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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

 

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.

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

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.