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Spousal Support Claim Survives Death of Spouse In New York

In Dean v. Dean, the New York Supreme Court, Monroe County, determined that a wife’s claim for spousal support survived her death, and could be pursued by the wife’s estate.

In this case, before the parties could finalize their divorce, the wife died.   As a result of the wife’s death, the marriage ended.  However, the wife’s claim for spousal support had never been resolved.  The executor of the wife’s estate sought to continue the proceeding for spousal support.  The husband argued that the spousal support claim abated when the wife died and the divorce proceeding ended.

When Does An Action in New York Abate Upon The Death of A Party?

There are certain situations when an action abates (ends) on the death of a party.  The quintessential example is a divorce proceeding.

“The determinative factor is whether what is involved is personal in nature, or involves the personal status of a party” (id). There is perhaps no more personal a matter than marriage, and, since that relationship ipso facto terminates upon the death of either party, there is nothing left to dissolve, and the matter therefore abates. Because matters of support and equitable distribution are “ancillary” to the divorce action, they necessarily abate upon the abatement of the divorce action itself (In re Pavese, 195 Misc 2d 1, 9-10 [Sur Ct 2002]).

What Happens in New York When A Party Dies During A Case And The Action Does Not Abate?

Under New York law, “upon the death of a party, an action is stayed until such time as a personal representative of the decedent is duly qualified” (Haynes v Haynes, 2003 NY Slip Op 50867(U) [Sup Ct Mar. 20, 2003], citing CPLR 1015, Matter of Estate of Einstoss, 26 NY2d 181 [1970]).

In this case, the wife’s probate was opened in Texas, and an executor appointed.  The court sua sponte substituted the Texas executor as the Plaintiff on behalf of the deceased wife.

Does A Claim For Spousal Support End With The Death of A Party Under New York Law?

No.  The Court determined that the wife’s claim for spousal support did not end with the wife’s death, for three reasons.

First, unlike a claim for maintenance, spousal support proceedings are not ancillary to divorce – they may be brought even where the parties remain married.

Second, spousal support proceedings are not personal to the spouse in the same way that a divorce is.  Spousal support proceedings can be originated and enforced by a County Department of Social Services when the spouse is  a public charge.  A child or relative can also initiate a spousal support proceeding.

Finally, “in other contexts, the New York courts have held that a trial court can retain jurisdiction over support issues even if the court lacks jurisdiction to adjudicate the divorce action.”  The Court discussed Venizelos v. Venizelos, stating:

In Venizelos v. Venizelos, 216 AD2d 206 (1st Dept. 1995), the trial court dismissed a divorce action for failure to meet the residency requirements of the Domestic Relations Law but retained jurisdiction and properly converted the action into a support proceeding under Article 4 of the Family Court Act. See also Bellizzi v. Bellizzi, 82 AD3d 1541 (3d Dep’t 2011) (when wife sought and obtained an award of temporary spousal maintenance during the pendency of the divorce action, the court had authority to consider and award permanent spousal maintenance, even though husband’s complaint for divorce was ultimately dismissed).

In concluding that a claim for support survives the death of a spouse, the Court stated:

Accordingly, while the death of a spouse necessarily negates any future support obligation, this Court holds that it does not abate the claim for support that was necessary prior to the spouse’s death. If the decedent was entitled to support under New York law and experienced hard times during the pendency of this action, that claim survives her death and can be maintained by her representative, the executor.

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