Before October 2010, when No Fault divorces became available, in order to get a divorce in New York, you had to prove marital fault. New York recognizes adultery as one ground to obtain a divorce. However, adultery, as a basis for divorce in New York is misunderstood. In this post, I will try to dispel some of the myths surrounding adultery.
Not a week goes by without someone asking me one of the following questions: (1) If my spouse cheated on me, do I get the house? (2) If my spouse cheated on me, do I get the kids? (3) I don’t have to pay maintenance if my spouse cheated on me, right? and (4) If my spouse cheated on me, can I have him/her arrested?
The law regarding adultery has changed with the times. A hundred years ago, the answer to the above questions would have been an unqualified “YES”. But, divorce laws in New York have changed to reflected the looser morality we inherited from the 1960s.
While we use the term “marital fault” in New York law, it has a very narrow application. It only refers to whether you can get a divorce, not what happens in the divorce. Getting a divorce is easy, the court dissolves the marriage. The hard part is resolving the issues of property and children. These issues are generally unaffected by allegations or proof of adultery.
Let’s first look at property. Under the equitable distribution law, the court is not interested in who destroyed the marriage. The court instead is looking at the length of the marriage, and the property acquired during the marriage. Generally speaking, the court will divide the property in half, regardless of who was at fault. Adultery, by itself will not adjust the scale.
But, what if the cheating spouse spent money on the paramour? That is different. Assume the cheating spouse bought the paramour jewelry. The money used was presumably marital money. That money was wasted and must be returned to the marital pot for distribution. In one case I had, the husband broke an investment plan and deposited it in the girlfriend’s bank account. The judge attached the account and brought the money back.
Child custody and visitation are more problematic because of the emotions involved. The paramour is seen as the cause of the termination of the marriage. So, it is not uncommon to for the innocent spouse to demand custody on a “morals” issue. Or the innocent spouse will demand that the children not be exposed to the evil paramour.
Until the sexual revolution of the 1960s, adultery was evidence of poor morals, and could be used to secure child custody. Now, that is simply not the case. Adultery is no longer the controlling factor in custody. Adultery can come into play if the paramour is an “inappropriate” person, such as a convicted felon or a sex offender. Adultery can also come into play if it is part of a pattern of an unstable lifestyle. For example, going out every night, leaving the children unattended, and then coming home in the early hours, coupled with adultery could be used as evidence of an unstable lifestyle.
The area of greatest conflict involves the presence of the paramour around the children. If the custodial parent is the cheater, the innocent spouse generally cannot understand why he/she can co-habitat around the children. The argument is that the environment is “morally unsafe.” “How can I teach my child what is right, when he sees a negative moral example everyday?” As I stated above, the courts don’t get into assessing morality. If the child has a separate bedroom, many judges will not issue any order prohibiting the paramour from being in the presence of the children.
However, I have had some circumstances where the court has ordered that visitation shall not occur in the presence of the paramour. Generally, this occurs in particularly nasty breakups, and the law guardian and/or the forensic psychologist believe that it is not in the interests of the children to be in the presence of the paramour. There is no hard and fast rule, but will depend on a case by case basis.
Maintenance is generally unaffected by adultery. This may seem like a harsh rule. “She/he cheats on me and I have to pay?” The problem comes from the statutory basis for maintenance. The purpose is to rehabilitate the non-working or underworking spouse into the work force. The societal goal is to create a self-sufficient person who will not be a public charge. So, the issue of adultery generally does not play into an award of maintenance.
Finally, no one goes to jail for adultery anymore. Only the military prosecutes for adultery.
Since we now have No Fault divorce there is really no need to try to get a divorce for adultery. As explained above it is very hard to get. Also, it does not provide any benefit in the custody or property disputes. Finally, and as cruel as this may sound, the judge and society as a whole are not interested in whether one spouse cheated. There is no punished and no emotional satisfaction. By using the No Fault divorce provision, you are guaranteed of getting the divorce, and can also protect your interests with respect to custody, child support, and marital assets.