Ross v. Ross: Celibacy pending adultery claim

On August 23, 2016, the New Hampshire Supreme Court issued an opinion in the . It is a fascinating case about adultery and new relationships during a divorce. The outcome is a cautionary tale for persons seeking fault grounds for divorce.  

The Facts

Husband and wife met in dental school and later married. Husband, who had his own endodontist practice, helped his wife open and build her orthodontist practice. Considerable money was put into the venture. The couple separated the day that husband discovered wife was having an affair with another dentist. Wife filed for divorce 5 days after the parties separated alleging both fault and irreconcilable differences as grounds. Husband cross-petitioned for divorce on fault-based grounds, due to the wife’s alleged adultery and irreconcilable differences. The parties had been married for 9 years at the time they filed for divorce.

Approximately 11 months after the divorce was file, husband began a sexual relationship with the ex-wife of the dentist wife was dating. Wife filed a motion to dismiss the adultery grounds pled against her. She argued the defense of recrimination, or in other words that the husband was no longer an “innocent spouse” because of his own adultery. The trial court agreed with wife and dismissed the husband’s fault grounds. The trial court issued a decree of divorce based on irreconcilable differences that divided the property with an intent to split it equally.

The Appeal

Husband appealed the dismissal of the fault-based ground in his cross-petition for divorce, arguing that his sexual relationship, which occurred eleven months after the parties’ separation, could not be used as a basis for the defense of recrimination. Husband asserted that such a holding would require parties to remain celibate during years of litigation in a contentious divorce. Wife argued the trial court did not err in granting the motion to dismiss because the respondent was not an “innocent party” within the meaning of the statute. RSA 458:7 (2004).

The Court examined RSA 458:7, which states that a divorce “shall be decreed in favor of the innocent party.” The statute requires that one be an “innocent party” at the time of the decree. The statute makes no exception for fault based grounds that arise prior to the final decree, regardless of whether they arise before or after the filing of the divorce petition. Therefore, the trial court correctly considered Husband’s post-petition conduct when deciding the motion to dismiss.
The Court further stated the fact that Husband’s adultery did not lead to the breakdown of the marriage does not bar recrimination as a defense, stating “Causation is not an element of the defense of recrimination.”

The Court affirmed the trial court’s decision to dismiss the fault grounds and grant a divorce on irreconcilable differences.

The Takeaway

The conclusion of husband’s brief argues: “It is not reasonable to suggest, in these times of protracted discovery and litigation, that a party to a divorce must remain celibate for the duration of the proceedings – here already longer than four years.” I happen to agree with him. Litigation can be a long and arduous process. While most divorces will settle within 6 months to 1 year, a small percentage can drag on. The longest divorce I have seen from start to finish has been 5 years. That is a long time to wait to date.

Why pursue the adultery grounds in the first place? It appears in this case that there was some significant bad blood between the parties. Husband had helped wife open her orthodontic practice and contributed financially and emotionally to that endeavor. In return, wife carried on an affair with a colleague for approximately five years. Wife changed the locks to the house two days after husband left. Husband may have been pursuing the emotional victory of a fault based divorce for wife’s cheating.

Husband may also have been pursuing the adultery grounds for the financial benefit. RSA 458:16-a, II provides that a court may divide property unequally when it would be appropriate and equitable to do so after considering one more of the statutory factors. One of the factors reads:  “The fault of either party as specified in RSA 458:7 if said fault caused the breakdown of the marriage and: (1) Caused substantial physical or mental pain and suffering; or  (2) Resulted in substantial economic loss to the marital estate or the injured party.” With the dental practices, marital home and savings and investments on the line, an uneven split make a substantial difference in the outcome.

However, in my experience, most judges are not persuaded to award a significantly higher portion of the property to the “innocent spouse,” even if they can prove that the adultery caused the breakdown of the marriage and substantial economic loss to the marriage or injured spouse. More than a 45/55 split without other contributing factors would be unusual.

The moral of this story is that there must be a careful cost benefit analysis when filing adultery. Is the litigant willing to remain celibate no matter how long the litigation takes? Is there substantial property up for division that would make even a small deviation from 50/50 worthwhile? Is the time, money and celibacy for a finding that the other spouse cheated sensible?

 

What is Marital Property?

In my years practicing family law, I have heard a lot of misconceptions about what is marital property. While the definition of marital property may differ between states, in New Hampshire marital property is anything and everything owned by the parties.

I hear questions such as "Only my name is on the house, so that is off the table right?" Wrong. It does not matter how the house is titled. It can be in either name individually or owned jointly. Another statement often made is "I owned the house before the marriage so I get to keep it." This is also wrong. It does not matter when or how the property was purchased, everything goes into the pot to be divided.

The definition of marital property is found at RSA 458:16-a. The statute states:

Property shall include all tangible and intangible property and assets, real or personal, belonging to either or both parties, whether title to the property is held in the name of either or both parties. Intangible property includes, but is not limited to, employment benefits, vested and non-vested pension or other retirement benefits, or savings plans. To the extent permitted by federal law, property shall include military retirement and veterans' disability benefits.

However, just because everything is subject to division by the courts, that does not mean that it will be. RSA 458:16-a also says that the court can deviate from an equal division based on variety of factors, including the length of the marriage, what property was owned prior to the marriage, and the contributions of each party to the marital property. Each case is based on the specific facts and circumstances of the couple.

Spenard: Voluntary Unemployment, Financial Affidavits and Post-Trial Evidence

In the Matter of Susan Spenard and David Spenard was decided on October 17, 2014

The Facts
Husband and Wife married in 1998. During the marriage the Husband worked in real estate and owned several businesses and the Wife worked as an entertainer. Before the parties’ divorce decree was issued, the Husband sold a promissory note that he had failed to disclose on his financial affidavit. During the divorce trial, the Wife argued that she could no longer work at all due to medical issues. She failed to present any expert testimony to back up her claim, however, and the Court found that she was voluntarily unemployed. The Wife filed a Motion to Reconsider and sought to present new evidence of her medical issues. The Court denied her Motion.


The Appeal
The Wife appealed on three grounds. First, the Wife argued that RSA 458-C:2 requires an express finding of under or unemployment when presented with evidence supporting such a claim. Second, she argued that the lower Court erred in refusing to reopen her case based on her newly discovered medical evidence supporting her claim that she cannot work. Third, the Wife argued that the Husband’s promissory notes were marital property, and, therefore, subject to equitable distribution.

The Holding
First, the Court held that whether or not a party is voluntarily under or unemployed is a question of fact for the fact-finder, and RSA 458-C:2 does not require an express finding of voluntary under or unemployment when presented with evidence of such a claim. Second, the Court held that a party who seeks to reopen a case to submit new evidence must demonstrate that s/he was not at fault for failing to present such evidence at the hearing. Mere difficulty or financial expense of obtaining such evidence is not sufficient to overcome this burden. Third, the Court held that promissory notes are marital property and thus must be listed on financial affidavits and are subject to equitable distribution.

 

Courthouse Divorce File: What's Private?

“All human beings have three lives: public, private, and secret.” 
― Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez, Gabriel García Márquez: a Life

The public thirsts for gossip, apparent in websites like TMZ and Perz Hilton. Celebrity splits are big news such as Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes to Mariah Carey and Nick Cannon. While most of us do not enjoy celebrity status, the small town rumor mill can be just as virulent as celebrity gossip. Divorce litigants should beware the rules regarding public access to their divorce file. Anyone can head down to the local courthouse and view all the happenings in the neighbor's divorce or co-worker's custody battle.  

The prominent case on this issue is the Petition of Keene Sentinel issued by the New Hampshire Supreme Court on August 27, 1992. During the 1990 political campaign for New Hampshire’s Second congressional seat, The Keene Sentinel sought to gain access to one of the incumbent’s, Charles Douglas III’s divorce records. The clerk granted the Keene Sentinel only some of the divorce records, citing privacy concerns. The Keene Sentinel brought suit and Charles Douglas III sought to intervene, asking the Superior Court to dismiss the suit. The Superior Court ultimately denied the Keene Sentinel’s request.

The Keene Sentinel appealed, arguing that “disclosure should have been permitted pursuant to RSA chapter 91-A, the Right to Know Law.” The Supreme Court held that a party in a divorce proceeding cannot have the records sealed simply for the sake of general privacy concerns.  The Court held that “[b]efore a document is ordered sealed, the trial judge must determine that no reasonable alternative to nondisclosure exists.” If a trial judge does make such a determination, it must use the least restrictive means available to secure the parties’ privacy rights.

This generally requires that the orders, pleadings and other materials in the file are open to the public for viewing. An exception is a financial affidavit. A party is required by the court to complete and submit a sworn financial affidavit, detailing all income, property and debts. This document usually contains very personal information such as social security numbers, bank information and paystubs. Family Division Rule 2.16 and RSA 458:15-b requires financial affidavits to be confidential for non-parties. In practice, this means that the court file contains an envelope which the clerk will remove if you are not a party to the case. Financial affidavits filed in divorce, legal separation, annulment, or parenting petition cases shall be confidential to non-parties. Access to such financial affidavits shall be pursuant to Family Division Rule 1.30. However, a person not otherwise entitled to access may file a motion under Family Division Rule 1.30 to gain access to the financial affidavit. 

The Associated Press v. NH gives some context to the rule regarding financial affidavit confidentiality. The New Hampshire Supreme Court issued its holding in this case on December 30, 2005.   After RSA 458:15-b took effect on August 10, 2004, which, inter alia, made financial affidavits in divorce proceedings only accessible to parties to the proceeding and their attorneys of record, the Associated Press filed suit claiming the law was unconstitutional. The Associated Press argued that the law “violated the public’s right of access to court records” under the State Constitution, and that it was an impermissible restraint on freedom of speech per the State and Federal Constitutions.  The trial court determined that the law was not unconstitutional, and dismissed The Associated Press’ suit. The Associated Press appealed the trial court decision, arguing that the trial court erred in finding that the law was constitutional.

 The Supreme Court agreed with the trial court, and finding RSA 458:15-b constitutional. The Court ruled that although the public has a right to access government documents, including court documents, the right is not unlimited.  It opined that "the right of access may be overcome when a sufficiently compelling interest for nondisclosure is identified,” which included the compelling interest to prevent exposing divorce litigants to identify theft and fraud. The Court’s ruling was narrow, however, and only applied to keeping financial affidavits sealed. 

In general, the Court may upon request consider keeping confidential case-related materials for collateral cases that are already confidential pursuant to New Hampshire law. These include termination of parental rights, adoption, juvenile criminal records and abuse/neglect cases and DCYF records.  

 

Maves and Moore: What Constitutes Income for Child Support Purposes?

The New Hampshire Supreme Court issued in the Matter of Janice E. Maves and David L. Moore on August 14, 2014

The Facts

Husband and Wife divorced in 2004.  At the time of the divorce, Husband was awarded the parties’ Farm, which was initially used as a commercial campground and contained condos that were rented seasonally. The Farm was an S-type corporation, with Husband as primary shareholder.  At the time of the divorce, Husband was ordered to pay $650 per month in child support for their only child, which was increased to $950 in 2008.  The parents shared parenting time.

In 2011 Husband changed the Farm’s business model to condo sales.  As a result, the Farm’s 2011 tax return showed an income of $1,000,389 as capital gains.  Husband gave himself a line of credit from the corporation.  As a result of the increase in the Farm’s capital gains and the extended line of credit, Wife sought an upward modification of child support based on materially changed circumstances.  Husband argued that capital gains are not income for the purposes of child support, and even if they were, the Farm, not Husband, earned the capital gains.  Family court disagreed with Husband and increased his monthly child support payments to $2,411.  The Court also ordered Husband to pay $9,644 in arrears.  The Court based this finding on a conclusion that the Farm’s capital gains were irregular income that should be included in Husband’s gross income.  The Court used Husband’s adjusted gross income to calculate support.

The Appeal

Husband and Wife both appealed.  Wife argued that the line of credit should be counted as income, the capital gains should be “regular” income, and family court should have used gross income minus legitimate business expenses in determining Husband’s income, not adjusted gross income.  Husband argued that the Farm’s capital gains were not his income or personal profits, the Farm was part of the divorce settlement and therefore not able to be the basis for child support payments, that capital gains were not income for the purposes of child support calculations, and that the amount he was ordered to pay was grossly excessive.

The Holding

The Supreme Court held that capital gains are considered income for the purposes of child support calculations. The Court also held that the line of credit was not income, because “[t]he capital gains were treated as [Farm] funds, which, in turn, [Husband] drew down as a line of credit.”  The Court further held that although the Farm was awarded to Husband as part of a property settlement, it was a business, and therefore any capital gains were income for child support purposes.  Lastly, the Court held that courts should not solely rely on a payer’s adjusted gross income on tax returns to prove income.  Rather, the Court held that the “proper measure of gross income is to deduct legitimate business expenses from business profits.”

The Takeaway

There have been many cases over the years arguing about what income may be used for child support purposes. It is worth reading the definition provided in RSA 458-C:2,IV.   

"Gross income'' means all income from any source, whether earned or unearned, including, but not limited to, wages, salary, commissions, tips, annuities, social security benefits, trust income, lottery or gambling winnings, interest, dividends, investment income, net rental income, self-employment income, alimony, business profits, pensions, bonuses, and payments from other government programs (except public assistance programs, including aid to families with dependent children, aid to the permanently and totally disabled, supplemental security income, food stamps, and general assistance received from a county or town), including, but not limited to, workers' compensation, veterans' benefits, unemployment benefits, and disability benefits; provided, however, that no income earned at an hourly rate for hours worked, on an occasional or seasonal basis, in excess of 40 hours in any week shall be considered as income for the purpose of determining gross income; and provided further that such hourly rate income is earned for actual overtime labor performed by an employee who earns wages at an hourly rate in a trade or industry which traditionally or commonly pays overtime wages, thus excluding professionals, business owners, business partners, self-employed individuals and others who may exercise sufficient control over their income so as to recharacterize payment to themselves to include overtime wages in addition to a salary. 

 

It is certainly an interesting argument to make that income derived from a business awarded to a party in a divorce is not income for the calculation of child support but rather property settlement. It was doomed to fail though, as the result would produce absurd result. Any self-employed person would avoid having their income considered for child support. A person’s investments that derive income would similarly be discounted. The intent and plain meaning of the statute is to capture all income for the purposes of child support. 

 

What to Bring to a Pretrial Hearing

Before your final trial, the court will conduct a pretrial hearing. Learn here what will happen at the hearing and what needs to be prepared and filed at the hearing. 

A New Hampshire Alimony Primer

I am always surprised when a potential client comes in to meet with me and says “there’s no such thing as alimony in New Hampshire, right?” Be assured, there is alimony in New Hampshire. 

Alimony is governed by RSA 458:19. The law says that the recipient must have the need for alimony, and the payor must have the ability to pay. The alimony award must take into account the lifestyle of the parties during the marriage. In determining the amount of alimony, the court must consider the length of the marriage; the age, health, social or economic status, occupation, amount and sources of income, the property awarded to either party, vocational skills, employability, estate, liabilities, and needs of each of the parties; the opportunity of each for future acquisition of capital assets and income; the fault of either party as defined in RSA 458:16-a, II(l); and the federal tax consequences of the order.

Things to know about alimony:

  • Alimony is gender neutral. Men and women can receive alimony.
  • The court has broad discretion when awarding alimony, and there is no formula in New Hampshire for either an amount or a term.
  • Alimony cannot be waived in a divorce stipulation. The law provides either spouse with the right to petition for alimony within 5 years of the date of the divorce decree, or if alimony has been ordered for a definite time period, within 5 years from the date of the last payment.
  • Alimony is tax deductible to the payor, and is taxable income to the recipient.
  • The primary purpose of alimony is rehabilitative, meaning the support is intended to allow the recipient time to become self-supporting. However, the court has the authority to order alimony for an indefinite period of time where appropriate.
  • Agreements that contain a provision for the payment of alimony often include language about the terminating alimony upon the recipient’s remarriage or cohabitation with a romantic partner. 

Unbundled Legal Services

Unbundled legal services, also known as limited scope representation, allow you to hire a lawyer to do certain parts of your case, instead of the traditional soup to nuts representation. Some clients choose unbundled services because they cannot afford full representation, and some advice is better than no advice. Other clients feel capable of handling certain parts of the case, but need assistance with other portions.

Unbundled services can be customized to fit your needs, and can include

  • Representation at a specific hearing, such as a temporary hearing
  • Draft proposed orders or pleadings
  • Attending mediation
  • Assisting with discovery preparations
  • Consulting during your case to provide assistance and advice  

Payment arrangements for unbundled services can be tailored to the specific service. For example, paying a small retainer for ongoing advice, or paying for an hour at the end of a meeting to prepare documents.

Lawyers providing unbundled services will ask the client to sign a consent form that clearly spells out what services are, and are not, going to be provided, in addition to a fee agreement. 

Recommended Reading: Get Out of My Will: Estate Planning and Divorce

Divorce can be a tumultuous time spent worrying about your kids, your money and your future. Estate planning is usually not high on the to do list. However, addressing your estate plan is an important piece of a divorce. Attorney Jan Myskoski's recent New Hampshire Bar News article Get Out of My Will: Estate Planning and Divorce reviews the planning process before, during and after. 

Important take-aways from Attorney Myskoski's article include:

  • Disinheriting a spouse is difficult, but you can limit an inheritance to the statutory share provided under RSA 560:10.
  • The anti-hypothecation issued in a divorce prevents a party from "selling, transferring, encumbering, hypothecating, concealing, or in any manner whatsoever disposing of any property." However, the recent case of Elter-Nodvin v. Nodvin made clear that the anti-hypothecation does not restrain changes to life insurance beneficiaries, wills, and durable powers of attorney because there is no transfer of ownership while the party is alive. 
  • While RSA 551:13 revokes provisions in a will or revocable trust in favor of a former spouse, changes to durable powers of attorney and beneficiary designations under life policies, retirement accounts and the like must be directly modified. Otherwise, under Kennedy v. Plan Administrator, your former spouse will inherit your money. 

New Hampshire same-sex divorce: What you need to know

Please check out my recent You Tube video on the topic of same-sex divorce in New Hampshire. We'll review length of marriage considerations, parenting rights for same-sex couples, and special property distribution issues in divorces for same-sex partners.

Elter-Nodvin v. Nodvin: Change in beneficary does not violate anti-hypothecation order

The New Hampshire Supreme Court recently issued an interesting opinion in the matter of Elter-Nodvin v. Nodvin. It is not a traditional family law case, ie divorce or parenting, but rather a constructive trust matter. Nevertheless, the holding has ramifications in the family division.

The Facts

Husband files for divorce from wife. Family court issues an anti-hypothecation order, which restrains the parties “from selling, transferring, encumbering, hypothecating, concealing or in any other manner whatsoever disposing of any property, real or personal, belonging to either or both of them.” While divorce is pending, husband changes his beneficiary on his life insurance and retirement accounts from Wife to their children. Husband dies before divorce is accomplished. Wife sues children in Superior Court seeking to impose a constructive trust to recover the proceeds from the life insurance and retirement accounts. Superior Court dismisses wife’s claims against children.

The Appeal

The wife appealed the trial court’s decision dismissing her petition, arguing that the husband’s change in beneficiaries from wife to children violated the anti-hypothecation order and required the imposition of a constructive trust in favor of the wife over the proceeds. The wife also argues that the husband violated the order when he changed beneficiaries because those actions hindered the trial court’s ability to distribute the assets according to the purpose of the anti-hypothecation order.

The Holding

The court holding is interesting, and contrary to the conventional wisdom that changing beneficiaries on insurance or retirement accounts violated the anti-hypothecation order. Instead, the Supreme Court declared that the plain language of the anti-hypothecation order that required the parties to refrain from disposing of property allowed the husband to make the changes to the beneficiaries, and in no way impeded the family division from making an order requiring the husband to name the wife as beneficiary. The Supreme Court reasoned that the wife did not possess a vested property interest, and absent a property interest, there could be no violation of the order. Therefore, the wife could not base the imposition of a constructive trust on the alleged violation of the anti-hypothecation order.   

The Takeaway

At a temporary hearing, or in a temporary agreement, it is important to secure an order that each party shall name the other as the beneficiary on their existing life insurance, retirement plans, and/or survivor benefits and shall make no changes to those designations while the divorce is pending.

Tips for Completing your New Hampshire Family Division Financial Affidavit

This blog has been a great way to reach out to people who need information about divorce, parenting and family law, and it has been a great experience hearing feedback from colleagues and watching the number of readers grow throughout the years. I hadn't considered branching out into You Tube until I read a blog post on Kevin O'Keefe's Real Lawyers Have Blogs called Are Law Firms Underutilizing You Tube? The idea of a audio/visual piece to this blog appealed to me. Much like I like to hear the audio tour in an art museum instead of reading all the tags next to a painting because it is easier to absorb the information, I think that a video can help convey information in a good way.  

So without further ado, the following is my first You Tube video on the topic of completing your financial affidavit.

Click here for the Financial Affidavit form for theNew Hampshire Circuit Court, Family Division.

Thank you to Jeremy Collins at Ellipsis Entertainment for being easy to work with and producing a great product.

Understanding Same-Sex Divorce

In November, I authored an article on same-sex marriages in the New Hampshire Bar News geared towards helping practioners understand unique issues in same-sex divorces. I reprint here the full article:

Practicing family law in one of the six states that recognizes same-sex marriage requires an understanding of the unique challenges that same-sex couples face in a divorce. Usually, a divorce provides a mechanism to dissolve the legal relationship, divide property and establish parental rights and responsibilities. Although same-sex couples can dissolve their marriage in New Hampshire, reaching a fair and reasonable property division or establishing parental rights and responsibilities is much more difficult.

Marriage & Divorce

New Hampshire practitioners have limited precedent to guide them on several thorny issues that are distinctive to same-sex couples. Ironically, one of the few cases involving same-sex relationships, which is still good law, is now inconsistent with the state’s recognition of same-sex marriage. In the Matter of Blanchflower held that adultery does not include homosexual relationships. The court based its decision on the definition in New Hampshire of adultery, which excludes all non-coital sex acts, no matter the gender of the persons engaging in the act. Thus, although other fault grounds may be pursued, adultery is off the table for same-sex divorcing couples. The Blanchflower Court noted that it was not the function of the judiciary to extend past legislation to provide for present needs.

A common dispute in same-sex divorce is the calculation of the length of the marriage. In cases where the parties’ cohabitated long term prior to the marriage, one party may attempt to tack on the cohabitation to increase the length of the marriage and impact alimony and property division. This argument stems from the claim that had the parties been able to marry, they would have. Without New Hampshire precedent, the court may look to Massachusetts for guidance, where the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has held that marriage benefits apply prospectively to the legalization of same-sex marriage. In addition to the cohabitation argument, the question also remains whether domestic partnerships, like those in California or New Jersey, might be similar enough to a marriage to tack on and create a long-term marriage.

Alimony

The IRS identifies alimony as payments made between spouses or former spouses pursuant to a divorce or separation agreement. Typically, alimony is deductible to the payor and includable as income to the payee for federal income tax purposes. However, the Defense of Marriage Act prohibits the federal recognition of same-sex marriages, and in turn precludes the IRS from recognizing a same-sex spouse as such. Although the IRS has not provided specific guidance on the issue, it seems clear that alimony payments are not tax deductible to the payor and may incur a gift tax liability. The IRS might alternatively consider the payments compensation for past services, with income tax, self-employment tax and possible withholding obligations. Either treatment will incur tax consequences that could be financially devastating to the family.

Property Division

In "traditional" divorces, opposite-sex couples rarely invokes tax consequences during the division of their marital assets. Such property transfers meet specific IRS exemption rules. Same-sex couples on the other hand can be saddled with a large tax liability as a result of property division.

The Defense of Marriage Act disqualifies same-sex spouses from the tax exemptions for property transfers made pursuant to a divorce decree. Instead, same-sex couples incur a gift tax liability for most transfers made between the spouses or former spouses in excess of $13,000. For example, if one spouse transfers $30,000 to the other spouse for property settlement, $17,000 would be taxable. In addition to gift tax, same-sex couples must be aware of capital gains tax when the home is transferred from joint ownership to one spouse.

A specific part of property division is the ability of a spouse to transfer property to a spouse or former spouse by qualified domestic relations order (QDRO) pursuant to the federal Employment Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), a portion of a retirement plan or tax sheltered annuity. The tax treatment of such transfers depends on the word "spouse." In other words, in order to qualify for the tax-free transfer benefits, the relationship must be recognized by the IRS as a marriage. Under the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman, a QDRO is not a vehicle available to same-sex couples to transfer retirement assets tax-free. Instead, same-sex couples must pay taxes and early withdrawal penalties on transfers made to the other spouse, regardless of whether it is deposited into the other spouses’s retirement account.

Parental Rights & Responsibilities

New Hampshire follows the legal principal that a child born into a marriage is presumed to be the legal child of both spouses. This presumption of legitimacy may be attacked however, and if successful could drastically affect the non-biological parent’s right to seek parenting rights and responsibilities, including residential responsibilities. Although the step-parent statute might be a useful tool in this circumstance, the parenting rights accessed through this avenue could look much different than the rights of a legal parent. Co-parent adoption is the safest way to establish protected parenting rights for each spouse.

Post Divorce To-Do List

The divorce is finally over, and it is time to move on. There are still some loose ends to tie up though, even after the divorce decree has issued. Not every item may apply to your case, but here are the most common things that should be on a newly single person's to-do list.

1. Update your life insurance and retirement account beneficiaries
2. Prepare a new will
3. Execute a quitclaim deed and record it at the registry of deeds to transfer the title of the house
4. Draft a QDRO, submit it to the court for approval and provide the order to the plan administrator
5. Resume your maiden name, and obtain a new social security card, driver’s license and debit and credit cards
6. Complete required paperwork to implement child support orders
7. Change your vehicle titles
8. Close all joint bank and credit card accounts
9. Make sure that COBRA benefits are in place and the necessary paperwork has been completed
10. Exchange personal property awarded to you or your former spouse

Sukerman: Accidental disability benefits are marital property subject to equitable division

In the last session of 2009, the New Hampshire Supreme Court issued its opinion In the Matter of Michele Sukerman and William Sukerman, in which the court held that accidental disability pension benefits are subject to equitable distribution in divorce proceedings. Court litigants should keep in mind that this case does not govern how accidental disability benefits or other marital assets will be divided, but rather holds that any property not excluded by law is thrown into “the pot.” How it will be divided is subject to the specific facts and circumstances of each case, and the factors set forth in RSA 458:16-a

William Sukerman was an employee at the Massachusetts Port Authority (MassPort) Fire and Rescue in Boston from 1991 until a heart attack forced him into retirement in 2008. Upon retirement William began receiving a pension under the Massachusetts retirement system which consisted of an ordinary pension benefit, an annuity and an accidental disability pension benefit. The final divorce decree of the Derry Family Division awarded Michele one-half of the William’s entire “pension plan which accrued between the date of the marriage . . . and the date of the filing of the petition for divorce.”

William argued on appeal that the accidental disability benefit should not have been included in the marital property distribution because it was compensation for lost earning capacity as well as pain and suffering. The court disagreed, and took a “mechanistic approach,” under which all property acquired during the marriage “without regard to title, or to when or how acquired is deemed to be marital property unless it is specifically excepted by statute.” There is no such exception for accidental disability pension benefits in RSA 458:16-a.

The court concluded that this so-called mechanistic approach “best comports with New Hampshire’s equitable distribution law,” under RSA 458:16-a, which provides that “all tangible and intangible property and assets, real or personal, belonging to either or both parties, whether title is held in the name of either or both parties” is subject to equitable distribution. Consequently, the Sukerman case stands for the proposition that so long as there is no specific statutory authority excepting accidental disability benefits from property settlement, such benefits, being acquired during marriage, are marital property and therefore subject to distribution.

Crusco Law Office, PLLC law clerk Dan McLaughlin contributed to this post.

U.S. Supreme Court in Kennedy v. Plan Adminstrator: Don't forget to change your beneficiaries after your divorce!

The United States Supreme Court issued an opinion on January 26, 2009 for Kennedy v. Plan Administrator for DuPont Savings and Investment Plan, a rare family-law related case heard by the Court. This case is an important reminder to all parties in a divorce action to change your beneficiaries in your retirement plans and life insurance policies after your divorce has been finalized, or your ex-spouse could inherit the funds.

William Kennedy participated in his employer DuPont’s savings and investment plan (SIP) which is covered under the Employment Retirement Income Security Act. ERISA is a federal law that sets minimum standards for most private industry pension plans. This plan gave William the power to both designate a beneficiary to receive the funds upon his death and to replace or revoke that designation. If there is no surviving spouse or designated beneficiary at the time of death then the distribution of funds goes directly to the estate’s executor or administrator.

Upon William’s marriage to Liv, William designated Liv as his SIP beneficiary but did not name a contingent beneficiary. When the couple divorced some years later the divorce decree divested Liv of her interest in William’s SIP benefits.  However, the decree did not call for the execution of a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO) which would have been one way under ERISA to address the elimination of a spouse’s interest in plan benefits. In addition, William did not execute any documents with his SIP removing Liv as the beneficiary. Nor did Liv follow the SIP’s specific method for disclaiming her interest.

When William died his daughter Kari was named executrix of his estate. Kari asked DuPont to distribute the SIP funds to William’s estate. However, DuPont relied on William’s designation form and paid the funds to Liv. Kari, as executrix of William’s estate, filed suit arguing that Liv had waived her SIP benefits in the divorce and therefore DuPont had violated ERISA by paying the distribution to Liv.

The district court held that the SIP funds should be awarded to William’s estate. However, the court of appeals reversed that decision by holding that while the divorce decree purported to divest Liv of her interest it was not a QDRO and therefore under ERISA it could not be used to waive Liv’s interest. Therefore, the funds were properly distributed to Liv as designated by the plan documents William executed naming her as beneficiary.

The Supreme Court agreed with the court of appeals and held that DuPont had a duty under ERISA to follow the SIP participant’s beneficiary designation even if the waiver incorporated into the divorce decree was conflicting. The incorporated waiver did not amount to a QDRO and the SIP is bound by the plan documents. Therefore, Dupont properly distributed the pension benefits to Liv pursuant to the beneficiary designation form and despite the divorce decree waiver.

Crusco Law Office Law Clerk Marisa L. Ulloa contributed to this post.

Parents may not waive NH statutory provision prohibiting an order requiring payment of adult child's college expenses

On January 30, 2009 the NH Supreme Court released the opinion for In the Matter of Joseph Goulart, Jr. and Marcia Goulart in which the Court held that parents are not free to waive the provisions of the statute that prohibit any child support order requiring a parent to contribute to an adult child’s college expenses or other educational expenses beyond the completion of high school. The Court urged the legislature to reexamine the statutory language regarding approval or enforcement of a stipulated parenting plan in order to take into consideration a situation where the divorcing parties are fully informed, represented by counsel and mutually agree that one or both will voluntarily contribute to their adult child’s college expenses.

Joseph and Marcia divorced in 2005 while their son was still a minor. Part of their final divorce decree incorporated a Stipulated Parenting Plan, negotiated with counsel, which included a provision stating:

 

The parties are aware of the statutory provisions prohibiting the Court from ordering any parent to contribute to expenses for an adult child. Despite this prohibition the parties agree that Joseph shall be responsible for payment of the son’s college educational expenses.

 

In 2007, Joseph filed a motion to define his obligation regarding college expenses for the same reasons he cited before. There was a hearing and the family division ruled that Joseph was expected to assist with college expenses as agreed to in the Parenting Plan.

 

Joseph appealed that decision to the NH Supreme Court, contending that the family division has no authority to enforce the college education funding obligation because the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to enter such an order under NH RSA 461-A:14, V. The statute reads: “No child support order shall require a parent to contribute to an adult child’s college expenses or other educational expenses beyond the completion of high school.”

 

The Court agreed with Joseph that the statute deprived both the superior court and the family division of subject matter jurisdiction to either approve or enforce a provision in a stipulated parenting plan that requires parents to contribute to their adult child’s college expenses. The family division should have modified the parenting plan by striking the college expense provision.

 

Crusco Law Office Law Clerk Marisa L. Ulloa contributed to this post.

 

Tax considerations for divorcing couples

During a divorce, the tax consquences of a settlement often take a backseat to heated issues such as parenting rights and asset division. However, tax consquences can have a very big impact on the outcome of a case and are an important factor to consider.  Attorney Jason C. Brown of Brown Law Offices, P.A. posted an informative piece on his Minnesota Divorce and Family Law Blog with tax tips for divorcing couples. Attorney Brown suggested the following issues to consider during a divorce:

  1. Child Support. Child support is not income to the recipient and is not deductible for the payer. Keep this in mind if your spouse is seeking alimony. Child support payments that they receive are not taxable and, as a result, increase their net income each month dollar for dollar. As a result, the "need" of your spouse will be diminished and you may be able to argue that their imputed gross income exceeds their gross pay coupled with untaxed child support.
  2. Alimony. Alimony is income to the recipient and is deductible for the payer. High income earners can reduce their taxable income by paying alimony. If your spouse's tax bracket is low, the government winds up picking up the tab for a good share of the alimony obligation.
  3. Sale of Homestead. The sale of the marital homestead usually does not involve a taxable event. Capital gains (up to $500,000) from the sale of your marital homestead are not taxable if you've lived there for two of the last five years. Nor is a transfer of title to the residence, allowing your spouse to keep some or all of the equity. Many couples opt to forego alimony payments in, instead, pay a disproportionate property settlement to their spouse. In other words, they "buy off" alimony by giving a larger share of home sale proceeds, or equity, to their spouse. The result? No tax implications for either. Ideal for alimony recipients in a high tax bracket.
  4. Filing Status. The status of your marriage on December 31 of the relevant year determines whether you file as single or married. If you are divorced by that date, you file as single for the entire year. If your case appears to be coming to a close near the end of the year, best to speak with a tax preparer about the consequence of holding up at bit or expediting matters. We find that courts are usually willing to facilitate bringing matters to a close by the end of the year if tax implications in doing so are substantial.
  5. Dependents. While the law provides that the custodial parent is entitled to claim the relevant dependency exemptions, most couples agree to share them. Offering a non-custodial parent the right to claim the dependency exemption under the condition that their child support is current at the end of the relevant tax year provides them with incentive to keep current with payments.
  6. Child Care Credit. Custodial parents who incur work-related child care costs can deduct up to 30% of the cost. It is for that reason that the child support guidelines usually require a custodial parent to assume responsibility for a greater share of daycare expense.
  7. Liabilities and Refunds. Taxes owed, or refunds received, are usually treated as "marital" and are, therefore, split equally among the parties. In the heat of the moment, some spouses will intercept a tax refund and cash it without the other's knowledge. All funds must be accounted for and it is likely that if they do so their share of the final property settlement will be reduced proportionately. Because income is "marital," a tax liability is a shared responsibility.
  8. Attorney Fees. Any fees paid to a lawyer for tax advice are deductible. Ask your attorney for to break out all billable time devoted to tax issues and you can save big.

A good family law attorney will point out these and other issues to consider during your divorce. It is also important to discuss your divorce and the tax consquences of any settlement with a knowledgeable accountant.

Lemieux and Lemieux: Reformation of a divorce decree

On June 13, the NH Supreme Court released an opinion on In the Matter of Richard R. Lemieux and Joanne Lemieux. In this case, Richard and Joanne were divorced in 1990. Their final divorce decree included stipulations regarding Joanne’s portion of Richard’s pension plan benefits, including the percentage each spouse would be awarded and the date that it would be divided. In 2001, Joanne filed a claim with the U.S. Office of Personal Management (OPM) and was awarded a monthly amount based on the date upon which Richard became eligible for retirement.

Richard challenged OPM’s decision by arguing that the monthly amount is based on the value of the pension when the initial divorce action was filed, not when Richard became eligible for retirement. Richard’s position is that the stipulation in the divorce decree should be reformed due to a mutual mistake of law.

The Court states that, “It is well established that courts may grant reformation in proper cases where the instrument fails to express the intentions that the parties had in making the contract.” The Court acknowledges that there is a mistake of law and rules that the parties intended to award Joanne a portion of Richard’s pension as of the date of the divorce decree and not as of the date of his eventual retirement.  

Blog Credit: Marisa L. Ulloa, Crusco Law Office Law Clerk

Fees for Processing a QDRO

Once the divorce, either by agreement or court order, becomes final, retirement accounts are often divided by a qualified domestic relations order (commonly called a QDRO) as ordered in the divorce decree. Attorneys must go about drafting the QDRO, getting it approved by the court and the plan, and then have the plan process it. A recent blog by Divorce Law Journal's Diana L. Skaggs warns about plans charging large fees to process QDROs, and even to approve their own sample forms. Attorney Skaggs' is right on the money, so to speak, to advise checking with the Summary Plan Description to determine the fees charged by the plan and who the fee is charged to. Allocating the fee in the divorce decree will save headaches later on when the issue pops us.

Pets and Divorce

A very concerning issue for many people facing divorce is what will happen to the family pet. Currently, the law recognizes pets as property which will be divided in a final divorce decree pursuant to RSA 458:16-a. Property distribution factors were recently discussed here. A court is more likely to permanently award a pet to one of the parties rather than ordering a "shared parenting" arrangement. On the one hand, the law is not able to recognize that pets have strong emotional ties and separation from that pet will be much more detrimental to a family member than the loss of a kitchen table or a television. On the other hand, enforcing a court order with a "shared parenting" schedule and calls for division of vet and doggie daycare expenses could place an additional burden on the all ready over-worked courts.

Attorney Danny Meeks, who publishes the Pet Trust Law Blog, recently wrote about these issues in a posting called  "Is your pet a family member subject to 'shared parenting.'" Attorney Meeks sited interesting pending legislation in Massachusetts that would grant court's the authority to restrain a party from a pet in a temporary domestic violence restraining order.

Property distribution: Equittable is not always equal

New Hampshire law grants courts the authority to order an equitable distribution of property between parties. Although the law presumes that an equal distribution is also an equitable distribution, the court may decide that equitable is not equal when one or more of several factors are present. Some of the factors include the 1) the duration of the marriage, 2) the opportunity of each party for future acquisition of capital assets and income, 3) the need of the custodial parent to occupy or own the marital residence for the benefit of the children, 4) tax consequences of the property settlement, 5) expectations of retirement assets and 6) the fault of either party. The law includes fifteen different factors, including the broad final factor of “any other factor that the court deems relevant.” Click here to read all of the factors listed in the property settlement law.