Abusive Spouses Pay the Price For Their Conduct in Equitable Distribution

Last week, Justice Jacqueline Silbermann sent a strong message to abusive spouses; domestic violence will be considered in the distribution of marital assets.

In DeSilva v. DeSilva, she ruled that a wife was entitled to all of the couple's marital property because her husband had verbally and physically abused her. This decision went even further than her earlier decision in Havell v. Islam, in which she awarded ninety-five percent of a couple's marital property to the wife because the husband had brutally attacked her with a barbell, nearly killing her and leaving her with permanent injuries.

In Havell, the Court stated that because the husband's behavior "shocks the conscience," it was appropriate to deviate from the property division that might otherwise be appropriate under the circumstances of the case.

The husband in Havell, after violently beating his wife with a barbell, told their children not to worry about helping their mother because she was already dead.  The Appellate Division upheld Justice Silbermann’s ruling by concluding that the husband’s marital misconduct could be taken into account when dividing property as long as it was "so egregious or uncivilized as to bespeak of a blatant disregard of the marital relationship.”

Fortunately, the husband’s conduct in De Silva was not as violent as the physical assault in Havell, but, it was, in the Court’s view, as egregious, thereby justifying an award to the wife of all of the parties’ assets.

In De Silva, Mrs. De Silva alleged that Mr. De Silva had engaged in a long history of abuse towards her, which, increased over time in both frequency and intensity. Mrs. De Silva alleged that her husband spat in her face; while she was pregnant with their second child, threw a packed duffel bag at her stomach; and engaged in verbal tirades in front of their children and other witnesses. Mrs. DeSilva testified that she feared for her safety and the safety of her children, and suffered extreme mental anguish because of her husband's conduct.

From these decisions, it is certain that abusive behavior, be it a single violent incident or a prolonged course of conduct, will be a factor in equitable distribution.   What remains to be determined is how a party’s violent, abusive or egregious conduct will interplay with the other statutory factors of DRL §236(b)(5)(d) (i.e., the parties’ respective age, health, the duration of the marriage, etc.) which are required to be considered by a court rendering judgment on equitable distribution.

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