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When Divorce Discord Spills Out into Your Building's Public Space

Ronda Kaysen in Board Operations on May 7, 2013

New York City

May 7, 2013

"Walk extremely softly. Divorce is a very, very private issue that borders on very severe legal issues," advises Larry Weinstein, president of a cond-op in Queens. "It really is more of a situation for lawyers to handle than for a board."

Coping With Couples

Board members should sit with

the warring couple and see if

a public truce can be worked out.

Sometimes, the building staff first learns that a couple is on the outs when the pair starts brawling in the common areas. In one recent case, a doorman had to physically separate a husband and wife who came to blows in the lobby. When divorcing couples air their grievances in public, the biggest concern is not for the parties involved but for other residents who expect their lobby to be a polite public space and not an extension of a family's living room.

"The board's responsibility is to protect other shareholders not only from harm, but from scenes and public annoyance," says Weinstein.

Board members should sit down with the warring couple and see if a public truce can be worked out. The couple should be reminded of the rules for behavior in common areas — and that they are expected to follow them. If they're not followed, a co-op can turn to the proprietary lease and threaten the couple with eviction if they don't curb their behavior.

Condominium boards, however, wield far less power to enforce good behavior. Unlike a cooperative association, which can bring a disruptive shareholder to landlord-tenant court, a condo must seek an injunction against the residents in State Supreme Court. Later, if the board prevails, it can attempt to recoup legal fees. "In a condo, there is more exposure in a divorce situation where the parties are feuding," says Elliot Meisel, a partner in the law firm Brill & Meisel.

Steer Clear

Often the people on the front lines are building staff, such as the porters and doormen. Property managers often advise staff to stay out of disputes as much as possible. If an altercation gets heated, the staff is usually advised to contact the managing agent, who can then decide whether the board's lawyers should be consulted. "We deal with it at arm's length as much as we can," says Don Levy, a vice president at Brown Harris Stevens.

In the case of the forged documents, the board put a flag on the sale and the process was delayed. Ultimately the apartment was sold and "the wife got a nice settlement out of it," recalls Weinstein.

For more on see boards' role in the division of apartments as marital asset, read Part 2 and Part 3 or pick up the May issue of Habitat.


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