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Saturday, May 24, 2008

Court of Appeals Holds Family Court Lacked Subject Matter Jurisdiction to Entertain Wife's Application for Increased Spousal Maintenance Despite "De Novo" Provision of Separation Agreement

In Matter of Johna M.S. v Russell E.S., --- N.Y.3d ----, 2008 WL 1860165 (N.Y.) Petitioner wife and respondent husband executed a written separation agreement in 2003. No divorce action was commenced. The agreement provided that the husband would pay the wife $100 per week in spousal maintenance and $250 per week in child support. The section of the agreement pertaining to maintenance stated: "while this agreement will resolve these issues for the present time, the Wife shall not be foreclosed from seeking additional maintenance in negotiation with the Husband, or failing such negotiation, then filing in a court of appropriate jurisdiction for a modification of the present provisions concerning the payment of maintenance. Any application by the Wife shall be treated as a 'de novo' application to the court, since it is not possible to set future maintenance at this time because it is impossible to forecast the Wife's needs or the Husband's income/earning capacity."
The wife commenced a Family Court Act article 4 proceeding seeking an upward modification of maintenance and child support. The Support Magistrate dismissed that portion of the wife's application seeking additional spousal maintenance for lack of jurisdiction. The court noted that no proof was offered that the wife was likely to become a public charge (see Family Court Act 463); thus, the parties were bound by the terms of the separation agreement on the issue of spousal maintenance. Family Court affirmed, as did the Appellate Division. The Court of Appeals affirmed. It held that Family Court is a court of limited jurisdiction that cannot exercise powers beyond those granted to it by statute. It generally has no subject matter jurisdiction to reform, set aside or modify the terms of a valid separation agreement. Nor can an agreement of the parties confer on Family Court the power to modify the terms of a separation agreement. A statutory exception to the rule prohibiting the modification of separation agreements, not applicable here, exists where a spouse "is likely to become in need of public assistance or care" (Family Court Act 463). Family Court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to entertain the wife's application for increased spousal maintenance. Although the parties' separation agreement purported to permit Family Court to treat any application by the wife as "de novo," such language cannot confer jurisdiction upon Family Court. The wife's petition to Family Court for increased maintenance expressly stated that it was "an application to the Court for an upward modification of spousal support," premised on the insufficiency of current maintenance due to a loss of certain Social Security benefits. In practical terms, the wife was not presenting a new, or "de novo," application for maintenance to Family Court. She was seeking increased maintenance from that provided under the separation agreement. Thus, because the wife was seeking a modification of a spousal maintenance award set forth in a separation agreement, Family Court was without jurisdiction to entertain the petition and grant the requested relief. Justice Smith dissented in an opinion

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