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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New York’s Domestic Relations Law §25, enacted in 1907, provides that a marriage is valid, even in the absence of a marriage license, if it was properly solemnized. However, New York County Supreme Court Justice Matthew F. Cooper, in his May 29, 2014 decision in Ponorovskaya v. Stecklow held that D.R.L. §25 could not be used to validate a marriage ceremony that failed to meet the  legal requirements of Mexico where the ceremony was performed. While so holding, Justice Cooper called for the statute to be amended or repealed, and joined the debate on whether Universal Life Church “ministers” could “properly solemnize” marriages.

Justice Cooper’s recitation of the facts merits quotation:

[Ms. Ponorovskaya], who is a clothing designer and business owner in Manhattan, and [Mr. Stecklow], a lawyer, began their relationship in 2004. While in Mexico for a 2009 New Year’s celebration, [Mr. Stecklow] proposed to [Ms. Ponorovskaya] overlooking the Mayan ruins in Tulum. The parties subsequently planned a Mexican destination wedding at the Dreams Tulum Resort & Spa. . . . On February 18th, the couple had a wedding ceremony on the resort’s beach. The ceremony was performed under a chuppah, a canopy under which a couple stands during a Jewish wedding. Certain Hebrew prayers were recited, vows were exchanged, and there was a glass-breaking ritual, as is customary at Jewish weddings.

Despite these traditions, the ceremony was not performed by a rabbi. Instead it was conducted by [Mr. Stecklow]’s cousin, Dr. Keith Arbeitman, a dentist who lives in New York. In 2003, in order to perform a marriage for friends, he became an ordained minister of the Universal Life Church (“ULC”), a distinction easily achieved by paying a fee on the ULC’s website. . . . [A]t oral argument on the motion, [Ms. Ponorovskaya]’s counsel produced a certificate that he printed off the internet certifying that Dr. Arbeitman is indeed a minister in good standing with the ULC. Likewise, during the ceremony Dr. Arbeitman told the audience, “I am an ordained minister — this will be a legal union.”


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