Agreements and Stipulations

The separation agreement was the product of mediation; the wife was afforded the opportunity to consult with counsel; and the wife elected to sign the agreement, notwithstanding the advice of counsel not to do so.  “These facts, standing alone, do not shield the separation agreement from judicial scrutiny. The validity of the agreement is dependent upon an examination of the totality of the circumstances, including an examination of the terms of the agreement, to see if there is an inference of overreaching.”

So held the Appellate Division, Second Department in its April 24, 2019 decision in Mizrahi v. Mizrahi. Reversing the decision of Queens County Supreme Court Justice Margaret Parisi-McGowan that upheld the agreement without a hearing, the appellate court also noted the record disclosed no information regarding who retained and paid for the services of the mediator, and how the mediator arrived at the substantive terms of the agreement.

The Second Department noted:

because of the fiduciary relationship existing between spouses, a marital agreement 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 unjust because of the other spouse’s overreaching. To rescind a separation agreement on the ground of overreaching, a wife must demonstrate both overreaching and unfairness.

Here, the court held that without a hearing to determine the totality of the circumstances, including the extent of the parties’ incomes and assets and the circumstances surrounding the execution of the separation agreement, it could not be determined on this record whether equity should intervene to invalidate the parties’ separation agreement.


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In a February, 2019 decision, the Appellate Division, Second Department, foiled the cooperative efforts of previously-divorced parties, by their settlement of post-judgment issues, to avoid an interim fee award to the ex-wife’s counsel to prosecute an appeal.

In Rhodes v. Rhodes, the parties were married in 1993, had three children, and divorced in 2008. In 2013, the ex-husband successfully moved to modify the parties’ custody arrangement and, in a December, 2014 order, was granted residential custody of the children. The ex-wife appealed from that order.

In May 2015, the ex-wife moved for interim appellate attorney’s fees and costs. In an August 25, 2015 order, Former Suffolk County Supreme Court Acting Justice Marlene L. Budd granted that motion, awarding the ex-wife $20,000 in attorney’s fees and costs “for the prosecution of the appeal, with leave to apply for additional sums upon the completion of the appeal.” The ex-husband was directed to pay those attorney’s fees and costs to the ex-wife’s then-attorney, Karyn A. Villar, PLLC (hereinafter Villar), within 20 days of the order.

When payment was not made, on September 23, 2015, Villar moved to hold the ex-husband in civil contempt of the fee order. The ex-husband cross-moved for leave to renew his opposition to the ex-wife’s prior motion for interim appellate attorney’s fees and costs. The ex-husband attached to his cross motion a stipulation of settlement dated September 28, 2015, in which the parties agreed that the ex-wife would waive payment of attorney’s fees and costs owed by the ex-husband pursuant to the August, 2015 order. The ex-wife retained new counsel, and thereafter cross-moved to impose sanctions against Villar, arguing that Villar’s contempt motion was punitive and an abuse of process.

In an order dated March 7, 2016, Suffolk County Supreme Court Justice Carol MacKenzie (1) denied Villar’s motion to hold the ex-husband in civil contempt, (2) vacated the August, 2015 interim fee award and denied a fee, and (3) granted the ex-wife’s cross motion to impose sanctions against Villar, directing Villar to pay the ex-wife’s new attorneys $2,500. Villar appealed.


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The Child Support Standards Act authorizes parents to agree to a child support obligation that deviates from the presumptive formula provided in that statute. However, if they are going to deviate from the formula, the parents must state what the obligation would have been if the formula were to be applied, and the reasons why the parties have agreed to deviate.

In its September 26, 2018 decision in Fasano v. Fasano, the Appellate Division, Second Department, held that if one of those reasons no longer applies, such is a “substantial change in circumstances” warranting a new child support determination.

The parties were married in 1993 and have two children together. In October, 2012, the parties entered into a stipulation of settlement of a prior divorce action after which that action was discontinued.

That stipulation provided that although the husband’s monthly child support obligation using the C.S.S.A. calculation would be $1,994.45 on the first $130,000.00 of combined parental income (then, the “cap”) and $2,575.61 on the total combined parental income, the parties had agreed that the husband’s monthly child support obligation would be $1,500.00. The stipulation also provided that there would be no “add-ons” or “additional health costs” added to these child support payments, even though the C.S.S.A. generally provides that each parent’s share of unreimbursed health care expenses is to be prorated in the same proportion as each parent’s income is to the combined parental income.

The stipulation contained an explanation that the deviation from the C.S.S.A. calculation was necessary “to allow the [husband] to retain the marital residence as a place for the children to be with him when they are together” and had “been agreed by the parties to be in the best interests of the children to provide them continuity and stability in their living and educational environments.”


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Here’s a reminder. Look over the “boilerplate” counsel-fees-on-default provision of your settlement agreements; and re-read them when resolving enforcement proceedings.

Take a lesson from the July 25, 2018 decision of the Appellate Division, Second Department, in Posner v. Posner. There, The parties’ 2010 judgment of divorce incorporated, but did not merge, their stipulation of settlement. That stipulation provided that where one of the parties commences litigation to enforce it, and that litigation does not “result in a judgment or order in favor of the party” who commenced the litigation, that party shall reimburse the other party for any and all expenses, including attorney’s fees.

In 2011, the husband commenced litigation in the Family Court to enforce certain stipulation provisions. Thereafter, the wife filed a contempt motion under a separate docket number. After eight days of trial over nine months, the parties agreed to withdraw their respective petitions with prejudice. The parties nevertheless “reserve[d] all other rights provided for” in the 2010 stipulation of settlement.

In January 2014, the wife filed a motion in the Supreme Court seeking an award of attorney’s fees pursuant to the parties’ 2010 stipulation of settlement for the 2011 Family Court litigation. Westchester County Supreme Court Justice Francis A. Nicolai granted the wife’s motion to the extent of finding that the wife was entitled to an award of attorney’s fees and set the matter down for a hearing as to the appropriate amount. In a judgment entered September 27, 2016, after a hearing, Justice Janet C. Malone awarded the wife a judgment for attorney’s fees in the sum of $224,287. The husband appealed.


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If divorcing parties will file their income tax returns jointly, how do you allocate each party’s fair share of taxes? How do you draft an unambiguous provision that spells that out?

Such were among the questions raised by the July 18, 2018 decision of the Appellate Division, Second Department, in Cohen v. Cohen.

There, in October 2013, the parties entered into a settlement stipulation which was incorporated into their 2014 judgment of divorce. Article XIII, paragraph “1,” of the stipulation addressed the parties’ respective liability for their jointly-filed 2013 tax returns: any taxes due were to be “paid by the parties in proportion to their respective income.”

In January 2015, the husband moved to enforce the stipulation by seeking a determination of the wife’s proportionate liability for the parties’ jointly filed 2013 taxes and to direct the wife to pay that sum. In the order appealed from, Supreme Court Nassau County Justice Stacy D. Bennett granted the husband’s motion and determined that the wife was responsible for 11.3% of the parties’ tax liability for 2013, giving the parties credit for any payments already made.

On appeal, the Second Department held that the relevant provision was ambiguous as to how to calculate the parties’ respective income. The appellate court noted that whether an agreement is ambiguous is a question of law for the courts. Moreover, the Second Department held that the parties’ submissions to Justice Bennett were insufficient to resolve the ambiguity.


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What is the effect of a divorce settlement stipulation provision, incorporated in the judgment of divorce, that calls for a specified reduction in child support upon the emancipation of one of the children of the parties?

The fact pattern is almost routine. For example, say the parties have three children, 14, 17 and 19. Their divorce settlement tracks the C.S.S.A. Upon the first emancipation (presumably when the 19-year old turns 21, or, perhaps graduates college according to the definition of emancipation in the agreement), the stipulation provides that the child support obligation will go from $2,900 per month to $2,500 per month (tracking the reduction in the formula obligation from 29% for three children to 25% for two children). Assume the full stipulation is incorporated by reference into the parties’ divorce judgment.

Continuing the example, assume that upon the first emancipation, the child support payor in fact reduces his/her payment from $2900 to $2500, but does not have that reduction established by a new court order. A year later, the support recipient goes into court to seek 12 months of $400/per/month arrears. What happens?

Consider last month’s decision of the Appellate Division, Second Department, in Beckmann v. Bedckmann. There, the parties’ 2012 divorce judgment incorporated, but did not merge with, their 2011 stipulation of settlement. The parties had agreed that the husband would pay $700 semi-monthly in basic child support for their two children. In April 2013, the parties’ daughter became emancipated under the terms of the stipulation, and shortly thereafter, the husband reduced his child support payments from $700 to $476 semi-monthly [I am going to dangerously assume that an agreement that defined emancipation would also provide what was to happen on emancipation].


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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.’


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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.


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