Show your work.
Mistakes happen, and probably a lot more often than any of us matrimonial lawyers would care to admit.
We all make mistakes. I am happy to say that most mistakes are alleviated by collegial adversaries working together to put things right.
However, sometimes the spouse benefiting from the mistake in marital settlement agreement will not acknowledge that a mistake was made.
When that happens, the burdened party must ask the court to reform the agreement to correct the mistake. That party has a heavy burden.
The burden, however, becomes a lot easier to meet if the parties have shown their work.
Consider, the February 21, 2012 decision of Kings County Supreme Court Justice Jeffrey S. Sunshine in Hackett v. Hackett. The parties had entered a marital settlement agreement in January, 2006. The parties’ marital estate was itemized in a schedule annexed to the agreement. The agreement expressly provided that the husband was to pay the wife $19,336.40, “in order to equalize the allocation of marital property so as to arrive in an equal division.”
Included among the parties’ property was their marital residence, a Brooklyn home valued at $465,000.00 against which there were two mortgages totaling $195,124.00. When listing the assets being received by the wife, the marital residence was included at a value equal to its net equity of $264,447.00. Including this amount for net equity, the wife was to receive $557,442.00 in assets. From this the wife was to be take on marital liabilities of $195,124.00. Thus, the wife was receiving assets net of liabilities of $382,318.00.
The problem was that these liabilities were the very same mortgages totaling $195,124.00 which were subtracted from the home’s appraised value to result in the equity value of $264,447.00 stated for the marital residence. The mortgages were double-counted. Moreover, there was another simple math error. Subtracting the $195,124.00 in mortgages from the $465,000.00 appraised value of the marital residence should have resulted in the wife being charged with receiving net equity of $269,876.00, not the $264,447.00 which was stated as the net equity value of the marital residence being received by the wife. Thus, the wife was under-charged $5,429.00, in addition to having benefited from the double-subtraction of the mortgages.
Instead, the wife should have been charged with receiving $562,871.00 in net assets (the originally stated $557,442.00, plus the $5,429.00 math error, without the second deduction for the mortgages already taken into account). The husband was properly charged under the agreement with receiving $400,990.00. Thus, the wife received $161,881.00 more than the husband. In order to equalize the division of assets, the wife would have to pay to the husband one half of this amount, or $80,940.50. Here, the agreement as originally drafted with its mistakes ended up with the husband paying the wife $19,336.00. To correct the error, the wife would have to repay this $19,336.00, and on top of that pay the husband $80,940.50, for a total of $100,276.50.
Justice Sunshine provided the husband relief, reforming the agreement to require the wife to make the requested payment of $100,276.50. To do so, the court rejected the recommendation of the Referee to home the matter was referred to “hear and report.”