Electronic pregnancy test with a positive resultThe New York family law system was built on an assumption that children resulted from a union of one female and one male parent, but social and technological changes have rendered this view far too narrow. Assisted reproductive technology (ART) allows a parent to conceive with the help of a sperm donor. While some states have enacted laws addressing ART, the rights and obligations—or lack thereof—of a sperm donor regarding the child remain unclear in many cases. Two court decisions from 2016 show how difficult this issue can be. In one case, a court held that a man who donated sperm to a lesbian couple is not liable for child support. Another court ruled that a sperm donor has parental rights to the child.

State laws regarding establishment of parentage bear many common elements. Most states presume that a husband is the father of a child born to the wife during the marriage. An unmarried father can claim paternity of a child, or a court can order genetic testing of an alleged father. Several decisions from the U.S. Supreme Court, including 1968’s Levy v. Louisiana, invalidated state laws that treat “illegitimate” children differently than children born to married parents. These decisions probably helped pave the way for many forms of ART.

ART laws are not consistent across the states. Section 702 of the Uniform Parentage Act (UPA) of 2002 expressly states that a donor is not a legal parent of any child conceived as a result of the donation, but New York has not enacted the UPA. New York law states that a child “born to a married woman by means of artificial insemination” is legally the child of the woman and her husband, provided that a licensed medical professional performed the procedure. It says nothing about same-sex married couples or ART performed without medical assistance. Court decisions in New York have mostly found that sperm donors are not legal parents.
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Panorama von Monaco-La TurbieDivorce is a matter of state law in the U.S. in almost every circumstance. Each state has jurisdiction over family law disputes within its territory, but more and more people’s lives are not contained within a single state. People living in New York City might own real property in another state, and assets can cross state lines in other ways. This can create complications in a divorce case, since state courts can only exercise jurisdiction over property located in that state. New York law allows courts to distribute property located in this state after issuance of a divorce decree in another state or another country. A recent order by a Manhattan court addressed a dispute over property located in New York City, between spouses whose divorce case was pending in Monaco. THA v. MAA, No. 161488/2015, dec. order (N.Y. Sup. Ct., N.Y. Cty., Jan. 18, 2017). The order offers an idea of how and when a party to a divorce should seek a New York court’s involvement in distribution of property.

The dispute in THA involves two main legal issues: the alleged concealment of marital property and the court’s jurisdiction over property located in New York City. In a divorce matter, the spouses must make a full disclosure of all marital property in their possession or subject to their control. Intentional concealment of marital property from the other spouse or the court can result in sanctions, and can also affect how the court orders the distribution of property.

In order to bring an action in a particular court, the plaintiff or petitioner must be able to show that the court has jurisdiction over the defendant, known as in personam jurisdiction, or over a particular item of property, known as in rem jurisdiction. A New York City court might have in personam jurisdiction over the parties to a divorce if they live here, but it would lack in rem jurisdiction over property located outside of the State of New York. If a divorce decree issued by a court outside of New York affects property located in New York, § 236(B)(5) of the Domestic Relations Law (DRL) allows the courts of this state to order the distribution of such property, mostly in accordance with New York law.
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Empire State BuildingThe past few years have brought considerable changes in family law. New York enacted marriage equality statewide through legislation in 2011, while same-sex couples in many states gained the right to marry through state or federal court decisions. A 2013 Supreme Court decision paved the way for a 2015 decision that struck down laws across the country that limited the definition of marriage. As of late January 2017, a new administration has moved into the White House, and many in the federal government have bluntly stated their opposition to marriage equality. The law in New York seems unlikely to change without major political upheavals, since it was the result of legislation. In other parts of the country, however, people have already begun asking courts to review marriage rights.

In June 2011, the Marriage Equality Act became law in New York. The bill amended the Domestic Relations Law by adding two sections. Section 10-a states that a marriage cannot be found to be invalid solely because the two spouses are of the same sex. It further states that all laws, regulations, court decisions, and public policies related to marriage have the same legal effect for same-sex couples as for opposite-sex couples. Section 10-b grants exemptions to religious organizations and certain other private entities, stating that they are not legally obligated to accommodate events related to same-sex marriage.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in United States v. Windsor was its first major decision regarding marriage equality. The plaintiffs were married in Canada and lived in New York. Their marriage was legally recognized in both locations, but after one spouse died, the other was denied federal estate tax exemptions under the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). This 1996 law excluded same-sex spouses from the federal definition of “marriage.” The court struck down DOMA as a violation of due process. This opened up the possibility of federal benefits for same-sex married couples around the country. Two years later, the court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges cited the Fourteenth Amendment in striking down state laws excluding same-sex couples from the right to marry.

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tombTo the State of New York, a marriage is a civil arrangement between two people to live together, support one another, share property, and possibly raise children. This view of marriage may lack romance, but it effectively addresses the needs of a diverse population. Marriage remains deeply connected to religious faith and practice for many people, and a particular religious tradition may have rules regarding marriage and divorce that differ from state law. This raises the question of how New York courts might address disputes of a religious nature. The short answer is that they do not adjudicate these disputes, except to the extent that participation in a religious procedure is part of a pre- or post-marital agreement, or that one or more elements of a religious procedure violate the law or public policy.

New York expressly defines marriage as a “civil contract” in the Domestic Relations Law (DRL). Both parties to a marriage must be “capable in law of making a contract,” and they must give their consent. The DRL does not prescribe any particular procedure for solemnizing a marriage, so couples are largely free to use whichever religious practice, secular procedure, or completely-made-up ceremony they want. The law mostly does not concern itself with the exact manner in which a couple gets married, as long as they meet the basic requirements.

Divorce in New York is also a civil matter, at least as far as the courts are concerned. The DRL requires parties to resolve issues related to property distribution, support and maintenance, and child custody. A spouse who wants to follow religious procedures during their divorce can get some support from the court, but only if the spouses signed a marital agreement stating that they would use those procedures. The court can enforce the agreement by ordering the other spouse to participate. These procedures often involve arbitration based on religious law, and the civil courts can also confirm—or reject—arbitration awards.

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Silhouettes of ChildrenDisputes over child custody can create significant complications in a family law case. Unlike financial issues, such as child support, the legal standard for determining custody arrangements depends entirely on subjective factors that are unique to each case. No formulas or calculations can determine the best interest of a child. New York City family courts therefore have a certain amount of discretion to make decisions about child custody based on the available facts. In emergency situations, this requires a quick response. A pending judicial ethics complaint against a New Jersey judge, who ordered the transfer of a child from one parent to another based on what allegedly turned out to be incorrect information, shows just how complex these disputes can become. Matter of DeAvila-Silebi, Docket No. ACJC 2016-001, complaint (N.J. ACJC, Oct. 20, 2016).

Most states use the “best interest of the child” standard in child custody decisions. N.Y. Dom. Rel. L. § 240(1)(a). This means that the paramount concern for the courts is finding an arrangement that is most beneficial to the child or children. In a custody dispute between parents, each parent can present evidence to support their claims, but the final decision should not be based solely on whether either parent has somehow earned the right to custody. Under New York law, custody by a parent or another individual who has been convicted of an offense involving domestic violence or certain other offenses is presumed not to be in a child’s best interest.

The complaint in DeAvila-Silebi addresses the use of police by a judge to transfer a child from one parent to the other, based on what she claimed was an emergency situation. The respondent judge reportedly received a phone call early on a Saturday morning in May 2015. The caller claimed to be an attorney for the mother in an ongoing custody dispute in Essex County, New Jersey, and she told the judge that the child’s father was keeping the child in Fort Lee, a borough in Bergen County, despite the mother having the right of custody at that time. She reportedly called the Fort Lee Police Department and asked them to have an officer accompany the mother while she retrieved the child. The police did so, and the child was returned to the mother’s custody.

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TeamworkIn any lawsuit, a plaintiff must be able to demonstrate that they have the legal capacity to file suit against the defendant. In the context of a New York divorce case, this can mean the plaintiff’s standing to sue or their competence to bring a legal claim. A recent decision by the Supreme Court in Westchester County, New York considered a defendant wife’s claim that the plaintiff husband lacked capacity to sue because of a debilitating illness and that certain of the husband’s family members were seeking a conservatorship over him. The court’s ruling in D.E. v. P.A. dealt with questions of both competence and standing. It found that the wife’s objection regarding the husband’s capacity was not timely, but it also noted that the husband’s family would lack legal capacity to pursue the divorce case if they succeeded in the conservatorship case.

Standing” refers to a person’s legal authority to file suit in a particular jurisdiction and venue against a particular defendant for a particular claim. In general, a person must be able to show direct and tangible harm allegedly caused by the defendant. In New York divorce cases, § 170 of New York’s Domestic Relations Law (DRL) establishes the basic procedure for initiating a divorce action. It specifically states that “a husband or wife” may pursue a divorce action.

Rule 3211(a)(3) of the New York Civil Practice Law & Rules (CPLR) allows a court to dismiss a lawsuit on the motion of a defendant or another party to the case if it finds that “the party asserting the cause of action has not legal capacity to sue.” This can include a lack of standing or a lack of legal competence. “Competence” derives from the principle that a person cannot take certain binding actions if they are not capable of understanding the full implications and consequences.

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agreementCertain types of contracts can have a significant impact extending beyond the individual parties who signed the actual document. New York law therefore requires certain procedures to ensure not only that a signature is authentic but also that the signer is acting with some minimal amount of forethought. State law establishes multiple requirements for documents that convey interests in real property, such as deeds. New York’s Domestic Relations Law (DRL) has adopted these requirements for pre- and post-marital agreements. A court in Westchester County considered a challenge to the validity of a premarital agreement this summer. Its ruling in BW v. RF reviews the DRL’s requirements regarding the signatures on a marital agreement and the reasons for those requirements.

Section 236B(3) of the DRL states that marital agreements are “valid and enforceable in a matrimonial action” if they meet two essential requirements. First, the agreement must be in writing. That is the easy part. Second, the agreement must be “acknowledged or proven” in the same manner required for a recorded deed. This is where complications can occur.

Before being recorded, a deed must be “duly acknowledged” by the person signing it. This requires signing the document before a notary public or another authorized official, as well as orally stating that they have signed it. The notary or other official must have “satisfactory evidence” that the person signing the document is the same person described in the document, and they must sign a “certificate of acknowledgment” stating that they have complied with all of the statutory requirements. State law provides a uniform certificate of acknowledgment for this purpose.

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NYS Notary SealContract law in the U.S. requires the parties to an agreement to follow certain formalities. This helps ensure that others, including judges and arbitrators, can understand the key elements of the agreement in the event of a dispute. Family law disputes in New York often involve principles of contract law, particularly when the parties to a divorce disagree over a pre- or post-nuptial agreement, also known as a marital agreement. The New York Domestic Relations Law (DRL) requires marital agreements to meet certain criteria in order to be enforceable by a court. A New York appellate court recently reviewed the criteria for a post-nuptial agreement in Ballesteros v. Ballesteros, ultimately finding that the agreement in question did not comply with the DRL’s requirements and was therefore unenforceable.

As a very general rule, a contract does not need to be in writing to be enforceable. Numerous exceptions to this rule exist, including the DRL’s requirements for marital agreements. Section 236(B)(3) of the DRL establishes two basic criteria for an enforceable marital agreement. It must be (1) in writing and (2) “subscribed by the parties, and acknowledged or proven in the manner required to entitle a deed to be recorded.” In plain English, this means that a written marital agreement must follow the same procedures as a deed conveying real property. The parties must sign the document in front of a notary public, and it must bear the notary public’s signature and seal, as well as a “certificate of acknowledgement” in a form prescribed by state law.

The court’s recital of the facts in Ballesteros shows a complicated factual situation surrounding a relatively straightforward legal question:  whether or not the agreement signed by the parties after their marriage, but before the wife filed for divorce, was enforceable. The parties were married in 2008, several days after signing a pre-nuptial agreement “‘opting out’ of New York’s statutory scheme governing maintenance and equitable distribution.” About a year later, the husband said he wanted a divorce and told the wife to move out. He reportedly changed his mind about the divorce shortly afterwards.

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mistakeIn a New York divorce case, the law of contracts governs many disputes over the enforceability or even the validity of prenuptial, postnuptial, and other agreements between spouses. People often ask a court to rescind an agreement in whole or in part, effectively eliminating some or all of its obligations. A person may also ask a court to reform a contract, modifying its terms to repair a defect or deficiency. The wife in a divorce case in Monroe County, New York recently sought to rescind or reform a prenuptial agreement based on the “mutual mistake” doctrine, which allows a court to invalidate a contract if it finds that neither party made a fully informed decision. The burden of proving a “mutual mistake” is very high, and the court’s ruling in Hosmer v. Hosmer held that the wife did not satisfy it.

One of the fundamental elements of a binding contract is mutual assent. Both parties to a contract must have reached an informed agreement, with full knowledge and understanding of any obligations they are undertaking and any benefits they expect to receive. This is commonly known as a “meeting of the minds.” The doctrine of “mutual mistake” states that a contract is not valid if both parties made an error regarding some key aspect of their agreement.

Rescission or reformation of a contract due to a mutual mistake is an “exceptional remedy,” according to the court in Hosmer. The court quoted a 2012 New York Court of Appeals decision, Simkin v. Blank, which held that the mistake in question “must be so material that it goes to the foundation of the agreement” and that, as a result, the contract “does not represent the meeting of the minds of the parties.”

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mansionSometimes, albeit rarely, a family law dispute in New York does not center on the dissolution of a marriage but on a disagreement over whether a marriage exists at all. A Manhattan court recently considered a plaintiff’s request for a declaration that his marriage was valid. Alternatively, he asserted several fraud-based claims against the woman he claimed he had married, who denied being his wife. In a ruling earlier this year in Jackson K. v. Parisa G., the court denied the alleged wife’s motion to dismiss, allowing the case to move toward trial.

Some states, not including New York, allow people to get married without a marriage license, commonly known as “common-law marriage.” Under New York’s Domestic Relations Law, a couple must obtain a marriage license from a town or city clerk and provide it to the “clergyman or magistrate” who will perform the marriage ceremony. A marriage without a license is valid, however, if it was “solemnized between persons of full age.” A “clergyman or minister,” as defined by state law, may solemnize a marriage, as may a judge or various other public officials. The marriage ceremony is not required to follow any particular form, as long as the spouses-to-be “solemnly declare” their intention to marry in front of the officiant and witnesses.

The Jackson K. case, as presented by the court, shows numerous features commonly associated with a wedding but fewer features of a marriage. The plaintiff and the defendant “entered into a romantic relationship” in 2006, having known each other since they were children. They moved in together in 2007, and in 2009 the plaintiff asked her parents’ permission to marry her. He purchased a $25,000 engagement ring with the help of the defendant’s mother.

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