On June 25, AABANY presented a CLE Program on divorce property disputes in the context of COVID-19, featuring panelists from practitioners in matrimonial law and real estate law. The panel outlined influences of the pandemic upon real property disputes in divorce proceedings, and recounted actual cases to demonstrate. Speakers included Margaret Ling, Senior Counsel at Big Apple Abstract Corp. and Co-Chair of the AABANY Real Estate Committee; Derrick Rubin, trial attorney associate at Wisselman, Harounian & Associates; Jerome Wisselman, Managing Partner at Wisselman, Harounian & Associates; and Irene Angelakis, Founding Owner at Law Offices of Irene Angelakis.
Derrick Rubin began by discussing the basic considerations of property disputes. Family homes are typically the largest asset, and disputes center around who gets the house, whether or not to sell, or if one spouse should buy out another. Another necessary consideration is the legal theory of equitable distribution, which emphasizes a fair rather than equal distribution of property on the basis of various factors. Some examples include how long the parties were married, their individual needs, and the financial contribution each party made during the marriage.
Margaret Ling then outlined examples from past cases to demonstrate the benefits of in-person dealings and how remote demands of COVID-19 impose challenges. In a Chase Bank refinance transaction, a couple sought a $2 million refinance on their condo. However, the lawyer noticed the husband seemed nervous, the wife was fidgeting, and her identification appeared fake. Upon further inquiry, it was discovered that the husband was in the midst of a divorce and had brought his girlfriend in an attempt to make property adjustments while his wife was traveling — not permitted under domestic relations law which forbids property adjustments without spousal approval. Today, legal transactions that depend upon accurate identification must come up with new solutions.
Irene Angelakis continued the discussion with tips on how to avoid disputes during the pandemic and also raised ethical considerations. She talked about taking into account pandemic-induced income changes, a common circumstance today, by giving parties more realistic timelines to decide on refinancing. Another involved taking social distancing precautions if both parties decide to sell the house. The most important takeaway is that both parties should try to settle property disputes because the courts and trials are limited options during COVID-19. Irene concluded with the topic of ethics by discussing disclosure requirements, matrimonial retainer agreements, fee disputes and escrow.
A final topic explored by Jerome Wisselman was asset protection. Asset protection, through prenuptial and post-nuptial agreements, are preventative legal measures taken to avoid property disputes during divorce. Provision of detailed financial statements by both parties, addressing potential future investment returns, and deciding on whether retirement benefits will be separate or together, are necessary for the creation of a fair and accurate asset protection agreement. The main takeaway is that current divorce property disputes that have been further complicated by COVID-19 circumstances may have been avoided if more asset protection agreements existed.
Thank you to all the panelists for their valuable time and insights, and thanks to the Real Estate Committee for organizing this timely and informative CLE program. To view the recording of the CLE, click on the image at the top. If you would like to learn more about AABANY’s Real Estate Committee, click here: https://www.aabany.org/page/120