July 1, 2010

Assembly Adopts Comprehensive Divorce Reform

Three-Bill Package Allows No-Fault Divorce While Establishing Important Reforms for Spousal Maintenance and Counsel Fees

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Assembly Judiciary Chair Helene Weinstein today announced Assembly passage of a three-bill package aimed at reforming New York's Domestic Relations Law. The bills would reform the state's grounds for divorce, determinations of the amount and duration of spousal maintenance and awards for counsel and expert fees.

"The end of a marriage is an incredibly difficult and trying time even in the best of circumstances. The Assembly Majority has long supported the concept of no-fault divorce, but has been adamant in ensuring that the needs of all parties are addressed during this painful process. Far too often, one party has an unfair financial advantage during these proceedings. These measures will ensure the interests of all parties are considered," said Silver (D-Manhattan).

"Victims of domestic violence often stay in abusive relationships even when they have fault grounds for divorce. By addressing economic inequities, the counsel fees and maintenance reforms take vital steps toward enabling victims to leave abusive relationship," said Weinstein (D-Manhattan).

Under New York's current law, in order for a couple to be divorced absent a separation agreement, one spouse must allege fault on the part of the other spouse, such as cruel and inhuman treatment, adultery, abandonment or confinement of the defendant in prison. This legislation (A.9753-A), sponsored by Assemblymember Jonathan Bing, would allow one spouse to state under oath that the marriage has been irretrievably broken for a period of at least six months.

Silver noted that while 49 other states already permit this kind of divorce, it was critically important to mandate that New York courts resolve issues of marital property, spousal and child support, and counsel fees before terminating a marriage.

"By passing no fault divorce legislation, the Assembly has taken an important step toward advancing the cause of fairness in our judicial system. This legislation would allow marriages to end without blame or confrontation, thereby providing a legal ground for spouses to escape abusive situations. I am proud to have authored this measure which will have a meaningful impact on individuals and families across the state," said Bing (D-Manhattan).

Another measure (A.10984-A) would establish temporary spousal maintenance while the divorce proceeding is pending, revise factors for final maintenance awards and require the Law Revision Commission to study the economic consequences of divorce and maintenance actions. The legislation, sponsored by Assemblymember Amy Paulin was passed yesterday by the Assembly.

Paulin noted that the current method of determining spousal support in New York has been criticized because in far too many cases the court does not grant spousal maintenance where it is needed and where it is awarded, the results are inconsistent and unpredictable.

The Law Review Commission recently issued a report recognizing the need for a change in maintenance laws and a further study of the issue. The bill calls for study of the new guidelines as well as current law.

"The maintenance guidelines are a much-needed tool for courts to calculate temporary awards in a way that is fair and equitable to both parties. It will lead to more predictable awards, allowing couples to better prepare for the financial consequences of divorce. By reviewing the financial experiences of divorcing couples and the effect the maintenance laws have on each divorcing spouse, the legislature will know whether any additional changes to the law are needed to ensure that the parties are financially stable following a divorce," sad Paulin (D-Scarsdale).

Additional legislation (A.7569-A) sponsored by Weinstein would create a level playing field with respect to the divorcing parties' respective abilities to pay counsel fees and to ensure that a non-monied spouse is able to litigate the action and is able to do so on equal footing with a monied spouse.

In addition, this measure requires that where counsel and expert fees are to be awarded, they should be awarded at the beginning of the case to ensure adequate representation of the less monied spouse.