One of my favorite scenes from "When Harry Met Sally" occurs when the late, great Bruno Kirby, and the late, great Carrie Fisher, whose characters are just moving in together, are arguing about a wagon wheel table that Kirby's character wants to put in their apartment. Then they ask Billy Crystal's character for his opinion about the table. Big mistake. Crystal had just run into his ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend. After a few seconds, Crystal launches into a rant about how things may be wonderful for Kirby and Fisher now, but a few years from now they will break up and will spend hours and hours, and thousands of dollars fighting over a "stupid, wagon wheel, Roy Rogers, garage sale coffee table."
I was reminded of this scene when I read the Appellate Division's decision in Maciejczyk v. Maciejczyk. Instead of a wagon wheel coffee table, however, the parties in that case were fighting over a water filtration system. Regardless, they proved Crystal's point.
In Maciejczyk, the parties were married for four years before getting a divorce. As part of the divorce, they entered into a Matrimonial Settlement Agreement that provided, among other things, that the ex-wife would remain in the marital home pending its anticipated sale. While she was in the home, she would be "solely responsible" for the mortgage, homeowner's insurance, and "utilities."
When they were married, the parties rented a water filtration system for their home. The ex-husband signed the rental contract and paid the monthly bills out of the couple's joint checking account, but both enjoyed the benefit of the service while they shared the marital home. When they separated, the ex-wife first contacted the water filtration company and requested that the bills be transferred to her name, and later entered into a new contract with the company.
Four years after the divorce, the water filtration company sued the ex-husband for more than $8,000 in unpaid charges, plus interest. He answered the complaint and also filed a third-party complaint against the ex-wife, claiming that she was responsible for the charges. He subsequently settled with the water filtration company, agreeing to pay $6,750 to resolve the dispute, and moved to compel the ex-wife to pay the charges. She opposed the motion, but the Family Part sided with the ex-husband. It held that she was responsible because the charges accumulated when she had exclusive use of the home. Further, although the Matrimonial Settlement Agreement did not define "utilities," it would "be entirely unreasonable and inequitable that the ex-husband would be responsible for such an expense after he moved out of the home and for which only the ex-wife received a benefit." The judge then ordered the ex-wife to pay the settlement and, under the fee-shifting provisions of Rules 4:42-9 and 5:3-5, awarded the ex-husband $3,000 in legal fees. The ex-wife appealed.
The Appellate Division affirmed for largely the same reasons cited by the Family Part. It noted that the water filtration service "logically and fairly can be regarded as a 'utility' in the same manner as heating, electric, and other such services associated with the use and occupancy of the home." The Appellate Division also rejected the ex-wife's argument that the ex-husband could not collect the settlement amount from her because she did not consent to the underlying settlement. On this point, the court held as follows: "The company and ex-husband did not need a third-party defendant's consent to settle the collection case. In fact, the ex-husband apparently provided an indirect financial benefit to the ex-wife by defending the action and negotiating a lower payment figure from the amount demanded in [the] complaint." Finally, the Appellate Division affirmed the Family Part's fee award, holding that the ex-wife "should have fulfilled her sole responsibility for paying [the] debt long before the matter was litigated," and therefore it was "not inequitable for her to bear the ex-husband's reasonable counsel fees incurred as a result of her inaction."