In its July 25, 2018 decision in Crago v. Diegel, the Appellate Division, Second Department, affirmed a counsel fee award to a wife, the monied spouse in this divorce action. Supreme Court Kings County Justice Esther M. Morganstern had awarded the wife 55% of her total counsel fees. Upholding the award, the Second Department noted:

In its determination of a counsel fee application, the trial court must consider the relative financial circumstances of the parties, the relative merit of their positions, and the tactics of a party in unnecessarily prolonging the litigation. Although the defendant correctly contends that he is the less monied spouse, the Supreme Court’s award to the plaintiff of 55% of her total counsel fees, upon its determination that the defendant’s obstructionist conduct unnecessarily prolonged the pretrial motion practice and the trial, was not an improvident exercise of discretion.

The Second Department cited Meara v. Meara, 104 A.D.3D 916, 960 N.Y.S.2d 911 (2013) in which the financial circumstances of the parties was not discussed, and Quinn v. Quinn, 73 A.D.3d 887, 899 N.Y.S.2d 859 (2010), in which the parties were described as being on equal footing.

However, a counsel fee award to the monied spouse is contrary the rule in the First Department as announced in Silverman v. Silverman, 304 A.D.2d 41, 47-49, 756 N.Y.S.2d 14, 19-21 (1st Dept. 2003). Below, Supreme Court New York County Justice Marilyn Diamond had awarded the husband $50,000 in attorney’s fees, out of a total of over $ 200,000 incurred, based upon the dilatory conduct of the wife and her then counsel. Eliminating the award, the First Department held:

This award of attorney’s fees was not proper under Domestic Relations Law §237, because awarding attorney’s fees to the monied spouse does not comport with the purpose and policies of that section of the Domestic Relations Law.

Continue Reading Awarding Counsel Fees to the Monied Spouse: Conflict in the Departments

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

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.

Calulator on 100s 3It’s worthy of note when enough information is provided in an appellate decision to see “how” maintenance and child support were computed. The May 6, 2015 decision of the Appellate Division, Second Department, in Sawin v. Sawin, provides such an opportunity.

In Sawin, the parties were married in 1988 and had three children. During the marriage, the husband worked as a firefighter, and in 2011, he earned approximately $122,500. The wife stopped working full-time after the birth of the parties’ second child in 1994. In 2004, she began working part-time as a real estate agent, earning approximately $15,000 in 2010 and $23,000 in 2011. In December 2010, the wife commenced this matrimonial action seeking, among other things, child support, maintenance, and equitable distribution.

The Second Department held that Putnam County Supreme Court former Justice Francis A. Nicolai providently awarded maintenance to the plaintiff for a period of eight years, and that the amount of the award, $2,000 per month, was not excessive. The Second Department noted that it is well established that, as a general rule, the amount and duration of maintenance are matters committed to the sound discretion of the trial court. Inasmuch as Justice Nicolai properly considered the factors set forth in Domestic Relations Law § 236(B)(6)(a), his award of maintenance was not improvident. Moreover, taking into consideration the financial circumstances of the parties, neither the duration, nor the amount of maintenance was excessive.

Justice Nicolai had also directed the husband to pay child support in the sum of $2,220.33 per month. That award, too, was upheld.

Although there was no specific discussion of methodology or formulas, it may be noted that the award for 8 years, after this 22 marriage, was a period of approximately 36% of the length of the marriage. The maintenance amount of 24,000 per year, happened to be approximately 25% of the income of the husband net of the income of the wife. Child support for the three children was $2,220.33 per month ($26,643.96 per year). That sum was approximately 29% of the husband’s 2011 income less FICA and Medicare taxes and the $24,000.00 in maintenance.

Tomorrow’s blog post will discuss giving the husband credit for paying college room and board expenses. Thursday’s post will discuss giving credits to the wife for debts she incurred after the divorce action was commenced.

Jason A. Advocate, of Advocate & Lichtenstein, LLP (John H. Hersh, former counsel on the brief), of Manhattan, represented the husband. Sarah R. Scigliano, of Stephen M. Santoro, Sr., P.C., of Carmel, represented the wife.

When calculating a child support obligation, what effect does a simultaneous spousal maintenance award have? The November 21, 2013 decision of the Appellate Division, Third Department, in Alecca v. Alecca reveals the conflict among the Departments, questions of logic, and the need for action by the Legislature.

Agreeing with Judge Anthony McGinty, deciding for the Ulster County Supreme Court, the appellate court held in Alecca that if a spousal maintenance award does not terminate until after all children have been emancipated, the maintenance award may not be deducted from the payor’s income for child support calculation purposes. Spousal maintenance does get deducted if it terminates before all children are emancipated and the awarding court provides for a specific adjustment of child support at the time of the maintenance termination.

Child support is presumptively the function of the Child Support Standards Acct (C.S.S.A.) formula (D.R.L. §240 [1-b]; F.C.A. §413). Depending upon the number of children to be supported, the presumptive formula is a certain percentage of parental income, with the obligation of the support payor being the payor’s pro rata portion of the combined parental income of both parents. In addition to the basic child support obligation, the parents’ obligation to pay additional amounts for health and child care expenses  is also presumptively a function of the parents’ pro rata shares of their combined income. Although relevant, an add-on obligation for educational expenses (if warranted by the circumstances, justice, and the best interests of the child) is not expressly a function of pro rata shares.

Continue Reading Child Support Computations When Spousal Maintenance is Awarded

H shocked at W shopping.jpgWhen Sally Field won her second Oscar in 1984, her acceptance speech included the line often now misquoted as “you like me, you really like me.” Nancy Alper might respond to the Second Department, “you hate me, you really hate me.”

In its October 12, 2010 decision in Alper v. Alper, that court affirmed the trial decision of Kings County Supreme Court Justice Eric Prus, which awarded Mrs. Alper 0% of the marital assets.

In the Alper’s 20-year childless marriage, during which the parties were separated for 10 years, both parties worked, but Mrs. Alper spent her money on herself and her daughter of a prior marriage.  We are not told how much the parties earned, or of the decadence of their purchases.

Nevertheless, it was only last year that the Court of Appeals held that the parties’ choice of how to spend funds during the course of the marriage should ordinarily be respected.  Courts should not second-guess the economic decisions made during the course of a marriage. See, Mahoney-Buntzman, 12 N.Y.3d 415, 421, 881 N.Y.S.2d 369 (2009), holding that one spouse may not recover for the money the other spouse spent on required support for a prior spouse and child.

Here, we are told Mrs. Alper contributed little, if any, financial support to the marriage, contributing nothing “to the purchase, and only minimally to the maintenance of the marital home.”  Accordingly, she was awarded no interest in that residence.  Moreover, as Mrs. Alper failed to demonstrate “the manner in which her contributions resulted in the increase in value and the amount of the increase which was attributable to her efforts,” Mrs. Alper was awarded no part of the appreciation in value in her husband’s pre-marital country home.

Also, as Mrs. Alper failed to prove whether her husband’s cash and securities were separate or marital property [doesn’t the burden rests with the titled spouse to rebut the presumption that property is marital? Fields, 15 NY3d 158, 163, 905 NYS2d 783, 785 (2010)], she was awarded no part of those assets.

Finally, as Mrs. Alper failed to prove the value of a parcel of vacant land, concededly marital property, she was not entitled to a distributive award.

Perhaps it is naive to think that the appellate decisions should pave the way towards minimizing conflict, generating guidelines to assist resolution by agreement.  This decision foreshadows the opposite; enhancing the ill will between parties as they challenge the value to the marriage of each other’s choices.