Marital fault is who is responsible for the failure of the marriage. Generally, it is not a factor in equitable distribution in contemporary New York practice. Many a scorned or abandoned spouse believes that they deserved more because their spouse has left them or been unfaithful or because the other party was lazy. The fact of the matter is that generally none of this matters.
Marital fault is considered in equitable distribution only when this misconduct is so egregious or uncivilized as to bespeak of blatant disregard of marital relationship. Such egregious misconduct must “shock the conscience” of the court. The conduct in question must “callously imperil value society places on human life and the integrity of the human body” to be deemed “egregious.” With such a high threshold, cases where equitable distribution is impacted by marital fault are uncommon.
A rare example recently has been reported by the Appellate Division First Department in Pierre v. Pierre. In that case the defendant husband stabbed the plaintiff wife two times with steak knife and slammed her head against a toilet. This left her in a coma and required months of hospitalization and five surgeries, after which she still was disabled. The First Department held that this was egregious misconduct and warranted a modification of the equitable distribution award from fifty percent to ninety-five percent of the value of the marital home to the wife.
Another example of egregious misconduct is Havell v. Islam. In that case the Defendant viciously beat his wife in her bed by hitting her on the head, face, neck and hands with the barbell. The attacked was interrupted by the parties’ three daughters. The plaintiff’s injuries were very severe and included a broken nose and jaw, multiple broken teeth, multiple lacerations and neurological damage. Her injuries required the surgical installation of a titanium plate in her head. The Defendant was indicted for Attempted Murder and pleaded guilty to Assault in the First Degree and was sentenced to 8¼ years in prison. The court awarded the wife almost ninety-five percent of the $13 million marital estate based upon this egregious misconduct.
These horrific and violent assaults are egregious misconduct, but not much else is. This is not to say that treating your spouse poorly is acceptable, but breaking their heart is not going to change how the marital estate is distributed.