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.

Varying From Statutory Child Support Percentages

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.

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)

Child Support and Public Assistance

While I have repeatedly written about various issues involving New York’s Child Support Standards Act, here, here, here, and here, one issue that was not previously discussed and bears mentioning, is the interplay between the Child Support Standards Act and public assistance received by the parent receiving child support.  In Gregory v. Gregory, 68 A.D.3d 770 (N.Y.A.D. 2 Dept), the Appellate Division, Second Department decided the amount of child support payable by the non-custodial parent to the custodial parent was receiving public assistance.

In Gregory, the parents physically separated and the mother retained custody of the children.  Eventually, the parents agreed that the father would have primary custody of their two sons, and the mother would have primary custody of their daughter.  While there was no written agreement or court order concerning child support, the father claimed that he and the mother agreed that each parent would support the child or children in her or his custody, respectively.

Thereafter, the mother applied for and was awarded public assistance.  The mother received public assistance from August 1, 2004, until May 31, 2007, totaling $26,830.67, of which $13,415.44 was attributable to the support of the parties’ daughter, who was the child in mother’s custody.  In May 2007 the mother commenced a proceeding seeking child support for the parties’ daughter.  The Department of Social Services (DSS) intervened in the proceeding, seeking payment of child support from the father, which sum included the money it had paid to the mother on behalf of the parties’ daughter.

After a hearing, the Support Magistrate calculated the father’s support obligation for his daughter for the period to be $26,006.26, and directed him to pay that amount to the DSS.  The Appellate Division held that Family Court’s directive that the father pay the DSS the sum of $26,006.26 was proper.  Since the support obligation of a parent of a child receiving public assistance is measured by the child’s needs and the parent’s means, not by the amount of public assistance paid on behalf of the child, the Family Court acted properly in declining to limit the amount required to be paid by the father to the DSS to the child’s share of the public assistance grant.  Contrary to the father’s contention, he was not entitled to offset alleged unpaid child support from the mother against the amount he owed to the DSS. During the relevant time period, there was no support obligation imposed upon the mother for the children who were in the custody of the father.

The lesson of this case is that whenever the DSS is involved in assisting the custodial parent, this assistance is likely to come at a high price to the non-custodial parent.  What is significant in the opinion is that the typical child assistance payment amounts to a few hundred dollars.  On the other hand, the amount of child support owed by the non-custodial parent and calculated on the basis of that parent’s income, can be several times higher.  The non-custodial parent will not receive the difference between the two figures since it would be retained by the DSS.  In similar situations, depending on the incomes involved, a family law lawyer may recommend to the non-custodial parent to pay the custodial parent the total amount of public assistance privately since it may cost a lot less.

Child Support, Emancipation and Child’s Economic Independence

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.

Child Support and High Income Non-Custodial Parent

I have previously written about various child support issues, here, here, here and here.  While the number of issues is substantial, one situation that comes up periodically, is the one where the non-residential parent earns a substantial income, placing the combined parental income well in excess of the basis economic support under the Child Support Standards Act.  While the income limit for basic economic support under the CSSA is about to increase substantially, what happens in situations where the nonresidential parent earns several hundred thousands dollars or more per year?

In a recent decision,  Jackson v. Tompkins, 2009 N.Y. Slip. Op. 06550 (2nd Dept. 2009), the Appellate Division, Second Department, held that in high income cases, appropriate determination under F.C.A. §413(1)(f) for an award of child support on parental income in excess of $80,000 should be based upon child’s actual needs and amount required for child to live an appropriate lifestyle, rather than upon wealth. See, Brim v. Combs, 25 A.D.3d 691, 693 (2nd Dept. 2006).  The Appellate Division affirmed the Family Court’s order which directed that the father pay $6,700 in monthly child support.

The above decision is consistent with the prior cases, such as Cassano,  and its progeny.  The Appellate Division cited Brim v. Combs in reaching its holding.  That case makes for an interesting reading since the respondent in Brim v. Combs was Sean “Puffy” Combs.  In Brim, the mother’s net worth statement and her extensive testimony at the hearing established that her expenses related to the child were $19,148.74 per month, exclusive of the child’s educational, health, medical, dental, school transportation, school supplies/books, security, and summer camp expenses, which in any case are paid by the father. The court further noted that this amount was deemed admitted as fact by the father due to his failure to comply with the compulsory financial disclosure requirements of Family Court Act § 424-a. Accordingly, the Appellate Division held that the Family Court erred in awarding $35,000 in monthly child support to the mother. Instead, the mother should have been awarded monthly child support in the sum of $19,148.74 to satisfy the child’s actual needs and to afford him an appropriate lifestyle (see Family Ct Act § 413).

Thus, if you earn a substantial income and you are obligated to pay child support, your family law attorney would do well to know what are the child’s needs and what are the actual expenses  associated with child, and be prepared to challenge any unsubstantiated claims at a hearing.

Enforcement of Child Support Arrears and Chapter 13 Bankruptcy

Support Magistrate determined that respondent willfully failed to pay $7,814.90 in child support arrears, and referred matter to Family Court for confirmation. Respondent’s commencement of Chapter 13 bankruptcy stays all actions and proceedings to collect pre-petition claims against debtor and his property. See, 11 USC § 362[a][1]. Although Family Court is precluded from exercising its enforcement powers pursuant to FCA § 454 to recover arrears while Chapter 13 bankruptcy plan is in effect, Family Court finds that it is not prohibited to confirm finding of willful violation already made by Support Magistrate and hold enforcement in abeyance pending completion of the Chapter 13 bankruptcy plan.
In the Matter of a Support Proceeding Marcia T., Petitioner,
v.
Raymond W., Respondent.
F-01769-08/08A
Family Court, Albany County
Decided on September 1, 2009
CITE TITLE AS: Matter of Marcia T. v Raymond W.
Marcia T., Matter of, v Raymond W., 2009 NY Slip Op 51883(U). Parent and Child-Support-Bankruptcy Proceedings Not Bar to Recovery of Arrears under Prior Determination of Support Magistrate. (Fam Ct, Albany County, Sept. 1, 2009, Maney, J.)
APPEARANCES OF COUNSEL
Bixby, Crable & Stiglmeier, PLLC (Carol Stiglmeier of counsel) for Marcia T.
Jeffrey S. Berkun, Esq. for Raymond W.
OPINION OF THE COURT
Gerard E. Maney, J.
By order dated January 14, 2009, the Support Magistrate determined that respondent Raymond W. willfully failed to obey an order of the Court pursuant to Family Court Act § 156 by failing to pay $7,814.90 in child support arrears. The matter was referred to this Judge for confirmation in accordance with Family Court Act § 439 (a).
Counsel for respondent maintains that because respondent filed for Chapter 13 Bankruptcy relief in November 2008, the confirmation hearing must be stayed. Counsel argues that the bankruptcy code contains an automatic stay provision that provides that the filing of a bankruptcy petition operates as a stay of actions or proceeding to recover a claim against the debtor that arose prior to the commencement of the case. Although certain exceptions to the automatic stay provisions exist, counsel argues that none apply in the instant family court proceeding.
The court agrees with counsel that the commencement of a case under Chapter 13 of the United States Bankruptcy Code stays all actions and proceedings to collect pre-petition claims *2 against the debtor and his property (11 USC §362 [a] [1]) or to obtain possession and control of property of the estate (11 USC §362 [a] [3]). The property of the estate, which is broadly defined, specifically includes “earnings” (11 USC §541 [a] [6]; §1306 [a];). Because payments to creditors must come from the debtor’s post-petition earnings, those earning are property of the Chapter 13 estate (11 USC §1306 [a] [2]). Thus, “[t]he claimant seeking to collect arrearages in support obligations is not free to pursue the Chapter 13 debtor’s post-petition earnings” (Margaret Howard, A Bankruptcy Primer for the Family Lawyer, Family Law Quarterly, Volume 31, Number 3, Fall 1997, at 380).
Although the court finds that it is precluded from exercising its enforcement powers pursuant to Family Court Act §454 to recover arrears while the Chapter 13 bankruptcy plan is in effect, it does not find that it is prohibited by the bankruptcy laws from confirming the finding of a willful violation already made by the Support Magistrate and holding its authority to enforce such finding in abeyance pending completion of the Chapter 13 bankruptcy plan.
It is this court’s understanding that petitioner has filed a claim in the bankruptcy proceeding for the support arrears and that such arrears will be payable under the bankruptcy plan. If the payment of arrears is not satisfied when the Chapter 13 bankruptcy plan is closed, petitioner may move to restore the matter to the family court calendar to have the court exercise its enforcement powers to compel the payment of arrears.
Accordingly, after examination and inquiry into the facts and circumstances of the case and after hearing the proofs and testimony offered in relation thereto and based on evidence that a lawful order of support was in effect and respondent had the ability to pay but willfully failed to do so, it is
ADJUDGED that Raymond W. failed to obey the order of this court for the support of his children , A. W. and S. W., and that such failure was willful;
ORDERED that the determination of the Support Magistrate pursuant to Family Court Act § 156 made herein that Raymond W. willfully failed to obey an order of the court is hereby confirmed; and it is further
ORDERED that if the payment of arrears as set forth in the Support Magistrate’s January 14, 2009 order is not satisfied when respondent’s Chapter 13 bankruptcy plan is closed, petitioner may move to restore the matter to the family court calendar to have the court exercise its enforcement powers pursuant to Family Court Act §454.

I have previously written about several different situations involving interaction between New York’s Family Law and bankruptcy.  The basics of divorce and bankruptcy were addressed in this post,  the issues related to the bankruptcy court’s handling of domestic support obligations were addressed in this post, and the issues related to attorneys fees and bankruptcy were addressed in this post.  Because of the complexity of the issues involved, New York courts continue to decide cases were the family law and bankruptcy law interact.  A recent case of Marcia T. v. Raymond W., 24 Misc.3d 1245(A) (Fam. Ct. Monroe Co. 2009), addressed whether Chapter 13 bankruptcy stay prevented recovery of child support arrears and a finding of willful failure to pay.

Respondent father filed for Chapter 13 Bankruptcy relief in November 2008.  Petitioner mother brought a willful violation petition based upon the father’s failure to pay several thousand dollars in child support arrears.  Support Magistrate determined that respondent willfully failed to pay $7,814.90 in child support arrears, and referred matter to Family Court for confirmation in accordance with Family Court Act § 439(a).  Respondent’s lawyer argued that because of Chapter 13 filing, the confirmation hearing must be stayed since automatic stay prevents recovery of any claims that arose prior to the commencement of the bankruptcy case.

The Family Court held that respondent’s commencement of Chapter 13 bankruptcy and resulting automatic stay stops all actions and proceedings to collect pre-petition claims against debtor and his property.   Because payments to creditors must come from the debtor’s post-petition earnings, those earning are property of the Chapter 13 estate, pursuant to 11 U.S.C. §1306 (a)(2).  Thus, the claimant seeking to collect arrearages in support obligations is not free to pursue the Chapter 13 debtor’s post-petition earnings.  It further held that although Family Court is precluded from exercising its enforcement powers pursuant to FCA §454 to recover arrears while Chapter 13 bankruptcy plan is in effect, Family Court found that it is not prohibited to confirm finding of willful violation already made by Support Magistrate and hold enforcement in abeyance pending completion of the Chapter 13 bankruptcy plan.

The court further noted that petitioner has filed a claim in the bankruptcy proceeding for the support arrears and that such arrears will be payable under the bankruptcy plan. If the payment of arrears is not satisfied when the Chapter 13 bankruptcy plan is closed, petitioner may move to restore the matter to the family court calendar to have the court exercise its enforcement powers to compel the payment of arrears.

The above is an excellent illustration of how a Chapter 13 bankruptcy can be utilized to prevent serious problems that a finding of willful violation may present.  Further, since the typical Chapter 13 plan lasts for 5 years, this allows the party paying child support to extend payment of child support arrears over 5 years.  A family law lawyer needs to be familiar with bankruptcy law issues since it is not uncommon for these areas of law to interplay.

Upcoming Changes to New York’s Child Support Statute

New York’s child support statute has been long criticized for its its $80,000.00 cap on the basic economic child support.  The critics have argued that since the statute was enacted approximately 20 years ago, the basic economic child support cap figure was too low.  New York Legislature apparently heard those concerns.  Laws of 2009, Chapter 343  enacted the “child support modernization act” which amended  the provisions of the Child Support Standards Act to raise the cap on combined parental income to $130,000.00, effective January 31, 2010, and to provide for the adjustment of the $130,000.00 cap every two years to reflect changes in the Consumer Price Index.  The child support percentages of payments that non-custodial parents are obligated to make toward child support were not modified by the amendments.  Domestic Relations Law §240 (1-b) (2) and Family Court Act §413 (1) (c) (2) were each amended to provide that the court shall multiply the combined parental income up to the amount set forth in Social Services Law §111-i, (2) (b).  Social Services Law §111-i (2)(b) provides that the combined parental income amount to be reported in the child support standards chart and utilized in calculating orders of child support in accordance with Domestic Relations Law §240 (1-b) (2) and Family Court Act §413 (1) (c) (2) shall be one hundred thirty thousand dollars; and that beginning January 31, 2012 and every two years thereafter, the combined parental income amount shall increase 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.  These amendments take effect on January 31, 2010.

While I view the changes as necessary to keep up with economic changes, once the two year recalculation provision takes effect, it is going to make more difficult for family law lawyers to calculate the appropriate child support figures.

Making Deals in Divorce and Subsequent Change in Circumstances

I am asked occasionally whether a separation agreement, which was perhaps incorporated in the subsequent judgment of divorce, entered into years ago can be vacated because of subsequent changes in the parties’ circumstances.  My usual response is no, since in order to have the agreement vacated, the party must show grounds sufficient to vitiate a contract.  The burden of proof in those situations is very high and may also be subject to time limitations.  Similarly, with respect to modification of a child support obligation included in a stipulation or a separation agreement, the party must show an unreasonable and unanticipated change in circumstances since the time of the stipulation to justify a modification, and that the alleged changes in that party’s financial position was not of his/her own making. A recent decision by a trial court, Debreau v. Debreau, 2009 N.Y. Slip. Op. 51750 (Sup. Ct. Nassau Co.), demonstrated a good illustration of the above principles, holding that if the parties make a deal as a part of their divorce settlement, provided that the settlement was arrived at fairly, the settlement will stand despite the fact that the circumstances have changed.

In Debreau, the wife accepted title to the family home as prepayment for 15 years of child support.  After the house sold for only two-thirds of the value estimated at the time of the divorce, she sued for child support arrears.  The court held that “[t]he law is clear that both [the Domestic Relations Law] and the public policy in favor of finality require the enforcement of property distribution agreements pursuant to their terms, absent fraud, regardless of post-agreement changes in the values of the assets.”  The court stated that “[t]he law views the equitable distribution of marital assets as a snapshot, not a movie… If an agreement distributing marital assets is not subject to vacatur, on the date of its execution, on grounds sufficient to vitiate a contract, it may not be modified or set aside on the ground that future events have rendered the division of assets inequitable.”

When the parties divorced in 2007, they agreed by stipulation to allow the husband’s share of the marital home serve as a prepayment of the child support he would owe for the couple’s four children over the next 15 years. Mr. Deabreu’s child-support obligation was set at $2,972 per month, or a total of about $535,000. The parties agreed that the husband’s share of the $1.85 million Melville house, after paying off its $400,000 mortgage and other expenses, was comparable to that obligation. They therefore stipulated that his obligation would be met by transferring over title. In June 2008, the house sold for only $1.2 million, netting the wife $734,000 rather than the $1.45 million she had anticipated. Ms. Deabreu subsequently filed a motion seeking child support arrears of $484,492, the amount she contends her husband owes to her from 2006 through 2021.

The trial court rejected Ms. Deabreu’s motion, ruling that any shortfall in the sale of the house should be taken from the wife’s share of the marital assets, not from the husband’s prepayment of child support. “While the prepaid child support sum…was specified and fixed pursuant to the parties’ stipulation of settlement, the value of the marital assets distributed to each party was determined only as of the date of the stipulation,” Justice Falanga held. The sum that the wife was to receive for her marital share “was not guaranteed by the husband, but rather, was subject to various factors such as market fluctuations and the manner in which the premises was maintained.” The decision also mentioned that Ms. Deabreu was not without other methods of seeking redress. According to the decision, “[t]he receipt by the wife, upon the sale of the [house], of approximately $650,000.00 less than she expected when entering into a stipulation of settlement…may constitute an unanticipated and unreasonable change in her financial circumstances, and may have left her, as she has alleged in her within application, unable to provide for the financial needs of the parties’ four children, entitling her to seek an upward modification of child support.”

In my opinion, it is not likely that Ms. Debreau would be able to establish an unanticipated and unreasonable change in circumstances in the above situation.  I am also left wondering why the house was not sold earlier.  I also would like to know if Ms. Debreau entered into this stipulation after discussing the risk of decline in real estate values with her divorce lawyer. Personally, I don’t think that I would recommend this type of an arrangement to a client.  The risk of decline in the value of any asset subject to market forces is too great. As a divorce attorney, I would also be concerned about giving advice to the client to retain a fixed asset as a prepayment of future child support or maintenance obligation.

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.