The Unprecedented Impact of a Hatchet Attack on Family Law

In a shocking turn of events, a recent Appeals Court decision has sparked considerable debate within the realm of family law and separation agreements. Following the incident where a man’s ex-wife attacked him with a hatchet, the court ruled that he was excused from further payments under their separation agreement. This decision, based on a bench trial in Superior Court, has far-reaching implications for the intersections of family-law, contract principles, and the covenant of good faith and fair dealing.

THE HATCHET ATTACK: A Disturbing Prelude

On August 11, 2015, the events unfolded as Julie Rabinowitz dressed in camouflage and a ski mask, ambushed her ex-husband, Dr. Mark Schenkman, outside his North Attleboro dental office. After a brief struggle and sustaining cuts to his arms and chest, Schenkman was able to disarm her. The aftermath of this gruesome attack would not only shape the legal proceedings but also shed light on the complexity of family law matters.

A DIVORCE AGREEMENT SHATTERED

Prior to the attack, Schenkman had adhered to the terms of their separation agreement, a crucial component of their 2013 divorce. He had made 17 of the 60 monthly payments, gradually providing Julie Rabinowitz a share of the marital estate linked to the value of his dental practice. Furthermore, Schenkman was obligated to maintain a life insurance policy.

THE LEGAL BATTLE UNFOLDS

In the wake of the hatchet attack, Rabinowitz, now facing criminal charges, pleaded guilty to armed assault with intent to murder. Surprisingly, she later filed a lawsuit in Bristol Superior Court in 2019, arguing that Schenkman should have continued making monthly payments as per their initial agreement.

THE LEGAL RATIONALE

Rabinowitz’s legal challenge centered on her assertion that the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing shouldn’t excuse Schenkman’s performance, as property division under G.L.c. 208, §34, is generally considered non-modifiable. However, the Appeals Court panel drew attention to precedents, such as the Nile v. Nile case, demonstrating that courts have revisited property division under similar circumstances.

BREACH OF COVENANT: A NOVEL DEFENSE

Judge Christopher P. Hodgens, writing on behalf of the panel, pointed out that the questions of whether Rabinowitz breached the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing was within the purview of the trial judge. Hodgens argued that Robinowitz’s extreme conduct aimed at destroying or injuring Schenkman’s rights, as defined by the separation agreement, could be viewed as a breach of the covenant.

FIDUCIARY DUTIES AND CONTRACT PRINCIPLES

Schenkman’s attorney, Charles G. Devine Jr., emphasized the fiduciary status of parties to a separation agreement, suggesting that the breach of the covenant was a fitting defense. This unique legal status allows for a higher standard of conduct, and Devine argued that even if the covenant hadn’t been violated, the hatchet attack could still constitute a breach of fiduciary duty.

EXAMINING THE FALLOUT AND FUTURE IMPLICATIONS FOR FAMILY LAW SETTLEMENTS

The Appeals Court’s decision, while rooted in the extraordinary circumstances of this case, raises questions about the boundaries for reopening settlement agreements. Family law attorneys, such as Timothy D. Braughler and Jonathan E. Fields, emphasize the contractual nature of separation agreements and the need to uphold normal contract principles.

CONCLUSION: A LANDMARK CASE WITH UNPRECEDENTED FACTS

The Rabinowitz case stands as a rare and extreme example that challenges the finality of surviving provisions in separation agreements. While legal experts agree that this decision is limited to its unique circumstances, the notoriety surrounding the case may prompt future attempts to argue for the breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing in family law settlements.

Read more about this case here. If you need help enforcing or drafting a separation agreement, please contact Hera Law Group at 978-637-2048 or info@heralawgroup.com. Click here to learn more about our firm.

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