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Saturday, May 16, 2009

Court of Appeals Establishes Rule with Respect to Payments to Former Spouse

In Mahoney-Buntzman v Buntzman, --- N.Y.3d ----, 2009 WL 1227875 (2009) the Court of Appeals established the general rule that "where payments are made before either party is anticipating the end of the marriage, and there is no fraud or concealment, courts should not look back and try to compensate for the fact that the net effect of the payments may, in some cases, have resulted in the reduction of marital assets. Nor should courts attempt to adjust for the fact that payments out of separate property may have benefitted both parties, or even the non-titled spouse exclusively. The parties' choice of how to spend funds during the course of the marriage should ordinarily be respected. Courts should not second-guess the economic decisions made during the course of a marriage, but rather should equitably distribute the assets and obligations remaining once the relationship is at an end." Thus, the Court held that payments made to a former spouse and/or children of an earlier marriage, even if made pursuant to court order, are not the type of liabilities entitled to recoupment. And, a student loan, which was both incurred and fully paid for during the marriage, was a marital obligation for which responsibility was to be shared between the parties. The Court also held that, as a matter of public policy, a "party to litigation may not take a position contrary to a position taken in an income tax return."
The parties were married in New York in 1993 and had two daughters. The wife had an adult child from a previous relationship. The husband was married once before, and had two adult children from that marriage. Pursuant to a divorce judgment, the husband was obligated to pay his first wife maintenance. During the present marriage, the husband and another individual formed Educational Video Conference Inc. (EVCI), a New York Corporation that went public in 1999. At the time of the action, the husband owned a number of shares and options of EVCI stock, all of which were acquired during marriage. Prior to his marriage to plaintiff, the husband had an interest in Arol Development Corporation (ADC), a real estate development company he founded with his father in 1971. In 1983, the husband founded another company, Big Apple Industrial Buildings, Inc., 80% of which he sold to ADC in 1989. In 1998, the husband entered into an agreement with his father whereby he agreed to relinquish his stock ownership in both corporations in exchange for a lump sum payment. The agreement provided that the payment would be reported on a "1099" form issued to him by the purchasing company. In order to account for the increased tax liability that the husband would incur as a consequence of treating the payment as ordinary income rather than as a sale of stock, the payment was increased by 17 percent. This money, amounting to $1.8 million was received by the husband during the marriage and reported on the parties' joint income tax return as self-employment business income. In May 1996, the husband obtained a doctorate in education from Fordham University for which he had taken out a student loan that was repaid two years later. On May 19, 2003, the wife commenced the divorce action.

Court of Appeals Holds When Pendente Lite Award Of Maintenance Is Found To Be Excessive Or Inequitable Court May Make An Appropriate Adjustment

In Johnson v Chapin, - N.Y3d -, 2009 WL 1227869 (2009) the Court of Appeals, in an opinion by Judge Pigott, held that when a pendente lite award of maintenance is found at trial to be excessive or inequitable, the Court may make an appropriate adjustment in the equitable distribution award. However, it rejected the husband's claim that he should be entitled to a credit for excess child support payments pointing out that it has long been held that there is a "strong public policy against restitution or recoupment of support overpayments".
The Husband and wife were married in 1991 and had one child. The husband had four children from a previous marriage and was required to pay both maintenance and child support. At the time the parties married, both were working attorneys. The Wife stopped working outside the home when the parties' son was three years old. The Husband was a partner at a law firm from 1968 until 1999, and thereafter became a managing director at a major investment banking firm until 2001. Prior to the marriage, the husband owned a home on approximately 160 acres of land in Claverack, New York. During the marriage the parties spent approximately $2 million to renovate and improve the property. While the husband played a larger role in these improvements, the wife also participated in some of the project's details. In November 2001, the wife commenced an action for divorce after discovering husband was having an extramarital affair. Prior to trial, she made an application for interim maintenance and child support. Supreme Court imputed an average annual income of $2,273,680 to the husband and ordered him to pay $18,465 monthly maintenance to wife and child support of $10,625 per month. The Husband was also ordered to pay the wife interim counsel fees of $100,000.
A judgment of divorce on the grounds of cruel and inhuman treatment was awarded to the wife. The Trial court recognized that the Claverack property was the husband's separate property, but held the funds spent on the renovations to be marital property subject to equitable distribution. The court awarded 50% of the appreciation of the Claverack estate to the wife. It also credited the wife with 50% of the marital property the husband used to pay the maintenance and child support obligations to his first wife. After considering that the wife had not worked outside the home for nine years and that it would take six years to develop her career, the court awarded the wife durational maintenance of $6,000 per month for six years. It also awarded wife legal fees and expert fees to be determined by a referee due in part to the fact that wife and her son "have suffered day to day crises resulting from the [husband's] harassment of them."
The Appellate Division modified the judgment by reducing the wife's share of the enhanced value of the Claverack property to 25% and by crediting the husband for his pendente lite maintenance obligations (49 AD3d 348). The majority noted that the husband had consistently been less than forthcoming regarding his income and that Supreme Court had found him incredible in the reporting of his income and assets. The majority therefore upheld the imposition of legal and expert fees on husband, noting that he "engaged in a pattern of obstructionist conduct which unnecessarily delayed and increased the legal fees incurred in the litigation".
The Court of Appeals, in an opinion by Judge Pigott, held that when a pendente lite award of maintenance is found at trial to be excessive or inequitable, the Court may make an appropriate adjustment in the equitable distribution award. Thus, Supreme Court did not abuse its discretion in giving husband a credit representing the amount of the pendent lite maintenance he paid that exceeded what he was required to pay under the final maintenance award. In determining the temporary maintenance award, Supreme Court imputed an average salary in excess of $2 million to husband. However, at trial, it was established that his income was significantly lower. Given the disparity in the maintenance amounts, under the circumstances of this case, it was appropriate for the husband to receive a credit.
The Court of Appeals rejected the husband's claim that he should have been entitled to a credit for excess child support payments, pointing out that it has long been held that there is a "strong public policy against restitution or recoupment of support overpayments" and nothing in this record showed it was error to deny that relief.
Judge Pigott noted that under the equitable distribution statute any appreciation in the value of separate property due to the contributions or efforts of the nontitled spouse will be considered marital property (Price v. Price, 69 N.Y.2d 8 [1986] ). This includes any direct contributions to the appreciation, such as when the nontitled spouse makes financial contributions towards the property, as well as when the nontitled spouse makes direct nonfinancial contributions, such as by personally maintaining, making improvements to, or renovating a marital residence. Thus, Supreme Court properly held that the improvements were marital, since the increase in the property was a result of both parties' efforts. He found that the Appellate Division did not abuse its discretion in reducing the award to wife from 50% to 25% of the property appreciation. The husband's income was the sole source of the funds expended on the property and, the husband's involvements in the renovations were far more extensive. The Court noted that it had held that when "exercising its discretionary power to award counsel fees, a court should review the financial circumstances of both parties together with all the other circumstances of the case, which may include the relative merit of the parties' positions" (citing DeCabrera v. Cabrera-Rosete, 70 N.Y.2d 879 [1987]). Here, when awarding the fees, the court considered the parties' financial positions as well as the delay incurred as a result of husband's obstructionist tactics. Thus, it declined to disturb those awards. Finally, the Court held that the wife was not entitled to the 50% credit representing the money paid during the marriage towards husband's pre-marital obligations to pay his first wife maintenance and child support (citing "Mahoney-Buntzman v. Buntzman, NY3d", which it decided the same day).