property, as required by the stipulation. Thus, pursuant to the clear and unambiguous language of the stipulation, the Supreme Court properly directed that the former marital residence be sold.”

Comment: Here, the parties’ agreement could have said that if the husband fails to pay the required expenses, the marital residence would be sold. But it did not. Under the parties’ agreement, the sale was not triggered by a mere failure to pay, but only if the husband was “financially unable to pay for the expenses” of the marital residence. The opinion does not reveal whether the record demonstrated that inability. However, equating “failure” with “inability” as a matter of contract construction as a matter of law appears to be a stretch.

“Unable” is a loaded word. It requires that a judgment be made. Perhaps the parties would have been better served by setting out the test for inability. How will the parties know when the husband is “financially unable to pay for the expenses?”

The husband represented himself. The wife was represented by Brett Kimmel, P.C., of Manhattan.

In its August 24, 2016 decision in Maddaloni v. Maddaloni, the Appellate Division, Second Department, upheld the rulings of Supreme Court Suffolk County Justice Justice Carol Mackenzie that invalidated the all-but-complete maintenance waiver contained in a 23-year-old postnuptial agreement, awarding the wife maintenance for 10 years. The appellate court also upheld Justice Mackenzie’s award to the wife of 25% of the $2,000,000 appreciation during the marriage in the value of the husband’s pre-marital business, Maddaloni Jewelers of Huntington.

The Maddalonis were married in January, 1988. At the time of the marriage, the husband owned several cars, a house, and a jewelry business, and he was in contract to buy a shopping center. On August 22, 1988, less than eight months after the parties were married, they experienced marital difficulties and entered into a postnuptial agreement. Among other things, this agreement provided that, in the event that the parties divorced after the first five years of marriage, the wife agreed to accept the sum of $50,000, payable in five equal annual installments of $10,000, “in full satisfaction of any and all claims of whatsoever kind and nature she may have at that time for past or future support or for distribution of assets.”

Continue Reading Maintenance Provision of Postnuptial Agreement Voided; Wife Awarded 25% of Appreciation of Husband’s Premarital Business

Marital and divorce agreements have to be “notarized.” But does the notary have to be present and witness the actual signing?

New York’s Domestic Relations Law §236B(3) states “[a]n agreement by the parties, made before or during the marriage, shall be valid and enforceable in a matrimonial action if such agreement is in writing, subscribed by the parties, and acknowledged or proven in the manner required to entitle a deed to be recorded.”

What does “acknowledged or proven in the manner required to entitle a deed to be recorded” mean.

In her June 1, 2016 decision in B.W. v. R.F., Westchester County Supreme Court Justice Linda Christopher upheld a prenuptial agreement in which the notary’s “acknowledgment” used the wrong wording.

Continue Reading Do Marital and Divorce Agreements Have To Be Signed in the Presence of the Notary?

A divorce settlement agreement requires clear language. It must also anticipate the thousands of details needed to complete the financial disentanglement and establish post-divorce rights and obligations. The parties must unceasingly ask their counsel “what if? Before signing their agreement, parties must envision how each type of transaction will actually be accomplished.

That need is made clear in the June 29, 2016 decision of the Appellate Division, Second Department, in Frances v. Frances.

The parties entered their divorce stipulation of settlement on January 19, 2010. On this post-judgment application, the ex-husband asked to enforce the stipulation by directing his former wife to pay him 50% of the refund received from the parties’ 2009 joint tax return, 50% of the school tuition and camp expenses for the parties’ youngest child, and 50% of the cost of certain repairs to the marital residence. Rockland County Supreme Court Justice William A. Kelly granted that relief and the wife appealed.

Continue Reading The Divorce Settlement Must Predict How Finances Will Actually Work