A divorce case could easily last for a year or, occasionally, much longer. Therefore, it is common for the parties to seek various forms of relief from the court while the action is pending. This type of relief is commonly referred to as pendente lite and is usually obtained by making a motion, brought by an order to show cause. Such motion is usually supported by affidavits, exhibits, and statements of net worth. A pendente lite motion may seek such things as temporary custody of children, temporary schedule of visitation with the minor children, temporary child support, temporary maintenance, exclusive possession of the marital residence, temporary order of protection, interim award of attorneys fees, interim award of expert fees, and an order restraining marital assets. Since pendente lite motions are made on expedited basis, not all facts may be known at the time the motion is brought. Once the relief sought in the pendente lite is granted, the court’s decision is unlikely to be reversed on appeal since numerous cases have held that the proper remedy for objections to a pendente lite order is a plenary trial. As the court stated in Penavic v. Penavic, 60 A.D.3d 1026 (2nd Dept. 2009), “[t]he best remedy for any perceived inequities in the pendente lite award is a speedy trial, at which the disputed issues concerning the parties’ financial capacity and circumstances can be fully explored.” After the final decision is made, the trial court has the power to adjust the pendente lite relief.
The most significant form of pendente lite relief in many cases is temporary maintenance. As the court stated in Mueller v. Mueller, 61 A.D.3d 652 (2nd Dept. 2009), “pendente lite awards should be an accommodation between the reasonable needs of the moving spouse and the financial ability of the other spouse . . . with due regard for the preservation standard of living”. It is the burden of the party seeking pendente lite relief to demonstrate the need for the award sought. The standard of living previously enjoyed by the parties is a relevant consideration in assessing the reasonable needs of a temporary maintenance applicant.
One critical issue that can be addressed by a pendente lite motion is preservation of marital assets. Pursuant to Domestic Relations Law § 234, a court has broad discretion in matrimonial actions to issue injunctive relief in the interest of justice to preserve marital assets pending equitable distribution. Place v. Seamon, 59 A.D.3d 913 (3rd Dept. 2009). Such request for restraints on property transfers can be granted upon the movant demonstrating that the spouse to be enjoined “is attempting or threatening to dispose of marital assets so as to adversely affect the movant’s ultimate rights in equitable distribution”.
Pendente lite financial relief is usually retroactive to the date of filing of the motion.
For many, getting exclusive occupancy of the marital residence during the pendency of a divorce action can be as important as the ultimate divorce itself. Yet the emotional need to be free of the company of one’s spouse is never enough. The courts do not lightly infringe upon the right of a spouse to remain in his or her home even where, for example, that spouse continues an adulterous relationship, or the marital residence was owned by the other spouse prior to the marriage.
Where both parties remain in the home when the application for temporary exclusive occupancy is brought before the court, the party seeking occupancy must show that the other party is a threat to the safety of the person(s) or property. The party seeking such relief must present detailed allegations supported by third-party affidavits, police reports, and/or hospital records may be needed to convince the court that the application is not an effort to force the other party out of the house. Even then, if the other party contradicts the allegations of the application with his or her own sworn affidavit, the court may order that a hearing be held to resolve the conflicting versions of the facts. Occasionally, the evidence of the threat to safety is sufficiently persuasive that a court will dispense with the requirement of a hearing, and grant an order of exclusive occupancy-based only upon a review of the papers submitted. As I have written before, such relief can also be obtained from the Family Court on an expedited basis and, occasionally, on ex parte basis, if the safety of a party is at issue.
A pendente lite motion which requests either child support, maintenance, or attorneys fees, must include a statement of net worth as an exhibit, even if the statement of net worth has been filed separately.
One form of relief that is typically not available as a part of a pendente lite application, is the order directing the sale of the marital residence. Such relief can only be obtained after trial.
If a party decides to violate the pendente lite order, the proper application is contempt. Shammah v. Shammah, 22 Misc.3d 822 (Sup. Ct. Nassau Co. 2008).
Usually, a pendente lite motion sets up the parties’ positions with respect to critical issues in their divorce case. If a lawyer is successful in obtaining the relief sought, his/her client’s position going forward will be better and the client’s negotiating posture may improve significantly. Most divorce attorneys recognize this and are careful in making pendente lite motions.