State Senate Passes Matrimonial Law Reform Legislation

The New York State Senate passed three bills that pave the way for significant matrimonial law reform in New York. The package puts New York on course to adopt no-fault divorce - the last state to do so - and guarantees significant protections for woman by establishing post-marital income guidelines for maintenance awards, and ensuring that all parties can afford counsel from the beginning of divorce proceedings.

"We believe that all three of these bills will benefit our clients and all New Yorkers by streamlining the divorce process and making it less contentious and more consistent, more predictable and fairer," said Adriene Holder, Attorney-in-Charge of The Legal Aid Society, Civil Practice. "The process of getting a divorce in New York has often, and rightly, been criticized as taking too long and costing too much both in dollars and emotional hardship. The burdens on New Yorkers are considerable, and New York’s current laws on maintenance are responsible for a large portion of this burden. Simply put, the passage of these bills will create a simpler, faster and better mechanism for divorcing couples within New York."

The Legal Aid Society has worked tirelessly on pushing for matrimonial reform and establishing post-marital income guidelines, also known as maintenance or alimony, as a significant way to ensure that the less monied spouse doesn't fall into poverty.

Ms. Holder told WABC News that "you can see why a lot of people then turn away and say that they’re not willing to go forward with a divorce; it’s very complicated and it makes it very hard. It’s costly, it’s unfair. And so, the idea of streamlining the process so that people can get on with their lives and there’s not emotional trauma to the spouses, and their children especially, that’s what’s most important." (Read full WABC transcript below)

The Legal Aid Society Family Law and Domestic Violence Practice provides legal representation regarding, custody, orders of protection, child support, divorce, economic justice and immigration remedies for undocumented survivors of domestic violence. Our Family Law and Domestic Violence Project staff often works in close collaboration with other areas of the Society’s Civil Practice to holistically address the myriad of legal issues faced by immigrant survivors of domestic violence, in particular access to housing, public assistance and health care. Our Family and Domestic Violence staff work in close collaboration with many community based organizations to provide holistic services to our clients.

Currently, establishing a right to maintenance is so complicated it requires lengthy, expensive litigation. Establishing the post marital guidelines outlined in the Senate bill (S.7740) would help bring economic stability to many New York families upon divorce and reduce the legal costs and court time it now takes to litigate post marital compensation settlements. Most prejudiced by the existing law are moderate and low income spouses who cannot afford to litigate. Over 75% of divorces in New York State are uncontested divorces. The current legal maneuvering that is often needed to win fair post marital income awards (currently known as maintenance), often means the non-moneyed spouse in divorce proceedings is forced to abandon a rightful and needed claim of post-divorce funds. Dependent spouses in traditional marriages are particularly prejudiced when maintenance is unavailable. This legislation would provide consistency, predictability and fairness.

Using the formulas contained in the proposed Post-Marital Income legislation would be simple enough so that even litigants without access to lawyers could obtain PMI in much the same way they currently obtain child support awards.

The post-marital income guidelines introduced into the Senate would decrease the time, expense, and trauma of divorce in New York.  The benefits to the many clients we see in our office every day would be tremendous.

Enacting the No-Fault Divorce bill, (S.3890), will benefit moderate and low income New Yorkers. The Senate reforms would allow a divorce after a marriage has irretrievably broken down for six months or more and all financial and custody issues have been resolved. Such no-fault divorces will be beneficial to domestic violence survivors, whose abusers often use the system to abuse them further.

Also to consider is the cost and time required to fight grounds in a divorce. Though most couples do not litigate this, the couples that do are often placed in the difficult position of having a trial about the most intimate details of their lives. Plus, the cost of a grounds trial places it out of reach for the majority of New Yorkers.

Furthermore, currently, counsel fees are rarely awarded in middle income cases, leaving non-moneyed spouse to either move forward pro se or give up their rights. With the passage of (S.4532A), counsel fee awards will be carefully considered by the judiciary, and hopefully awarded with more frequency.

Read the full Matriomonial Law Reform and Post-Marital Income Guidelines testimony.


Eyewitness News at 5
WABC (ABC) New York
June 16th, 2010 5 PM

Sade Baderinwa, Co-Anchor: And good evening again. I’m Sade Baderinwa.

Diana Williams, Co-Anchor: And I’m Diana Williams. And all new this half hour: a potential change in New York State’s divorce laws. New York is the only state in the union that does not allow a no-fault divorce, but that could soon change. Eyewitness News Political Reporter Dave Evans is in the newsroom with more on what it will mean for anybody who’s considering a divorce. Dave?

Dave Evans, Reporter: Well, Diana, I think it’s going to make it a lot easier getting a divorce in New York, and also a lot faster. It might not be the best thing for women in wealthy divorce cases, but that is a tiny fraction of the overall divorce business in New York. The Women’s Bar Association of New York is—reversed decades of opposition, saying it is now time to make things easier and simpler for all.

He is perhaps the most famous divorce lawyer in America, Raoul Felder. And on Tuesday he watched the state senate vote 32 to 27, giving New York no-fault divorce.

Raoul Felder, Attorney: And I don’t think it’s good for society, generally.

Dave Evans: Felder is famous for representing Rudy Giuliani in his messy divorce. He also had, as clients, Elizabeth Taylor’s ex Larry Fratinski, and Robin Gibbons, who divorced boxer Mike Tyson. Felder says the new law means more business, because New Yorkers will divorce more, something he says he doesn’t like.

Raoul Felder: There will be a certain component, a certain percentage of people, who will now get divorced who would not have been divorced. Anytime we pass a law that makes something available that wasn’t available before, people take advantage of it.

Dave Evans: But lawyers like Adriene Holder disagree. The old law, still on the books, requires somebody to be at fault; in New York, someone has to take the blame, even if both parties want a divorce.

Adriene Holder, Legal Aid Society: You can see why a lot of people then turn away and say that they’re not willing to go forward with a divorce; it’s very complicated and it makes it very hard. It’s costly, it’s unfair.

Dave Evans: The Catholic Church is against the change, fearing it means more divorce, and some women’s groups are also opposed.

Marcia Pappas, NY National Organization for Women: It takes away the negotiating power of the lesser or the [inaudible] spouse, and that’s usually the woman.

Dave Evans: But others say the change will shorten the divorce process for thousands of New Yorkers, making things more fair for everyone.

Adriene Holder: And so, the idea of streamlining the process so that people can get on with their lives and there’s not emotional trauma to the spouses, and their children especially, that’s what’s most important.

Dave Evans: So, now the change must be approved by the assembly up in Albany, and that does seem likely. And if it can be done in the next few days, before the end of the session, state law could change as early as this fall, and New York will become the fiftieth state in the country with no-fault divorce. Sade and Diana?

Sade Baderinwa: Okay, Dave, thank you.