A recent decision emanating from the Surrogate’s Court, Kings County, Matter of Nichols, N.Y.L.J., Nov. 15, 2013, p.40, addresses the rarely litigated issue of constructive abandonment (i.e., a spouse’s unjustified refusal to engage in sexual relations) as a basis for disqualifying a surviving spouse from receiving an elective share. This case teaches that a claim of constructive abandonment must be supported by more than hearsay testimony in the record that the decedent told his grandson, on a single occasion, that “the dingbat hasn’t given me any in years.”
Perhaps because of the difficulties in proving — post-mortem — a decedent’s sexual activity, disqualification cases grounded in allegations of constructive abandonment are few and far between (see, e.g., Matter of Reisman, N.Y.L.J., Feb. 8, 2000, p.33, col. 3 [Sur Ct, Nassau County 2000]). Constructive abandonment is most often alleged as a grounds for separation or divorce, in the context of matrimonial law. The disqualification statute — EPTL § 5-1.2 — provides for the disqualification of a surviving spouse if “[t]he spouse abandoned the deceased spouse, and such abandonment continued until the time of death”; the statute contains no definition of “abandonment.” In determining whether a spouse is disqualified, courts generally employ the standard used to determine if a party would be entitled to a decree of separation or divorce on the grounds of abandonment under the Domestic Relations Law (see, e.g., Matter of Hama, 39 Misc 3d 429, 435 [Sur Ct, New York County 2012]).
Unlike actual abandonment, which requires proof that the surviving spouse lived apart from the decedent, without consent, constructive abandonment requires no physical separateness. Constructive abandonment is routinely defined as the refusal of one spouse to engage in sexual relations with the other spouse for one or more years, when such refusal is unjustified, willful, and continual, and despite repeated requests for the resumption of sexual relations (see Davis v Davis, 71 AD3d 13 [2d Dept 2009]; Gianis v Gianis, 67 AD3d 963 [2d Dept 2009]). A third type of abandonment, abandonment by lock out, “occurs when one spouse changes the lock on the entrance door of the marital abode, or the place where he or she is living, thus effectively excluding the other spouse, unless the act is justified” (Soldinger v Soldinger, 21 AD3d 469, 470 [2d Dept 2005]).
Matter of Nichols involved allegations of all three types of abandonment. The decedent was survived by his spouse, Edlyn, and two adult children of a prior marriage. Edlyn filed a notice of election with the Court, followed by a petition to determine the validity and effect of her election. She alleged that the decedent had made no provision for her, and that at the time of his death the decedent held certain real and personal property, including real property, jointly with his children. The children objected to the petition, alleging disqualification on the grounds, inter alia, of abandonment, constructive abandonment, and abandonment by lock out. The parties could not resolve the matter informally and Edlyn ultimately moved for summary judgment seeking dismissal of the objections and determining the validity of her right of election.
While there were differences in their testimony, both children, and the decedent’s grandson, testified that the decedent and Edlyn lived separate and apart from each other, the decedent sleeping in a hospital bed on the first floor of the real property, and Edlyn living with her adult disabled daughter in a separate, locked residence on the second floor of the property.
However, fatal to the children’s abandonment claim, according to the Court, was the absence of evidence that the separation within the property was without justification or without the decedent’s consent. The Court credited the children’s own testimony regarding the impact of the decedent’s failing health on his mobility.
The Court likewise disposed of the claim of abandonment by lock out, finding an absence of evidence that the decedent could not enter Edlyn’s locked living quarters when access was required.
Addressing the children’s claim of constructive abandonment, the Court noted that such exists when “the abandoning spouse unjustifiably refused to fulfill the basic obligations arising from the marriage contract and that the abandonment continues for at least one year” (id.,quoting Lyons v Lyons, 187 AD2d 415, 416 [2d Dept 1992]). The “refusal must be unjustified, willful, and continued despite repeated requests for continued conjugal relations” (id.).
To establish that Edlyn denied the decedent his conjugal rights in the final years of his life, the children relied solely on the testimony of the decedent’s grandson, Donnell, that, on a single occasion, the decedent told him that “the dingbat hasn’t given me any in years.” The children conceded they never discussed with the decedent his sexual relationship with Edlyn. (Although, as the Court noted in a footnote, one child testified “that the decedent slept alone, on the first floor, in a twin-sized hospital bed, and[opine[d] that it was spacious enough for two people to share, implying that [Edlyn] would have been able to sleep in the hospital bed with the decedent if she so desired.”)
The Court determined that the “evidence” was insufficient to raise a triable issue of fact regarding constructive abandonment, noting that “[t]he respondents rely on a single statement by the decedent to a third party, on some unspecified date, that the movant and the decedent had not engaged in marital relations for an unknown period of time.” Quoting Lyons, an Appellate Division matrimonial case, the Court noted that, “[p]roof that one spouse, in response to a single request, refused to engage in sexual relations, in the absence of proof that the other spouse thereafter repeatedly and unsuccessfully requested a resumption of sexual relations, is insufficient” to warrant a finding of constructive abandonment. The Court noted that the children offered no evidence that the decedent ever requested that Edlyn resume marital relations, even assuming such relations had ceased, or that she refused any such request.
It is likely that “constructive abandonment” spousal disqualification cases will continue to be a rare breed. While determining such cases will almost always involve disputed factual issues, a court will require the party seeking disqualification – the party with the burden of proof – to offer substantial evidence in order to proceed. Parties seeking to disqualify a surviving spouse should be mindful that, as the Nichols court noted, the “statutes granting to a spouse a right of election are remedial and should be construed in the interest of the surviving spouse to give . . . her the broadest possible protection” (quoting Matter of Bartley, 83 Misc 2d 672, 679 [Sur Ct, Cattaraugus County 1975]).