Untangling the Knot

Sharon Boula


When Sharon Boula received a quit-claim deed in pieces in the mail from her ex-husband, she had no idea he had just tangled her in a complicated knot that could lose the roof over her head. The court order in Boula’s 2005 divorce had awarded the marital home to her. Rather than sign the property over to Boula, her ex-husband, who had abused her during the marriage, ripped the document up and returned the shreds to her. She believes refusing to sign the deed was his way of asserting control over her.

Boula, 51, a resident of Oswegatchie, had little recourse to force the issue with her ex-husband, so she notified the court and followed up on her child support claims against him. Then she did what most single moms with three kids do — focused on the responsibilities in front of her. Legally, her husband continued to co-own the marital home. And since he was the co-owner, judgments he incurred after the divorce, including those for failure to pay child support, created liens on the property.
“This was back in 2005,” said Boula, “when all three children were home. There were times when I wouldn’t eat so my kids could eat. I wanted to go back to school, but there was no way I could afford the gas.”

Boula did not want to go on public assistance, so she worked full-time, babysat, and took on other odd jobs to make sure her children had what they needed. Eventually Boula had difficulty affording the mortgage on the home and applied to a bank to re-finance the mortgage. Refianncing would save Boula over $200 per month on the mortgage due to lower interest rates and the equity Boula had built in the home. That’s when Boula discovered the liens, all against her ex-husband, and most due to child support nonpayment. Boula also was told by the bank that she could not re-finance the property in her own name if her ex-husband continued to be a co-owner.

“I would lay awake at night wondering what I was going to do,” she said. In April of 2013, she turned to Legal Aid. “They didn’t waste any time,” said Boula.

“The first thing that struck me was what a horrible situation she was in,” said LASNNY senior attorney Victoria M. Esposito. “Here was a woman who had done everything right, and it ended up working against her. She was raising kids without child support, making heartbreaking choices between mortgage and food. You shouldn’t go to court to get child support and end up with a lien on your house.”
Esposito could not recommend Boula cut her losses like so much bubblegum in hair. So she put the complicated tangle under a bright light and, with precision and patience, unraveled it strand by strand.
“One of the liens was in her name in her favor, so she could release that lien,” said Esposito, who was also able to make quick work of most of the other liens, too.

Unfortunately, the New York State lien proved more difficult. “Initially, State Tax and Finance were sympathetic,” said Esposito, “but they have rules to follow.”

Esposito knew it would be difficult to go after the ex-husband to enforce the requirement in the divorce decree that he relinquish his ownership of the marital home, as he lived out of state. Then she remembered a part of the Civil Procedure Law that allows a judge to authorize a county sheriff to sign in someone else’s place.

“I’ve only seen it ever used with a recalcitrant spouse in a divorce,” said Esposito. It was the last tool needed to make the tangle fall apart. A judge issued the order, the county sheriff signed, and in December of 2013, Boula was sole owner of her home.

“I sent the info to the State,” said Esposito, “and they agreed to release the lien as he was no longer an owner. Sharon was then able to refinance the mortgage with substantial savings and keep her home.”
Boula was beyond grateful to LASNNY. “They were awesome and Victoria was wonderful,” she said.

“In my mind, it’s there but for the grace of God go I,” said Esposito. “You can picture any regular person, through no fault of their own, having this happen to them. She’s more in control of her life at this point. Sharon was a very easy person to help because she is just such a sweetheart. I was happy to do it.”

Sharon was able to refinance the mortgage with substantial savings and keep her home.

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LASNNY attorney Victoria Esposito.