The Massachusetts Appeals Court today ruled that a man no longer has to make previously agreed payments to his wife as part of a divorce settlement on account of how she tried, but failed, to carve him up with a hatchet a few months after they signed the settlement.
As part of a divorce settlement in 2014, Mark Schenkman signed an agreement to pay his wife Julie Rabinowitz $212,000 in monthly installments over five years to cover her share of his dental practice, according to the court's summary of the case.
But on Aug. 11, 2015, Rabinowitz attacked Schenkman - and one of their four children - outside his dental office with a hatchet. Schenkman then stopped making the monthly settlement payments to Rabinowitz - who in December of that year pleaded guilty and received a one-year jail sentence for, among other things, assault with intent to murder.
In 2019, Rabinowitz sued her ex to try to force him to resume the payments, arguing that his refusal to pay was a violation of the contract they had essentially signed in family court to go along with their divorce - which also granted Schenkman full custody of their children, to which Rabinowitz admitted through her guilty plea that she objected to and thought she could undo by permanently taking him out of the picture.
Rabinowitz argued that their property-division agreement contained no clauses about conduct after it was signed and that anyway, the husband couldn't prove he was really harmed by the attack because he survived it.
In non-legal terms, the state's second highest court ruled: Seriously?
The justices concluded it was Rabinowitz who violated that contract, by trying to kill her ex, and that the Superior Court judge who ruled against her on the issue was correct that the murder attempt "constituted a violation of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing implicit in the separation agreement and incorporated into the amended divorce judgment."
The court also sided with the judge in refusing Rabinowitz's attempt to exclude all evidence about the failed murder from her contract case. Her lawyer had argued this was irrelevant to a contract dispute and just darn unfair because it was "unduly prejudicial by casting her character in a negative light." The court concluded:
The evidence here showed that the wife attacked the husband and one of the children with a hatchet and accused the husband of ruining her "reunification plans" that were "in the works" for the children. This evidence spoke to the core of the defense that the attack was an attempt to undo the separation agreement and constituted a breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing. We discern no palpable error in the judge's determination.
The court then delved into that covenant, a legal doctrine equally applicable to both commercial contracts and divorce settlements, which basically requires both sides to live up to what they agreed to, or as the court put it, that "neither party shall do anything which will have the effect of destroying or injuring the right of the other party to receive the fruits of the contract."
Here, the judge concluded that, by trying to kill the husband with a hatchet, the wife committed a breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing implied in the separation agreement. The judge reasoned that this breach by the wife "excused" the husband's obligation to continue making the monthly payments for the division of the value of the dental practice.
Rabinowitz's counsel argued that a contract is a contract, or in this case, a separation agreement is a separation agreement, that the wife did nothing to break any of its specific clauses and besides, "the husband failed to prove 'demonstrable harm' caused by the wife."
The court allowed as how splitting up family assets in divorce cases should not be undone lightly, but added:
On the unique facts of this case, and considering the egregious nature of the wife's conduct, the judge could conclude that this case constitutes one of those rare situations that warrants revisiting the issue of property division.
The court continued that should it agree with Rabinowitz's arguments, it would create an absurd situation in Massachusetts in which somebody could be punished for attempting to have a spouse murdered before their divorce is finalized (yes, of course there is a ruling on that) but not after.
Within months of striking the bargains in the separation agreement, the wife tried to kill the husband with a hatchet. The wife's violent armed attack, with an admitted intent to murder the husband, could be viewed as a desperate attempt to undo the separation agreement that was designed by the parties to be the final step at resolving outstanding issues in their divorce. The wife's extreme conduct, manifestly aimed at destroying or injuring the husband's rights that had been fixed by the separation agreement, may be viewed as precisely the type of behavior prohibited by the covenant of good faith and fair dealing because the wife tried to "recapture opportunities forgone" (citation omitted). Anthony's Pier Four, Inc. v. HBC Assocs., 411 Mass. 451, 473 (1991).
Finally, the court slapped down Rabinowitz's purported attempt to bravely speak out in support of all women undergoing painful divorces in Massachusetts:
The wife contends that applying the covenant of good faith and fair dealing here will create a "flood of litigation concerning allegations of post-divorce misconduct aimed at invalidating property settlements." She argues that misconduct ranging from a party "slapp[ing] the face of the other" to being "habitually late in returning children" would jeopardize property settlements. We disagree for several reasons. First, we are unaware of any flood of litigation since the Supreme Judicial Court expressly began applying the covenant of good faith and fair dealing to separation agreements almost a quarter century ago. ... Second, the unique and admitted homicidal conduct in the present case allowed, but did not compel, the fact finder to conclude that such extreme conduct was sufficiently connected to specific terms of the separation agreement so as to excuse performance. Third, we need not "speculate" on the potential future applications of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing because, "on the facts before us, a finding is warranted that a breach of the contract occurred" justifying the husband's nonperformance.