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May 17, 2024 | Family Law

Massachusetts Appeals Court Upholds Trial Court’s Judgment Relieving Husband from Payment Obligation Under Divorce Settlement Because of Wife’s Behavior

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Rabinowitz v. Schenkman, 103 Mass. App. Ct. 538 (2023)

Ordinarily, when divorcing spouses in Massachusetts divide their property, that division is final and may not be revisited. That principle is not absolute, however. In a recent appellate decision, the court excused the husband of his ongoing installment payment obligations to the wife, basing its ruling upon the wife’s breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. The facts of the case are extreme; the wife was convicted of attempting to murder the husband.

In Rabinowitz, the parties had agreed on the terms of their divorce and the Probate and Family Court had incorporated that agreement into its judgment of divorce. Among the asset division provisions of the agreement was the husband‘s obligation to pay the wife regular installments over a period of several years for her share of the value of his dental practice.

Long before the husband had completed his payments to the wife, the wife confronted him and their nine-year-old son with a hatchet, accusing the husband of interfering in her efforts to reconcile with the parties’ children. The wife was convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to 30 months in the house of correction. The husband stopped making his installment payments to her.

After the wife’s release from the house of correction, she sued him in Superior Court to enforce his contractual obligation to pay her for her share of the dental practice. In his defense, the husband claimed that the wife’s actions excused him of his payment obligation.

Superior Court Ruling

After a non-jury trial, the Superior Court judge ruled in the husband’s favor, concluding that the wife’s behavior constituted a breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing. By trying to kill the husband, the court reasoned, the wife was attempting to deprive the husband of the fruits and benefits of their contract. The court found that the parties had negotiated an orderly process for division of their assets with payments by the husband to the wife and a requirement that the husband maintain life insurance, with the wife as the death beneficiary, as security for his remaining payments. The parties had also agreed that the husband would have sole legal and physical custody of the parties’ children. By trying to kill the husband, the court found, the wife was trying to bring about a scenario where the payment to her for the husband‘s dental practice would be accelerated (i.e., by the life insurance payment to her) and where she would gain custody of the children.

Appeals Court

On appeal, the wife argued that because she had not succeeded in her attack on the husband there had been no harm and therefore the husband‘s performance of his payment obligation should not have been excused. Rejecting that argument, the Appeals Court concluded that the husband was not required to prove actual harm. Rather, the wife’s attempt to undermine the parties’ contract was sufficient to excuse the husband‘s performance of his payment obligations.

While there might be other situations where a party’s attempt to interfere with the other party’s benefit of the contract might be enough to excuse performance, the Appeals Court cautioned against drawing overly broad conclusions from its decision, making clear that this case was decided based on its extraordinary facts.

Other Cases in the Commonwealth

Two cases relied upon by the court were instructive as examples of parties breaching the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing relating to divorce agreements. In one, Krapf v. Krapf, 439 Mass. 97 (1976), a husband made a payment election with respect to his military pension that undermined the wife’s contractual right to receive a share of that pension. In the other, Nile v. Nile, 432 Mass. 390 (2000), a husband had placed property in trust for the benefit of others, defeating a contractual requirement to use that property for the benefit of the parties’ children, thus undermining the parties’ contract.

Conclusion

Despite the finality of asset division provisions in divorce agreements, there can be situations where one party’s attempt to deprive the other of the benefits of their agreement, the definition of breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, may be grounds for changing the terms. In Rabinowitz, the wife’s behavior amounted to such a breach and excused the husband from making any further payments to her.

David Burgess is a Family Law attorney and trial attorney at Wilchins Cosentino & Novins LLP where his practice includes litigation and mediation. David leverages his experience in business litigation to counsel his clients in a wide variety of family legal cases including contested matters such as restraining orders, alimony, child support and child custody. He regularly assists clients in negotiating prenuptial agreements, postnuptial agreements and cohabitation agreements.

Learn more about David Burgess and WCN’s Family Law Practice.

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This article is not legal advice and should not be taken as such or relied upon as legal advice.

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