Spousal support, also known as spousal maintenance or alimony, is sometimes part of a final divorce judgment in New York. State law regarding spousal maintenance often describes the obligation using specific gender terms, with the ex-husband responsible for payments to support the ex-wife. The statute addressing modification or termination of maintenance uses this sort of language. This balance of financial power has never been the case for every divorcing couple in New York, and this is probably relevant more so now than at any point in the past. In April 2015, the Supreme Court of Monroe County, New York considered in Sanseri v. Sanseri whether current law regarding termination of maintenance needs to be reconsidered or updated.
Section 236 of the New York Domestic Relations Code identifies alimony as payments by one spouse, regardless of gender, “to provide suitably for the support of the other.” State law provides two mechanisms for modifying or terminating maintenance, which the Sanseri court reviewed in its order. Domestic Relations Law § 236(B)(9)(b)(1) has two provisions. If a prior court order established a maintenance obligation, “modification requires proof of a substantial change in circumstances.” If maintenance is established in a separation agreement, proof of “extreme hardship” is required. Both “extreme hardship” and “substantial change” are largely based on the difference between the payor’s financial state at the times of the order and the motion to modify.
Section 248 of the Domestic Relations Law, enacted in 1938, provides that a husband can move for modification or termination of maintenance if “the wife is habitually living with another man and holding herself out as his wife.” The meaning of “holding herself out” was at the center of the dispute in Sanseri. The court looked to the legislative and jurisprudential history of marriage in New York to find an answer.
According to the court, the New York Legislature determined in 1904 that an ex-husband was no longer liable for alimony if the ex-wife remarries. The Legislature did away with the common-law marriage doctrine in 1933, and the courts spent some time dealing with questions of whether, and when, “to create marital obligations for couples living without the benefit of a formalized marriage ceremony.”
The Sanseri court found that the term “holding herself out,” as used in a 1938 statute, comes “from the long-standing use of that term as a component of the proof necessary for establishing a common-law marriage.” Subsequent decisions from the Court of Appeals gave wide discretion to trial courts to decide whether a recipient spouse met the “holding out” requirement. In 1978, however, the Court of Appeals’ ruling in Northrup v. Northrup applied a strict statutory standard, ruling that the mere fact that a recipient of maintenance was living with someone was not enough to merit termination of the obligation.
After reviewing statutory changes since Northrup, along with subsequent court decisions, the Sanseri court concluded that “Northrup must be revisited under the ‘economic based’ rationale for maintenance infused in the amendments to the Domestic Relations Law since 1980.” In short, if the payor establishes the elements of § 248, the burden of proof shifts to the recipient to establish a need for continued maintenance.
A New York divorce case can present multiple issues and problems, and therefore requires careful preparation. You should consult a knowledgeable and experienced family law attorney, who can help you understand your rights and obligations under New York law. Ingrid Gherman has represented clients in New York City family law cases for the past thirty years. Please contact us today online or at (212) 941-0767 to schedule a confidential consultation to discuss your case.
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