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A Westchester, N.Y., judge has ruled that he has the authority to bifurcate a trial and to grant an interlocutory judgment of divorce to a woman who may be dying, though he declined to actually do so. Barbara Hannigan, who is suffering from a potentially terminal illness, wanted to be divorced before her death. She requested that the court separate the grounds issues from the economic ones in order to expedite the judgment. Her husband Thomas Hannigan opposed the application. He contended that such a judgment would adversely impact his equitable distribution rights. After holding that he had the authority to bifurcate the trial, Supreme Court Justice William J. Giacomo declined to grant Ms. Hannigan’s application outright, suggesting a compromise alternative instead. Giacomo proposed that the court sever the grounds issues from the economic ones, so long as Ms. Hannigan, her attorneys and her estate do not request an interlocutory judgment of divorce prior to the resolution of all economic issues. Under the compromise, if Ms. Hannigan died prior to the completion of the proceedings, the judgment might facilitate her estate’s prosecution of the economic aspects of the divorce. The Hannigans declined to follow Giacomo’s alternative plan, though the proposal successfully encouraged the settlement of grounds issues, according to Ms. Hannigan’s attorney. Mr. and Ms. Hannigan, 43 and 44 respectively, married on June 15, 1985. Ms. Hannigan initiated divorce proceedings on June 20, 2005, five days after their 20th anniversary. In his decision, Giacomo addressed two issues, whether his court has the authority to bifurcate the trial and whether bifurcation was warranted in the presented case. He answered the first question in the affirmative, the second in the negative. A SPLIT IN AUTHORITY Finding no controlling precedent from the Appellate Division, 2nd Department or the Court of Appeals, Justice Giacomo turned to the other Appellate Divisions, where he found a split of authority. “The Third Department considers an interlocutory judgment of divorce to be ‘nothing more than a decision stating the intention on the part of the court to divorce the parties in the future [which] is both nonbinding and nonfinal, as well as without legal effect,” he wrote, quoting Sullivan v. Sullivan, 174 AD2d 862. “That view has been rejected, however, by the Fourth Department, which has determined that a Trial Court is ‘not prohibit[ed]‘ from entering an interlocutory judgment” of divorce,” he noted, citing Zack v. Zack, 183 AD2d 382. Finding such a split in authority, the court had to “determine whether to follow the approach taken by the Third or Fourth Department, or neither,” he concluded. Giacomo sided with the 4th. Citing Zack’s legislative analysis, the importance of judicial economy and the cost of pretrial discovery, he determined that his court is authorized to enter an interlocutory judgment of divorce. However, he declined to bifurcate in order to address grounds separately. “[T]his Court recognizes that in certain instances bifurcation of the issues can come at a cost to one of the parties,” Giacomo wrote. “In this case, if a grounds trial results in an interlocutory judgment of divorce, plaintiff’s share of real property, and the entire sum held in [a disputed] Bank Account, will pass to her estate, to be distributed either pursuant to the terms of any Will created by her or by the law of intestacy.” Giacomo therefore granted the bifurcation only conditionally. The parties’ settlement of the grounds of divorce last Thursday appears to have made the proposal set forth in the conditional grant moot. Both sides expressed satisfaction with the decision and outcome. Karen L. Kahn of Mount Kisco-based Novenstern & Fabriani represented Ms. Hannigan. She called the decision “very thoughtful.” “The court really analyzed where the discretion lies when it comes to bifurcation,” she said. Evelyn D. Appel and Susan Freedman of the White Plains-based Law Office of Susan Freedman represented Mr. Hannigan. “It was a very carefully researched and written decision,” Appel said. “We accepted the judge’s decision.”

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