Marital Contract and Comity: New Massachusetts Case Law

Increasingly in our global society, legal issues of an international scope arise in family law cases. A recent appellate case dealt with one. In Ravasizadeh v. Niakosari, the Massachusetts Appeals Court decided for the first time an issue regarding enforceability of a mahr, which is an Islamic marriage contract, in the Commonwealth’s courts.

The parties were married in 2000 in New York and separated in 2012, by which time they lived in Massachusetts. Before they married, they signed a marriage contract which provided that the wife would receive 700 gold coins from the husband in the event of a divorce. Under Iranian law, the wife was to receive only those gold coins and three months of alimony from the husband. The husband owned property in Iran, which he had inherited from his father. During the marriage, the parties enjoyed an upper-middle class lifestyle and owned property together.

At trial, the judge entered orders regarding custody and child support, and also ordered that the parties’ property be sold and the proceeds be split equally. The judge included in his calculations the property of the husband in Iran. In light of the equitable division, and finding that the wife could continue enjoying the lifestyle to which the parties were accustomed, the judge declined to award any alimony.

During the pendency of the litigation, the wife also filed a case in the appropriate Iranian court to enforce the mahr. The court found in the wife’s favor. The husband appealed to the Iranian court of appeals, which also found for the wife. The husband appealed to the Supreme Court of Iran, and that action was still pending during the Massachusetts litigation.

Back in the Massachusetts court, in addition to the division of property above, the trial judge also held that the 700 gold coins were the property of the wife. He ordered the husband to pay into the court in Iran the value of the gold coins in order to satisfy the judgment. Finally, the judge also ordered that even if the Supreme Court of Iran were to reverse and find for the husband, the husband must pay an amount equal to one-half of the money to the wife in order to satisfy liability.

The husband appealed, claiming that the judge had no authority over the marital contract, especially as the marriage contract was already being litigated in the Iranian courts. The husband also argued that the judge’s calculation created a disproportionate division of marital assets in favor of the wife.

The Court affirmed the lower court’s decision in part and reversed in part, holding that the portion of the decision enforcing the marital contract should be reversed, while the judge’s order dividing the rest of the property should stand. The Court noted that the trial judge properly used all of the factors involved in dividing property equitably, that the judge had broad discretion to make property decisions, and that the judge’s rationale and findings provided a detailed explanation for the conclusions he reached.

However, the Court held that jurisdiction over the marital contract laid with the Iranian courts. It explained and enforced the doctrine of comity, which allows the Massachusetts courts to recognize and enforce valid judgments rendered by a foreign court.

“It was error, therefore, to order the husband to pay the mahr to the wife in the event that the Supreme Court of Iran finds in his favor; in the alternative, it was error to order the wife to split with the husband any judgment that she receives, if the Supreme Court of Iran affirms the earlier judgment in her favor. That is to say, if the Supreme Court of Iran does not enforce the mahr, the Probate and Family Court is without jurisdiction to do so; if the Supreme Court of Iran does enforce it, the Probate and Family Court is without jurisdiction to dispose of it differently,” the Court stated.

If you have questions or concerns about issues involving family law, alimony, custody, child support, and more, you should contact a competent attorney. Our divorce, family, and domestic relations attorneys may be able to work on your behalf to handle your case. Contact our offices by phone at 978-225-9030 during business hours to schedule a free consultation. We will respond to you as soon as possible.

The Intersection of Immigration and Family Law

Many natural born citizens in the United States take for granted the ease of navigating the legal system as a United States citizen. This assertion is especially true in comparison to the ease of navigating the legal system for non-naturalized citizens. Many citizens do not understand the significant role that one’s citizenship status plays in the family law context, such as the ability to marry, divorce, obtain custody of children, and obtain financial support from another person. Citizenship carries many benefits within the family law context. There are, however, ways for all people to navigate the legal system to understand family law and the intersection of it with immigration.

The law values the family unit and the protection of children, and family law in particular has the power to affect society and the family unit. Family law also has the potential to encompass other cornerstone issues of law as well, such as family law issues involved with immigration. Given the sensitive nature of this issue–as well as its timeliness–it is important to understand the intersection of family law and immigration law.

Each of the following scenarios includes family law and immigration law issues:

  1. Hovhaness was born in the United States. He met a woman named Agnes who was born in Armenia and arrived to the United States as a teenager. The two had one child together. Years after their son was born, Agnes decides that she wants to return to Armenia to be with her elderly parents. She wants to bring their child. Is she able to? Does Hovhaness have any rights to the custody of the child?
  2. Joshua and Jonathan are a same-sex couple. Only one of them is a citizen of the United States. The couple wants to know whether they can legally marry in the United States. If they marry, would they both be citizens?
  3. A former couple, Bobby and Josie, are divorcing. They are parents to two daughters. Bobby wants to move to another country to live. Is he able to do so? Does he have any child support, alimony, or other obligations?
  4. A mother and her two children are refugees from another country. The husband of the woman and father to the children died. The mother wants to know whether she has any recourse, any way to obtain monetary support from her husband’s estate, located in their native country.
  5. Ximena was born in the United States. Her mother and father immigrated to the United States illegally. With growing concern about her family, Ximena wants to know more about her rights and responsibilities. Is she a citizen? If not, it possible for her to become one? Is there a way to make her parents citizens? Imagine that Ximena also has an older brother, but he was born in Mexico. Is he a citizen?
  6. A young woman lives with a United States citizen, a man. He threatens to report her to authorities if she discloses to anyone about the abuse and violence that he perpetrates against her.
  7. Natalie was born in India. She met her husband in India as well. The couple moved to the United States and became legal citizens. Eventually the couple had two children. One day, Natalie’s husband left for India with their children. Does Natalie have any recourse? Would she be able to get her children back to the United States?
  8. A young man marries a United States citizen woman in order to obtain his permanent residence card.

Many immigrant families need legal support that involves family law and their immigrant status or former immigrant status. These issues affect people of different genders, orientations, religions, nationalities, and backgrounds.

Immigrants may need help in the preparation and filing of petitions for alien relatives, adjustment of status, naturalization, and issues involving deportation or removal. A skilled attorney may be necessary to help an immigrant or the citizen in a familial relationship with an immigrant to find the solution to a problem. Marriage visas, green cards, bonds, DACA assistance, other visas, and other statuses may be tools available to you for your specific family law and immigration issues.

If you have questions or concerns about issues about family law, custody, child support, or domestic relations, you should contact a competent family law lawyer. Our divorce, family, and domestic relations attorneys may be able to work on your behalf to handle your case. Please contact our offices by phone at 978-225-9030 during business hours or complete a contact form on our website. We will respond to you promptly.

Is Marital Fraud Grounds for a Civil Suit? New Massachusetts Case

In a recent case, the Massachusetts Appeals Court decided whether marital fraud–that is, fraudulently inducing another person to marry–constitutes a valid civil cause of action. In the case Shea v. Cameron, the parties were married in 2007, after a two-year consensual romantic relationship. The wife owned her home individually. In 2010, she transferred title to the home, to be owned jointly with the husband, and the husband’s name was added to the mortgage as well.

In 2011, the wife discovered that the husband was having an affair. She filed for divorce, then withdrew her complaint and filed for an annulment instead. During a deposition in the proceedings, the husband admitted that he was unable to love the wife very early in the marriage and that he did not believe her to be his “one true love.” In 2013, the parties entered into a joint stipulation of annulment, which ended the marriage.

Unbeknownst to the husband, the day before the annulment, the wife filed a civil complaint related to the parties’ stipulated fraud. She sued him for false claims of love, emotionally harmful conduct, and improper use of the couple’s finances.

In Superior Court, the judge ruled for the husband. While the judge acknowledged that the husband made some misrepresentations about his love and commitment to the wife, he also concluded that the court could not intrude into the private and personal relationship of the parties, nor could the court provide relief. The judge granted summary judgment for the husband. Following that decision, the judge then reported the case to the Appeals Court.

On appeal, the Court first addressed whether the stipulation of fraud had any impact on the civil claims. While stipulations of fact are binding on the parties and respected by the courts, the Appeals Court explained, stipulations of law (such as the one regarding fraud in this case) are not binding on the courts.

The Court then discussed the substance of each of the eight claims brought by the plaintiff. Those claims included fraud, misrepresentation, battery, infliction of emotional distress, undue influence, and unjust enrichment. The Court first explained that Massachusetts law precludes claims of breach of a marriage contract, and that any civil tort action based on such a breach is unavailable in Massachusetts. As a result, the Court held that the wife’s claims based on fraud were precluded.

Next, the Court reviewed the wife’s claims for infliction of emotional distress, holding that an adulterous affair (even if it were meant to cause emotional harm) is not “extreme and outrageous” as required in order to prove a claim for emotional distress. Likewise, the husband’s failure to disclose past sexual or romantic history did not rise to the level of that tort claim.

Finally, the Court considered the wife’s claims for damages for the exchange of money and her home between the parties over the course of their relationship. The wife claimed that she would not have given ownership of her home to the husband had it not been for the husband’s coercive or fraudulent conduct. The Court held, however, that the record showed insufficient evidence in this regard, upholding the trial court’s grant of summary judgment.

“As evidenced here, not all human actions in the context of the dissolution of a marriage have an avenue for legal recourse, no matter how much anger, sorrow, or anxiety they cause,” the Court noted. “This court respects the difficult work done by Probate and Family Court in disentangling marital relationships. The process of divorce provides an avenue for alimony and the equitable distribution of property. By voluntarily withdrawing her complaint for divorce and entering into a stipulation and judgment of annulment, [the wife] chose to forgo that process and her claims could not survive in Superior Court.”

 

Full Disclosure of Assets is Needed for Prenuptial Agreements

Peter and Petra are getting married. Peter has considerable assets, including several homes, vacation homes, and checking and savings accounts. He also owns a string of rental properties from which he receives income. He deposits the rental income into an account which is not under his name, but rather the name of a trust he created. Petra, conversely, does not have much by way of assets, save for a modest savings account.

Peter and Petra have agreed to draft and sign a prenuptial agreement. Their respective attorneys have informed them that they would need to fully disclose their assets to the other party—in other words, they would need to inform each other about anything and everything of value they own. Peter has asked his attorney whether he needs to tell Petra about the rental income. After all, it is held in trust; what if Peter chose not to disclose it?

Prenuptial Agreements, Generally

An antenuptial agreement, also called a prenuptial agreement, is a written contract between two people who are about to be married. It serves to set out the terms regarding the division of property in the event of a divorce, along with any provisions for alimony.

Generally, in order for a prenuptial agreement to be considered valid and enforceable in Massachusetts, the agreement must meet the following elements:

  • it must be in writing;
  • signed by the parties;
  • signed voluntarily and under no signs of duress or fraud;
  • made after full disclosure of the parties’ assets;
  • the agreement must be fair and reasonable, and enforcement must not be against countervailing equities;
  • the parties must have adequate opportunity to consult with independent counsel;
  • the parties must understand and clearly indicate the rights which they are contracting away; and
  • the parties must not relieve themselves of their legal obligations during the marriage through the agreement.

 

Full Disclosure of Assets

In the above scenario between Peter and Petra, the element of full disclosure is at issue. To ensure that the process of signing the antenuptial agreement is fair and equitable to both parties, the court requires a full financial disclosure of the parties’ assets. In essence, the parties will be viewed to have a confidential relationship which brings with it the duty to disclose, mutually attributed to each party.

Lack of full disclosure may result in the parties’ agreement being invalidated. In some cases, lack of disclosure amounts to a form of fraud, particularly where there is a demonstrable inequity between the parties’ assets. Looking at the above example, this is the case, as Peter clearly possesses more assets than Petra.

In one case, the Massachusetts appeals court invalidated a prenuptial agreement after finding a lack of full disclosure on the husband’s part. Schechter v. Schechter, 88 Mass. App. Ct. 239 (2015). In that case, the husband kept the wife in the dark regarding his financial assets. He also claimed during the divorce proceedings that his primary asset, his real estate company, was a partnership. He claimed that his parents owned a one-half interest in the company. Moreover, the husband then attempted to make a fifty-percent, retroactive distribution of the real estate company’s assets to his parents during the divorce proceedings.

Financial Disclosure Schedules

In order to avoid any potential questions down the line, full disclosure should take place in writing. Each party should, for best practices, draft a financial disclosure schedule, which will be attached to the prenuptial agreement as an addendum. This schedule should clearly delineate and disclose all of the party’s assets to the other party. It should include:

  • a listing of the party’s assets, along with the value of each asset;
  • any outstanding liabilities of the party;
  • the sources and amounts of the party’s income;
  • any interests in businesses, partnerships, etc.; and
  • any expectations of inheritances or other potential assets.

Moreover, the agreement should include a section which makes it clear that both parties have read each other’s financial disclosure schedules, understand it, have acknowledged reading it, and have had the opportunity to consult with an attorney regarding it.

If you need assistance with a prenuptial agreement or have any questions about divorce or family law issues, you may schedule a free consultation with our firm. Call 978-225-9030 during regular business hours or complete our online contact form, and our experienced family law attorneys will respond to your phone call or submission promptly.

 

What is the new Family Drug Court?

For many Massachusetts families, the issue of substance abuse hits home. Parents may struggle to care for their children while working on their own substance abuse issues. At a time when substance abuse has hit a high, Massachusetts families may need extra assistance from the judicial system. This assistance comes in the form of the new Family Drug Court in Massachusetts.

Unique to Massachusetts, the Trial Court Department unveiled a Family Drug Court in Massachusetts in 2016.[1] The Family Drug Court operates through the Franklin County Probate and Family Court, located in the western part of Massachusetts. Wanting to address the “growing numbers [with] opioid addiction” in western Massachusetts, the Franklin County Probate and Family Court and the Franklin County Opioid Task Force joined together to establish a Family Drug Court to handle the ever-increasing number of court matters relative to family law, custody issues, and parenting where substance abuse is a factor.[2]

The Family Drug Court uses a phased structure, so that as parents with recovery issues move through the phases of their drug abuse treatment, their court appearances are less frequent.[3] A parent is eligible to participate in the Family Drug Court if their substance use and abuse (including alcohol) “jeopardizes custody of, or parenting time with, their children.”[4] The court allows the parent or parents to seek treatment, and children are entitled to trauma assessments. Any contact between the parent or parents and child or children is allowed, so long as said contact is in the best interest of the child or children.

When a parent or parents complete the drug court phase program, the “court will hold a celebration involving the whole family.”[5] Massachusetts also has other specialty courts, including drug courts, mental health courts, veterans’ treatment courts, and a homeless court.[6] In fact, there are a total of 39 specialty courts in Massachusetts.

If you need more information about the Massachusetts Family Drug Court or about family law generally, you may schedule a free consultation with our office. Call 978-225-9030 during regular business hours or complete a contact form here, and we will get back to you at our earliest opportunity.

 

 

[1]Trial Court Opens First Family Drug Court in Massachusetts >http://www.mass.gov/courts/news-pubs/sjc/2016/trial-court-opens-first-family-drug-court-in-massachusetts.html<

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

Prenuptial Agreements and Fairness

In Massachusetts family law in general, the importance of equity and fairness is of utmost concern. The court, when reviewing prenuptial agreements, will seek to ensure that the agreement is fair and reasonable and that its enforcement does not go against countervailing equities.

The Agreement Must Be Fair and Reasonable at the Time of Signing

In one case, the court chose to invalidate the agreement in part due to its lack of fairness. Schechter v. Schechter, 88 Mass. App. Ct. 239 (2015). The court stated, quoting the trial judge:

“[the father] had over $7.5 [m]illion in equity when the agreement was signed and [the mother] had $2[,]500.00 in equity. The provision for [the mother] to receive, upon a divorce, a lump s[um] payment of alimony at the rate [of] $5,000.00 for each full year of marriage is well below fair. When her lawyer tried to negotiate it up a little, [the father] said no. He negotiated himself out of a fair agreement. The property division agreement is also unfair when viewed from the date of signing. The agreement gives the wife one-half of the increase in the equity, if any, in the marital home from the date of the agreement less mortgages and encumbrances. If the parties lived in a rental home or an apartment the wife would receive no assets. If the equity in the home did not go up, the wife would receive no assets. If the husband chose to encumber the home to the maximum extent possible, the wife would receive no assets.” Schechter, at 259.

Of particular importance to this issue is the 2009 case of DeMatteo v. DeMatteo, in which the Supreme Judicial Court enforced an antenuptial agreement which had been contested by the wife during the divorce. DeMatteo v. DeMatteo, 436 Mass. 18 (2002). In that case, the husband (whose net worth was between $108-$133 million) presented the wife with an antenuptial agreement, providing full written disclosure of his assets, including tax returns. Both parties retained counsel, and negotiations followed.

The agreement, drafted by the husband’s attorney, provided that in the event of a divorce, the wife would receive the marital home free of encumbrance, the automobile that she was then driving, and an annual payment from the husband of $25,000 until her death or remarriage. The wife initially rejected the agreement and asked for the husband to increase the annual payments to the wife to $35,000, adjusted annually for increases in the cost of living. She also asked for medical insurance, life insurance, and the lesser of twenty per cent of the husband’s estate or $5 million. Upon further negotiations, the wife dropped that last demand, but the annual payments were increased to $35,000 and medical insurance was also provided for the wife in the final antenuptial agreement.

The high court in DeMatteo spent particular effort on discussing the requirement of “fair and reasonable” in antenuptial agreements. The court explained this requirement as follows:

To meet the requirement of “fair and reasonable,” at the time of execution an antenuptial agreement need not approximate an alimony award and property division ruling a judge would be required to make under G.L. c. 208, § 34. Judged by those statutory requirements, the parties’ right to settle their assets as they wish would be meaningless. The relinquishment of claims to the existing assets of a future spouse, even if those assets are substantial, also does not necessarily render an antenuptial agreement invalid. An antenuptial agreement may be most desired when a wealthy individual contemplating marriage seeks to ensure that, if the marriage is not successful, his or her own assets will not accrue to the spouse. Many valid agreements may be one sided, and a contesting party may have considerably fewer assets and enjoy a far different lifestyle after divorce than he or she may enjoy during the marriage. It is only where the contesting party is essentially stripped of substantially all marital interests that a judge may determine that an antenuptial agreement is not “fair and reasonable” and therefore not valid. DeMatteo, at 31.

The Agreement Must Also Be Fair and Reasonable at the Time of Divorce 

In addition to the validity of the agreement, the court will also consider whether the agreement is enforceable at the time of divorce.

The seminal recent case on this doctrine is DeMatteo v. DeMatteo, in which the trial court invalidated an antenuptial agreement signed by the parties. The Supreme Judicial Court ultimately reversed, holding that the agreement was both valid at the time of execution and enforceable at the time of the divorce. In a very important paragraph regarding antenuptial agreements and their enforcement, the high court also clarified the meaning and application of the Second Look Doctrine in Massachusetts as follows:

“In Massachusetts, a valid antenuptial agreement is not unenforceable at the time of divorce merely because its enforcement results in property division or an award of support that a judge might not order under G.L. c. 208, § 34, or because it is one sided. Moreover, it is not appropriate for a judge to use the same test of enforceability of an antenuptial agreement as she would for the enforceability of a separation agreement, for the reasons explained earlier. Rather, we follow the majority of courts and require that a judge may not relieve the parties from the provisions of a valid agreement unless, due to circumstances occurring during the course of the marriage, enforcement of the agreement would leave the contesting spouse “without sufficient property, maintenance, or appropriate employment to support” herself. ..Such circumstances might include, for example, the unanticipated mental or physical deterioration of the contesting party (here the antenuptial agreement provided for full health insurance for the wife), or the erosion by inflation of agreed-on support payments to such a degree as to nullify the obvious intention of the parties at the time of the agreement’s execution (here the support payments agreed to by the parties contained an adjustment for cost of living, which the wife does not claim is inadequate). The “second look” at an agreement is to ensure that the agreement has the same vitality at the time of the divorce that the parties intended at the time of its execution.” DeMatteo, at 36-37.

In a subsequent case, however, the appeals court upheld a trial court’s invalidation of the antenuptial agreement based on the Second Look Doctrine, as enforcing the agreement would have left the wife with negative equity in the marital home. Kelcourse v. Kelcourse, 87 Mass.App.Ct. 33 (2015). In that case, the husband had considerable assets, including a commercial marina, while the wife had no appreciable assets at the time of signing. The agreement provided for each party to retain his or her assets, and it provided for the wife to take the marital home in the case of a divorce. During the marriage, the parties bought a fixer-upper home together, which they inhabited as their principal residence, and which the husband intended to renovate. By the time of the divorce, the property had further deteriorated, and the husband had moved out.

The court noted, quoting DeMatteo:

“A “second look” at the agreement during divorce proceedings ensures that it “has the same vitality at the time of the divorce that the parties intended at the time of [the agreement’s] execution.” … A prenuptial agreement will not be enforced if enforcement, “due to circumstances occurring during the course of the marriage, … would leave the contesting spouse ‘without sufficient property, maintenance, or appropriate employment to support’ herself.” Ibid., quoting from 1 H.H. Clark, Jr., Domestic Relations in the United States § 1.9 (2d ed. 1987). The Probate and Family Court judge found that the prenuptial agreement was valid when entered into by the parties, but upon taking a second look, the judge found that it could not be enforced. She determined that the purchase of the principal residence and its subsequent neglect constituted a change in circumstance beyond what the parties contemplated when they executed the agreement, and that enforcement of the agreement would be unconscionable.” Kelcourse, at 35.

If you have any questions regarding prenuptial agreements or family law in general, our experienced family law attorneys are here to help. Schedule a free consultation with our firm, or call our offices at any time.