A Compromise Leads to Equitable, Sensible Divorce Reforms

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Kate Wurmfeld

Yesterday the New York State Senate, in a unanimous vote, joined the Assembly in approving a bill that represents a landmark in the reform of New York State’s domestic relations law. A.7645/S.5678, a compromise to a bill introduced in the last session, sets forth new guidelines for how temporary and post-divorce maintenance and spousal support awards are calculated.

The bill balances the sometimes conflicting concerns of low-income New Yorkers, including victims of domestic violence, with those of families of higher income. This was achieved largely because of the process by which it was drafted.

In an attempt to arrive at a compromise on maintenance guidelines, Justice Jeffrey Sunshine, chair of the NYS Unified Court System’s Matrimonial Practice Advisory and Rules Committee, informally brought together lawyers from different interest groups, including the Family Law Section of the New York State Bar Association, the New York State Maintenance Standards Coalition (including attorneys from NYLAG), the Women’s Bar Association of the State of New York, and the New York Chapter of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. Over a period of several months, the group was able to work through their differences and arrive at a reasonable and fair compromise that resulted in A.7645/S.5678.

The legislation builds on earlier successful matrimonial law reforms in the State introduced in 2010: the passage of no-fault divorce; the introduction of a provision strengthening attorney’s fees for the non-moneyed spouse; and the adoption of formulas for calculating temporary maintenance awards.

Temporary maintenance standards have been especially welcome for low-income New Yorkers seeking a divorce. (Last year alone NYLAG received 1,178 calls about divorces.) The standards protect economically vulnerable spouses, allow litigants and lawyers to anticipate eventual court-ordered awards and thus settle cases without lengthy litigation, and assist those unable to pay for representation in obtaining needed financial awards.

Victims of domestic violence in particular have benefited from temporary maintenance rules, which have dramatically shorted the time it takes to receive a temporary award from as much as six months to just a few weeks. The law also enables parties to predict (as has long been the case with child support) how much temporary maintenance will be paid or received. For victims of domestic violence this predictability means the difference between staying with an abusive spouse and having the courage – and the means, to leave.

By expanding standards to post-divorce maintenance awards, A.7645/S.5678 will further streamline the divorce process and ease the burden on our judicial system, leading to more consistent awards, an increase in settlements and reduced litigation. Moderate- and low-income spouses who cannot afford an attorney will be able to use a simple formula to calculate legitimate claims for maintenance. The less-moneyed spouse who sacrificed her earning potential to support the more-moneyed spouse’s career, raise children, or care for elderly relatives will be compensated for the contributions she made to the wellbeing of her family.

On behalf of our clients and in the interest of matrimonial reform for all, I want to thank Judge Sunshine, the sponsors of the bill, Assemblywoman Helene E. Weinstein and Senator John J. Bonacic, along with Senator Ruth Hassel-Thompson, for their leadership and support. We urge Governor Cuomo to sign this bill when it arrives on his desk later this month. It will finally provide the consistency and predictability desperately needed in determining economic awards for vulnerable spouses in divorce proceedings, and more efficiently resolve matrimonial actions for families in New York State.

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