The Court of Appeals recently ruled that the proper valuation date for all marital property is the date the summons for divorce is filed. An older discontinued action shall not serve as the valuation date.
In Mesholam v Mesholam, 6/27/2008 NYLJ 30, (col. 1) the Court of Appeals, in an Opinion by Judge Pigott, held that the commencement of a prior, discontinued divorce action may not serve as the valuation date for marital property for purposes of equitable distribution in a later divorce action. Courts must use the commencement date of the later, successful action as the earliest valuation date for marital property. However, the circumstances surrounding the commencement of the earlier action can and should be considered as a factor by the trial court, among other relevant factors, as it attempts to calibrate the ultimate equitable distribution of marital economic partnership property acquired after the start of such an action by either spouse.
The parties were married in 1969. The wife commenced an action for divorce in 1994. The husband answered, but did not counterclaim for divorce. Five years later the Supreme Court granted the wife’s motion to discontinue the action. Almost immediately, the husband commenced this action for divorce. After finding that the husband was entitled to a divorce Supreme Court held that the husband’s pension must be valued as of the commencement date of the present action, rather than the commencement date of the wife’s 1994 action, relying on Domestic Relations Law §236(B)(4)(b). Supreme Court determined that the marital property, including the marital portion of the pension, should be divided equally between the parties. The Appellate Division held Supreme Court improvidently exercised its discretion in valuing the pension as of the commencement date of the present action. It concluded that the ‘appropriate valuation date was the commencement date of the 1994 action’ because there was ‘no evidence that the parties reconciled and continued to receive the benefits of the marital relationship after the prior action was commenced’ (25 AD3d 670, 671 ).
The Court of Appeals modified the order of the Appellate Division and remitted the matter to Supreme Court for further proceedings. It pointed out that Domestic Relations Law 236(B)(1)(c) defines marital property as all property acquired ‘during the marriage and before the execution of a separation agreement or the commencement of a matrimonial action.’ Thus, in the absence of a separation agreement, the commencement date of a matrimonial action demarcates ‘the termination point for the further accrual of marital property ‘ (citing Anglin v. Anglin, 80 NY2d 553, 556 ). The Court held that the valuation date must be between ‘the date of commencement of the action and the date of trial ‘ (Domestic Relations Law 236 [B][b]). In determining whether the commencement of a particular ‘matrimonial action’ terminates the accrual of marital property, it looked to ‘the overall legislative intent of the Domestic Relations Law and the particular application of the equitable distribution regime. In Anglin, the Court held that the commencement of a separation action does not cut off the accrual of marital property because such an action does not, ipso facto, terminate the marital economic partnership. Rather, the economic partnership should be considered dissolved when a matrimonial action is commenced which seeks divorce, or the dissolution, annulment or declaration of the nullity of a marriage, i.e., an action in which equitable distribution is available. It observed that this rule provides internal consistency and compatibility and objective verification, as opposed to uneven, ephemeral, personal interpretations as to when economic marital partnerships end. For similar reasons, it concluded that the value of marital property generally should not be determined by the commencement of an action for divorce that does not ultimately culminate in divorce. Equitable distribution is available ‘in an action wherein all or part of the relief granted is divorce. Where there is no divorce, there can be no equitable distribution. Consequently, permitting the commencement date of the prior, unsuccessful divorce action to govern the valuation date of marital property for the purposes of a later, successful action in which equitable distribution is available would be inconsistent with the statutory scheme. The Court found that, as Supreme Court concluded, the pension benefits were marital property to the extent that they were earned prior to the commencement of the present divorce action. As a result, the marital portion of the pension could not be valued at any time earlier than the commencement date.