It may be difficult to reconcile two recent decisions of the Appellate Division, Second Department, as they relate to awards of interest on delayed equitable distribution payments due under a divorce stipulation of settlement. The first raises questions as to the impact of failing to expressly include the payment obligations in the judgment of divorce as opposed to merely incorporating the stipulation by reference. The second decision raises questions as to the date from which interest should run.

In O’Donnell v. O’Donnell, the parties had entered into a stipulation of settlement of their divorce action in March, 2014. Among other terms, the stipulation obligated the husband to “pay the Wife a lump sum of $1,000,000 on or before September 30, 2014.”

The judgment of divorce, entered in March, 2015, incorporated, but did not merge the stipulation. At the time the judgment was entered, the husband had not paid the $1,000,000 distributive award.

After the entry of the divorce judgment, and by order to show cause issued June 5, 2015, the ex-wife moved, inter alia, to compel the ex-husband to execute a confession of judgment, or in the alternative, for leave to enter a money judgment against him in the principal sum of $1,000,000 plus interest at the statutory rate of 9% per annum.

In opposition to the motion, the husband produced the confession of judgment he signed in March, 2014, which rendered academic the branch of the motion which was to compel him to execute a confession of judgment. The confession of judgment made no provision for interest.

The husband stated that he paid the $1,000,000 in full on June 19, 2015 (two weeks after the order to show cause was issued). He claimed that he had been unable to pay the $1,000,000 until that time because he had to secure those funds by mortgaging the real properties which remained in his name.

Nassau County Supreme Court Justice Jeffrey A. Goodstein denied the wife’s motion for an award of statutory interest on the $1,000,000, because the stipulation of settlement did not provide for such interest. The wife appealed.

Continue Reading Interest on Asset Payments Due Under Divorce Stipulation of Settlement

If you were fortunate enough to buy stock in Apple Inc. in early 2009, you might have paid $13 per share. It’s now worth $150.

If you’re getting a divorce holding Apple shares with a substantially lower-than-market cost basis, you must plan your trial evidence or settlement to deal with the embedded capital gains tax exposure. In the example above, the gain would be $137 per share. When sold, under current tax laws, a capital gains tax of perhaps tens of thousands of dollars or more could be incurred.

If you settle this issue, you may negotiate the impact of capital gains on the spouse retaining the shares. It will always be easier, fairer, to simply divide the shares, but care must be taken to divide it “traunch” by traunch; to divide each group of shares purchased at any one time. In that way, the spouses will be assured that not only will today’s fair market value be the same, but so will the embedded capital gains issue.

If you don’t settle, the issue will be far more difficult. The court may not recognize nor account for the potential tax liability incurred if and when the stock as sold. The transfer from one spouse to the other incident to the divorce itself is not viewed as a taxable event. Even if the court computes the transfer using the current fair market value, the transferring spouse reports no capital gains; the recipient spouse keeps the original cost basis. If and when the recipient sells the shares, the recipient will bear the entirety of the capital gains tax, computed on the gain over the original cost basis.

Continue Reading Considering Potential Capital Gains Tax Liabilities in Divorce

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 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

As I wrote about last week, New York attorney Steven Simkin attempted to recover $2.7 million from his wife after he found out the $5.7 million Madoff-invested account he split up in their divorce agreement was worthlesss. In the video interview with Colin O’Keefe of LXBN TV, I discuss the background of the case, why this isn’t an “exceptional situation” and what other divorcing couples can learn from the situation.

House of cards 2.jpgContinuing to demonstrate New York’s public policy enforcing settlement agreements and the finality they bring to bear on divorce litigation, the Court of Appeals on April 3, 2012 held that the post-agreement discovery that the fact that a marital account had been invested with Bernard Madoff and retained by the husband upon the divorce was not a sufficient basis to set aside that agreement when the Madoff scheme later surfaced.

In 2006, former spouses Steven Simkin and Laura Blank entered a divorce settlement agreement under which Ms. Blank, among other terms, waived spousal support and marital property rights in the value of the husband’s law practice. The husband paid his wife $6.25 million.

Three years later, when the now ex-husband learned he was a victim of Bernard Madoff’s massive Ponzi scheme, he commenced an action against his former wife asking that the 2006 agreement be “reformed” to reflect the mutual mistake made by the parties, i.e., the assumption  that there was an account with Madoff worth $5.4 million. Mr. Simkin alleged that the payment made to his ex-wife under the 2006 agreement was intended to accomplish an “approximately equal division of [the couple’s] marital assets.” In reliance upon that mistaken assumption, the ex-husband claimed he paid his wife $2.7 million which should now be returned.

Continue Reading Husband Keeping Madoff Account in Divorce is Not Basis to Change Pre-Collapse Settlement Agreement

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 . . .

Rip up contract 3.jpgShlomo Scholar and Shoshana Timinisky married in 2005. They had one child the next year.  The year after that they entered a stipulation of settlement to resolve their divorce action.

Included in that stipulation was the parties agreement that Ms. Timinisky would have sole custody of the parties’ child. However, the parties also agreed that custody rights be limited by an agreement to share decision-making on all issues relating to the child’s education. The parties pre-selected an arbitrator to resolve their failure to agree on such issues.

Such a disagreement arose. However, in a September 9, 2010 order, Queens County Supreme Court Justice Thomas Raffaele denied the father’s motion to enforce the parties’ stipulation. Instead, without a hearing, the mother was granted sole decision-making authority with respect to the child’s education in the event that the parties were unable to agree to a parenting coordinator (traditionally employed to facilitate parent communication and the mediation of disputes).  Justice Raffaele also disqualified “a certain individual from arbitrating issues regarding the education of the child.” Finally, on its own motion, Justice Raffaele enjoined Mr. Scholar from bringing any further motions without the permission of the Supreme Court.

In an August 9, 2011 decision of the Appellate Division, Second Department, in Scholar v. Timinisky, that Order was affirmed. The appellate court ruled that Justice Raffaele properly determined that a change of circumstances required a modification of the parties’ stipulation of settlement to protect the best interests of the child. New York’s best interest standard was to be applied to resolve a dispute regarding parental joint decision-making authority.

Continue Reading Court Avoids Parents' Agreement to Arbitrate Disputes Over Education of Child

square peg1.jpgEntering open-court oral stipulations of settlement to a divorce action is treacherous.  It’s easy to miss something or be imprecise in language.

However, striking the deal while the iron is hot is a necessary part of matrimonial litigation.  Letting the parties walk out of the courthouse without putting the day’s agreement “on the record” may cost the parties their deal.  Emotions, particularly in divorce cases, often cause second (and hundredth) thoughts on settlement provisions.  Giving friends and family one more opportunity for input may likely undermine the day’s efforts.

However, there are reasons that the typical written settlement stipulation consumes scores of pages. The boilerplate and legalese so offensive to the public is the necessary consequence of the thousands of decisions which interpret the words found in or missing from decades of previous settlements or otherwise requiring attention in any final agreement.  Moreover, without reflecting on the written word, it’s easy just to miss things.

Take the recent Second Department decision in Zuchowski v. Zuchowski.  The parties’ oral in-court stipulation announced that “all joint bank accounts have been split to the mutual satisfaction of the parties and here and forward each party shall keep any bank accounts in their respective names . . .”

Continue Reading The Nature of 529 Education Savings Plans Should Not be Disregarded Under the Guise of Divorce Stipulation Interpretation

scissors contract 2.jpgWhat happens when only one provision of an agreement is invalid because it violates some statute or public policy?  The answer may depend on who the court wants to benefit, instead of consistently-applied rules of contract law.

Take, for example the April 5, 2011 decision of the Second Department in Duggan v. Duggan.  In that case, the parties had resolved their divorce by a surviving February 26, 2009 stipulation of settlement. Under that stipulation, the father, who had gross income of $475,000.00, agreed to pay a base monthly child support obligation of $8,000.00.  That amount deviated from the presumptive amount under the Child Support Standards Act (C.S.S.A.) of $11,929.54. The mother had no income.

Apparently, the stipulation also had a provision which called for the reduction in the father’s monthly obligation in the event his income was reduced.

In 2010, the mother brought a Family Court enforcement proceeding when the father ceased making the payments to which he originally agreed. The father raised the stipulation’s modification provision, arguing that his $8,243.00 annual reduction in income to $466,757.00 entitled him to a $76,800.00 annual reduction in child support (to $1,600.00 per month)!

Finding that the father’s interpretation of the stipulation modification provision was “not plausible,” Nassau County Family Court Judge Julianne S. Eisman denied the father’s objections to the Order of Support Magistrate Tejindar S. Kahlon which granted the mother’s arrears petition. Finding that the language of the Stipulation, as interpreted by the father, would violate the C.S.S.A., and was against the best interests of the children, the modification provision was ignored.

On appeal, the Second Department affirmed, holding that the Family Court had the authority to find that a provision in a stipulation of settlement violated the C.S.S.A. The appellate court found that a provision which called for a reduction in child support to 13% of the presumptive C.S.S.A. amount, merely because the father’s income dropped by 1.7% was “against the best interests of the children.”

It is noteworthy that the appellate court did not quote the startling modification provision. Equally noteworthy is that there was no discussion of any interpretation of the modification provision other than the one the Family Court considered implausible.

In order to have obtained the Judgment of Divorce, it would have been necessary to have made the recitation in the stipulation of settlement that the parties had been made aware of the C.S.S.A. and its presumptive formula in their case. D.R.L. §240(1-b)(h).  The parties would have had to have stated the reasons they agreed to deviate from the C.S.S.A guidelines. Specific Findings of Fact would have been made by the Supreme Court upholding those reasons.

It is understandable that the presumed failure of the Supreme Court to review the specific modification provision might not estop the mother from later attacking that provision when it was sought to be applied. Thus, the form language of a divorce judgment that “the parties are directed to comply with every legally enforceable term and provision” of the agreement incorporated into the judgment, does not mean that every provision is, in fact, legally enforceable.

What then is, or should be the impact of rendering unenforceable only one provision of a settlement agreement?

Continue Reading Severability: When Only One Provision of a Divorce Settlement Agreement Is Invalid