A New Twist On Who Gets The House When The Relationship Ends

by: Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

House + money (pd)If you read this blog then you know that failed relationships often make for the most interesting cases. For example, if your would-be spouse calls off your wedding, then you are usually entitled to get the engagement ring back. But, if you cancel your wedding reception, you may not be entitled to a refund from the venue where it would have taken place. And, of course, if your ex-wife agreed to pay all "utilities" under a divorce settlement but fails to pay for water filtration services that remained in your name and you get sued by the water filtration company, your ex-wife will be required to reimburse you for those charges. Now, Burke v. Bernardini can be added to this list.

In Burke, plaintiff and defendant were involved in a "romantic relationship." (They had actually known each other for 25 years before they began dating.) While they were dating, plaintiff bought property on which he built a house where he and defendant lived together. He paid approximately $368,000 for the property and another $100,000 for improvements and additions. Both plaintiff and defendant contributed furnishings.

Before buying the property, the parties entered into an agreement that provided:

[Plaintiff] acknowledges and agrees that [defendant] has provided, and will continue to provide[,] companionship to him of an indefinite length. [Plaintiff] promises and represents that upon closing, the home shall be deeded and titled in the name of "[plaintiff] and [defendant], as joint tenants with the right of survivorship."

(As a side note, only in the hands of a lawyer does "'til death do us part" become "I agree to provide companionship of an indefinite length.") The agreement also provided that defendant would have no "financial obligations for the home, including, but not limited to, property taxes, homeowners association fees, and homeowners insurance."  

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Setting Priorities: When You Refinance A First Mortgage, Is It Still A FIRST Mortgage?

by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

Mortgage modification (pd)It is a question I have been asked a number of times over the past few years: If a lender refinances an existing mortgage, does the new lender step into the shoes of the old lender in terms of priority? In other words, if you refinance a first mortgage, does it remain a FIRST mortgage or is it a new mortgage that is junior to other mortgages that may have been recorded after the first mortgage? Granted this is not a question as weighty as, say, "what is the meaning of life?" but if you are a lender, it is an important one. I have written about this topic before, but the Appellate Division's recent decision in Ocwen Loan Services, Inc. v. Quinn, added a new wrinkle. In that case, the question was whether a refinanced first mortgage retains its first status over a life estate, as opposed to another mortgage or lien, that was recorded prior to the original mortgage.

In Ocwen, defendants conveyed their residential property to their daughter but retained a life estate in the property. (In other words, the daughter owned the property, but defendants could live there until they died.) One year later, defendants, their daughter, and her husband acquired a loan from plaintiff that was secured by a mortgage on the property. Two years after that, the daughter refinanced the mortgage for a higher amount. The title commitment that plaintiff obtained did not disclose the recorded life estates, so defendants were not required to sign the mortgage. Through the refinancing, the daughter, among other things, paid off the prior mortgage, which defendants had signed.

Two years later, the daughter defaulted on the refinanced mortgage and plaintiff foreclosed. The parties cross-moved for clarification on the status of defendants' life estate. Plaintiff argued that the life estate was subordinate to the refinanced mortgage, meaning defendants could not rely on it to stop the foreclosure. Defendants argued that the foreclosure had to be dismissed because "they did not sign the [refinanced] mortgage nor pledge their life estates in connection with the [ ] loan refinancing." 

Continue reading “Setting Priorities: When You Refinance A First Mortgage, Is It Still A FIRST Mortgage?”

“This Eight Dollar Dish Will Cost You A Thousand Dollars In Phone Calls To The Legal Firm Of That’s Mine, This Is Yours . . . .”

 by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

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.

 

Continue reading ““This Eight Dollar Dish Will Cost You A Thousand Dollars In Phone Calls To The Legal Firm Of That’s Mine, This Is Yours . . . .””

Married in 1967, Divorced in 1982, Sued for 47 Years of Alimony in 2014

by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

Divorce (pd)It seems like the plot of a Lifetime movie, but it is not (or, at least, not yet). Plaintiff and defendant marry in 1967 in Vietnam. In 1975, plaintiff flees Vietnam because of the "impending communist takeover." He ends up in New Jersey where, in 1981 he files for divorce. The judgment of divorce is entered in 1982, after which plaintiff re-marries. In 2004, defendant immigrates to the United States and ten years later seeks to vacate the divorce and collect alimony and equitable distribution "based on a 47 year marriage." These are the basic facts in a recent unpublished Appellate Division decision, Chau v. Khon.  

Here are the relevant missing details. After coming to America in 1975, plaintiff sent letters to defendant, "including a signed application for family reunification." Plaintiff's brother also sent letters to defendant. These letters were sent between 1975 and 1981, but defendant never responded. Plaintiff filed for divorce in 1981, asserting a separation of more than 18 consecutive months as the basis for the divorce. Because he had not heard from his wife in six years, and did not know here whereabouts, he sought permission to serve her by publication. The court agreed, and following publication, a judgment of divorce was entered.

Plaintiff remarried and the couple had a son. Plaintiff also had two daughters from his first marriage. In 1993, the daughters came to live with their father and his new wife. In 1996, plaintiff and his son even visited Vietnam and met with defendant. In 2004, defendant immigrated to the United States. She claims that she learned about the divorce in 2006 when she obtained copies of the original complaint and judgment of divorce. Nonetheless, she waited until 2014 to (1) move to vacate the original divorce and (2) file her own complaint for divorce, seeking alimony and equitable distribution going back to the original 1967 wedding date. She also filed lis pendens on three properties, only one of which was owned by plaintiff (the other two were owned by his son). Defendant claimed that she waited ten years to file the complaint because it took her that long to "obtain all of the papers they needed to prove that plaintiff knew where she was living in 1981 and 1982 so she could challenge his fraudulent divorce from her." This was important to her because, among other arguments, defendant claimed that plaintiff's assertion that he did not know her whereabouts when he filed the complaint for divorce was a fraud on the court.

Plaintiff opposed the motion to vacate the divorce and cross moved to discharge the lis pendens and for an award of attorney's fees. The trial court denied defendant's motion and granted plaintiff's motion (except the request for fees). The trial court explained that defendant "admitted that she knew of the divorce in 2006 , but failed to act diligently by waiting until 2014 to file her motion to vacate the divorce."  It also held that defendant failed to "address[] how her motion and proposed new divorce complaint would affect plaintiff's second wife, who had been married to plaintiff for over thirty years." Defendant appealed.

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Good News: That Tenant You May Not Have Known You Had Is Not A Cloud On Title

by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

AuctionIf you have ever been to a sheriff's sale in New Jersey then you are familiar with the litany of announcements that precede each sale — "This sale is made subject to easements of record," "The property is being sold on an 'as is' basis," etc. Sellers make these announcements because, under New Jersey law, they are required to disclose "any substantial defect in or cloud upon the title of the real estate sold, which would render such title unmarketable." If a seller intentionally or negligently fails to disclose any substantial defects or clouds on title, then a court may vacate the winning bid and return the winning bidder's deposit. For example, if a seller fails to reveal the amount of unpaid taxes on a property before a sheriff's sale, the sale can be vacated if the winning bidder discovers the amount and is unwilling to pay it.

Usually included in these announcements is something making clear that the property is being sold subject to the rights of tenants and occupants, if any. But what happens when, after the sale, the winning bidder visits the property and discovers a tenant, or at least someone claiming to be a tenant, occupying the property? Does that entitle the winning bidder to vacate the sale and get its deposit back?

This is exactly what happened in PHH Mortgage Corporation v. Alleyne. In that case, the winning bidder at a sheriff's sale moved to set aside its successful bid and compel a refund of the amount it tendered to the sheriff at the sale (winning bidders are generally required to put 20% of the bid price down at the sale and pay the balance within 30 days). The winning bidder argued that, after the sheriff's sale, it sent a representative to the property and he discovered an individual who "refused to give his name but asserted rights to possession of the property as a tenant." The winning bidder argued that (1) this tenancy was a cloud on title, therefore it should have been disclosed at the sale, and (2) the seller has an independent duty to inspect for tenants on the property before the sale. The trial court rejected these arguments and the Appellate Division affirmed.

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Failure To Launch! Bride’s Post-Wedding Cold Feet = Equitable Fraud = Annulment

Divorce(2)
In a case involving facts that could have been the plot of a soap opera episode or Lifetime Original Movie, a New Jersey court recently held that a husband could annul his marriage due to his wife's equitable, not actual, fraud.

In Easton v. Mercer (names were changed by the court to protect the innocent), plaintiff began dating defendant and, two years later, proposed to her. Defendant's parents objected because they "disapproved of [plaintiff] as a suitable husband for their daughter." True love, however, would not be denied. Without telling defendant's parents, plaintiff and defendant scheduled a small wedding to take place three weeks after plaintiff's proposal. Prior to the wedding, they applied for a marriage license, which was issued seven days later. They then got married in a small ceremony, administered by a reverend, and attended by approximately 15 guests. All of the guests were invited by plaintiff. Defendant did not invite any guests, including her parents, with whom she still lived and who were still unaware that the wedding was taking place. This, as they say, is when the plot thickens.

 

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More Courts Reject Eleventh-Hour Attempts To Avoid Foreclosure Based On An Alleged Lack Of Standing

by:  Peter J. Gallagher

 Two more Appellate Division panels have refused to allow defendant's in foreclosure lawsuits to raise standing as an eleventh-hour defense.  As we previously reported — Changing Tide in Forclosure Litigation? Courts Taking Closer Look When Defendants Assert Lack Of Standing At Last Minute — there is now a clear trend against allowing defendants to stay silent in the face of a foreclosure lawsuit only to appear at the last minute, usually on the eve of a sheriff's sale, and seek to vacate final judgment based on an alleged lack of standing to foreclose.  Two recent Appellate Division cases continue to bring this point home. 

In IndyMac Bank FSB v. DeCastro, a residential borrower moved to vacate final judgment and dismiss the complaint 15 months after it was entered, arguing that he was not served with the complaint.  The motion was denied.  Defendant filed a second motion to vacate, arguing, for the first time, that the bank lacked standing to foreclose because it was not assigned the mortgage until after the complaint was filed.  This motion was denied as untimely and defendant appealed.  In an opinion, dated March 13, 2013, the Appellate Division affirmed.  In its decision, among other things, the Appellate Division rejected defendant's standing argument, noting: "[W]e have now made clear that lack of standing is not a meritorious defense to a foreclosure complaint."  Moreover, the Appellate Division held that defendant's standing argument was meritless "particularly given defendant's unexcused, years-long delay in asserting that defense or any other claim."  In arriving at this decision, the Appellate Division relied on many of the cases discussed in our prior post. 

Similarly, in WellsFargo Bank, N.A. v. Lopez, a different Appellate Division panel rejected another residential home owner's last-minute attempt to raise standing as a defense to the foreclosure complaint.  The facts in that case were a bit more egregious because the borrower contributed to the four-year delay between the entry of default and the filing of his motion to vacate by filing numerous bankruptcy petitions and seeking a stay to attempt to short sell the property.  Nonetheless, the Appellate Division affirmed the trial court's denial of the motion to vacate holding, among other things, that the lack of standing, even if true, was not a meritorious defense to a foreclosure complaint, particularly in the post-judgment context.  Again, the Appellate Division relied primarily on the cases included in our prior post.