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

The August 21, 2013 decision of the Appellate Division, Second Department in Patete v. Rodriguez may have expanded the credits available to the non-titled spouse when marital funds are expended on a separate-property asset.

When New York adopted its Equitable Distribution Law in 1980, courts were now longer bound by which spouse held title to an asset generated during the marriage. Upon divorce, the non-titled spouse could be awarded an equitable share.

Not all property of parties getting divorced, however, is “marital property” subject to Equitable Distribution. The law recognizes as “separate property,” assets owned by one of the spouses either before the marriage, or acquired through inheritance, or by gift from someone other than the other spouse, etc. The appreciation in the value of separate property is also separate property, subject to a claim that such appreciation is due to the contributions or efforts of the non-titled spouse.

Determining what is or should be marital and separate property, and each spouse’s equitable share of marital property is not always clear. Indeed, the rules and guidelines are not free from doubt.

Take last week’s decision in Patete, for example. This divorce was the second time around for these parties. They married for the first time in 1978. Incident to their first divorce in 1981, the wife conveyed her interest in the 68th Street, Maspeth, Queens marital residence to the husband.

The parties married again in 1985. At that time the husband still owned the 68th Street home. Again it was used as the marital residence. As the home was the husband’s property before the second marriage, it was deemed his separate property when the second marriage here ended in divorce.

In 1987, two years into the second marriage, however, the husband sold the 68th Street property. $125,000 of the proceeds were used to purchase the parties’ jointly-owned new marital residence on 64th Street in Maspeth.

The appellate court acknowledged that the 68th Street property remained the husband’s separate property until its sale in 1987. Thus, the $125,000 in sales proceeds used to purchase the jointly-owned 68th Street home was also his separate property. The husband was entitled to a separate property credit for his use of separate funds to purchase the 68th Street home.

However, between the date of the second marriage and the sale of the 68th Street home, marital funds were used to pay the mortgage on the husband’s separate-property 68th Street home. As a result, the Second Department held:

The [wife] should receive a credit for one-half of the marital funds used to the pay this mortgage on the plaintiff’s separate property.

The Court reported that the total amount of marital funds used for this purpose was $7,338.94.The Court did not state that this was the amount by which the principal amount due on the mortgage was reduced, just that such was the amount used to pay the mortgage.Continue Reading Credits on Divorce for Using Marital Funds for Separate Property Assets

In a January 15, 2013 decision in Alvarado v. Alvarado, Richmond County Supreme Court Justice Catherine M. DiDomenico, held that the husband’s veteran’s and Social Security disability benefits are separate property for purposes of equitable distribution. Moreover, the veteran’s disability benefits could not be considered on a maintenance award. The Social Security benefits could.

As discussed in the comment, below (far more detailed than may be appropriate for this blog), veteran’s disability payments should be able to be considered when making maintenance awards in divorce actions.

In Alvarado, as a result of his military service in the United States Marine Corps prior to the marriage, the husband was now receiving monthly veteran’s disability benefits. The husband successfully argued to Justice DiDomenico that the veteran’s benefits were not to be considered. The Uniformed Services Former Spouse’s Protection Act (USFSPA) declared them to be separate property. 10 U.S.C. § 1408. The Court rejected the wife’s argument that veteran’s disability payments should be considered for purposes of maintenance.

Congress enacted USFSPA in direct response to the 1981 U.S. Supreme Court decision in McCarty v. McCarty, 453 U.S. 210, which had held that federal law as it then existed completely pre-empted the application of state divorce property law to military retirement pay. USFSPA authorized state courts to treat disposable retired pay as marital property. However, Federal disability benefits remained excluded, and any military retirement pay waived in order for the retiree to receive veterans’ disability benefits also remained excluded. Mansell v. Mansell, 490 U.S. 581 (1989).

Justice DiDomenico noted that while the Second Department had yet to address the issue, the Third and Fourth Departments had held that state courts are prohibited from distributing veteran’s disability benefits in an action for divorce. The Court cited Hoskins v. Skojec, 265 AD2d 706 (3d Dept. 1999), leave to appeal denied,  94 NY2d 758 (2000), and Newman v. Newman, 248 AD2d 990 (4th Dept. 1998). Similarly, Justice DiDomenico ruled, Social Security Disability Benefits are separate property and are not subject to equitable distribution. DRL § 236 (B) (1) (d) (2); Miceli v. Miceli, 78 AD3d 1023 (2d Dept. 2010).

However, as Justice DiDomenico held, Social Security Disability Benefits are to be considered by the Court when determining a payor spouse’s ability to pay maintenance, citing Cerabona v. Cerabona, 302 AD2d 346 (2d Dept. 2003). and Carl v. Carl, 58 AD3d 1036 (3d Dept. 2009).  Justice DiDomenico also noted that in Carl, it was stated that while disability benefits obtained from other sources may be considered for purposes of maintenance, veteran’s disability payments are precluded from consideration.Continue Reading Considering Veteran's and Social Security Disability Payments in Divorce

House divided.jpgIn its December 13, 2012 decision in Murrary v. Murray, the Appellate Division, Third Department, affirmed the determination to deny a husband an equitable distribution credit for the value of a home which he owned before the marriage and which, after the marriage, he deeded to himself and his wife jointly.

The parties were married in 1986 and have four children. 15 months before the marriage, the husband purchased a residence in Queens County. Tthe parties lived there together for several years after their marriage. In 1991, the husband conveyed the home to himself and his wife jointly. The parties thereafter refinanced the Queens County property and used the proceeds to purchase their ultimate marital residence in Sullivan County, keeping and renting out the Queens County property. In 2003 the parties separated. The husband commenced this divorce action in 2005.

In resolving equitable distrution issues, Sullivan County Supreme Court Justice Robert A. Sackett denied the husband a credit for the premarital value of the Queens County property. On appeal, the Third Department found that that determination was within Justice Sackett’s discretion.

The transfer of that property into joint ownership created a presumption that it was marital property, placing the burden upon the husband to rebut this presumption with clear and convincing proof that the transfer was solely a matter of convenience.

Here, the appellate court noted, the husband’s testimony regarding the Queens County property (characterized by Supreme Court as evasive and questionable) failed to rebut the presumption. The entire Queens County property was thus part of the parties’ marital property and subject to the court’s substantial discretion in fashioning an equitable distribution award.

While the appellate court noted that a credit is often given for the value of former separate property, such a credit is not strictly mandated. The property is no longer separate, but is part of the total marital property. Quoting the 2010 Court of Appeals decision in Fields v. Fields, 15 NY3d 158, it was stated:

There is no single template that directs how courts are to distribute a marital asset that was acquired, in part or in whole, with separate property funds.

Upon review of the record and the entirety of the equitable distribution award, the Third Department was unpersuaded that Justice Sackett abused his discretion.Continue Reading Husband Gets No Separate Property Credit in Divorce for Pre-marital Home Deeded to Himself and His Wife Jointly

Bigamy.jpgDistinguishing the 2009 Court of Appeals decision in Mahoney–Buntzman v. Buntzman, the Second Department, in its October 24, 2012 decision in Levenstein v. Levenstein, has held that if marital funds are used to pay pre-marital support arrears, the non-obligated spouse may be awarded a credit towards equitable distribution.

In 1995, before the current marriage, Mr. Levenstein was convicted in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, for the failure to pay child support (see 18 USC § 228). Incident to the criminal conviction, he was directed to pay arrears of $132,718.49 to his first wife by July 13, 1995. Mr. Levenstein failed to fully satisfy that obligation by that deadline.

Thereafter, the husband remarried twice. The second remarriage took place four years after the criminal conviction, but before the husband secured a divorce from his second wife. During the purported third marriage, the husband paid the remainder of his criminal restitution obligation, and made additional child support payments to his first wife that became due during the purported marriage.

In 2006, the third wife sought an annulment for bigamy. In 2008, grounds were established and a trial was held to determine the apportionment of the putative marital debt. In a decision dated February 25, 2009, now-retired Rockland County Supreme Court Justice Alfred J. Weiner awarded the wife a credit of 50% of the marital funds used to satisfy premarital maintenance and child support obligations that the defendant had paid to his first wife, including the amounts due under the criminal judgment. A judgment of annulment was entered in April, 2009.

One month later, in May, 2009, the Court of Appeals held in Mahoney–Buntzman v. Buntzman (12 N.Y.3d 415) that a spouse is not entitled to a credit for marital funds paid to a former spouse or a child pursuant to an order of maintenance or child support.

Based on Mahoney–Buntzman, Mr. Levenstein moved for a reconsideration of the decision which had granted the 50% credit. Justice Weiner granted the husband’s motion and denied the credit. The putative marital debt was reapportioned accordingly.

On appeal, the Second Department reinstated the credit. The appellate court noted that in Mahoney–Buntzman, the wife had sought credit for maintenance payments made to the husband’s former spouse that had become due and were paid during the marriage. In holding that such payments were not subject to recoupment by the wife, the Court of Appeals reasoned that maintenance obligations to a former spouse and to children pursuant to a support order “are obligations that do not enure solely to the benefit of one spouse.” Nevertheless, the Court of Appeals cautioned:

This is not to say that every expenditure of marital funds during the course of the marriage may not be considered in an equitable distribution calculation. … There may be circumstances where equity requires a credit to one spouse for marital property used to pay off the separate debt of one spouse or add to the value of one spouse’s separate property.”

Continue Reading Payment of Husband's Pre-marital Support Arrears Results in Equitable Distribution Credit to the Wife

Marital Residence.jpgA spouse contributing separate property (most commonly pre-marital, gifted, or inherited funds) to the purchase of the marital residence does not make a gift of (half of) that payment to the other spouse, even if the residence is held by the parties jointly.

So was the holding of the Appellate Division, Fourth Department, in its

house upside down.jpgIt should have been a dead giveaway.  Court of Appeals Judge Victoria Graffeo warned us that in Fields v Fields (PDF), New York’s highest court was about to apply public policy principles to “unique facts.”  The result: a decision likely to keep Equitable Distribution litigators busy for years to come.

8 years into the Fields’