Ross v. Ross: Celibacy pending adultery claim

On August 23, 2016, the New Hampshire Supreme Court issued an opinion in Ross and Ross. 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, artfully written by Attorney Joshua Gordon, 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?

 

Sexters Beware! Evidence of infidelity in the digital age

Unless you have been living under a rock the last few weeks, you have come across the Tiger Woods story. The car crash, the rumors of domestic violence, and, of course, the cheating. According to reports, Elin discovered the affair by going through Tiger's phone records. Jaimee Grubbs, one of Tiger's many mistresses, has come forward with more than 300 flirty, steamy text messages as evidence of the affair. As smartly phrased by Laura Holson of the New York Times, text messages are the new digital lipstick on the collar.

Tiger is not the only person of notoriety to be caught by a text message. Detroit's former major, Kwame Kilpatrick, went to jail after lying about an affair with an aide and then having sexually explicit test messages surface. Senator John Ensign was caught having an affair when his mistresses husband, who was also his aide, found text messages on Senator Ensign's phone. And the list goes on and  on.

Otherwise intelligent men and women seem to believe that the digital evidence of their trysts disappear into the ether with their texts, never to be seen again. That is, until your spouse or her attorney dig it up. Daniel Clement, of the New York Divorce Report writes:

In the end, text messages are just the latest tool in the arsenal to catch cheating spouses. Telephone records, emails and charge card receipts have long provided clues to affairs. E-Z passes and Metro-card, too, provide a time stamped trail of where someone has been. It is only time until some spouse finds his significant other “tagged” in an embrace or some other compromising position on someone’s Facebook page.

So, especially in the State of New Hampshire where divorcing spouses may plead fault grounds, sexters beware! Evidence of infidelity in the digital age is easy to find, and divorce attorneys know where to look. The evidence will most likely come to light before or during your divorce. If you do not want to be caught, refrain from the affair.

Alienation of affection is not an available action in New Hampshire

Question:

My wife cheated on me and I want to sue her and her new boyfriend for alienation of affections. How do I proceed?

Answer:

An alienation of affection claim is a lawsuit where a spouse sues a third party who is allegedly responsible for the destruction of the marriage. There are three elements that a plaintiff must prove:

1)      The marriage entailed love between the spouses in some degree;

2)      The spousal love was alienated and destroyed; and

3)      Defendant’s willful and malicious conduct contributed to or caused the loss of affection.

However, New Hampshire no longer allows actions for alienation of affection pursuant to NH RSA 460:2 which reads: “No damages shall be allowed to either spouse in any action based on alienation of the affections of the other spouse.” The only states to still allow alienation of affection law suits are: Hawaii, Illinois, Mississippi, New Mexico, North Carolina, South Dakota, and Utah.

Although New Hampshire does not recognize alienation of affection as a cause of action, New Hampshire is a state that allows fault grounds, such as adultery, in a divorce. Read more here about fault grounds.

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

What are fault grounds?

New Hampshire is a state that recognizes both fault and no-fault grounds for divorce. The no-fault grounds allege that "irreconcilable differences which have caused the irremediable breakdown of the marriage." In other words, the parties just cannot get along and there is no hope of fixing the marriage.

New Hampshire recognizes the following fault grounds:

  • Impotency of either party. 
  • Adultery of either party. 
  • Extreme cruelty of either party to the other. 
  • Conviction of either party, in any state or federal district, of a crime punishable with imprisonment for more than one year and actual imprisonment under such conviction. 
  • When either party has so treated the other as seriously to injure health or endanger reason. 
  • When either party has been absent two years together, and has not been heard of. 
  • When either party is an habitual drunkard, and has been such for 2 years together. 
  • When either party has joined any religious sect or society which professes to believe the relation of husband and wife unlawful, and has refused to cohabit with the other for 6 months together. 
  • When either party, without sufficient cause, and without the consent of the other, has abandoned and refused, for 2 years together, to cohabit with the other.

In order to prevail in the divorce on fault grounds, the party alleging the fault must be an "innocent spouse." For example, a party cannot allege that the breakdown of the marriage was caused by the other parties adultery, when that party contributed to the breakdown by being an habitual drunk. Even if a party does not prove fault grounds, they are still entitled to a divorce based upon irreconcilable differences.