Archive for January, 2010

Child Support, Emancipation and Child’s Economic Independence

Saturday, January 30th, 2010

One of the most common questions I hear as a part of my family law practice is a question of when a child become emancipated for child support purposes.  My usual response is that emancipation of minors depends on a variety of circumstances.  The Child Support Standards Act’s provisions dealing with emancipation hold that the child becomes emancipated upon reaching the age of 21, joining military, or getting married. In addition, the child may become constructively emancipated by willingly abandons the parent and withdrawing from parental supervision and control. In addition, the child may become emancipated, assuming the child is of employable age, by becoming economically independent of the parents. If emancipation is sought for a child who is of employable age, and is working, I usually tell my client that the child has to work between 35 and 40 hours per week and generate sufficient income to be economically independent of the parents.  In some situations, however, even a full-time job may not be enough.

A recent case, Thomas B. v. Lydia D., 2009 N.Y. Slip. Op. 06789 (1st Dept. 2009), is an excellent illustration of these concepts.  In Thomas B., the Appellate Division held that two parents may not, by written agreement, terminate the child support obligation because of the child’s full-time employment, without a simultaneous showing of the economic independence of the child.

Pursuant to a stipulation of settlement entered into as part of the parties’ judgment of divorce, father was obligated to pay annual child support until the parties’ child reached the age of 21 or was otherwise “emancipated.”  The stipulation defined emancipation as “the Child’s engaging in full-time employment; full-time employment during a scheduled school recess or vacation period shall not, however, be deemed an emancipation event.”  The father brought a motion seeking to declare the child emancipated and argued that under the terms of the stipulation of settlement, the child became emancipated by reason of his full-time employment at a music store from July through December 2005.  The mother opposed the motion, arguing that during the time in question, the child was living in a halfway house as part of his treatment for substance abuse.  His employment at the music store was one of the conditions of that treatment.  She also argued that the child was not economically independent, as he received financial support from her in addition to her payment of 100% of his unreimbursed medical expenses.

The court stated that mere full time employment was not enough, and emancipation would require economic independence from the child’s parents which is not established by merely working a standard, full-time work week.  Thus, even where a child is working but still relies on a parent for significant economic support such as paying for utilities, food, car insurance, medical insurance and the like, the child cannot be considered economically independent, and thus is not emancipated. This is true even where the child is residing with neither of the parties, so long as the child is still dependent on one of the parties for a significant portion of his or her support.  Moreover, the parties cannot contract away the duty of child support.  The Appellate Division found insufficient evidence in the record to support a finding that the child was economically independent of his parents as a result of his working 35 hours per week while living in a halfway house. The child’s employment was one of the requirements of participation in the halfway house substance abuse program.  In Thomas B., it was clear, that although he was working 35 hours per week during the period of time in question, the child was not economically independent of his parents, and thus was not emancipated during that period of time.

One lesson of Thomas B. is that the lawyer dealing with this type of situation must present sufficient evidence to establish the child’s work hours and income, as well as his/her needs and expenses.  It is also critical to present testimony as to whether the other parent is meeting the child’s other financial needs, and whether such financial assistance is necessary or is merely voluntary.  If you believe that your child became emancipated due to employment, I would recommend consulting with a family law attorney.

Determining Validity of Separation Agreements

Saturday, January 23rd, 2010

I have previously written about separation agreements and their validity, here, here and here.  Periodically, I see separation agreements that are extremely one-sided or I am asked to draft a separation agreement that is very one-sided.  In those situations a divorce lawyer is usually asked if the agreement can be set aside.  My usual response is that the court’s determination whether to set aside the agreement depends on a variety of factors.

The legal standard for setting aside separation agreements states that a separation agreement in a divorce proceeding may be vacated if it is manifestly unfair to one party because of the other’s overreaching or where its terms are unconscionable, or there exists fraud, collusion, mistake, or accident.  Separation agreements may be set aside as unconscionable if their terms evidence a bargain so inequitable that no reasonable and competent person would have consented to it.  Moreover, evidence that one attorney ostensibly represented both parties to a settlement agreement raises an inference of overreaching on the part of the party who is the prime beneficiary of the assistance of the attorney. Such an inference is, rebuttable, if it appears that the separation agreement is fair and equitable or that both parties freely agreed to it with a thorough understanding of its terms.

In a recent case of Pippis v. Pippis, 2010 N.Y. Slip. Op. 00492 (2nd Dept. 2010), the Appellate Division, Second Department vacated the separation agreement holding that plaintiff was guilty of overreaching with respect to the parties’ separation agreement.  The court found that the defendant was not represented by counsel at any point during the relevant time period.  According to the plaintiff, his attorney drafted the stipulation of settlement, and only one attorney was present at the signing.  Under these circumstances, and where the terms of the stipulation “evidence a bargain so inequitable” in favor of the plaintiff “that no reasonable and competent person” would have consented to the defendant’s end of the bargain, an inference of overreaching on the part of the husband was raised.  Since the plaintiff failed to rebut the inference, the Appellate Division held that the trial court properly determined that the stipulation was the product of his overreaching, and granted the defendant’s motion to set it aside.  The Appellate Division also held that the trial court properly rejected the plaintiff’s ratification argument, since the defendant “received virtually no benefits from the agreement and thus cannot be said to have ratified it”.

While occasionally I am asked to prepare a separation agreement in a situation where the opposing party is unrepresented, I advise my client that it is in his/her best interests that the other party is represented and that the agreement is not entirely one-sided.  As a divorce lawyer, I have to advise my client that any agreement that is extremely one-sided may be vacated by the court in any pending or subsequent divorce action.  If the agreement is reviewed by counsel and conveys some benefits to the other party, the likelihood of it being overturned by the court is greatly diminished.

Grounds for Divorce, Truthfulness, Paternity and Consequences

Friday, January 15th, 2010

I have previously written how New York’s fault system of divorce which requires the parties to satisfy grounds requirements tends to result in unneeded matrimonial litigation and, in some case, leave the parties married despite the fact that the marriage died many years ago.  A recent decision brought a new twist on an all too common situation.

In Andrew T. v Yana T., 2009 N.Y. Slip. Op. 29530 (Sup. Ct. N.Y. Co. 2009), the parties were married in in 2006.  In September of 2007, the plaintiff husband brought a divorce action on the grounds of constructive abandonment.  On March 19, 2008, defendant-wife gave birth to a baby boy.  This event not only predated the divorce judgment dissolving the parties’ marriage, but was prior to defendant having signed her affidavit and the parties having entered their separation and property settlement agreement. According to plaintiff, he was never aware that defendant was pregnant and he only learned about the child after the parties were already divorced. There was no father listed on child’s birth certificate.

Once plaintiff learned of the existence of the child, he petitioned the court for an order directing paternity testing.  Defendant opposed the motion contending that the child, who was not born until March 19, 2008, cannot possibly be plaintiff’s.  Defendant further argued that if plaintiff is taking the position that the child is plaintiff’s child, this means that the sworn statements in his verified complaint concerning the lack of sexual relations with defendant must be untrue.  As a result, defendant cross-moved for an order finding that plaintiff has violated Penal Law section 210.10, perjury in the second degree.

Defendant’s argument was predicated on the fact that with respect to plaintiff’s cause of action for constructive abandonment, plaintiff alleged in his verified complaint “that commencing on or about August 1, 2006, and continuing for a period of more than one (1) year immediately prior to commencement of this action, the defendant refused to have sexual relations with the plaintiff despite plaintiff’s repeated requests to resume such relations.”  The complaint stated that there were no children of the marriage.  Defendant had neither interposed an answer to the complaint nor in any other way sought to contest the divorce.  Instead she provided plaintiff with an affidavit in which she admitted service of the summons and complaint “based upon the following grounds: constructive abandonment DRL §170(2).”

Following the execution of defendant’s affidavit and the parties’ agreement, plaintiff promptly placed the case on the uncontested matrimonial calendar for submission. This meant that neither party had to appear in court to give testimony because the application for the divorce judgment was to be decided on the papers alone.  On July 29, 2008, a judge signed the judgment dissolving the marriage between the parties by reason of the constructive abandonment of plaintiff by defendant. The judgment stated that there are no known children of the marriage and none are expected.

While defendant’s argument was creative, the trial court judge did not accept it, pointing out that the defendant has not presented any evidence to exclude plaintiff as defendant did not present any evidnce other than relying on plaintiff’s verified complaint.

In addition, the court stated that the presumption of legitimacy, the child’s best interests and plaintiff”s request for paternity testing were interrelated.  Plaintiff was already presumed to be child’s father by virtue of having been married to the child’s mother when the child was born.  The child’s best interests lie in having his parentage confirmed, his father’s name listed on his birth certificate, and his rights and status attendant to the father-son relationship fully established.  A positive paternity test would provide the means by which any doubt as to whether plaintiff is the child’s father.

With respect to defendant’s cross-motion seeking a finding that the plaintiff committed perjury, a felony, the court stated the following:

Suffice it to say that if the District Attorney was intent on prosecuting all the people who, within the context of uncontested divorce proceedings, falsely claim not to have had sexual relations with their spouses, there would be little time left for pursuing other crimes. As with a revelation that a husband or wife has committed the crime of adultery by having had sex outside the marriage, there are instances of wrongdoing that do not demand the attention of the People of the State of New York in order to keep our society safe and secure.  This is one of them.

The court further addressed New York’s lack of no-fault divorce in rather strong terms:

If New York was like every other state, even those that some might think of as legally and socially backward, and had a true no-fault ground for divorce, such as “irreconcilable differences” ( Mississippi) or “incompatibility” (Oklahoma), the situation here, as difficult as it already is involving a battle over a child, could have been that less complicated. This is because plaintiff would never have had to make the representations that he did about his sex life with defendant just so a New York court could free the parties from a marriage that neither side wished to continue.

Unfortunately, our state, which prides itself on being so forward-thinking in so many ways, is positively regressive as concerns the institution of marriage. When it comes to forming the marriage bond, we do not allow loving, consenting adults who happen to be of the same sex to enjoy the same rights as others. When it comes to dissolving the marriage bond, we do not allow no-longer-loving, consenting adults to obtain a divorce for reasons that are real rather than fabricated so as to meet some archaic legal requirement. It is clearly time for the Empire State, as it is known, to reject a view of marriage that is more reflective of the time of the Empire of Queen Victoria than it is of the second decade of the 21st Century and at long last adopt the reforms that bar associations and citizens groups of all kinds have been demanding for years. Until that happens, the integrity of our legal system here in New York will continue to be needlessly compromised.

defendant contends that the child, who was not born until March 19, 2008, cannot possibly be his. Defendant further submits that if plaintiff is taking the position that Ethan is his child, this means that the sworn statements in his verified complaint concerning the lack of sexual relations must be untrue. As a result, defendant cross-moves for an order finding that plaintiff has violated Penal Law section 210.10, perjury in the second degree.
FACTS
The parties were married on July 1, 2006, in New York City. Fifteen months later, on or about September 7, 2007, plaintiff commenced an action for divorce based on two of the statutory grounds. One was the constructive abandonment of plaintiff by defendant for a period of one year proceeding commencement of the action (DRL §170[2])[FN2]; the other was the cruel and inhuman treatment of plaintiff by defendant (DRL §170[1]). Plaintiff ultimately relied solely on the first cause of action, constructive abandonment, in seeking the divorce.
With respect to his cause of action for constructive abandonment, plaintiff alleged in his verified complaint “that commencing on or about August 1, 2006, and continuing for a period of more than one (1) year immediately prior to commencement of this action, the defendant refused to have sexual relations with the plaintiff despite plaintiff’s repeated requests to resume such relations.” The complaint states that there are no children of the marriage.
Defendant neither interposed an answer to the complaint nor in any other way sought to contest the divorce. Instead she provided plaintiff with an affidavit in which she admitted service of the summons and complaint “based upon the following grounds: constructive abandonment DRL §170(2).” She further stated that she was consenting to the matter being placed immediately on the uncontested divorce calendar. On the same day defendant signed the affidavit, June 2, 2008, the parties, both of whom were represented by counsel, executed a [*3]separation and property settlement agreement. The agreement states that “the parties agree that the Wife shall consent to an uncontested divorce judgment being entered against her under this Index Number based upon the grounds of constructive abandonment set forth in the first cause of action of the Verified Complaint.” As with defendant’s affidavit, no mention is made of children, either born or expected.
Following the execution of defendant’s affidavit and the parties’ agreement, plaintiff promptly placed the case on the uncontested matrimonial calendar for submission. This meant that neither party had to appear in court to give testimony because the application for the divorce judgment was to be decided on the papers alone. On July 29, 2008, a judge of this court signed the judgment dissolving the marriage between the parties by reason of the constructive abandonment of plaintiff by defendant. The judgment states that there are no known children of the marriage and none are expected.
On March 19, 2008, defendant gave birth to a baby boy, Ethan. This event not only predated the divorce judgment dissolving the parties’ marriage, but was prior to defendant having signed her affidavit and the parties having entered their separation and property settlement agreement. According to plaintiff, he was never aware that defendant was pregnant and he only learned about the child after the parties were already divorced. There is no father listed on Ethan’s birth certificate.

As far divorce litigation is concerned, the above represents an extreme example of a problem that divorce lawyers often face.  If New York were to adopt some version of no-fault divorce, a great deal of litigation could be eliminated.

Appreciation of Separate Property and Equitable Distribution

Sunday, January 10th, 2010

One issue that periodically comes up in my divorce practice here in Rochester has to do with appreciation of separate property during the marriage.  I have previously written about this issue in the past.  A recent case decided by the Appellate Division, Third Department, Albanese v. Albanese, 2010 N.Y. Slip. Op. 00036 (3rd Dept. 2009), has illustrated a related aspect of this issue.  In Albanese, the critical issue before the court was whether or not the wife’s lawyer was able to establish how much the husband’s law practice has appreciated during the marriage.  In this type of situation, the divorce attorney has to be concerned about two different valuations.  The first one is the valuation of the business at the time of the marriage, and the second one is the valuation of the business at the time of commencement of the divorce action.

However, during the trial, the wife’s divorce attorney appears to have not established what the value of the law practice was at the time of the marriage.  The Appellate Division stated,

Here, the only evidence in the record regarding the value of defendant’s law practice related to the purported value at the time the divorce action was commenced. Plaintiff, who was represented by seasoned counsel and retained an experienced expert, presented no proof of a baseline value at the time of the marriage or of an appreciation in the value of the practice during the marriage. While plaintiff’s role as homemaker and mother to the parties’ children established that she was entitled to a share of any appreciation, there was no evidence offered from which appreciation could be found. Under such circumstances, an award for the value of the law practice was inappropriate.  (Citations omitted).

In such situations, the non-titled spouse bears the burden of proof, and any appreciation in value of such separate property may be subject to distribution if there is a nexus between the titled spouse’s efforts and the increase in value and those efforts were aided or facilitated by the nontitled spouse.  However, without the starting point value, the non-titled spouse simply could not prove her case. As a result, the wife has received no portion of the law practice that has likely appreciated since the parties’ marriage in 1987.

The above illustrates that sometimes even the most obvious issues occasionally escape the attention of counsel.  Therefore, the Appellate Division’s reference to the plaintiff’s attorney as “seasoned counsel” and her expert as “experienced expert” indicates its likely surprise that this issue was overlooked during the trial.

Disability Payments, Divorce and Equitable Distribution

Saturday, January 2nd, 2010

I have previously written about different classes of property that most of the time will be considered to be separate property of the party during the divorce.  Periodically, divorce lawyers have to deal with situations where one of the parties becomes disabled during the marriage and begins to receive disability payments, either social security disability or payments under a private disability insurance policy.

In a recent case, Masella v. Masella, 2009 N.Y. Slip. Op 08190 (2nd Dept. 2009), the Appellate Division, Second Department, held that the proceeds of the defendant’s disability insurance policies are his separate property. Similarly, the court held that the proceeds of the defendant’s Social Security disability benefits also are his separate property, and are not subject to equitable distribution.  The reason that Social Security benefits are not subject to equitable distribution, is because Social Security benefits are not a pension.  With respect to the disability insurance, any disability insurance payments constitute compensation for personal injury and would not be subject to equitable distribution.

In a situation where one of the parties is disabled and is receiving disability payments, the other party might not be able to obtain equitable distribution of such payment, regardless of the amount received.  While some may argue that this may not be fair to the other party, the above principles are uniformly applied in New York divorces and are unlikely to be overturned in the future.  When handling similar situations, divorce attorneys will need to investigate the source of payments, the reasons for them and try to figure out if the income can be reached in some other way, perhaps by a spousal maintenance claim.