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Saturday, May 16, 2009

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).


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