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Property DivisionBurning down the house or If I can’t have it, then neither can you.

July 12, 2006

In a frightening twist to a hotly disputed divorce in New York State, Dr. Nicholas Bartha, blew up his beloved town house on East 62nd  Street.

In prior, postings, I had written of litigants who, no pun intended, followed scorched earth tactics.   Obviously, no one can foresee a party’s irrational behavior or violent reaction to an adverse decision.

Excerpted below is the portion of the Appellate Division’s decision, which, perhaps, precipitated Dr. Bartha’s descent into madness, culminating in his violent suicide attempt

Cordula Bartha, Respondent-Appellant,
Nicholas Bartha, Appellant-Respondent.

State of New York, Appellate Division, First Department, January 27, 2005


Saxe, J.

  . . . However, the Referee’s determination of the economic issues must be rejected.

With regard to the Manhattan townhouse on East 62nd Street, which was purchased in 1980 for $395,000, and was valued by the neutral appraiser in June of 2002 at $5 million, it was error to accept at face value the claim that initially placing the townhouse in the names of defendant’s parents, and defendant’s subsequently holding joint title with his mother, rendered the property nonmarital. [*3]

It is true that it was defendant’s parents who took title to the townhouse when it was purchased in 1980, and that defendant’s father thereafter purported to gift his half of the house to defendant, while the other half remained in his mother’s name, until at her death in 1997, when defendant inherited 50% of her interest in the property, with the remainder willed to her granddaughters, the parties’ children. However, the names in whom title was placed does not end the analysis, especially in circumstances such as these.

It is central to the Equitable Distribution Law that the term “marital property” includes property acquired by either spouse during the marriage “regardless of the form in which title is held” (Domestic Relations Law § 236 [B] [1] [c]). That one of the spouses acquired title to property jointly with another relative would not necessarily interfere with its being considered marital, at least to the extent of the spouse’s established interest (see Antenucci v Antenucci, 193 AD2d 948 [1993]). Moreover, in this instance, the manner in which defendant’s parents initially obtained title, and defendant then obtained title from his parents, supports the claim that the townhouse was truly the marital property of these parties, at least in part, from the outset, and that any additional interest that defendant acquired from his parents subsequently might similarly be considered marital property as well.

It is undisputed that $45,095 of the $199,699 cash used for the purchase of the townhouse came from plaintiff’s separate property. Moreover, while $114,369 of the cash down payment came from a check from defendant’s parents’ account, in the context of the probate of his mother’s estate, defendant took the position that at least $60,000 of that payment belonged to him and constituted marital assets. Indeed, that defendant considered the funds held in his parents’ names to belong in part to himself and his wife was illuminated by the manner in which he and his family handled their finances generally. For instance, while defendant’s mother alone received the rents on the Rego Park building that she and defendant had purchased jointly before the marriage, the building’s expenses were paid by plaintiff and defendant, from marital earnings. Indeed, in the probate of his mother’s estate, in which defendant successfully defended a challenge by his nephews to his right to inherit his mother’s interest in the townhouse, defendant asserted that he and his parents had so thoroughly commingled their assets that while he had, technically, inherited property from his mother, the inheritance actually amounted to a repayment to him of financial loans that he and his wife had made to his mother over the course of many years.

There is a “presumption in favor of marital property, premised on the contemporary view of marriage as an economic partnership, crediting each party’s contributions, whether monetary or not, to the growth and value of the marriage” (DeJesus v DeJesus, 90 NY2d 643, 648 [1997]). The term marital property must be broadly construed in order to give effect to the economic partnership concept (Price v Price, 69 NY2d 8, 11 [1986]), and assure that “to the extent that the appreciated value of separate property is at all ‘aided or facilitated’ by the nontitled spouse’s direct or indirect efforts, that part of the appreciation is marital property subject to equitable distribution” (Hartog v Hartog, 85 NY2d 36, 46 [1995]).

To the extent defendant establishes that a portion of the down payment for the Manhattan townhouse was from funds of his parents which had not been intermingled with marital funds, or [*4]from his own separate property, he is entitled to a credit for that contribution; but, otherwise, the property, or at least the 75% interest therein currently held in defendant’s name, is marital property[FN*] (see Heine v Heine, 176 AD2d 77, 84 [1992], lv denied 80 NY2d 753 [1992]). The appreciation of the value of the house, from $395,000 to $5 million, was unrelated to the down payments, but very much related to the complete gutting and renovation which was largely overseen by plaintiff, and paid for out of the parties’ marital funds (id.). Furthermore, the mortgage payments were made entirely from marital funds, at least from 1988 on, and possibly during the earlier years as well.

As to the distributive award that the court granted to plaintiff, both parties agree that there is neither support nor sufficient explanation of how the Referee calculated the amounts of $400,000 for loss of rental income and $550,000 for plaintiff’s loss of employment income. Even if we agreed with the characterization of the marital residence as defendant’s separate property, a remand would be necessary on this basis in any event.

The need for reassessment of the equitable distribution award also necessitates reassessment of the court’s maintenance award to plaintiff. We note, however, that the record fails to disclose how a maintenance award of $2,000 per month for three years will enable plaintiff, who currently lives in a small apartment in Washington Heights with her two adult daughters, to retain her predivorce standard of living (see Hartog v Hartog, 85 NY2d at 50-52; Summer v Summer, 85 NY2d 1014 [1995]). Finally, the question of whether or not plaintiff is entitled to an award of legal fees in connection with this matrimonial proceeding must also be reassessed in accordance with the final equitable distribution determination.

Accordingly, the judgment of divorce of the Supreme Court, New York County (Joan B. Lobis, J.), entered May 9, 2003, which, inter alia, granted plaintiff a divorce, provided for a distributive award to the wife, awarded her maintenance in the sum of $2,000 per month for a period of three years, and denied her application for attorney’s fees, should be modified, on the law, so as to vacate the provisions regarding equitable distribution, maintenance and counsel fees, and the matter remanded for a new fact-finding hearing and determination of those issues in accordance herewith, and otherwise affirmed, without costs.

Buckley, P.J., Tom, Andrias and Marlow, JJ., concur.

Judgment of divorce, Supreme Court, New York County, entered May 9, 2003, modified, on the law, so as to vacate the provisions regarding equitable distribution, maintenance and counsel fees, and the matter remanded for a new fact-finding hearing and determination of those issues in accordance herewith, and otherwise affirmed, without costs.


Footnote *: While plaintiff challenges the authority of defendant’s mother to bequeath 25% of the house to her granddaughters, she nevertheless does not want to challenge her daughters’ ownership rights.

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