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Spousal support claims abates upon the death of either party. Bomer v. Dean, 195 A.D.3d 1518 (N.Y. App. Div. 2021)


Abatement is the act of reducing or nullifying something.  There are several different types of abatement. For example, when it comes to a testamentary gift, abatement refers to the reduction in the value of a specific bequest due to insufficient funds in the estate to fulfill all bequests proportionately.

In the context of divorce or family law, abatement upon death refers to the termination or nullification of certain legal actions or claims following the death of one of the parties involved. In Bomer v. Dean, 195 A.D.3d 1518 (N.Y. App. Div. 2021), the New York court considered the issue of the abatement of divorce actions upon the death of a party involved.

Background Facts
Defendant and Joyce B. Dean (decedent) were married in 1997 and moved to Monroe County in 2013. Decedent initiated divorce proceedings against defendant in 2014 and again in 2016. During this time, she appointed the plaintiff as her power of attorney. However, before the divorce proceedings could conclude, decedent passed away in May 2019, leaving the divorce actions unresolved. Plaintiff, also decedent’s executor, sought to continue the legal actions on behalf of the estate, including claims for retroactive spousal support and attorneys’ fees. Defendant opposed these motions, arguing that the divorce actions abated upon decedent’s death, thereby precluding further legal actions.

Whether the divorce actions initiated by the decedent abated upon her death, thereby precluding any further legal actions or decisions in those cases.

The court held that both the 2014 support action and the 2016 divorce action abated upon the death of the decedent. Consequently, the court lacked jurisdiction to proceed with any measures or decisions in either of these actions.

The court’s decision was based on established legal principles that divorce actions abate upon the death of a party involved. This abatement extends to ancillary issues such as spousal support and attorneys’ fees. While there are exceptions to this rule, such as vested rights acquired prior to death or when only ministerial acts remain, these exceptions did not apply in this case. Therefore, the court concluded that the unresolved divorce actions ceased to exist upon the decedent’s death.

When a legal action abates upon death, it essentially means that the action comes to an end or ceases to exist due to the death of a party involved. In the context of divorce proceedings or other legal actions involving family matters, such as spousal support claims, abatement occurs when one of the spouses dies before the proceedings are concluded. This termination of legal action is grounded in the principle that the marital relationship ends upon the death of one of the spouses, thereby rendering the remaining legal matters moot. Consequently, the court loses jurisdiction to proceed with the case because the subject matter of the dispute—such as the dissolution of the marriage or the determination of spousal support—no longer exists. Abatement applies regardless of which spouse dies and typically extends to ancillary issues like spousal support or attorneys’ fees, which are contingent upon the existence of the underlying divorce action. Exceptions to abatement may exist in cases where a party’s rights have vested prior to death or when only ministerial acts remain to be done in the legal action.

The court’s ruling clarifies the legal status of divorce actions and related claims in the event of a party’s death. However, if a divorce decree is final and spousal support is ordered, the death of the payor does not necessarily mean that the spousal support obligation ends.

In New York, generally the payor spouse is required to maintain life insurance to cover spousal support obligations in the event of death. This requirement provides a safeguard for the supported spouse, ensuring that they continue to receive the financial support they were entitled to under the divorce decree. Without life insurance coverage, the death of the payor spouse could potentially leave the supported spouse without the means to maintain their standard of living or cover essential expenses.

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