“Estoppel” is the principle that precludes a person from asserting something contrary to that inconsistent with a previous statement, position or ruling. Two decisions last month bringing the principal and to focus.

First, the June 4, 2014 decision  of Kings County Supreme Court Justice Jeffrey S. Sunshine in Zito v. Zito primarily resolved the wife’s motion for temporary relief in a divorce action commenced by the husband on June 7, 2011. The parties had been married 10 years before that, and had a daughter (then 5) and a son (then 3).

The husband works in the family-owned Smiling Pizzeria. The wife, although a licensed pharmacist, alleged that she had been a full-time homemaker since the children were born. Those children attend private school and participate in a number of organized activities.

However, in addition to the wife’s motion for temporary relief, Smiling Pizzeria, itself, had moved to be allowed to intervene in the divorce action. The pizzeria wanted to establish that it was owned only by the husband’s father; that the husband had no ownership interest. Without an ownership interest of the husband, it was argued, it could not be subject to equitable distribution.


Continue Reading Being Bound by Statements in Tax Returns and Court Papers

Filing income tax returns as “single” for the 11 years before a decedent’s death, did not, as a matter of law, estop a woman from claiming to be the decedent’s surviving spouse in contested estate proceedings. So held New York County Surrogate Nora S. Anderson in the May 22, 2014 decision in Estate of Tran (pdf).

Sang Kim Nguyen filed a petition to be appointed Administratrix of the Estate of Truong Dinh Tran. Ms. Nguyen claimed to be Mr. Truong’s widow under the common law of Vietnam. Separate cross-petitions for appointment were filed Mr. Truong’s alleged son, duaghter’s and grandson, who all sought summary dismissal of Ms. Nguyen’s petition.

Mr. Truong died at the age of 80 on May 6, 2012, leaving an estate that has been estimated to be worth more than $100 million.

According to Wikipedia, Truong was the principal owner of the Vishipco Line, the largest shipping company in South Vietnam in the 1970s. As a shipowner, he earned millions of dollars hauling cargo for the United States military. Truong left Vietnam on April 30, 1975, the day that Saigon fell to the communists. Truong boarded one of his eleven ships and traveled to the United States with two suitcases of gold.


Continue Reading Filing Tax Returns as “Single” May Not Estop Claim to Be Decedent’s Widow

Sometimes developing divorce case law seems like a bad game of telephone.

Take the February 7, 2014 decision of the Fourth Department in Foti v. FotiHere, the Court reversed the order of Supreme Court, Monroe County Justice Kenneth R. Fisher which had granted a wife partial summary judgment determining that various real estate entities and management companies were her separate property. She had proven that her interests were received from her father by gift.

Generally, under New York’s Domestic Relations Law §236B, property that is owned by a spouse before the marriage constitutes “separate property,” and is not divided on divorce, except, under some circumstances, to the extent of some portion of appreciation in value of the separate property over the course of the marriage. Inheritances and gifts (from someone other than the other spouse) are also “separate property.” On divorce, the court will divide  the parties’ “marital property,” property acquired during the marriage which is not “separate property.”

In Foti, the Fourth Department held that there was an issue of fact whether the wife commingled her interests in the entities, transforming the nature of those interests to marital property. The possible “commingling” arose from deductions taken on the parties’ joint tax return: “Here, the parties filed a joint federal tax return in which defendant reported her interest in the entities as tax losses, and ‘[a] party to litigation may not take a position contrary to a position taken in an income tax return,’” quoting from the 2009 decision of the Court of Appeals in Mahoney-Buntzman v. Buntzman, 12 N.Y.3d 415, 881 N.Y.S.2d 369.

In Mahoney-Bunztman, the Court of Appeals held that a husband’s decision to declare on his joint income tax return that money he received on the disposition of his interest in a real estate development company was ordinary earned income prevented him from later claiming that that money was merely a transformation of his separate property.


Continue Reading Deducting Separate Property Business Losses on Joint Tax Return May Transform Property to Marital

Two decisions within the last 10 days confirm the need for agreements relating to support to be in (an acknowledged) writing, and then incorporated in a court order.

In one, the Second Department affirmed the award of maintenance arrears without a hearing despite the claimed reduction of maintenance under an oral modification of the parties’ separation agreement. In the second, Albany County Family Court Judge W. Dennis Duggan directed a father to pay 71% of his older son’s private middle school expense, despite the mother’s conceded agreement to pay the full tuition.

In its January 30, 2103 decision in Parker v. Navarra, the Second Department affirmed the award of maintenance arrears by Dutchess County Supreme Court Justice James V. Brands. The ex-husband alleged that he and his ex-wife had orally modified the maintenance provisions of their separation agreement and, alternatively, that the ex-wife should be equitably estopped from enforcing the maintenance provisions of the separation agreement. The ex-husband had requested an evidentiary hearing so that he could present the testimony of witnesses on those issues. Justice Brands denied the request for an evidentiary hearing, awarding arrears on the basis of the parties’ submissions.

The Second Department affirmed, noting that the ex-husband failed to make a showing sufficient to entitle him to a hearing on this issue:

Where, as here, the parties’ separation agreement contains a provision that expressly provides that modifications must be in writing, an alleged oral modification is enforceable only if there is part performance that is unequivocally referable to the oral modification. The defendant did not demonstrate that the plaintiff’s acceptance of reduced monthly maintenance payments was unequivocally referable to an alleged oral modification by, for example, demonstrating that consideration was given in exchange for the plaintiff’s alleged oral agreement to accept reduced maintenance payments.

Moreover, to establish a defense of equitable estoppel, the ex-husband was required to have shown that the ex-wife’s conduct induced his significant and substantial reliance upon an oral modification. Again, the ex-husband was required to have shown that the conduct relied upon to establish estoppel was not otherwise  compatible with the agreement as written.


Continue Reading Support Modification Agreements: Get’em in Writing; Get’em into Court (Part II)