How Far Back Can Child Support Be Recalculated?

Ordinarily, proceedings to modify child support or related expenses are retroactive to the date of filing of the new application or petition. However, proceedings that argue that the court order or settlement agreement didn’t comply with the relevant requirements of the Child Support Standards Act are treated differently. Where the court finds, sometimes many years later, that an order, or an agreement, is non-compliant, it has to recalculate child support and related obligations retroactive to the original date of the order or agreement. Non-compliance can happen for a variety of reasons such as an invalid opt-out provisions or a failure to include proper acknowledgment clause.

In Martelloni v. Martelloni, the Appellate Division, Second Department, held that the trial court erred in failing to grant wife’s motion for recalculation of unreimbursed medical and childcare costs retroactive to parties’ stipulation of settlement date of January 12, 2012. Parties’ stipulation of settlement survived but was not merged into divorce judgment.

In 2014 wife commenced plenary action to vacate and recalculate medical and childcare expenses retroactive to the date of stipulation. In 2015 court consolidated wife’s plenary action with another post judgment matrimonial proceeding and determined stipulation provision pertaining to unreimbursed medical was invalid as it deviated from CSSA without an acknowledgment, and dismissed wife’s plenary action due to consolidation. Wife then filed motion to compel husband to pay pro-rata share of unreimbursed medical and childcare, retroactive to 2012 stipulation date.

The Appellate Division held that the trial court improperly determined reimbursement of medical and childcare costs were retroactive only to the date of filing of the motion. It held that since wife properly commenced plenary action to vacate and recalculate stipulation provision which action was consolidated, court should have granted recalculation of arears owed retroactive to date of parties’ stipulation of January 2012.

This determination is likely to create an unexpected financial obligation for the now ex-husband. The amount of it is likely to be significant since it had merited an appeal. In my practice as a child support attorney, I see a surprisingly high number of orders and agreements that for one reason or another do not comply with the Child Support Standards Act. Under appropriate circumstances, those situations represent an opportunity to undo a bad agreement or wrong court decision.

Collection of Child Support Arrears

One issue that often comes up when someone owes child support or spousal support arrears is how those arrears are to be collected. One of the more common methods is through the use of income execution for support enforcement under CPLR §5241.

CPLR §5241 allows the attorney for the party to whom to child support or spousal support are owed to obtain up to 65 percent of the debtor’s disposable earnings to pay both past due and current amounts of child support, alimony or maintenance, plus provision of health insurance for dependents. CPLR §5241(h) notes that a levy on this type of execution has priority “over any other assignment, levy or process.”

Similar to the income execution for support enforcement is the income deduction order for support enforcement authorized by CPLR §5242. Such an order is issued by the court at the same time it issues an order of support. It allows deduction of the same percentages from debtor’s income payable to the creditor and the same number-one priority over all other assignments, levies or process against the income of the debtor.

If you are a debtor, a deduction of 65% of disposable earnings is likely to be unmanageable.  So what can be done? The answer is contained in CPLR §5240, which allows the court to modify terms of garnishment.  In Fishler v. Fishler, 154 A.D.3d 917 (2nd Dep’t 2017), the debtor was served with an execution for the maximum percentage permitted, 65% of disposable earnings.  The Appellate Division, having reviewed financial circumstances of the debtor, reduced percentage collected to 40% of disposable wages.  In making its decision, the court was seeking to strike “a fair balance between the needs of a creditor holding a valid money judgment and the needs of a debtor managing competing financial obligations”.

One additional issue is worth mentioning. If child support or spousal support are being collected by New York State Child Support Enforcement Unit, those arrears will be collected by increasing the amount garnished by 50% of the current payment due.  Debtor paying such arrears may apply for a lower payment amount on arrears, the so-called administrative adjustment, but such modification is discretionary with CSEU and requires an application and proof of financial circumstances.

Enforcement Proceedings and Attorney Retainer

Whenever there are proceedings brought to enforce child support or spousal support awards, attorneys can issue executions against assets owned by responsible party. In M.M. v. T.M., 2015 N.Y. Slip.Op. 25294 (Sup. Ct. Monroe Co. 2015), the trial court held that a retainer paid to an attorney to defend an enforcement proceeding can be subject to an execution by the opposing party.

In M.M., the trial court had to determine whether the execution issued pursuant to the judgment for unpaid spousal maintenance can be used to restrain a retainer held in attorney’s trust account, that was paid to defend the enforcement proceeding. Specifically, defendant-husband objected to the execution stating that ‘to permit the turnover would cause the husband “extreme hardship.'” Further, defendant argued that he held no interest in the escrowed funds and that by virtue of commencing representation, the defendant’s attorney acquired an interest superior to that of the plaintiff.

In addressing these arguments, the court held that the evidence in this case, based on the affidavit from the defendant-husband, was insufficient to meet the extreme hardship test. There was no demonstrated evidence of any “extreme hardship” and no evidence of severe financial impact on the defendant-husband if the funds are subject to the wife’s restraining notice. The defendant baldly asserted that there is such harm, but when push comes to shove, had no extrinsic proof to back up his assertions. There was no evidence of other unpaid creditors or financial hardship to the defendant. In the absence of such factual assertions, the court was not inclined to grant any protective order based on an inherent financial harm to the defendant-husband.

Further, the court addressed the argument that the defendant-husband did not have an interest in the escrowed funds. After reviewing the retainer agreement, the court found that according to the retainer agreement, the retainer paid was a “security retainer” that defendant’s attorney could not draw upon until the work was performed and the client was billed.  Until the bill was issued, the funds remained property of the client and the client would be entitled to the funds if the relationship was terminated. Therefore, the court held that defendant-husband continued to hold an interest in the retainer.

Finally, the husband’s attorney argued that his lien interest in the escrowed funds is superior to the plaintiff-wife’s claim for unpaid maintenance. The defendant-husband, in this instance, argued that the retainer funds, which are billed against, but not yet transferred into the attorney’s accounts, are subject to the attorney’s lien for services and that the wife, as a judgment creditor, did not have a superior claim to those funds. The court rejected this argument outright stating that:

To say husband’s argument is somewhat untested in New York is an understatement. This court can find no prior precedents to support this novel theory. In the absence of any precedents and the strong policy preference in New York statutory and case law to allow collection of family support funds, this court is unwilling to recognize that the husband’s counsel’s retaining lien holds a superior position when compared to the wife’s claims against the retainer funds on deposit with counsel.

Given the above, whenever a family law attorney is involved in defending post-divorce proceedings involving claims for unpaid spousal maintenance or child support, that attorney’s retainer is at risk of being restrained and, ultimately, collected by the opposing party. This makes representation of clients in similar circumstances risky and attorney is jeopardizing his chances of being paid. Since the court in M.M. suggested that advanced payment retainer, unlike the advanced payment retainer utilized by defendant-husband’s attorney, would not be considered property of the defendant, then the retainer would not be subject to being restrained. Therefore, utilizing that type of retainer would reduce the risk, however, there may be other issues since New York matrimonial rules frown upon non-refundable retainers. Another option, and probably a better one, would be to have a third party to pay the retainer.

Allocation of Child Care Costs in Child Support Cases

Under New York law, child support consists of two elements: “basic” child support and the “add-ons.”  Domestic Relations Law §240 (1-b)(c)(4) and Domestic Relations Law §240 (1-b)(c)(6) provide that when a custodial parent is working, seeking work, or is in school or training which will lead to employment, reasonable day care expenses will be allocated in a ratio equal to the each parent’s income to the combined income.

The parties occasionally dispute whether child care expenses are reasonable.  Most often, these disputes tend to focus on the cost and need for daycare. Thus, the court usually needs to conduct a fact finding hearing to determine whether such costs are appropriate and the child care was actually needed. In Pittman v. Williams, 127 A.D.3d 755 (2nd Dept. 2015), the court reviewed the parties’ child care costs and determined allocation of the costs. The court held that

where the custodial parent is working . . . and incurs child care expenses as a result thereof, the court shall determine reasonable child care expenses and such child care expenses, where incurred, shall be prorated [and] [e]ach parent’s pro rata share of the child care expenses shall be separately stated and added” to the parent’s basic child support obligation (see Matter of Scarduzio v Ryan, 86 AD3d 573, 574 (2nd Dept. 2011)). Here, the Supreme Court properly determined that the mother incurred $425 in child care expenses each week. However, the court erred in calculating the amount of child care expenses to be paid by the father. Since the child care provider cared for both the subject child, as well as the mother’s son from a previous relationship, the child care expenses should be divided equally between the two children. Consequently, the cost of caring for the subject child is $212.50 per week, and the father’s pro rata share of the child care expenses is $191.25 per week.

Thus, when the need and the costs of child care are disputed, both of these issues need to be analysed and the parties need to be able to offer evidence either in support or opposition. Parenthetically, unless the costs of child care are grossly excessive, courts do not tend to deny parties reimbursement in situations where the child care was needed.

Enforcement of Payment Obligations Pursuant to Judgment of Divorce

One of the issues that occurs in cases where a party is ordered to make spousal maintenance or child support after the judgment of divorce is entered, is that party may fail to make such payments. This brings up a question of what remedy should be utilized under those circumstances.

A recent decision of Keller v. Keller, 2015 N.Y. Slip. Op. 02453 (2d Dept. 2015) demonstrates how the court approaches a contempt application based upon payor’s failure to pay child support and related expenses. In Keller, a contempt application was brought after the money judgment for child support went unpaid for a number of years, and 6 Family Court orders were apparently ignored by the payor. In discussing the remedies available, the Appellate Division stated that

Pursuant to Domestic Relations Law § 245, a spouse may be punished for contempt for failing to make payments pursuant to [a judgment of divorce], but it must appear presumptively, to the satisfaction of the court,’ that payment cannot be enforced pursuant to Domestic Relations Law §243 (sequestration), Domestic Relations Law §244 (money judgment), CPLR §5241 (income execution) or CPLR §5242 (income deduction)” (Jones v. Jones, 65 A.D.3d 1016, 1016; see Klepp v. Klepp, 35 A.D.3d 386; Higbee v. Higbee, 260 A.D.2d 603). Thus, contempt may be warranted where the record demonstrates “that resort to other, less drastic enforcement mechanisms [has] been exhausted or would be ineffectual” (Capurso v. Capurso, 61 A.D.3d 913, 914; see Jones v. Jones, 65 A.D.3d at 1016; Rosenblitt v. Rosenblitt, 121 A.D.2d 375).

While discussing the specific circumstances of the case, the Appellate Division stated that plaintiff repeatedly failed to pay child support as directed in the parties’ judgment of divorce, or to abide by the court orders and money judgments subsequently entered against him on account of child support arrears and related expenses. The record further showed that the defendant either exhausted all enforcement remedies other than contempt, or that such further attempts “would have been futile”. The court further held that the plaintiff had the burden of going forward with evidence of his inability to make the required payments. After reviewing the facts and applicable law, the Appellate Division found that holding plaintiff in contempt of court was the correct remedy.

If Keller was brought in Family Court, the court’s would apply a different set of rules. In Family Court, under Family Court Act §454(3), there is a presumption that a parent’s failure to pay court ordered child support is willful. Payee’s sworn testimony as to nonpayment of ordered child support payments from payor is a prima facie evidence of a willful violation. Once the violation is shown, the burden shifts to the payor to demonstrate inability to make the required payments.  Upon the court’s finding of willful violation, the court may grant attorneys’ fees, enter a money judgment, make an income deduction order, require an undertaking, make a sequestration order or suspend the respondent’s driving, professional or business license. Further, the court may direct incarceration of 6 months as a remedy as well. Thus, defendant would not have to make a showing that all available remedies were exhausted.

The above discussion illustrates that other remedies should always be considered before seeking a finding of contempt since a finding of contempt may require a substantial motion practice and, most likely, a hearing.  Thus, contempt motions should not be brought unless all other remedies were exhausted or, alternatively, if nonpayment of child support, a willful violation petition should be filed in Family Court.

Changes in Temporary Maintenance and Child Support Statutes

Because of the language in the statute providing for cost of living adjustments, temporary maintenance guidelines income cap was raised from $500,000 to $524,000. The “cap” on each spouses annual income, to be utilized in calculating temporary maintenance orders, has increased from $500,000 to $524,000 effective January 31, 2012 in accordance with Domestic Relations Law § 236 [B][5-a][b][5]. The statute provided that:

Beginning January 31, 2010 and every two years thereafter, the income cap increases by the product of the average annual percentage changes in the consumer price index for all urban consumers (CPI-U) as published by the united states department of labor bureau of labor statistics for the two year period rounded to the nearest one thousand dollars. The office of court administration is required to determine and publish the income cap. See Domestic Relations Law § 236[B], [5-a][b][5].

Similarly, the child support cap was modified as well. The “combined parental income amount” utilized in calculating child support orders has increased from $130,000 to $136,000 effective January 31, 2012. The amount of the “combined parental income” is established by Domestic Relations Law § 240 (1-b) (2) as the amount set forth in Social Services Law § 111-I (2) (b). Domestic Relations Law § 240 (1-b) (2) provides that the amount established shall be multiplied by the appropriate child support percentage and such amount shall be prorated in the same proportion as each parent’s income is to the combined parental income. Social Services Law § 111-I (2)(b) provides that the $130,000 cap is increased automatically on January 31, 2012 and on January 31 every two years thereafter by the product of the average annual percentage changes in the consumer price index for all urban consumers (CPI-U) as published by the United States Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics for the two year period rounded to the nearest one thousand dollars.

While the change in the temporary maintenance cap is not likely to be applicable in vast majority of divorce cases, the change in the basis economic support amount applicable to child support cases is likely to be significant in a large number of cases in Family Court and Supreme Court.

Multiple Child Support Orders and Change In Circumstances Warranting Modification of Child Support

One of the issues that I periodically see in child support cases is that a party who is already paying child support has another child or children with a different party, resulting in additional child support orders.  Usually in those circumstances, the child who is the subject of the first order is receiving support on the entire income of the payor.  The subsequent children receive child support on the basis of payor’s income after child support payable pursuant to the first order is deducted.  As a result, the child who is the subject of the first order will always receive higher child support amount than the child or children receiving child support under the subsequent orders.  In addition, the payor’s income is subject to multiple orders and can pay half or more of his gross income in child support.

The above approach has been traditionally applied in Family Court cases.  In a recent decision, Demetrius D. v. Lori T., 2011 N.Y. Slip. Op. 21025 (Fam. Ct. Clinton Co. 2011), the court questioned the logic of this approach.  The court noted that:

From the children’s perspective, the fact that one child receives more child support than another child based solely upon which custodial parent obtains the first support order is unfair and irrational. Obviously, the children cannot control which parent applies for support first nor can the child control the speed of litigation. Nevertheless, this is the statutory law of the State of New York. It should be noted that it is not the age of the children, but rather the order in which the children receive a child support order that determines which children will receive preference under the law[FN4]. Of course, it would also be unfair and irrational to give preference to one child over another based solely upon birth order.

Id. at 3.

Further, the court stated that creation of these additional support order may be grounds for modifying the original child support obligation under Family Court Act § 413(1)(b)(5)(vii)(D):

Subdivision D also raises multiple issues with respect to modification petitions. There is no express provision in the Family Court Act which limits the Subdivision D deduction in modification cases to court orders issued prior to the original order sought to be modified. In other words, in the event that a parent demonstrates a material change of circumstances which warrants the re-application of the Child Support Standards Act, there is no language that excludes new orders issued between the date of the original order and the date of the hearing on modification petition from Subdivision D. Thus, the Court concludes that if there is a material change of circumstances that warrants the new application of the Child Support Standards Act, the non-custodial parent would be entitled to a deduction under Subdivision D for all child support actually paid pursuant to Court orders for other children, whether or not the Court orders for other children were issued before or after the original order for the subject child.

But in Demetrius D., what the court gave with one hand, it took with the other.  The more flexible approach as stated in the decision, was subject to application of general child support modification standards, including a determination that the hardship came as a result of payor’s voluntary actions and was self-inflicted. The court found that having additional children was a self-inflicted hardship that came as a result of his voluntary actions that does not warrant downward modification of payor’s child support obligation.

What is the lesson here for the family law lawyers? If the payor can establish that somehow the act of having more children was involuntary, then the payor may be entitled to a modification of the original child support obligation on the basis of subsequent orders.  It is hard to see the circumstances where it would be remotely possible. On the other hand, under appropriate circumstances, the above approach may help a payor dealing with multiple child support orders.

Major Changes in New York’s Family Law Are Now In Effect

Today is the day when New York’s family law begins a new era. The no-fault divorce law is now in effect and grounds for divorce will no longer preclude someone from obtaining a divorce.    In addition to the new no-fault divorce legislation, three new laws applicable to divorces and child support proceedings became effective including:

1.   a new procedure and formula for setting awards of temporary maintenance while a divorce is pending;
2.  a presumption toward grating attorneys fees to the less monied spouse during the divorce; and
3.   new circumstances for reviewing and modifying child support awards.

Here is the summary of the most important provisions of the new laws:

No-Fault Divorce

There is a new no-fault cause of action for divorce that can be granted if the spouse filing for divorce makes a sworn statement that the marriage has irretrievably broken down for a period of six months preceding the commencement of the divorce action.

Temporary Maintenance

The new law provides that maintenance is to be awarded during the divorce when one parties’ income is less than 2/3of the other spouse’s income.

The amount of maintenance is determined by the following formula as the lesser of a) 30% of the payor’s income minus 20% of the non-payor’s income or b) 40% of the combined income minus the non payor’s income.

Attorneys Fees

The  attorneys fee bill creates a  presumption that the “monied”  spouse should pay to the “non-monied” spouse interim attorneys fees in all divorce or family law case.  The purpose of the law is to make both spouses to be able to litigate their divorce case on equal basis.

Modification of Child Support

The Family Court Act (“FCA”) and matching provisions of the Domestic Relations Law (“DRL”) were amended to allow modification of an order of child support due to “substantial change in circumstances” which is now defined in a change in either party’s gross income by 15% or more.  Also, if three years have passed since the last order was entered, modified, or adjusted, the court can modify an order entered after October 13, 2010 order, unless the parties specifically opt-out of that provisions.  Additionally, a reduction in a party’s income shall not be considered as a ground for modification, unless it was involuntary and the party has made diligent attempts to secure employment.

As I have written previously, these are important development in New York’s family law and I think that it will take some time to assess their impact.  At the same time, I think that they will be welcomed by divorce lawyers in this state and will make divorce easier for the divorcing spouses. With respect to the bill establishing the formula for temporary maintenance, it is highly likely that any such temporary maintenance award is going to be used by the courts as a basis for a permanent maintenance award.

Upcoming Changes to New York’s Child Support Law and Social Services Law

When New York’s Legislature finally passed the no-fault divorce law and made changes to temporary maintenance and attorneys fees awards, it also passed a number of less publicized changes to the Child Support Standards Act, and related laws, which govern child support in New York. The new legislation modified the Family Court Act, Domestic Relations Law and the Social Services Law, substantially altering the parties’ ability to modify child support awards. It also gave the Family Court additional powers in situations where the party paying child support is unemployed.

The following will describe the most significant changes included in the new legislation.

Family Court Act (FCA) §451 was amended to conform the language of the FCA provision governing the modification of child support orders to the Domestic Relations Law (DRL) so that both provisions provide for a “substantial change in circumstances” as a basis for modification of an order of child support.

This section further provides two new bases for modification of an order of child support: (1) the passage of three years since the order was entered, last modified, or adjusted; or (2) a 15 percent change in either party’s income since the order was entered, last modified or adjusted provided that any reduction in income was involuntary and the party has made diligent attempts to secure employment commensurate with his or her education, ability and experience. The parties may specifically opt out of the two new bases for modification in a validly executed agreement or stipulation. This section would provide that incarceration is not a bar to finding a substantial change in circumstances under certain conditions and also would clarify that retroactive support is paid and enforceable as provided under FCA §440.

DRL §236B(9)(b) was amended to separate out the “substantial change of circumstances” basis for modification of child support orders into its own section for clarity and would provide two new bases for the modification of an order of child support: (1) the passage of three years since the order was entered, last modified, or adjusted; or (2) a 15 percent change in either party’s income since the order was entered, last modified or adjusted provided that any reduction in income was involuntary and the party has made diligent attempts to secure employment commensurate with his or her education, ability and experience. The parties may specifically opt out of the two new bases for modification in a validly executed agreement or stipulation. This section provides that incarceration is not a bar to finding a substantial change in circumstances under certain conditions.

The bill also added a new FCA §437-a to authorize the Family Court to require the non-custodial parent of a child to seek employment, or to participate in job training, employment counseling or other programs designed to lead to employment, where such programs are available, if he or she is unemployed at the time the court is establishing the support order unless he or she is in receipt of supplemental security income (SSI) or social security disability (SSD) benefits.

Another section of the bill amended Social Services Law (SSL) §111-h to provide that if the respondent is required to participate in work programs or activities, and if the order of support is made payable on behalf of persons in receipt of public assistance, the support collection unit may not file a petition to increase the support obligation for twelve months from the date of entry of the order if the respondent’s income is derived from the work activity or program. FCA §461 was also amended to reflect the two new bases for modification of an order of child support.

Sections of the bill dealing with modification of child support only apply to child support orders which incorporate but do not merge stipulations or settlement agreements if the stipulation or agreement was executed on or after the effective date of the bill. The amendments, with exception of certain sections of the Tax Law, become effective 90 days after the passing of the bill.  The effective date of the amendments is October 14, 2010.

This bill represents a substantial change to the prior statutory provisions and case law dealing with modification of child support.  While New York’s child support orders were always subject to modification, these changes will make modification of child support easier. I do not know at this time how these provisions will apply to the orders already in place and whether the party seeking modification of child support will be able to use some of the new provisions to modify existing child support orders.

Limitations on Child Support Arrears and Child Support Standards Act

One question that I am often asked with respect to child support arrears is whether there is a limit on the amount of child support arrears that can be accrued.  My usual response is that there is only one limitation in the Child Support Standards Act with respect to the limits on child support arrears and it exists solely in situations where the payor’s income is below the amount set by the poverty income guidelines for the single person, as reported by the federal Department of Health and Human Services.

Specifically, where the payor’s annual income is below the poverty income guidelines, then in accordance with the Family Court Act §413(1)(g), then payor’s child support arrears are limited to $500.00.  For 2009, the federal poverty guideline for a single person was set at $10,830.00.  This provision can be very helpful to family law lawyers and their clients since this provision allows for retroactive limitation on child support arrears, but it is limited to those situation where the party who owes child support has an extremely low level of income.

There are some limitations even in situations where the payor’s income was below the poverty guideline amount.  The party charged with paying child support couldn’t have voluntarily reduced his/her income, and must demonstrate inability to earn a higher amount (i.e., cannot have income imputed on the basis of ability to pay or other factors).  On practical level, the most likely situation where this provision becomes applicable is typically where a party becomes disabled and does not seek downward modification of the child support obligation until after child support arrears have accrued.

What is also interesting about the Family Court Act §413(1)(g), is that it directly contradicts Family Court Act §451, which prohibits the court from reducing or annulling arrears accrued prior to the filing of a modification petition unless the party shows good cause for failure to make the application sooner.  The courts were able to harmonize both sections by deciding that if the payor’s income is below the poverty level guideline, then by operation of section 413(1)(g) the arrears had never accrued.  Ronald F. v. Kathy Jo O., 25 Misc 3d 1229 (Fam.Ct. Erie Co. 2009)