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Enforcing marital agreements in New York: Matisoff v. Dobi

There are different types of marital agreements in New York state, including divorce settlement agreements, marital separation agreements, and stipulations of settlement. What they all have in common is that their contents must valid by statute if the parties want to enforce them.

This condition was confirmed by the New York Court of Appeals in Matisoff v. Dobi, 90 N.Y.2d 127, 659 N.Y.S.2d 209 (1997).

A month after marrying Stephen J. Dobi, Louise Matisoff asked an attorney friend to draft a marital agreement in which both spouses agreed to waive their rights to any property acquired by the other before or during the marriage. When the couple divorced 13 years later, Mr. Dobi was earning approximately $400,000 a year as a stock market research analyst.

He tried to enforce the marital agreement, saying that his wife was the one who originally sought it and that both parties had kept their finances and property separate during the marriage. Ms. Matisoff, however, claimed that the agreement was invalid because its contents were not acknowledged by a New York statute.

The trial court that initially heard the case held that the marital agreement was unenforceable and divided the marital property, but an intermediate appeals court reversed that decision, stating that lack of compliance with the statutory acknowledgment requirement didn’t invalidate the agreement entirely. The court reasoned that both spouses had acknowledged the agreement by the way they handled their property and finances during the marriage.

The case made it all the way to the New York Court of Appeals, which disagreed with the intermediate appeals court and held that the agreement could not be enforced. It stated that the clear rule requiring an acknowledgment should put spouses and their attorneys on notice about the prerequisites of a valid marital agreement and that its enforcement should not depend on establishing the original motivation of the parties or their financial relationship while married.

Although the Court of Appeals said that it would not consider the respective intentions of Mr. Dobi and Ms. Matisoff when they signed the agreement, it did hold that expression of intent in word and deed during the marriage could be a relevant factor in deciding how the marital property would be divided. When a couple made it clear that each party wanted to be (and was) financially independent, their decision would have a bearing on the division of marital property. All the same, Ms. Matisoff was granted 40% of her former husband’s increased earning ability.

Contact a New York marital agreement attorney Cases like Matisoff v. Dobi confirm that for a marital agreement to be legally binding, it must meet all applicable statutory requirements. A New York family law attorney will help you compose an agreement that protects your future interests and will stand up in court if necessary.

If you have questions relating to family law or divorce, then contact Jayson Lutzky, P.C. Mr. Lutzky is a Bronx, NY attorney who offers free in-office initial consultations. You may reach his office at 718-329-9500. Learn about Mr. Lutzky’s 35+ years of legal experience at www.MyNewYorkCityLawyer.com.

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