What happens on divorce when during the marriage, the marital residence that had been owned by one spouse prior to the marriage is conveyed during the marriage to the parties jointly? That was the issue addressed by the Appellate Division, Second Department, in its decision this month in Spencer-Forrest v. Forrest.

The parties were married on March 31, 1984. There were no children of the marriage, but children from each of the parties’ prior marriages resided with the parties in the marital residence during the children’s respective minorities. Both parties were employed for the majority of the marriage, and the wife provided care for the husband’s children, who were younger and resided in the marital residence longer than her children.

The husband had purchased the marital residence prior to the marriage, and transferred the property to himself and the wife as joint tenants in 1989. Other than the marital residence, the parties’ assets were held in their respective names. Both parties contributed to the household expenses, although the husband contributed a larger sum to household expenses and maintenance of the marital residence, and the wife ceased financial contributions in 2006 or 2007, after she retired.

In August, 2012, the wife commenced this action for a divorce and ancillary relief. The wife was 68 years old and the husband was 67 years old at the time of trial.

Except for the marital residence, Nassau County Supreme Court Justice Stacy D. Bennett divided the marital property) equally (other than the vehicles and personal items) regardless of the party holding title. As to the residence, Justice Bennett awarded the wife 20% of the appreciation in the value of the marital residence from 1989 (when the husband conveyed the home to the parties jointly) through the date of the commencement of the action, an award amounting to $30,000. The court declined to award the parties credits sought for assets allegedly secreted or wasted by the other party and denied the wife an award of maintenance.


Continue Reading When One Spouse Transfers Sole Title to the Home to Both Spouses Jointly

The ever-changing landscape of Equitable Distribution case law makes it difficult, if not impossible, to rely on the “law.” A parent cannot (or rather, should not) make a gift to a married child without bringing the lawyers into it.

Take the April, 2016 decision of the Appellate Division, Second Department in Mistretta v. Mistretta. There, the parties had been married in 1991. During their marriage they lived in a home, at first owned by the husband’s mother, and deeded to the husband in 1996.

At the trial of this 2010 divorce action, the husband claimed that the residence was a gift from his mother, and therefore constituted separate property. However, he acknowledged that for many years, he paid his mother $500 per month “rent” (the opinion does not state whether rent was paid after the property was deeded to the husband). The husband and his sister both acknowledged that rental income from the subject premises was paid to the husband’s mother pursuant to the written agreement between the husband and his mother that was introduced into evidence.

Supreme Court, Suffolk County Justice Joseph Santorelli held that the home was marital property subject to equitable distribution. He directed the sale of the premises, with the parties to share equally in any net proceeds or deficiency from such sale.


Continue Reading You Can't Make A Gift To Your Married Child Without Getting The Lawyers Involved

What do you do upon divorce when the home purchased during the marriage and titled in one spouse’s name was purchased using the proceeds from the sale of the home owned at the date of marriage solely in the name of that same spouse?

The Appellate Division, Second Department, in its March 2, 2016 decision in Ahearn v. Ahearn, applied well-established equitable distribution principles to affirm the determination of now-retired Suffolk County Supreme Court Justice William J. Kent, III, and hold that the home purchased during the marriage was marital property even though titled in only the one spouse’s name. Moreover, the titled spouse was entitled to a dollar-for-dollar separate property credit against the equity in the marital-property home for the use of the first home’s net sales proceeds.

The fact pattern was straightforward. In June 1996, the wife-to-be purchased a house on Salem Street in Patchogue. Approximately nine months later, the parties were married and lived together in the Salem Street house. In December 2004, the wife sold the Salem Street house and used the $143,000 in net proceeds from that sale toward the purchase, in March 2005, of a house in Holbrook. Only the wife’s name was on the Holbrook deed, but, at the time of trial, both parties were listed on the mortgage.


Continue Reading Tracing One Spouse’s Pre-Marital Home Sold During Marriage To Purchase Another

Once again, it has been made clear that where either or both spouses have assets or liabilities at the date of marriage, it is foolhardy (or at least imprudent) to enter the marriage without a prenuptial agreement and/or the assembly of proof of the extent, nature and value of those assets or liabilities.

Take the January 8, 2015 decision of the Appellate Division, Third Depatrtment, in Ceravolo v. DeSantis. In that case, the parties were married in July, 1996. The wife commenced the action for divorce in June, 2010. Acting Albany Supreme Court Justice Kimberly O’Connor determined, among other things, that the marital residence, which had been purchased by the husband prior to the marriage, was marital property and awarded the wife, among other things, half of its value. The husband appealed.

The Third Department agreed with the husband that Justice O’Connor erred in classifying the marital residence as marital property. Marital property is defined as “all property acquired by either or both spouses during the marriage” (Domestic Relations Law §236[B][1][c]), while “property acquired before marriage” is separate property (D.R.L. §236[B][1][d][1]).

Title is a critical consideration in identifying the nature of real property acquired before the marriage. The circumstances surrounding the purchase of the residence and the parties’ intent relative thereto are irrelevant to the legal classification of the residence as separate or marital property.

Here, the husband purchased the marital residence in January 1994 — 2½ years prior to the parties’ marriage — paying $130,000 of his own funds and borrowing an additional $100,000 from his father, secured by a note and mortgage. Although the wife contributed $30,000 of her separate funds to the initial purchase of the residence, the husband took title to the property in his name alone.


Continue Reading Title Controls Premarital Contributions To The Acquisition and Expenses of Property

It depended on what the definition of “the” was.

In Babbio v. Babbio, the Appellate Division, First Department, on July 17, 2014 defined “the” and otherwise interpreted a prenuptial agreement in ways that cost a husband millions of dollars of separate property credits he sought in his divorce action.

Under the parties’ agreement, marital property, generally, was to be divided equally. However, the agreement also provided:

[i]n the event of an Operative Event, Marital Property [as defined elsewhere in the agreement] shall be distributed equally between [the parties] in accordance with the following provisions, except that if the parties have been married for ten (10) years or less and either party is able to identify One Million ($1,000,000) Dollars or more of Separate Property that was used for the acquisition of the Marital Property, that party shall first receive the amount of his or her contribution of Separate Property prior to the division of the remaining value of such property, if any. [emphasis added]

“Operative Event” was defined, inter alia, as “the delivery by [either party] to the other of written notification … of an intention to terminate the marriage.” Here, the Court held that it was the date of the notification, and not the date of distribution that was determinative. As a result, the husband became entitled to the benefits of this provision.

However, construing the parties’ prenuptial agreement in what the Court viewed as being in accord with the plain meaning of its terms, and interpreting every part of the agreement “with reference to the whole”, the First Department found that the party seeking the credit must have contributed $1 million or more of his or her own separate property directly to the acquisition of the particular item of marital property at issue.


Continue Reading Husband Denied Millions in Separate Property Credits Because of the Definition of "The"

The failure of a prenuptial agreement to specify that earnings during the marriage were separate propertywarranted a breach-of-contract recovery as part of a distribution on divorce when those earnings used to pay sparate liabilities. So held Supreme Court New York County Justice Laura E. Drager in her January 15, 2014 decision in R.B. v. M.I (New York Law Journal published decision).

Once again, the focus of the court’s attention was on the import of a prenuptial provision that limited marital property to that held jointly by the parties.

In Zinter v. Zinter, Saratoga County Supreme Court Justice Thomas D. Nolan, Jr., last month held it was unconscionable for a prenuptial agreement to give the husband  power to control whether earnings and other after-marriage acquired property would be placed into joint or indiviual accounts, and thus marital or separate property (see, my March 17, 2014 blog post).

Here, the Justice Drager held that whether pproperty was owned jointly or individually at the commencement of the divorce action did not end the inquiry, if a breach of contract claim arising during the marriage is viable.


Continue Reading Failure in Prenup to Specify Earnings as Separate Property Warrants Recoupment

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