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Divorce Mediation Blog

A Well-Reasoned Opinion from the Appeals Court on a Tricky Subject: Calhoun v. Rawlings

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Levine Dispute Resolution - Divorce Mediation

The Massachusetts Appeals Court recently reviewed the decision of a Superior Court judge on the question of whether or not a spendthrift trust settled for the benefit of a disabled person, created and funded with a divorce settlement - assets transferred to the trust by his (ex-) wife – was a “self-settled” trust as a matter of law, and hence, reachable by a potential tort-creditor of his estate. The husband’s court-appointed guardian signed the separation agreement and trust instrument on his behalf.

The trust named the wife as the settlor; and it appointed the husband’s guardian, his sister and a bank as trustees, with broad discretion. The wife funded the trust with assets exceeding $4 million in value; and the husband transferred some $120,000 from his own name into the trust.

The husband appears to have later caused an automobile collision, in which he died, while seriously injuring the occupants of another other car, resulting in a lawsuit for damages, seeking, in part, a declaration that the husband’s trust assets are available to the plaintiffs for potential damages. The Superior Court judge ruled that the plaintiffs could only reach that part of the trust corpus that the husband’s own cash funded, which the judge deemed to be the trust “self-settled”. The plaintiffs appealed.

Justice Amy Blake wrote the opinion of the Appeals Court, with clear analysis and expression. “Self-settled” trusts, or those where the creator and the beneficiary are the same, she observed, cannot serve as a firewall against creditors as a matter of public policy, at least to the extent that distributions are permitted to the beneficiary in a “support or discretionary trust”. The case turned, then, on whether or not the portion contributed by the decedent’s wife as a divorce settlement should also be deemed “self-settled”.

Justice Blake wrote of the need look past the labels of a trust to determine its true character. Remember that the wife was the named settlor of the trust, and she literally paid in 98% of the trust holdings. But, the court reasoned that her transfer was not a gift, but rather a disgorgement of marital assets to which the husband was equitably entitled under M.G.L., ch. 208, §34.

The court then invoked the law of contract, reasoning that in return for the wife’s recognition of the husband’s equitable property rights, he (by his guardian) consented to the trust’s creation, thus, providing consideration. In so doing, the husband, substantively, even if not in form, settled the trust. She then drew on analogy, comparing this to a pair of cases involving Medicaid and bankruptcy wherein a conservator created a trust, the other was funded by inheritance, each deemed to be “self-settled” despite literal trust nomenclature.

In the end, the spouses’ intent to shield the assets from creditors fell to the public policy that bars a creditor from a self-interested embargo of assets.

As we read this decision, we fully expected the opposite outcome, but by the end, we said “of course”. All in all, a really good appellate read.

 

Pre-marital Cohabitation in Defining Marital Length Clarified; But, In Rejecting Normalized Income for Alimony & Accepting Early Valuation Date: Why won’t the Appeals Court tell us what they really think?

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

BORTOLOTTI V. BORTOLOTTI - Part 2

Levine Dispute Resolution - AlimonyAfter announcing one useful alimony holding, which we discussed in Part 1, the appellate panel in Bortolotti v. Bortolotti speed-wrote six issues that are common to many divorce cases, and where the bench and bar could use some real direction. In this blog entry, we will focus on two of them:

  1. the trial judge’s decision to use “normalized” salary for business valuation purposes but half that amount for alimony calculation; and
  2. the judge’s acceptance of a 2014 real estate valuation at a 2016 trial.

The Appeals Court upheld both decisions, simply noting that each was within the Probate and Family Court’s discretion, but with the thinnest possible explanation, giving little critical value to the reader.

Bearing in mind that “unpublished” opinions are not formal precedent, but that the Appeals Court invites their use for “persuasive value”, why wouldn’t the appellate bench want to write its opinion persuasively? Why not share their actual analysis?

In our first example, trial court accepted the uncontested adjustments that a valuation expert made to the husband’s salary, in furtherance of an income-based valuation, for which salary “normalization” is an essential component. Normalization is an effort to approximate the owner’s actual economic yield, or more traditionally, that which a hypothetical buyer might fairly expect achieve in the future.

Common adjustments are one-off expenses, personal expenses written off against revenues and S Corporation tax effect. A potential business buyer uses this to measure likely return, so as to rationalize its investment, including acquisition debt. The divorce court does it to determine the value to the business owner who is cashing out the opposing spouse’s marital interest.

The Appeals Court owed no explanation for upholding the acceptance of the normalized salary in the valuation context because no one disputed the substance of the finding at trial. But, then, the panel addressed the trial court’s determination to use only half of the normalized sum for alimony purposes because “there was evidence that [the husband] did not derive any actual income from” his company.

What does this mean? Were the actual earnings zero? Were they normalized to a positive value, more than zero based solely on adjustments? Alternatively, did the expert find positive earnings, but zero salary and/or profit distributions made? If so, did the judge determine that half of the realized but undistributed income was retained for legitimate business purposes?

In short, it matters what the essential facts were, and why the Appeals court found the trial decision to be sound. Discretion is not unbridled; and appellate analysis is, or should be, an explanation of why the judge did not abuse it so that the bench and bar may learn from an elucidated point of view, from which they may analogize with intellectual consistency. Instead, we are left with bare bones, and a conclusory statement, which may create mischief in place of clarity.

Some lawyer soon will assert that Bortolotti supports the proposition that “actual income” and “realized income” are opposites (they are not) and that a rigorous application of JS v. CC is not really required for alimony matters, when a controlling owner does not distribute realized income. Neither is a healthy result.

It is possible the trial court did apply JS v. CC factors comprehensively and well, and this was not reported in keeping with the Rule 1:28 admonition that the opinion does not “fully” address the facts. Yet, the facts that are key to the decision should be discussed or at least identified. Otherwise, what is the point of making the decision publicly available?

Similarly, where the judge applied a two-year-old real estate appraisal value to the marital home, the Appeals Court simply opined that the date was halfway between the date of separation and the date of trial and that the judge was within his or her discretion. This conclusion leaves us wondering: Were all assets valued as of the interim date? Was there intrinsic significance to the halfway point? Was the Court choosing between bad alternatives (2-years-old v. older)? Did only one party offer a value? Was a more recent value offered, but on an infirm basis?

The answers to these questions, and others, matter; and we; and we suspect other curious minds would like to know the why as much as the what.

 

Hoisted on Her Own a Fraudulent Petard, or There’s Just No Damn Honor Among Frauds Anymore: Shea v. Cameron – Part 2

Thursday, April 05, 2018

Levine Dispute Resolution - Alimony

It is tempting to dismiss the Massachusetts Appeals Court’s Shea v. Cameron as a confection of divorcing people behaving badly, and a tale of narcissistic comeuppance. But, the case actually has two important messages in it, for which we are grateful.

First, obviously, is that “not all human actions…have an avenue for legal recourse, no matter how much anger, sorrow, or anxiety they cause.” Those words would be well-posted over the courthouse door.

But second, the court underscored the gravity of the allegation “undue influence”, the key to many efforts to avoid enforcement of pre-marital and divorce agreements specifically, and to eschew responsibility for one’s own actions, more generally. The court aptly cited SJC precedent, in stating that:

    …a plaintiff must establish that the defendant overcame the will of the grantor …. [by]… some form of compulsion which coerces a person into doing something the person does not want to do.

And, in connection with Ms. Shea:

    …the undisputed evidence shows that [she] was in full command of her personal affairs and was neither ill, dependent nor enfeebled at the time of the transfer of real or personal property to Cameron.

Undue influence is a high bar, as well it should be.

 

Hoisted on Her Own a Fraudulent Petard, or There’s Just No Damn Honor Among Frauds Anymore: Shea v. Cameron – Part 1

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Levine Dispute Resolution - Alimony

It isn’t often that we get to see the phrase “joint stipulation of fraud”.

But, in the Massachusetts Appeals Court’s recent Shea v. Cameron, it is the perfect appetizer to a meal of mutual marital chicanery that resulted in the court’s decision to distance the itself from the:

    … “ingratitude, avarice, broken faith, brutal words, and heartless disregard of feelings of others,” which although blameworthy, are not legally compensable.

He lied about loving her. They married. He cheated. She filed for divorce. She withdrew her complaint. She filed a new complaint, this time for annulment. He snapped up that opportunity, only too happy to admit his faux amour.

Not so fast. After the parties presented their cooked-up annulment petition to the court, Ms. Shea served Mr. Cameron – on his way out of the courtroom, no less - with an complaint demanding a cookbook of damage remedies based on his “fraudulent inducement to marry”.

First, the Probate and Family Court, and then the Superior Court, kicked out Shea’s claims on summary judgment. But, the second judge “reported” the question to the Appeals Court, which took the matter up despite its procedural reservations. After a scholarly review of the history of various “heart balm” actions, the court wisely ended the matter for good, with unassailable logic:

  1. the law provides remedies for married persons when they break up, for equitable property division and support; and
  2. when the wife chose annulment instead of divorce, she gave up those remedies, since no marriage ever existed, a fiction of her own design.

Thus did Ms. Shea hoist herself, luring Mr. Cameron into admitting fraud, while plotting to then show him, but accidentally giving him a free pass, in the process.

There is just no honor in fraud anymore.

 

Wanted: An SJC Case to Challenge the “Real Advantage” Standard: Chief Justice Gants’ Compelling Concurrence in Miller v. Miller

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Levine Dispute Resolution - Divorce Mediation

Concurrences are rare in family law cases, but when the Chief Justice writes a clear-eyed one with firm conviction, people take notice. C.J. Gants, with Associate Justice Gaziano joining him, did not take issue with majority’s decision, but rather the “analytical gymnastics” necessary to find it. They were right.

The source of the problem is less 1985’s Yannas v. Frondistou-Yannis, though that case alone has doomed the efforts of countless “non-custodial” parents to resist the removal of their children to other jurisdictions than the more problematic case of Mason v. Coleman (2006), or as the concurrence points out, the toxic intersection of the two cases.

It is Mason that undermined decades of effort in the Probate and Family Courts, and among its practitioners, to tone down the fight over custodial labels by fractious parties, by awarding access to the lower-bar “real advantage” removal test to parents with “sole physical custody”, setting up a two-stage fight in every potential removal case: first, does someone have sole physical custody (later modified to be a “functional” test rather than a legal label); and if so, are the childrens’ best interests driven by that individual parent’s personal needs?

It took the Miller case to put this problem into stark relief, presenting a matter where no labels, or functional findings, could have attached previously, since it was the time of divorce. Thus the court had to conclude, based on the messy life of an intact family, who would have been hypothetically denominated the physical custodian. A fiction on top of a fiction – and one that Judge Gants persuasively argues ought to end.

Whether the Mason problem is a product of a fundamental mis-perception of Yannis may be beside the point that both the Miller majority and concurring justice make: that the best interests of the child is meant to be the overarching inquiry for every removal case. For too long practitioners have accurately read the trial court’s predominant “read” of Yannis, namely, that the primary caregiver’s personal needs pretty much trump further inquiry, absent spousal spite, or a child who is too young to yet be bonded to the parent who would be left behind in Massachusetts.

Justice Gants’ point: artificial jousting over the label, or even the “functional” reality of primary caregiving, is too often confounded by informal parenting histories, by self-serving constructs and by too little historical precedent (as in Miller); and it does not serve the ultimate policy of finding and enhancing children’s outcomes via a straight up best interests inquiry. Rather, the exercise can range from pointless to damaging, by obscuring the true issues.

Justice Gants is also right that a primary care parent’s individual needs and interests cannot, and should not, be ignored. The certainly can be critical to a child’s interest; just not always so, and as often, not conclusively. We hope that the opportunity arises for the SJC majority to follow its Chief, as they may have signaled in Miller already, acknowledging but deferring the issue to another day and case, wherein one of the parties directly challenges, briefs and argues the issue on appeal.

We hope that that opportunity comes soon.

 

GOP Plan to End Alimony Deductibility: Time to reform the Alimony Reform Act?

Monday, November 20, 2017

Levine Dispute Resolution - Alimony

The House GOP seems to think that repealing §215 of the Internal Revenue Code is a good idea. We have long believed that there are probably too many alimony-paying lawyers in Congress to let this day ever come. It probably won’t, but if it does, it will plunge the Alimony Reform Act (ARA) (eff. 3.1.12) into crisis. Either way, the legislature needs to respond.

M.G.L., ch. 208, §48 defines “alimony” as: “the payment of support from a spouse, who has the ability to pay, to a spouse in need of support for a reasonable length of time, under a court order”. Nothing about tax impact. The drafters, like us, clearly took deductibility under federal and state law for granted.

Moreover, M.G.L., ch. 208, §53(b) defines a “reasonable and lawful” presumptive formulation for general term alimony, stating the general term alimony should generally not exceed the recipient needs, or 30-35% of the difference between the parties’ applicable gross incomes.

This statutory range makes the same once-safe assumption: that IRC §215 allows parties to leverage dollars to the family’s benefit, by shifting income tax from a higher progressive tax rate of the payor, to the payee’s lower rate.

If the alimony deduction dies, it will take the viability of §53(b) along with it. Yet, the zombie statute will persist, entitling litigants to rely on it, despite its infirmity; unless and until the state legislature takes corrective action. This will not happen overnight – these things never do – and in the meantime… Sophisticated divorce agreements have “savings” clauses, which help people adjust alimony sums in the unlikely event of a deductibility repeal, and the GOP plan grandparents existing judgments, at least until modification. But modification cases and new divorces won’t get off so easy.

Maybe, the legislature should take the GOP proposal as a warning shot, at least. The legislature could act pre-emptively. Sections 48 and 53(b) at least need reformulation, regardless of Congress’ ultimate action. We should convert the assumption of the tax-shifting leverage of continued deductibility for alimony into a clear predicate for the ARA, with provisions to address the alternative.

And, if the unthinkable happens, it’s better get started now.

 

Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda? Not So Much (The SJC weighs in with “interests of justice” alimony guidance) George v. George

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

[Note: This blog is corrected to eliminate what we conclude was mistaken in our previous observation that the Supreme Judicial Court had incorrectly stated that the standard of proof for extending alimony beyond its durational limit is the “preponderance of the evidence”. Since this is only a blog, we can correct our errors with the stroke of the keyboard, so we do! We apologize to you, and thank our friend David Lee for pointing this out to us.]

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) recently waded into the murky waters of durational alimony limits under the Alimony Reform Act (eff. 3.1.12) in George v. George, upholding the trial court’s denial of relief to an alimony payor on technical grounds, but:

    …utiliz[ing] this opportunity to set forth guidance for how the “interests of justice” standard of [M.G.L., ch. 208] §49(b) should be applied when determining whether deviating beyond the durational limits of the act is warranted.

Which they did – sorta.

First, the SJC rejected the inevitable argument in modification of pre-ARA judgments – that alimony recipients who negotiated equal property divisions at a time when case law generally precluded courts from restricting the length of alimony, when faced with newly enacted durational limits, would equitably argue that had they known that alimony would not continue indefinitely, they would have asked for more property.

The SJC understandably reasoned that the trial judge's acceptance of that argument was not only based on speculation, but if allowed to stand, it would negate the retrospective effect of durational limits for pre-ARA judgments, inconsistently with the statute, and its own precedents. Hence, our title.

The SJC then stated that:

    Further, a judge should evaluate the circumstances of the parties in the here and now; that is, as they exist at the time the deviation is sought, rather than the situation as it existed at the time of divorce. As a logical example, the justices posited that if the recipient were disabled at the time of the initial alimony award, the trial court may consider the current level of disability, as that may impact on present needs.

Then, the murky got just a little bit murkier. The SJC noted the trial court's broad discretion in setting alimony, but also set out the specific text of M.G.L., ch. 208, §53(e), with 8 specific criteria that a court may consider when initially ordering, or modifying alimony, plus the 9th innominate “anything else relevant" factor.

Unfortunately, the SJC deviated from statutory text, again, by replacing the legislature’s suggestion that the trial court "may" consider the §53(e) factors, with "here, the appropriate statutory factors to be considered are…” (italics ours), curiously passive, but a mandate nonetheless. In turn, this creates a bizarre anomaly, in relation to factor # 6, which requires, by the SJC’s lights, that the court weigh:

    … significant premarital cohabitation that included economic partnership or marital separation of significant duration, each of which the court may consider in determining length of the marriage; …

Mischievous minds wonder if the trial court's initial determination of the length of the marriage, and hence the durational limit itself, is up for redetermination at the time of potential extension? At a different time, in a different place by a different judge? Does this mean that a party who did not raise significant premarital cohabitation as an issue at the time of divorce is not precluded from raising it at the time of requested extension? Is the issue ever precluded?

All the result a not-too-careful, and unfortunate, shift of statutory language.

 

Making A Bad Situation Worse: Rosenwassser v. Rosenwasser

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

In Rosenwasser v. Rosenwasser Massachusetts Appeals Court recently faulted a trial judge for denying a father’s request to “remove” his daughter to the State of Florida, dissecting her application of the facts to the two-pronged “real advantage” test that governs such requests by primary custodial parents, with painstaking care and convincing detail. Piling one critical point on another, the opinion yielded two inevitable conclusions: that the trial court ineffectively weighed and explained the advantages for the father in his requested move; and she over-weighted the hope that the mother’s recent efforts to kindle a relationship with the child would result in a benefit for the child. All signs pointed plainly to reversal.

Then, without explanation, but inexplicably calling it a “close call”, the Appeals Court remanded the case for more trial court hearings, more written findings, very probably another appeal; deferring any final decision and prolonging the agony for another family in limbo. A really fine decision turned bad: a victim of appellate irresoluteness.

Too often, as we learn again, litigation is a futile exercise in matters involving children.

Here’s why. The child was in utero when the parties separated in 2010. Shortly after the divorce, the mother became unavailable for mental health reasons. By 2012 a partial modification judgment formalized the father’s assumption of exclusive care for the child, a fact on the ground since shortly after her birth. For two of the child’s first three years, her mother was an infrequent presence in her life.

In August 2012, the father sought permission to move, for very strong reasons under the law. Trial did not begin until a year later and concluded five months after that. The trial court’s new judgment entered in July 2014. The husband’s appeal absorbed another 24 months, resulting in the Appeals Court opinion on June 17, 2016.

Just since the father filed his request to move child has aged from two to six years, fully two-thirds of her young life. With the Appeals Court’s tepid remedy, the clock continues to run, and it is fair to predict that this case will continue into 2017 and perhaps well beyond. The facts on the ground change daily, as the system grinds on, blind to the stress that this process imposes on a young child, whose road is difficult enough.

One bedrock principle that appellate law imposes on the trial court is that a judgment must logically flow from the facts found in the case. We wish that the Appeals Court applied this standard to itself.

 

Beware Facts v. Law: Goddard v. Goucher, a Cautionary Tale

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Massachusetts Appeals Court recently upheld a judgment of the Superior Court, in which the trial judge adopted the parties’ statement of uncontested facts, but rejected their agreed subsidiary conclusion drawn therefrom. In Goddard v. Boucher, 89 Mass. App. Ct. 41 (2016), the trial judge applied the stipulated events surrounding a draft purchase and sales agreement, but ruled that no enforceable contract had arisen, despite the parties’ contrary agreement.

A piece in the April 18, 2016 issue of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly (p.38) highlighted the case, catching our eye. We are grateful to the authors, Vincent J. Pisegna and Anthony J. Cichello, because we might not otherwise have noticed this important case, since the context falls outside our usual family law bailiwick. Yet, the Goddard holding applies, no doubt, to all trial proceedings, including family law matters in the Probate and Family Court; and it provides a bright caution light for all litigating counsel. In our service as special master and arbitrator, it is pertinent to our practice, too.

As the Goucher court pointed out, fact stipulations are both “common” and “useful”, Id., at 45, and they will be honored by the trial judge unless “improvident or not conducive to justice.” Id. However, “…the court cannot be controlled by agreement of counsel on a subsidiary question of law.” Id. (Our italics.) In other words, the parties can agree to facts but should not expect the court to be bound by the legal conclusions of that they may draw therefrom.

In divorce, modification, contempt and other Probate and Family Court matters, the court encourages stipulations of uncontested fact. Pre-trial and trial orders generally require them. But how many times have we all entered into, or seen, stipulations that mix facts and law this way.

Some common examples of fact-based legal conclusions:

    -- The parties agree that an equal division of the marital estate is equitable.
    -- Neither party engaged in conduct that is relevant to the distribution of property.
    -- The parties have lived a [upper] [lower] [middle] class lifestyle.
    -- The parties have equal opportunities for future [assets] [income].

Woe to the trial counsel who so stipulates and then watches the opposing party put in facts that belie one of those subsidiary conclusions. Under Goucher, the court may conclude otherwise – prompted or not by the opposing party – to the detriment of the party who made strategic trial decisions in reliance on the stipulation as a whole.

Similarly, the parties may choose to put mixed fact and law statements into separation agreements. Under Goucher, some unhappy litigant in an enforcement or modification dispute may find that the court is not bound by agreed legal conclusions, such as:

    -- The termination of [alimony] [child support] [allocated support] shall be deemed a substantial and material change of circumstances permitting modification of[child support] [alimony] [expense sharing provisions].
    -- A delay in performance shall be deemed a material breach that entitles the other party to statutory interest and counsel fees.

-- A [particular parental decision] shall be deemed to be [consistent with] [contrary to] the best interests of the child.

-- A parent’s move to a location of greater than [20 miles] [20 minutes] from the [other parent’s home] [child’s school] shall entitle the other parent to a modification of the agreed parenting plan.

Best practice urges that we all re-examine our drafting practices, whether in litigation or in agreement drafting, in light of this challenging ruling.

 

O Pfannenstiehl! Part 2: No Wonder We’re All Confused (The Appeals Court Doesn’t Even Agree With Itself)

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

At least they aren't throwing food at each other, or publicly calling each other names, as the current U.S. Supreme Court is wont to do. In our last blog entry, we discussed the interesting turn in this appeal, from a minority of 1, to a majority of 3 justices, in search of consensus of all Massachusetts Appeals Court, taking this important case away from the judges who heard it, in favor of a majority of the overall bench.

But, the reconstituted majority opinion doesn’t even agree with itself. Here’s why.

Almost casually, the prevailing opinion concluded that:

  1. the husband’s beneficial trust interest is a marital asset;
  2. the husband’s interest is worth 1/11 of the [presumably gross] corpus;
  3. that the wife’s share of the husband’s interest is 60% thereof; and
  4. the husband (in addition to yielding 60% of the non-trust assets) should pay out the wife’s share of his trust interest, in cash, over a 2-year period.

This, despite the fact that the husband is part of a beneficiary class that is open to expansion, and that the trust (no matter how indifferently administered in the past) provides no apparent means by which the husband could compel distributions to pay out the required sums to the wife.

But having concluded and implicitly ruled that the husband could make the required payments…

The court then proceeded to vacate the trial court’s judgment of contempt, in which she found the husband guilty, after he stopped paying the monthly sum to the wife. The reason: that he did not have the ability to pay because the trustees had declined to distribute the funds.
Thus, in the same decision, the Appeals Court ruled that:

  1. The husband as an enforceable right to receive distributions, which gives him the ability to pay out the required sum; and
  2. Because the trustees refused to make distributions that the court concluded he can compel, the wife cannot enforce judgment.

At least, the trial court had the courage of its conviction.

So, what does this opinion do for Mrs. Pfannenstiehl, as a practical matter? We’ll tackle that in our next entry.

 



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