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Appellate Court in Divorce Proceeding Gives Weight to Motive Behind Life Insurance Policy: What Doors Does This Open Moving Forward?

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By:      Michael E. Kar
            Associate, New York

Date:   October 4, 2017

            In a recent decision, the Second Department has opened the door for matrimonial attorneys and parties to question the motive behind the failure to pay premiums for life insurance policies, for the purpose of automatic orders in divorce actions.

            Upon the commencement of all matrimonial actions in New York, a series of automatic orders are initiated, pursuant to Domestic Relations Law § 236(B)(2)(b). The purpose behind these automatic orders, also called ‘notice provisions’, is to maintain the status quo and preserve assets in the time between the filing for divorce and the final determination, either by an agreement between the parties or the decision of the court. Among other restrictions, neither party can: dispose of particular assets (except in the “ordinary course of business”); incur unreasonable debts; or remove from medical insurance either, (i) the other spouse, or (ii) the children. Additionally, the last subsection of § 236(B)(2)(b) provides that upon the commencement of the action each party must “maintain existing life insurance… in full force and effect.” DRL § 236(B)(2)(b)(5).

            This last automatic order, in particular, prevents a spouse from changing policies or withholding premiums/payments that may result in jeopardizing the future financial security of the children or the other spouse. If either spouse violates this rule, such as by refusing to pay the premium on a policy, that spouse can be held in contempt of court. A motion to be held in contempt may result in an order forcing the other party to pay arrears, and can even lead to a finding of criminal contempt and incarceration. If a party is held in contempt ­– by further refusing to comply with a court order -- “willful” disobedience could result in jail time.

            In a recent Second Department decision, however, when faced with this exact scenario the court did none of the above. In fact, faced with a wife who refused to maintain her husband’s life insurance policy, the court approved her conduct.

            In Savel v. Savel, the wife/mother stopped paying the premiums on her husband’s life insurance policy, after the automatic orders had been put into effect. 153 A.D.3d 872 (2d Dept 2017). The husband’s attorney moved to hold the wife in contempt for violation of the automatic orders, after which she continued to withhold payment. In a relatively-novel defense, the wife claimed that she did not violate the orders because the life insurance policy was intended to be a “savings vehicle.” The wife argued she should not be forced by the court to contribute her post-commencement income to a savings vehicle for the husband. Post-commencement income is of course separate property, not marital, as the filing for divorce stops the clock on the economic partnership.

            The wife further argued that the husband’s rights were not “prejudiced” by this violation. Indeed, the parties in this case maintained three whole-life life insurance policies in the amounts of $12 million for the benefit of the children, $7.6 million for the wife, and the subject policy which was the supposed “savings vehicle” owned in the husband’s name.

            During the proceedings below, the husband admitted to his policy serving as a “savings plan” as opposed to the traditional motive behind such a mechanism (to wit, as a safeguard for the family in the event of a death). This admission was enough for the Nassau County Supreme Court to rule in the wife’s favor. The Second Department affirmed the decision below denying the husband’s contempt motion and not requiring the wife to pay the premiums on the husband’s life insurance policy.

            But for the husband’s admission of the purpose of the life insurance policy as a savings plan, would this whole-life policy be deemed an investment rather than a safeguard? Are policies such as this not usually the result of a hybrid of motives, including death benefit for the family and asset diversification? These questions in regard to the pre-judgment automatic orders are important, but have the potential to be overshadowed by the larger implications of the Savel court’s holding: how does the holding affect the equitable distribution of whole-life insurance policies collectively?

            Currently, pre-marital life insurance accounts are deemed separate property, with an argument that premiums paid during the marriage from the marital funds are marital. In this scenario, the non-owning spouse may be entitled to a credit for half the monies paid toward the premiums, but not the balance of the cash value of the policy. On the other hand, investment accounts that are separate property stay separate, unless they are actively managed. Accounts where the appreciation of value is “passive” are deemed not furthered by the economic partnership, and therefore remain separate property. Alternatively, if an investment account fluctuates in value due to “active” involvement of the spouses, the other spouse can receive a credit for all increases in the balance during the marriage.

            How many doors does Savel open? For example, are courts now required on pendente lite  support motions (for temporary support during pendency of the action) to make a factual finding as to whether an insurance policy is, (i) an investment, or (ii) security/death benefit for a family?  Also, now that the door is open to deeming life insurance policies “savings vehicles” in some circumstances, can the cash value of separate whole-life policies be actively managed, and the appreciation thereof subject to equitable distribution?

            The Second Department’s evaluation of the motive behind a life insurance policy kicks down a door in relation to automatic orders, and in doing so, possibly opens the door in relation to insurance policy equitable distribution, or credit.
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