Modification of Child Support Orders and Family Court’s Jurisdiction

I frequently see child support petitions in Family Court seeking to modify child support provisions of either judgments of divorce, or stipulations or settlement agreements incorporated in the judgments of divorce. Sometimes these petitions argue that the child support provisions of the judgment of divorce, stipulation or settlement agreement are invalid as violating the Child Support Standards Act. Unfortunately, if brought in the Family Court, these petitions suffer from certain jurisdictional defects as demonstrated in Savini v. Burgaleta, 34 A.D. 686 (2nd Dept. 2006).

In Savini, in 1996, the father entered into a stipulation with the mother which provided that the father would “pay to the [mother] as and for child support 29 percent of his gross salary as defined under the Child Support Standards Act on a weekly basis calculated on actual income.” That stipulation was later incorporated but did not merge into a judgment of divorce.

In a 1997 handwritten agreement, which was neither incorporated nor merged into the divorce judgment, the mother allegedly agreed, inter alia, to accept the sum of $200 per week from the father as child support and not to commence any proceeding to recover the difference between that amount and the percentage of gross salary specified in the prior stipulation.

Subsequently, a child support proceeding was commenced in the Family Court by the mother, and the Family Court Support Magistrate, sua sponte, determined that “the prior Judgment of Divorce and the stipulations did not comply with the Child Support Standards Act” and therefore informed the parties that she would consider the issue of child support de novo. She directed the father, in the interim, to pay child support in the amount $446.15 per week effective February 11, 2005. After a hearing, the Support Magistrate determined, in relevant part, that the father should pay $559.78 per week in child support until June 29, 2005, and $482.57 thereafter, and made the order retroactive to the date of the petition. The Support Magistrate also awarded the mother an attorney’s fee in the sum of $11,990.

The father filed various objections to the Support Magistrate’s findings and order. He claimed that the Support Magistrate was without jurisdiction to hold a de novo hearing on the issue of child support as if the judgment of divorce had never existed. By order entered February 8, 2006, the Family Court, inter alia, denied the father’s objections and father appealed.

The Appellate Division agreed with the father that the Family Court was without subject matter jurisdiction, in effect, to vacate as illegal so much of the judgment of divorce as directed the father to pay child support and, thereafter, to determine the issue of child support de novo. What is particularly interesting in this case was its reasoning.  The Appellate Division made this determination on constitutional grounds, stating that New York Constitution, article 6, §13 (c) provides that the Family Court is vested with limited jurisdiction “to determine, with the same powers possessed by the [S]upreme [C]ourt, the following matters when referred to the [F]amily [C]ourt from the [S]upreme [C]ourt: . . . in actions and proceedings for . . . divorce, . . . applications to fix temporary or permanent support . . . or applications to enforce judgments and orders of support”. Similarly, Family Court Act §466 provides, in relevant part, that, unless the Supreme Court directs otherwise, the Family Court may entertain an application to enforce an order or decree of the Supreme Court granting support, or an application to modify such order or decree “on the ground that there has been a subsequent change of circumstances and that modification is required.” The Supreme Court’s judgment of divorce provided, in relevant part, that the Supreme Court “retain[ed] jurisdiction of the matter concurrently with the Family Court for the purpose of specifically enforcing such of the provisions of the stipulation of child support as are capable of specific enforcement, to the extent permitted by law”.

The Court held that “nowhere in the Constitution, in the Family Court Act, or in the judgment of divorce itself, is the Family Court empowered, in effect, to invalidate a stipulation incorporated into the judgment of divorce entered by the Supreme Court. Significantly, the purpose of the mother’s petition was to enforce the terms of the stipulation of October 29, 1996 – not to have it declared illegal. Had either party questioned the legality of the stipulation, the issue should have been determined by the Supreme Court, which had issued the judgment in which the stipulation was incorporated. Accordingly, the Family Court was without jurisdiction to invalidate the stipulation and determine the child support issue de novo.”

What makes this situation different from typical modification of child support, which I previously discussed, here and here, is that fact that the provisions of the judgment apparently violated the Child Support Standards Act. In those situations, the Supreme Court has the jurisdiction to vacate any child support provisions of the judgment and recalculate child support de novo, going back to the original date of the judgment or the parties’ agreement.  The Family Court does not have the jurisdiction to do so. Accordingly, this is an important procedural point that should be familiar to most divorce and family law lawyers handling child support issues.  If the provisions of the judgment of divorce dealing with child support violate the Child Support Standards Act, the proper venue to address such issues lies in the court that issued the judgment of divorce.

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