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New York divorce law changed on August 15, 2010, when Governor David Paterson signed no-fault divorce into law in New York state. Until 2010, New York recognized divorces only upon fault-based criteria or upon separation. The State Senate had approved the No-Fault Divorce bill on June 30, and the State Assembly passed the bill on July 1.
Despite being generally considered a liberal state, New York has a history of being conservative on issues regarding marriage; but it was the last state in the country to allow no-fault divorce and still maintains a (seldom enforced) law against adultery. Until 1966, adultery was the only ground of divorce; cruelty, a ground that had long been available in most other states, was not available in New York.
New York is a mixed state that allows for both no-fault and at-fault divorce. In the US, about one-third of states, most of them in the West and Midwest, are only no-fault, having abolished at-fault divorce.
The state of New York is one of the states which allow the possibility of an at fault divorce. In this case, one party accuses the other of a wrongdoing (the "fault"). The other party may or may not contest. In practice, the parties might use the at fault grounds to obtain a mutually desired and agreed upon divorce: they can agree to an uncontested divorce as long as one of the parties is willing to allege one of the fault based grounds and the other party accepts the "fault" without contesting it (this was common in the past).
An at fault divorce can be obtained due to the following:
Cruel and inhuman treatment must be behavior by the defendant that rises to the level such that it makes it improper for the plaintiff to continue to reside with the defendant as husband and wife. Allegations under this ground include allegations of domestic violence and repeated, extreme mental cruelty.
Abandonment may be actual or constructive. Actual abandonment is usually one spouse leaving the marital residence without the consent of the other spouse without intention to return. One spouse may also lock out the other spouse from the marital residence. Constructive abandonment is the refusal of "basic obligation arising from the marital contract," including a cessation of sexual relations; establishing such a prior constructive abandonment may render the spouse who leaves, or locks out the other, as the innocent spouse.
Adultery is difficult to prove as it requires corroborating evidence from a third party; thus a statement by the defendant that he or she had sexual relations with a third party is not legally admissible to permit the court to grant a divorce to the plaintiff. Furthermore, if the adultery was "condoned", i.e. the cheated-on party knew about the extra-marital sexual relationship but continued to stay in a marital, conjugal relationship with their spouse, the adultery cannot serve as a cause for divorce.
Since 2010, a new ground has been added, effectively permitting no-fault divorce in New York state:
Even in a case of mutual consent, the parties might also disagree over child support, custody, alimony, division of joint assets or who is going to pay legal fees. These are known as "ancillary relief" (see below) that are requested by one or both of the parties.
Separation may also be a ground of divorce.
The grounds for divorce may be decided by a jury or by a judge, all other ancillary relief is considered equitable in nature and must be decided by the judge alone.
The grounds in all cases must be specifically stated in the complaint, giving factual details, dates, and actual places of occurrence. Lack of proper content is not an affirmative defense; the plaintiff must prove the allegations even if uncontroverted; proof is made according to the general rules of evidence. Failure to state a cause of action will result in a judgment dismissing the complaint. Divorce may commence by means of filing and service of a Summons with Notice on the defendant. The defendant must then make an appearance and demand for the complaint by the plaintiff, or is at risk of having the plaintiff granted the divorce by default.
Once the case is filed and served the parties must request a Preliminary Conference within ninety days if the case is to be treated as a contested divorce. Such Preliminary Conference will be scheduled if one of the parties files a "Request for Judicial Intervention" (RJI) with required fee. At the Preliminary Conference the court may deal with interim issues, (i.e. temporary custody, child support, attorney fees or spousal support) and will schedule discovery between the parties that includes the valuation of assets and pensions to be divided between the parties.
If all the issues are decided between the parties they may agree to submit the papers to the court for approval; this is known as an uncontested divorce. When the defendant is served but does not answer the legal pleadings the plaintiff may seek a default judgment by application to the court. If the divorce is started with a Summons with Notice then the grounds will either have to be proven by plaintiff's affidavit or by testimony at an inquest if the divorce is uncontested or to be granted by default. Uncontested divorces are also granted after the defendant appears and waives the right to answer the complaint. In these cases the defendant neither admits nor denies the plaintiff's allegations, it is up to the plaintiff to prove the allegations by testimony or affidavit in such a case.
For New York State Supreme Court to have jurisdiction over the parties (see DRL § 230) one of the following residency conditions must be satisfied:
Residing "continuously" in the state does not mean that the party can not have left the state during the period of residency nor does it mean that the party does not have another residence elsewhere outside New York.
There are three keys issues when children are involved in a divorce or separation:
Equitable distribution is the law in New York that determines the division of property at the end of a marriage. The court examines thirteen factors in determining the fair division of the property that was accumulated during the marriage and the debts of the parties. The courts have routinely held that equal distribution is the norm except in cases of egregious misconduct, or when dealing with businesses, professional licenses, and college & advanced degrees.
Today alimony is known as "maintenance" or "spousal support." Unlike child support, there is a set formula to calculate spousal support pendente lite (pending the litigation), but there is no post judgment formula. A grant of spousal support depends on the facts of the case, such as the disparity between the income of the parties, the duration of the marriage, the health of the parties, and the presence of very young children. In New York, spousal support is rarely granted on a permanent basis, except in cases of physical or mental disability or when the parties are elderly (about 60 years old or older). Generally, it is granted for a set period of time so the other party can get back on their feet after the termination of the marriage. The length of time depends on the facts of the case as the judge sees fit to award.
When one party to a divorce is unable to afford an attorney that party is allowed to request the court to order the spouse with the greater income or assets to pay all or part of the other spouse's legal fees. These awards can be on a temporary basis at the beginning of the suit or at the end, as the judge sees fit in each case.
A spouse in a divorce often wants to use his or her birth name or a prior name if he or she has changed his or her name before the marriage sought to be dissolved and wants to keep that name after divorce. The court routinely grants the right to such a name change in the final divorce decree.