In this case the Supreme Court considered whether a wife’s claim for spousal support survives her death and can be continued by her estate. It is not unusual for a divorce proceeding to stretch out over a number of years as the parties are not able to agree on various issues. However, in this case the couple never was able to reach a settlement and receive a judgment of divorce. Instead, the marriage ended with the death of the wife while the divorce was still pending.
The history of this unusual case is that the couple was in the middle of a divorce proceeding that was initiated 6 years ago when the court converted the pending divorce action to a proceeding for spousal support under Article 4 of the Family Court Act. While that proceeding was pending, the wife, who had been living in a nursing home after suffering a debilitating health crisis, died. The wife’s estate, through her executor, now seeks to continue the spousal support proceeding against the husband, thus converting the case to an estate litigation matter. The husband objects arguing that the wife’s claim for spousal support abated when the divorce proceeding ended.
The law of abatement is that for most actions abatement occurs upon the death of one of the parties if the issue involved in the case is personal in nature or involves the personal status of a party. A marriage and divorce are certainly personal matters. The marriage terminates upon the death of a party and the divorce action abates because there is no longer a marriage to dissolve. Because matters of spousal support are ancillary to a divorce action, they also abate upon the abatement of the divorce action. Thus, if this spousal support action was ancillary to the couple’s divorce, the husband would be correct in that the action would have abated. That is not the case here
When the claim for spousal support is not a claim that is ancillary to a divorce action, but a claim under Article 4 of the Family Court Act, the situation is different. The Supreme Court was not able to find any authority supporting the position that a claim for spousal support under Article 4 of the Family Court Act abates upon the death of a party. In fact, the court found more support for the position that it does not abate since Family Court spousal support proceedings are not based on the couple divorcing. They can be brought when couples are married and have no plans to divorce. In addition, Family Court spousal support actions can be brought by and enforced by the Department of Social Services, making them less personal in nature than a divorce related spousal support action.
The court concluded that while the wife’s death did negate any future support obligation, it did not abate the wife’s claim for spouse support under the Article 4 of the Family Court Act that was necessary prior to the wife’s death. In other words, the wife’s estate could not file a claim for future or ongoing spousal support against the husband. However, if the wife was entitled to support prior to her death, the husband is obligated to pay that amount to the wife’s estate. Thus, the husband’s motion to dismiss the application to substitute the executor as the plaintiff in this action is denied.