Justice Matthew F. Cooper

JengaOn June 12, 2018, the Court of Appeals in a 5-2 decision, affirmed the ruling discussed below.

It is common in agreements, and often the case in judicial decisions, for the parent paying periodic child support to receive a credit against those payments for college room and board expenses paid by that parent. May parties agree that the credit exceed the amount allocated by the parties to the support of the particular child attending college? No, (probably) said the Appellate Division, First Department, in its April 6, 2017 decision in Keller-Goldman v. Goldman.

The parties entered into a Stipulation of Settlement and Agreement that resolved all issues surrounding their separation. As may be relevant to the court’s determination, although the parties had four unemancipated children, the agreement only provided for support for the three children for whom the wife was deemed the custodial parent (the parties were to share equal time with these three). The husband retained custody of the fourth child, but agreed to receive no support for him from the mother. The opinion noted that had the parties not negotiated the issue of child support, the mother stood to collect $5,000 per month in child support payments, pursuant to the Child Support Standards Act, a fact acknowledged by the agreement. Instead, she agreed to monthly child support payments of $2,500.

Paragraph 10.3 of the parties’ agreement provided for a graduated reduction in the father’s child support payments upon the emancipation of each of the three children. Upon the first emancipation his monthly payment would be reduced by $350 to $2,150 per month; and upon the second emancipation the payment would be reduced to $1,462 per month.

The agreement provide for a room and board credit at paragraph 10.4, immediately following the support reduction schedule:

During the period in which a Child is attending a college and residing away from the residences of the parties and [the father] is contributing towards the room and board expenses of that Child, [the father] shall be entitled to a credit against his child support obligations in an amount equal to the amount [the father] is paying for that Child’s room and board. The credit shall be allocated in equal monthly installments against [the father’s] child support payments.


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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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How.jpgIn its November 20, 2012 decision in Kang v. Kim, the First Department affirmed what appears to be an unwarranted interpretation of a divorce settlement marital residence buyout provision. In doing so, the appellate court yielded to the construction of the provision used by the “trier of fact” to resolve the ex=wife’s post-divorce motion to enforce the parties’ property settlement agreement.

That agreement gave the ex-wife the right to purchase the husband’s interest in the marital residence, a cooperative apartment. The clause provided:

If the parties are unable to agree as to the terms for such purchase within 30 days of the day that the Wife gave notice to the Husband then the value of the Husband’s interest (the ‘buy-out price’) shall be one half of the value of the apartment as determined by a Real Estate Appraisers [sic ] agreed to by the parties less the outstanding amount owed upon the First Mortgage.

The wife claimed that the provision was unambiguous. The price (“P”) she was to receive was one half of the value of the apartment (“V”) less the entire outstanding mortgage (“M”). The entirety of the mortgage was to be subtracted from the ex-husband’s half-share of the gross value.

Recalling math class from, oh, so many years ago, the wife successfully argued:

P = (V/2) – M

The husband had argued that the buyout price was half the value of the apartment less the wife’s one-half share of the outstanding amount of the mortgage. Mathematically, the husband argued:

P = V/2 – M/2

Thus, the husband asserted that the buyout price was one half of the equity in the apartment. This might also be written:

P = (V-M)/2

The First Department noted that the lower court, New York County Supreme Court Justice Matthew F. Cooper, found the provision “unambiguous.”

However, the First Department disagreed on the issue of ambiguity, nevertheless deferring to the construction used by the lower court. The appellate court found that:

upon examination of the settlement agreement in its entirety, and considering the relation of the parties and the circumstances under which it was executed, the agreement is ambiguous because the provision is reasonably susceptible of more than one interpretation.

Indeed, the First Department noted, the settlement agreement also provided that all marital property was to be divided 50/50 and that if the premises were sold to a third party, the “net proceeds of sale” were to be divided equally.


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Manhattan.jpgNew York County Supreme Court Justice Matthew F. Cooper reports in a May, 2012 decision that for 2010, 23% of New York State’s divorce action were commenced in Manhattan, although it is home to only 8% of the state’s population. For 2011, 49.6% of the New York City divorce actions were filed in Manhattan (New York County), although Manhattan, with some 19% of the city’s population, ranks a distant third in population to Kings and Queens Counties.

Justice Cooper in Castaneda v. Castaneda tried to explain why 75 to 80% of the New York County filings involve divorces where both spouses reside outside the county. He speculates that perhaps it is because New York has a reputation for processing divorce actions more expeditiously than elsewhere. Perhaps it is because it is more convenient for attorneys and divorce mills who have their offices in Manhattan. Perhaps it is because the chances of a party obtaining an uncontested divorce on default increase if the action is brought in a venue far removed from where the defendant actually lives. [Note: It also may because New York County may be thought to be more favorable for awarding interim or permanent awards of support or counsel fees.]

It has become the accepted practice for attorneys and non-attorney divorce processing services, the so-called divorce mills, to commence divorce proceedings in New York County despite the fact that neither spouse lives here.

Justice Cooper’s comments came as he granted a motion to change venue under C.P.L.R. 511. Despite the fact that not one aspect of the marriage or the parties’ lives was remotely connected to Manhattan, the plaintiff-husband nevertheless chose to file in New York County Supreme Court, seeking a divorce upon the grounds of living apart pursuant to a separation agreement. D.R.L. §170(6).


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