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?

 

“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.  

 

When negotiating a settlement, it is important to keep in mind that New Hampshire law does not allow parties to waive future alimony. The 1994 case of Norberg v. Norberg is controlling. It explains that although property division is not modifiable, alimony is an entirely different matter. Even if the parties enter into an agreement that expressly waives their right to seek alimony, the court retains the authority to revise its orders under RSA 458:14

How this factors into settlement negotiations will depend on the facts of your case. First, whether you go to trial or reach a settlement, the court will retain the authority to modify alimony. It should be carefully considered when providing the other party with  a larger division of the assets or taking on additional debt in exchange for a reduced term or amount of alimony. Knowledge of the standards for modification, especially in light of the recent Lyon decision, will also be important to come to a knowing and voluntary settlement. 

On May 30, 2014, the New Hampshire Supreme Court issued an opinion In the Matter of Lyon. This decision clarifies the standard to be applied in requests to extend or renew alimony. 

The Facts

Husband and Wife divorced in May 2007. They entered into a permanent stipulation that was incorporated into their divorce decree that required Husband to pay to Wife $3,000 per month in alimony from January 1, 2007, through June 30, 2007, and $5,000 in monthly alimony from July 1, 2007, through June 30, 2012, “or until the death of either party, whichever first occurs.”

A month before the scheduled termination of the alimony, the Wife petitioned for an additional three years. She alleged that her newly diagnosed attention deficit hyperactivity disorder necessitated an extension of alimony so that she could afford her medication and finish her education. The Husband filed a Motion for Summary Judgment, arguing that the Wife had failed to establish an unanticipated or unforeseeable substantial change in circumstances. The trial court granted the motion and dismissed the petition.  

The Appeal

The Wife appealed and argued that the trial court erred by applying the standards that govern a motion to modify alimony to her petition to extend. Although the standard to modify required a person to prove that a substantial change in circumstances had occurred since the original award that made the amount of alimony either improper or unfair, she argued that she was not required to meet that test. Instead, she said that she was subject to the same standard as an initial award of alimony.

The Holding

The Supreme Court held that when a party seeks to extend or renew, either in modified or unmodified form, “the burden is upon the party in whose favor the order is to run to establish that justice requires a renewal or extension, and if so, what justice requires as to amount[,] . . . in the light of all the circumstances then existing.”

The Takeaway

The standard articulated in the Lyons decision will be easier to meet for alimony recipients as opposed to a substantial change in circumstance test.  This has the potential to create a chilling effect a person’s willingness to agree to pay alimony as one can be less certain of the end date for the payments. Even so, the recipient must still prove that justice requires an extension. While the facts do not require a substantial change in circumstances, it seems likely that the trial court would still examine all of the circumstances to determine why, if short term alimony was awarded, the recipient has not put him or herself into a position to be self-supporting.

 

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. 

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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, 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. 

The Facts

Husband and Wife divorce after forty-two years of marriage in 2005. The divorce decree divides the property and requires the Husband to pay $25,000 per year for ten years. However, the decree provided that alimony would stop if the Wife cohabitated with “an unrelated adult male.”

In 2010, the Wife moved from her home, and rented it to reduce her expenses. She moved into the upper level of a single family home that was owned by a man she met through an online dating service. The man lived on the lower floor, and they had shared space on the middle floor of the home. The Wife did not pay rent, but she did pay $300 per month for food and often cooked for him.

The Husband stopped paying alimony when he learned of the move, and Wife sought enforcement of the alimony obligation. The trial court ruled that the Wife was not cohabitating under the terms of the decree and enforced the alimony obligation.

The Appeal

The Husband appealed the trial court’s order, initially arguing that the trial court erred in concluding that the Wife was not cohabitating. However, at oral argument the Husband abandoned that argument, and instead argued that the trial court did not a have a workable definition of cohabitation and urged the court to adopt a standard.

The Holding

The Supreme Court defines cohabitation as “a relationship between persons resembling that of a marriage.” Whether two people are cohabitating will depend on the facts and circumstances of each particular case. The Supreme Court offered guidance on factors to be considered:

  • Whether the couple is living together continually
  • What the financial arrangements between the couple are and to the extent that they are entangled, including whether there are shared expenses, to what extent one supports the other, whether there are shared investments or retirement planning, if the couple have joint bank accounts, and whether there are life insurance policies naming the other.
  • The extent of the personal relationship, including the intimacy of the connection, shared vacations, shared friends and social connections, and a sexual relationship (although not necessarily dispositive)
  • Whether the couple share and enjoy each other’s personal property, such as household furnishings, appliances, vehicles, and personal items, such as toiletries or clothing
  • The age of the couple may be an important consideration, which may give more or less weight to the support of one by the other and estate planning providing for children of prior relationships
  • Whether friends, family or the community view the couple was engaging in a personal intimate relationship

The Takeaway

The guidance provided in this case should assist a trial court in determining whether a coupld is cohabitating, even though the facts and circumstances in each particular case. Perhaps the old adage “if it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck” is most appropriate.   
 

Continuing the series of You Tube videos, this edition discusses a very important hearing in your case: the temporary hearing. Watch to find out why, and what you need to do to be prepared and help achieve a good result.

Here are the forms you need for a divorce temporary hearing with children:

Thanks to Jeremy Collins at Ellipsis Entertainment, you were great to work with on this series!