Shared Custody and Child Support – Number of Overnights Controls

I have previously written about the case of Baraby v. Baraby, 250 A.D.2d 201, 681 N.Y.S.2d 826 (3d Dept, 1998), where the Appellate Division held that in an equally shared custody case the parent who has the greater income should be considered the noncustodial parent for purposes of child support. This has been the rule in shared custody cases for the last 15 years.

However, in a recent decision, Rubin v. Salla, 107 A.D.3d 60 (N.Y.A.D. 1 Dept. 2013), the Appellate Division held that based on the plain language of the Child Support Standards Act, that a custodial parent cannot be directed to pay child support to a noncustodial parent, and that the “custodial parent”, in an equally shared custody case, is “the parent who has the child the majority of the time, which is measured by the number of overnight time that parent has with the child.”

In Rubin, the parties were the unmarried parents of a 9–year–old son. The mother and father always lived separately. After trial, the court awarded primary physical custody to the father during the school year, with the mother having parenting time on alternate weekends (from Friday after school to Monday morning) and every Thursday overnight. During the summer, the schedule was reversed and the child would live primarily with the mother, but would spend Thursday overnights and alternate weekends with the father. The mother would also have the child each winter vacation, and the other vacations were evenly divided. Additionally, each parent had two weeks with the child during the summer. With respect to legal custody, the court awarded the father decision-making authority, after consultation with the mother, over educational and medical issues. The mother was given authority, after consultation with the father, over decisions on summer and extracurricular activities, and religion.

Following the custody decision, the father sought to dismiss the mother’s cause of action for child support. He argued that, by the terms of the custody order, he was the custodial parent because the child would spend the majority of the year with him. He argued that, as a matter of law, the court could not order him to pay child support to the mother, the noncustodial parent. The father established that during the period from July 2012 to June 2013 there were 206 overnights with the father and 159 with the mother. These custodial periods amounted to the child being with the father 56% of the time and with the mother 44% of the time.

The trial court denied the father’s motion for summary judgment, holding that an award of child support to the mother was not precluded because the parties had “parallel legal custody” of their son and both spent some time with the child, it was impossible to say, as a matter of law, that the father was the custodial parent for child support purposes. The court also focused on the disparity between the parents’ financial circumstances and concluded that, regardless of whether the father was the custodial parent, it had the discretion to award the mother child support because she needed funds to pay her monthly rent and to maintain the type of home she could not otherwise afford without the father’s assistance.

The Appellate Division reversed, holding that under the Child Support Standards Act, the father, as the custodial parent, cannot be directed to pay child support to the mother, the noncustodial parent. According to the decision, the CSSA provides for “a precisely articulated, three-step method for determining child support” awards in both Family Court and Supreme Court. Under the CSSA’s plain language, only the noncustodial parent can be directed to pay child support. Domestic Relations Law § 240(1–b)(f)(10) and FCA § 413(1)(f)(10) state that, after performing the requisite calculations, “the court shall order the non-custodial parent to pay his or her pro rata share of the basic child support obligation.”

After analyzing the applicable case law, the Appellate Division stated that only where the parents’ custodial time is truly equal, such that neither parent has physical custody of the child a majority of time, have courts deemed the parent with the higher income to be the noncustodial parent for child support purposes. Where parents have unequal residential time with a child, the party with the greater amount of time is the custodial parent for CSSA purposes. The great disparity in overnights here—56% to 44%—forced the court to make a finding that the mother was the non-residential parent.

Unlike the trial court which counted the waking hours each parent spent with the child, the Appellate Division decision held that the number of overnights, not the number of waking hours, is the most practical and workable approach. The court stated that:

Allowing a parent to receive child support based on the number of daytime hours spent with the child bears no logical relation to the purpose behind child support awards, i.e., to assist a custodial parent in providing the child with shelter, food and clothing (see e.g. Higgins v. Higgins, 50 A.D.3d 852 (2d Dept. 2008) [food, clothing and shelter costs are inherent to the basic child support obligation]). Furthermore, because a child’s activities are subject to constant change, the number of hours spent with each parent becomes a moving target. Outside of school hours, a child may participate in after-school activities, spend time with a child care giver, be enrolled in tutoring, or attend summer camp. During those times, the child may not be with either parent. The child’s activities may vary day to day and will change as the child ages, unnecessarily creating the need to recalculate the parties’ parenting time and possibly modify the custodial parent designation. Moreover, the use of this type of counting approach could also lead parents to keep their children out of camp or other activities simply to manipulate their time spent with the child so as to ensure that they are designated the “custodial parent”.

Thus, Rubin makes it clear that even in shared custody situations, the courts will seek to determine who is the residential parent for child support purposes.  In some respects, counting overnights makes it easier for the courts, however, under certain circumstances, counting overnights only does not represent a true picture of parental involvement.  At the same time, this decision introduces much needed clarity.

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