A spouse’s pre-divorce judgment death results in the unenforceablitity of divorce action orders, including the automatic orders mandated by Domestic Relations Law §236(B)(2)(b). As a result, Westchester County Supreme Court Justice Paul I. Marx held in his April 17, 2014 decision in A.V.B. v. D.B. that a husband was without a remedy for his wife removing the husband as a beneficiary of her retirment account and life insurance policy.

After 13 years of marriage and two children, the wife commenced this divorce action on September 12, 2012. Pursuant to stipulated Preliminary Conference Orders, it was agreed that the wife would be awarded the divorce on the grounds of irretrievable breakdown, an Attorney for the Child was appointed and the pre-trial schedule was fixed.

On April 22, 2013, the wife committed suicide. During the administration of her Estate, it was learned that on February 14, 2013, while the divorce action was pending, the wife had changed the named beneficiaries on her ING 403(b) account from her husband as her sole beneficiary to the parties’ two children as 50% primary beneficiaries. It was further discovered that on or about March 10, 2013, the wife changed her designation of the husband as the sole named beneficiary on her Prudential life insurance policy to the husband as a 1% primary beneficiary, the parties’ daughter K. as a 49% beneficiary and daughter R. as a 50% beneficiary.

The husband’s counsel then submitted a letter to Justice Marx with a proposed order directing that the named beneficiaries on the wife’s ING account and Prudential life insurance policy revert back to the date of the commencement of the action and directing ING and Prudential to pay out the balance in the wife’s annuity and the “death benefit” under her life insurance policy to the named beneficiaries that existed before the changes were made. At that time, the husband’s lawyer also submitted the supporting affirmation of the attorney for wife’s Estate, declaring that the Estate consented to the proposed order.

Justice Marx declined to sign the proposed order. Instead, the Court scheduled a conference at which the Court directed defense counsel to move by Order to Show Cause. Although no papers were submitted in response to that motion, Justice Marx nevertheless denied it. The relief sought in the motion was not warranted by the law, nor by a good faith extension of the law.

While it is regrettable that Plaintiff violated the automatic orders and seems to have reached beyond the grave to thwart Defendant’s efforts to recover his share of her assets, this Court is unable to remedy the violation in this proceeding.


Continue Reading Automatic Orders, Violated During Divorce Action, Cannot Be Enforced After Pre-Judgment Death

scissors contract 2.jpgWhat happens when only one provision of an agreement is invalid because it violates some statute or public policy?  The answer may depend on who the court wants to benefit, instead of consistently-applied rules of contract law.

Take, for example the April 5, 2011 decision of the Second Department in Duggan v. Duggan.  In that case, the parties had resolved their divorce by a surviving February 26, 2009 stipulation of settlement. Under that stipulation, the father, who had gross income of $475,000.00, agreed to pay a base monthly child support obligation of $8,000.00.  That amount deviated from the presumptive amount under the Child Support Standards Act (C.S.S.A.) of $11,929.54. The mother had no income.

Apparently, the stipulation also had a provision which called for the reduction in the father’s monthly obligation in the event his income was reduced.

In 2010, the mother brought a Family Court enforcement proceeding when the father ceased making the payments to which he originally agreed. The father raised the stipulation’s modification provision, arguing that his $8,243.00 annual reduction in income to $466,757.00 entitled him to a $76,800.00 annual reduction in child support (to $1,600.00 per month)!

Finding that the father’s interpretation of the stipulation modification provision was “not plausible,” Nassau County Family Court Judge Julianne S. Eisman denied the father’s objections to the Order of Support Magistrate Tejindar S. Kahlon which granted the mother’s arrears petition. Finding that the language of the Stipulation, as interpreted by the father, would violate the C.S.S.A., and was against the best interests of the children, the modification provision was ignored.

On appeal, the Second Department affirmed, holding that the Family Court had the authority to find that a provision in a stipulation of settlement violated the C.S.S.A. The appellate court found that a provision which called for a reduction in child support to 13% of the presumptive C.S.S.A. amount, merely because the father’s income dropped by 1.7% was “against the best interests of the children.”

It is noteworthy that the appellate court did not quote the startling modification provision. Equally noteworthy is that there was no discussion of any interpretation of the modification provision other than the one the Family Court considered implausible.

In order to have obtained the Judgment of Divorce, it would have been necessary to have made the recitation in the stipulation of settlement that the parties had been made aware of the C.S.S.A. and its presumptive formula in their case. D.R.L. §240(1-b)(h).  The parties would have had to have stated the reasons they agreed to deviate from the C.S.S.A guidelines. Specific Findings of Fact would have been made by the Supreme Court upholding those reasons.

It is understandable that the presumed failure of the Supreme Court to review the specific modification provision might not estop the mother from later attacking that provision when it was sought to be applied. Thus, the form language of a divorce judgment that “the parties are directed to comply with every legally enforceable term and provision” of the agreement incorporated into the judgment, does not mean that every provision is, in fact, legally enforceable.

What then is, or should be the impact of rendering unenforceable only one provision of a settlement agreement?


Continue Reading Severability: When Only One Provision of a Divorce Settlement Agreement Is Invalid