No more home advantage!
A new court ruling is likely to stop wealthy New Yorkers from pursuing their high-stakes divorces in counties where their vacation homes are located to hit their spouses, legal experts told The Post.
Well-heeled clients often file for divorce in smaller jurisdictions like Suffolk County in hopes of winning verdicts from historically conservative judges — who tend to side with the wealthier partner, according to attorney Peter Bronstein, who recently won a case that could den Kibosh rely on practice.
According to Bronstein and other marriage attorneys, judges there tend to favor the larger breadwinner because they typically have less experience of high-net-worth cases and high spousal and child support payments.
The divorce court’s so-called “forum shopping” is also used to “shock” and harass the poorer partner by forcing them to trek to far-flung territories for the litigation, Bronstein said.
“When the husband flies to Islip in his helicopter [court] with his attorney, the woman has to take an Uber,” Bronstein said. “There’s a perception here that the poorer spouse is being put on the back foot, and so maybe you can negotiate or make that spouse more uncomfortable.”
But earlier this month, an appeals court ruled that a wealthy retired real estate developer, Mark Fisch, had to fight his divorce against former New Jersey Judge Rachel Davidson in Manhattan — rather than in Suffolk County — because of her $4 million vacation home in Southampton can do this. not be considered their residence.
Bronstein, an attorney for Davidson, welcomed the potentially influential decision — saying it thwarted Fisch’s alleged attempt to “choose a more favorable” court and put Davidson “in the awkward position of having to litigate far from home.”
He said Fisch tried to “discombobulate” and “shock” Davidson – his 35-year-old wife, with whom he has three daughters – by filing for divorce in Suffolk.
The ruling creates “a measure of fairness” and “takes away the leverage from the wealthier spouse,” Bronstein said of the appeals division’s March 9 decision.
Prominent New York marriage attorney Bernard Clair – who represented Judith Nathan in her divorce from former Mayor Rudy Giuliani – told the Post that he agreed with the verdict and said local divorce lawyers were waiting to see how the case would go.
“We’re constantly dealing with these attempts to get cases out of town for nefarious purposes, and this case says it’s not going to work,” Clair said.
“The perception is that judges will treat people who are very wealthy more favorably because they won’t be as sophisticated as New York [City] Judges on the value of companies, the value of options, restricted stocks, etc.”
After Fisch — a trustee and chairman of the Metropolitan Museum of Art — filed for divorce in Suffolk County on Aug. 11, 2020, Davidson fought to get the case moved to Manhattan. She claimed they mostly lived in a duplex in the Beresford by Central Park, which housed her $177 million art collection.
Fisch claimed that their home in Southampton should be considered their residence. But Davidson said that wasn’t the case and that she only spent significant time there with her pregnant daughter as of March 2020 during the COVD-19 pandemic.
The Court of Appeal’s decision – which overturned the ruling of a lower court that sided with Fisch – found the estranged couple were not Suffolk residents as their stays at the Southampton home were “only seasonal and temporary”.
“I think it’s a very important decision for marital purposes and future divorce proceedings,” Paul Talbert, another New York City marriage attorney, told The Post. “And I think it’s going to be an important tool for a lot of marriage attorneys to keep their divorces in the right place.”
Talbert, who mainly handles divorce for the wealthy, said forum shopping is “a game that a lot of people play,” and one that he’s had to fight in court “on a number of occasions.”
“You’ll often have a race to the courthouse to see who files first” — and in which county, Talbert said.
New York marriage attorney Michael Stutman said he used this type of legal maneuvering in some of his cases.
“Manhattan judges have historically been willing to place a higher value on the contribution of the spouse, who is the spouse with no money, the spouse with no income,” Stutman said.
However, Stutman said that Suffolk County judges used to be mostly conservative white men — and thus were thought to be more sympathetic to the wealthier spouse — “that’s not exactly the case anymore.
“The bank has become much more diversified,” he said.
Still, Stutman said even if the slightest benefit to the wealthier spouse remains in filing for divorce in Suffolk, it could mean the difference of millions of dollars in a divorce settlement.
“If you have a few hundred million dollars and you think you can move the needle even 2 percent… That’s a lot of money. That might be worth getting on the mat,” Stutman said.
“In very wealthy cases, this takes a small tool from the wealth spouse’s toolbox,” Stutman said.
Fisch’s attorney, Nancy Chemtob, declined to comment.
Additional reporting by Natalie O’Neill
https://nypost.com/2022/03/20/ruling-could-stop-new-yorkers-from-shopping-for-divorce-court-judges/ The ruling could put New Yorkers off looking for divorce judges