Archive for May, 2010

Custody and Other Issues Related to Emancipation of Minors

Tuesday, May 25th, 2010

I have previously written about emancipation of minors for child support purposes, both under the terms of New York’s Child Support Standards’ Act, as well as under the principles of constructive emancipation and abandonment.  At the same time, the question of when a child becomes emancipated for the purposes of custody is quite common and involves different legal issues.

Unlike a number of other states, New York law does not include a procedure for formally emancipating a minor. There is some case law that describes certain situations when a minor would be considered to be emancipated for custody purposes.

The legal age of majority for custody and visitation in New York State is 18.  However, the courts may consider a minor emancipated if he or she is at least 16 years old, is living separate and apart from the parents, is not relying on his or her parents for living expenses such as rent, car expenses, insurance, food, etc., is able to manage his or her financial affairs, must not be in need of or receipt of foster care, the child must be living beyond the custody and control of his or her parents.   As far as child custody or visitation provisions contained in New York law, once the child is sixteen years old or older, the child’s preferences and desires with respect to the terms of the visitation will be given considerable weight.

If a child has a child of her own, that may result in emancipation for child support purposes.  A teen mother does not automatically become emancipated, except for limited issues such as medical care for self and the child, whether and where to attend school and receiving public assistance (if the criteria are met.)

As far as marriage is concerned, an emancipated child under the age of 18 would still needs parents’ permission.  Additionally, since the contracts that persons under the age of 18 enter into are voidable, the child may not be able to rent an apartment without an adult being a cosigner or cotenant; will need to obtain a work permit in order to have a job, which may also require parents permission; may not vote or bring a lawsuit.

However, once emancipated, the child may receive public assistance, attend school, receive medical care without their parents consent and can live independently.  Also, while an emancipated child’s custodial parent may no longer be entitled to receive child support, an eighteen year old may actually sue the non-custodial parent for child support his or herself.

If a child is arrested before the age of seventeen and is charged in Family Court, the parent is required to appear with that child, or be subject to abuse/neglect proceedings.  Although having their case brought in Supreme Court does not relinquish that obligation, the teen is routinely charged as an adult and thus may not result in any legal proceeding being brought against the parents.  If parents force the child  out of the home before the age of seventeen, this may also result in an abuse/neglect proceeding against the parents.  The courts consider it to be the parents responsibility to bring a PINS (person in need of supervision) petition in Family Court if the child is being unruly or disobedient at home or not going to school. The same is true for the child who needs the parents’ consent or attention for some medical or psychiatric problems. If the parents fail to consent or obtain necessary assistance, their inaction may also result in an abuse/neglect case being brought against them.

Prenuptial Agreements and Waiver of Retirement Rights

Sunday, May 16th, 2010

One issue that consistently comes up dealing with prenuptial agreements is whether or not rights to future retirement benefits can be waived prior to the marriage despite the fact that any such future rights will not come into existence until after the marriage.  Prior case law wasn’t particularly clear in dealing with this issue since by necessity any such prenuptial agreement implicated Employee Retirement Income Security Act (“ERISA”).  The prior case law held that under ERISA, only a spouse can waive spousal rights to employee plan benefits, that a fiancee is not a spouse, and that such rights, therefore, cannot be effectively waived in a prenuptial agreement.

In Strong v. Dubin, 2010 N.Y. Slip. Op. 04121 (1st Dept. 2010), the Appellate Division, First Department, overturned the prior case law, including its own decisions, and held that a waiver of retirement rights included in a prenuptial agreement is valid and does not violate ERISA.

The court’s reasoning in reaching this conclusion was as follows. Initially, the parties’ prenuptial agreement, read as a whole and giving effect to all provisions, expressed an intent to opt out of the statutory scheme governing equitable distribution, which encompassed plaintiff’s retirement funds.  The prenuptial agreement provided that “[t]he parties desire, in advance of their marriage, to settle their financial, property, and all other rights, privileges, obligations and matters with respect to each other arising out of the marital relationship and otherwise, as more particularly hereinafter provided”.  Article I of the prenuptial agreement provided: ”it is the intention [of the parties] . . . that the property owned by each of them shall remain completely and wholly vested in each such person in whose ownership it presently exists.”

Article I of the Agreement expressly referenced Domestic Relations Law § 236(B)(3), which provides that a prenuptial agreement may include, among other things a “provision for the ownership, division or distribution of separate and marital property,” and reflects an intent to opt out of equitable distribution “with respect to the division of all marital and separate property either now in existence or which is hereafter acquired” (emphasis added), which encompasses the retirement funds at issue.   According to the Appellate Division, if this clause is disregarded, that would render the reference to property that is “hereafter acquired” meaningless, leaving that provision without force or effect.  According to the prenuptial agreement, the only assets specifically designated to be “marital property” are the prospective joint banking, savings or investment accounts or assets purchased from the proceeds of those joint accounts set forth in Article I, paragraph 5. The retirement assets in question were not held in joint names or funded with money from an account in the joint names of the parties and are not marital property within the meaning of the agreement.  The agreement also included a waiver which provided that

Except as otherwise expressly provided herein, each party hereby releases . . . the other, of and from all causes of action, claims, rights, or demands, whatsoever, in law or in equity (including, but not limited to claims for equitable distribution, distributive award or claims against the separate property of the other spouse) which either of the parties hereto ever had, or now has, against the other, except (a) nothing herein contained shall be deemed to prevent either party from enforcing the terms of this Agreement or from asserting such claims as are reserved by this Agreement to each party against the estate of the other; provided, however, that the claims so asserted arise out of a breach of this Agreement; and (b) nothing herein contained shall impair or waive or release any and all cause [sic] of action for divorce, annulment or separation, or any defenses which either may have to any divorce, annulment or separation action which may hereafter be brought by the other.

According to the Appellate Division, the contention that this waiver clause encompasses only property which either of the parties held at the time the prenuptial agreement was executed, to the exclusion of after acquired property, was unsupportable.  While the waiver clause stated that it is a release of all causes of action, claims, rights or demands whatsoever in law and in equity “which either of the parties hereto ever had, or now has against the other.” However, the illustrative claims listed include, but are not “limited to claims for equitable distribution, distributive award or claims against the separate property of the other spouse.” At the time the prenuptial agreement was signed, neither party had any of these delineated claims, all of which would accrue in the future, once the parties were married. Similarly the exceptions for breach of the antenuptial agreement and divorce demonstrate that the waiver clause was intended to apply to future causes of actions that would accrue after the marriage. In light of this language, to limit the claims to property that either party had at the time of the marriage would render the waiver clause meaningless in that property owned by either party at the time the prenuptial agreement was entered into would already be separate property as to which there is no right to equitable distribution or a distributive award.

The court further stated that for purposes of equitable distribution, a waiver of any interest in a pension as marital property by an otherwise valid prenuptial agreement is not prohibited by ERISA.  In New York, vested or matured rights in a pension plan are considered marital property subject to distribution in a divorce action to the extent that the benefits result from employment by the participant after the marriage and before the commencement of the divorce action.  There is nothing in the matrimonial law of New York prohibiting a spouse from waiving his or her interest in such marital property by agreement made before or during the marriage in accordance with Domestic Relations Law § 236(B)(3).

This is an important decision since it resolved some to the uncertainty associated with waivers of future retirement rights included in prenuptial agreements.  In the future, divorce lawyers can be more comfortable in including such waivers for their clients.  In appropriate situations, value of such waiver can amount to a substantial amount of money and may become subject of litigation in divorce.

Varying From Statutory Child Support Percentages

Sunday, May 9th, 2010

I have previously written about the court’s ability to consider not only the income one or both parties actually reported but the income as should have been reported.  What is not commonly known is that the court, whether Supreme Court or Family Court, can vary from the statutory percentages, by either increasing or reducing child support amounts.

In Irkho v. Irkho, 66 A.D.3d 682 (2d Dept. 2009), the Appellate Division held that Family Court properly denied the father’s objections to the order of the Support Magistrate, which departed from the numerical guidelines of the Child Support Standards Act and directed him to pay 50% of the child’s regular monthly expenses.  The Appellate Division held that a hearing court is not bound to apply the statutory percentage established in Family Court Act 413(1)(c), but may determine the child support obligation through the application of the percentage set forth in Family Court Act 413(1)(c), the factors delineated in Family Court Act 413(1)(f), or a combination of both (see Cassano v. Cassano, 85 N.Y.2d 649 (1995)).  Family Court providently exercised its discretion in departing from the prescribed percentage.

The above is fairly uncommon situation since in vast majority of the cases the courts will apply the CSSA.  It is unfortunate that the Appellate Division did not discuss the facts of the case in detail.  Whatever the circumstances were that resulted in the court’s decision may applicable in other cases.  If the child’s monthly expenses exceed the amount that the father would be obligated under the CSSA, family law lawyers would certainly appreciate knowing under what circumstances their clients may receive or be obligated to pay child support in excess of the CSSA amounts.

For Unmarried Couples, Promise to Support Your Significant Other Is Not Binding

Saturday, May 1st, 2010

Marriage of the parties creates binding legal obligations and rights between spouses, including an obligation to support your spouse financially, as well as the right to division of jointly acquired assets in the event of divorce.  Once in a while, I am asked about a situation where the parties have been in a relationship for a long time and have treated their relationship as a marriage, but did not actually get married.  In this situation, my usual answer is that neither party has acquired a right to support from the other party, and any assets that one of the parties accumulated will remain assets of that party, unless titled in both parties’ names.

A good illustration of the above took place in a recent case of M. v. F., 27 Misc.3d 1205(A) (Sup.Ct. New York Co. 2010).  In M. v. F., the parties resided together for approximately 13 years between 1994 and 2007, and have a child together.  They have never been married to each other.  The girlfriend argued that the boyfriend told her that he would always take care of her, that they would combine their efforts and earnings, and what was his was hers.  Once the parties split up, the girlfriend asked for a portion of the boyfriend’s assets, a portion of the profits from his business, and other financial support.

After the girlfriend commenced an action to obtain financial relief under various causes of action, the trial court held that the boyfriend’s promise to support his girlfriend if they ever broke up are unenforceable.  The girlfriend is not entitled to “equitable distribution” of the assets acquired during the relationship.  The court held that such statements as “I will always take care of you” and “everything that we put in, we will enjoy together” do not constitute legally binding promises.

Specifically, the court stated that even “an explicit promise that, upon separation, [the plaintiff] would be entitled to ‘equitable distribution’ of their assets, it would be unenforceable, as it would be contrary to the long-standing law and policy in New York that unmarried partners are not entitled to the same property and financial rights upon termination of the relationship as married people.”   According to the court, the absence of a marriage is the determinative factor of her property rights.  The court stated that “Unless and until the law imposes equitable distribution on unmarried couples, in New York, as least, the legal status of marriage remains vitally important to establishing the economic rights of members of a couple.”

This case illustrates the fact that marriage is the critical legal event that creates financial rights and obligations between the parties that can be enforced by the courts.  For those couples who choose to cohabit, without getting married, each party should be able to rely on their own ability to earn and not to expect any financial assistance from the other party in the event of breakup.  With respect to M. v. F., the answer would likely be different if there was a written agreement to provide support.  Any such agreement, assuming properly created and executed, would probably enforceable as any other contract.