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.

Automatic Orders During Divorce Can Only Be Enforced Prior to the Entry of Judgment

WHAT ARE “AUTOMATIC ORDERS”?

When a divorce action is filed and defendant is served, among other documents that person is served with a ‘Notice of Automatic Orders.’ Those orders are designed to keep the status quo with respect to certain issues, without a judge having to act.

WHAT ISSUES DO THESE AUTOMATIC ORDERS COVER?

Automatic Orders prohibit the sale or transfer of real or personal property without the consent of the other party or an order of the court. This doesn’t apply to spending related to the normal course of business, usual household expenses, or reasonable attorney fees. Automatic Orders prohibit the sale or transfer of retirement accounts without the consent of your spouse or a court order. Automatic Orders prohibit further borrowing against any home equity loan, taking out new loans on any assets, or using credit cards for anything outside the normal course of business, usual household expenses, or reasonable attorney fees. Automatic Orders prohibit you from dropping your children or spouse from any medical insurance policy. You are also prohibited from dropping the policy altogether – health insurance must remain in effect. Automatic Orders prohibit changing the beneficiary of any life insurance policy and require that the parties keep all life, auto, homeowners, and renters insurance in place. The idea behind Automatic Orders is that everything stays the same during the divorce to avoid any sudden changes. If you do need to make big changes because of unusual circumstances, there are ways to go about it.

A RESTRAINING ORDER PREVENTS A PARTY IN A DIVORCE CASE FROM SELLING OR TRANSFERRING PROPERTY.

The reason behind a restraining order is that some spouses try to hide or sell off assets of the marriage. In New York, parties no longer need to apply directly to a judge for a restraining order, as the retraining order and other orders are now automatic. These “Automatic Orders” go into effect when a divorce case is filed in New York. There is no requirement that a Supreme Court Justice sign the Automatic Orders before they become effective. The automatic Orders are imposed on the plaintiff when the Summons is filed with the County Clerk’s office. The Automatic Orders are imposed on the defendant when the defendant is served with the Summons with Notice, and a Notice of the Automatic Orders.

WHAT HAPPENS IF THE AUTOMATIC ORDERS ARE VIOLATED?

In a recent case, decided by the Second Department of the Appellate Division, Spencer v. Spencer, the court held that the remedy of civil contempt of court for a violation of the Automatic Orders is no longer available once the divorce judgment is signed. Thus, any contempt proceeding must be completed before the divorce judgment is signed or there is no longer a remedy for the violation it is waived.

The facts in Spencer are straightforward. Following the entry of her November, 2015 divorce judgment, the wife discovered that while the divorce action was pending, her husband sold a warehouse in Brooklyn, without the knowledge or consent of the wife or the court, netting $300,000.00.

Pursuant to Court Rule 22 N.Y.C.R.R. §202.16-a, the automatic orders are binding upon a plaintiff upon commencement of the matrimonial action and upon a defendant upon service of the summons or summons and complaint (see Domestic Relations Law §236[B][2][b]). Automatic Orders seek to preserve the status quo while the action is pending, by prohibiting the transfer or encumbrance of real and personal property and retirement funds, the accumulation of unreasonable debt, and changes in beneficiaries on existing health and life insurance policies.

The wife, then, brought a motion to hold the husband in civil contempt (Judiciary Law §753). After a hearing, the trial court granted that motion and directed that unless the defendant purged the contempt by immediately paying $150,000.00 to the wife, the husband would be incarcerated every weekend for a period of six months. The husband appealed.

The Second Department reversed. In doing so, it stated the elements needed to be proven by clear and convincing evidence to support a finding of civil contempt are:

      • that a lawful order of the court, clearly expressing an unequivocal mandate, was in effect;
      • that the party against whom contempt is sought disobeyed the order;
      • that the party who disobeyed the order had knowledge of its terms; and
      • that the movant was prejudiced by the offending.

The husband argued that the automatic orders do not constitute “unequivocal mandates” of the court, but are merely administrative rules. The Second Department affirmed that part of trial court’s decision that the automatic orders could form the basis for a finding of contempt. The appellate court found the husband’s argument contrary to the express language of 22 N.Y.C.R.R. §202.16-a, as well as being against public policy.

However, the Second Department held that where a judgment of divorce has already been entered, the remedy of civil contempt is not available for a violation of the automatic orders.

In the context of a matrimonial action, the Court of Appeals has recognized that a final judgment of divorce settles the parties’ rights pertaining not only to those issues that were actually litigated, but also to those that could have been litigated.
The automatic orders are temporary and exist only “in full force and effect” during the pendency of the action until “terminated, modified or amended by further order of the court or upon written agreement between the parties” (22 NYCRR 202.16-a[b]). Upon entry of a judgment of divorce, the purpose of the automatic orders ends, and, when the life of the automatic orders thus expires, the statutory remedies for their enforcement fall at the same time.

In the context of a matrimonial action, the Court of Appeals has recognized that a final judgment of divorce settles the parties’ rights pertaining not only to those issues that were actually litigated, but also to those that could have been litigated. The automatic orders are temporary and exist only “in full force and effect” during the pendency of the action until “terminated, modified or amended by further order of the court or upon written agreement between the parties” (22 NYCRR 202.16-a[b]). Upon entry of a judgment of divorce, the purpose of the automatic orders ends, and, when the life of the automatic orders thus expires, the statutory remedies for their enforcement fall at the same time.

Public policy concerns recognizing the finality of judgments are additional reasons to find that, after a judgment of divorce is entered, a party is not entitled to pursue a motion for contempt of court for a late-discovered violation of the automatic orders even though such violation occurred during the pendency of the divorce action. Preventing vexatious litigation and promoting judicial economy, as well as the goal of avoiding inconsistent rulings where a judgment of divorce might actually conflict with the finding in a hearing on a violation of the automatic orders, also dictate the conclusion that a remedy of civil contempt is not available for a violation of the automatic orders once a judgment of divorce is entered.

While reversing the trial court, the Second Department noted that the unavailability of civil contempt as a remedy to enforce the terms of the automatic orders after the entry of the judgment of divorce did not render the wife without available remedies. It listed a variety of approaches, including a vacatur of the judgment of divorce based on newly discovered evidence, a civil contempt motion for a violation of the judgment of divorce, a proceeding to enforce the terms of the judgment of divorce or to obtain an order directing the payment of 50% of the value of the property which was awarded to the plaintiff in the judgment of divorce, or amendment of the judgment of divorce are all remedies that the wife could have sought.

Thus, it is absolutely critical to enforce a party’s rights for violation of the Automatic Orders as soon as the violation is discovered by filing a contempt motion unless circumstances mandate a different approach.

Sperm Donation, Paternity, and What Not to Do

Generally, a sperm donor is not treated as a father under New York law. However, a typical sperm bank will have prospective mother sign a contract that will disclaim any liability for the donor. A recent case has demonstrated that a donor who chooses to make a private sperm donation without an agreement in place, may expose himself to unexpected consequences.

In Matter of Claudia B. v Darrin M., the Appellate Division, First Department, held that a private sperm donor can be treated as a parent. After the parties’ relationship ended, the petitioner asked the respondent to donate sperm so she could conceive. He agreed. When the respondent donated 17 vials of semen to a fertility center, the parties were still negotiating an agreement providing that he would have no parental rights or responsibilities. No binding agreement was ever reached and executed.

The respondent moved to dismiss the petition on equitable estoppel grounds arguing that the parties intended that he be a sperm donor only, without any legal rights or obligations to the child. The lower court denied the motion and ordered him to submit to DNA testing; and, subsequently, declared him to be the biological father of the child. The First Department affirmed stating:

Respondent’s estoppel claim rests on the premise that the parties had a binding preconception agreement. Contrary to respondent’s contention, there was no binding enforceable oral or written agreement between the parties, either before or after respondent donated his sperm. There is no dispute that a signed contract does not exist. Nor was any final oral agreement reached.

This case makes it clear that trying to do certain things without an attorney familiar with New York’s Family Law, is risky, and can create a life-long financial responsibility. As a result of lacking understanding of legal issues involved, respondent became a legal father of the child without intending to do so. Respondent will be responsible for child support, portion of health insurance and child care costs, and potentially college costs as well, until the child reaches the age of emancipation, which in New York, is 21 in most circumstances.

Discipline For Children Who Refuse to Engage in Court-Ordered Visitation

One of the most difficult problems facing non-residential parents is a situation where a child refuses to engage in court-ordered visitation. If a child is above a certain age, a child can be constructively emancipated. Another option that the court has is to suspend or terminate residential parent’s right to child support. However, that does not work in every situation. Dealing with such refusal and attempting to resolve this problem, in Matthew A. v. Jennifer A., 2020 N.Y. Slip. Op. 51071(U), Justice Dollinger of the Monroe County Supreme Court imposed disciplinary measures on the children to protect the parental choice of best interests for the children, and also imposed significant sanctions on the parent who violated visitation orders.

In Matthew A., the father sought a contempt finding against the mother for refusing to follow increased visitation provisions that were in place for the parties’ three children, ages 14, 12 and 10. The mother argued that she was unable to force the children to spend additional time with the father and that the children should visit the father upon a schedule determined solely by their wishes. In effect, the mother’s argument would give the children veto power over the father’s access to them. Justice Dollinger wrote about the children’s position that the children “offer no justification, however; they just do not want to have someone dictate their schedule. They want to make that choice themselves and, as they say it, live their own lives. They tell the Court that they can decide their own best interests”.

In the court’s view, this argument was contrary to the most basic of parental rights, the right to make decisions in the best interests of the children. The court stated that “giving parents adequate access to their children is at the very heart of the children’s “best interests”.”

Since the mother’s actions in violating provisions of the court orders related to visitation subjected her to a finding of contempt, the court, utilizing its contempt powers, imposed significant restrictions on the children that the mother would have to enforce. The restrictions included the children’s prohibition of participation in extracurricular activities, prohibition of visits with friends and family members, and any other activities outside of the home.

The children’s attorney objected to those restrictions. In response, the court wrote that:

AFC, in a post-submission email to this Court, argues that the children are being held hostage and the restrictions are substantially impacting their lives, their development, their time with their mother’s family and other pursuits. The restrictions designed by this Court are intended to do exactly that but, the notion that the sons are hostages or are being restrained in their daily activities against their will is misplaced. They have the key to relieve the restrictions: take time to visit with their father as their mother and father agreed the father should have. Once that occurs, the restraints imposed by this Court disappear. The AFC also argues that the father, in seeking this Court order, has unreasonably punished his children and that this Court should take his conduct, in seeking to restrict their busy social lives, as evidence of some malevolent inclination on his part. In this Court’s view, that argument is a serial assault on parenthood: a parent, seeking a child’s compliance with a reasonable parental request, usually invokes increasingly severe penalties to obtain a child’s compliance with any reasonable rule. When a child refuses to, say, eat their vegetables or go to their grandparent’s anniversary celebration, the discipline track starts with “go to your room,” advances to “no television,” then, “give me your phone and your ‘screen,'” followed by ” sorry, “no ride to practice or ride to your friend’s house,” eventually reaching, “sorry, I won’t sign the permission slip to play soccer.” These disciplinary steps are not novel but, instead universal.

In view of contempt findings based on the mother’s behavior, the court offered the mother a way to purge contempt by requiring the mother to finance family reunification therapy for the children and their father with a recognized therapist, with the mother financing the first $7,500.00 in therapy costs, and the mother paying an award of attorneys fees and costs to the father for the fees and costs to bring this motion

Additionally, as a result of the children’s refusal to visit, the father asked that his child support obligation be eliminated or reduced. The court agreed, holding that “the father’s child support obligation is suspended until the three sons participate in the visitation plan detailed by this Court.”

Given the mother’s conduct of involving the children in this litigation and other violations of the court’s orders, I am not surprised by the decision. It will be interesting to see if the order is going to be appealed and if it is, if it will be affirmed.

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.

Temporary Spousal Maintenance and Marital Residence Expenses

One issue that keeps coming up repeatedly in appellate decisions is whether  the party paying temporary spousal maintenance, can also be ordered to pay carrying costs of the marital residence.   In Rouis v. Rouis, 156 A.D.3d 1198 (3rd Dept. 2018), the Appellate Division, Third Department, held that the statutory formula used to calculate the presumptive temporary maintenance award was intended to cover all of the nonmonied spouse’s needs and basic living expenses, including the carrying charges on the home and her vehicle expenses.

The parties were married in 1993 and had two children. The wife commenced this action for divorce in 2014, after the husband departed the marital residence. Applying the pre-2015 temporary maintenance formula on the wife’s motion for temporary relief, the trial court granted the wife, among other things, temporary maintenance ($1,958 per month) and child support ($2,720 per month) and required the husband to pay for the carrying costs of the marital home ($4,859 per month), private school for the youngest child ($848 per month), health insurance for the family ($1,921 per month), interim counsel fees ($10,000) and the wife’s vehicle and fuel costs ($644 per month). The husband appealed.

The Appellate Division recognized that the combined monthly awards amounted to an annual award of $155,400, not including an additional $10,000 in interim counsel fees, to be paid from the husband’s annual gross income of $183,300.50 (the wife’s pre-award income was $11,700.00).  It held that the temporary awards were excessive and should be modified.

The Appellate Division noted that the (pre-2015) temporary maintenance formula resulted in a presumptive monthly temporary maintenance amount of $4,387.50. The trial court also granted the wife’s request that the husband also pay the $4,859 in the expenses related to the marital residence, including the mortgage, taxes, utilities, insurance and costs of maintenance. While acknowledging that it would not be equitable to require the husband to pay full maintenance, child support and all carrying costs on the marital home, it gave a reduction to the husband for one half of the carrying costs on the home ($2,429.50 per month) by reducing the presumptive maintenance award by that amount, resulting in a temporary maintenance award of $1,958 per month. The Appellate Division noted that when the wife’s vehicle expenses were added ($644 per month), the total combined monthly award was $7,461, plus the children’s tuition ($848 per month) and child support, the net effect of the trial court’s order was that the husband was ordered to pay the full presumptive maintenance award plus one half of the carrying costs on the home and the wife’s vehicle expenses.

The Appellate Division held that the statutory formula used to calculate the presumptive temporary maintenance award was intended to cover all of the nonmonied spouse’s needs and basic living expenses, including the carrying charges on the home and her vehicle expenses. In its holding, the Court cited the First Department’s observation in its 2012 decision in Khaira v. Khaira, 93 A.D.3d 194 (1st Dept. 2012), that “[n]o language in either the new temporary maintenance provision or the [Child Support Standards Act] specifically addresses whether the statutory formulas are intended to include the portion of the carrying costs of their residence attributable to the nonmonied spouse and the children. . . . But, in the absence of a specific reference to the carrying charges for the marital residence, we consider it reasonable and logical to view the formula adopted by the new maintenance provision as covering all the spouse’s basic living expenses, including housing costs as well as the costs of food and clothing and other usual expenses.”

Nonetheless, the Third Department held that while requiring the husband to pay a portion of the housing costs may have been appropriate, the trial court should stated its reasons why the presumptive award of temporary maintenance was “unjust or inappropriate” and the factors it considered.

The Appellate Division found that the combined award for maintenance, carrying costs and the expenses of the wife’s vehicle ($7,461 per month) — which was $3,073.50 per month in excess of the presumptive maintenance award ($4,387.50 per month) (without considering health insurance costs, child support or tuition) — was excessive. Accordingly, the court reduced the husband’s obligation to pay the carrying costs on the marital home by approximately one half of that $3,073.50 excess amount, or $1,540 per month, to $3,319 per month, leaving the $1,958 temporary maintenance award unchanged.

One interesting aspect of the decision was the issue of upkeep on the marital residence. The husband was required by the trial court to pay the monthly excess upkeep amount ($1,168), if any, into a separate account. The Third Department clarified that the upkeep payment was to be a part of the husband’s obligation to pay a total of $3,319 per month in carrying costs on the marital home. The Appellate Division stated in a footnote that wife, “of course,” is to be responsible for paying the remaining carrying costs on the home (other than the specified upkeep costs) from her temporary maintenance award. The parties’ respective pro rata obligations, in the event that the upkeep costs in any month exceed $1,168 and exceed any amount in the excess account, were to be deposited into a separate account pending resolution of equitable distribution issues.  What makes this unusual is the amount of upkeep and the direction that any unspent funds get deposited into a separate account and, if not used for upkeep, any remaining balance “shall be returned to the wife when the house is sold.”  Given that any post-commencement earnings are generally separate property of the party who had earned it, it is unclear what the trial court’s reasoning was with regard to those funds.

The propriety and fairness of awarding the wife the balance of any funds paid by the husband into the upkeep account is a matter to be resolved at trial as part of the overall equitable distribution award and, accordingly, the Third Department did not comment on that issue at this juncture.

The Appellate Division also found that the trial court had miscalculated the child support award and the parties’ pro rata shares of add-on expenses and remitted the case for immediate recalculation of the husband’s temporary child support obligation.

Unfortunately, it is fairly uncommon for the trial courts to make these types of mistakes related to temporary spousal support.  The remedy, in most situations, is the trial.

Exclusive Possession of Marital Residence Revisited

I have previously written about exclusive possession of a marital residence during a pending divorce action.  The applicable standard requires a showing of a marital strife and that the parties were unable to coexist in the same house.  I recently had an opportunity to litigate this issue in a situation where the parties’ conduct has not arisen to the level of marital strife, but the conflict was affecting the parties’ children.  Justice Richard A. Dollinger of the Monroe County Supreme Court reviewed and addressed this issue in L.M.L.v. H.T.N. a/k/a H.T.N., 57 Misc.3d 1207(A) (Sup. Ct. Monroe County 2017).

Having reviewed the history of the marital strife standard, Justice Dollinger wrote that lower courts have generally required more evidence of “strife” than the “petty harassments such as the hostility and contempt admittedly demonstrated herein that are routinely part and parcel of an action for divorce.”  However, he also noted that even minimal levels of domestic discord impact children living in a besieged household.  Given those circumstances, he wrote that:

The harm of a hostile home environment – populated with foul words, disparaging comments, loud demeaning voices, frequent arguments and verbal fights – and the fear for safety of the mother and the children rise, in this court’s view, to the level of domestic violence that [*10]mandates court intervention.Second, this court concedes that simply separating the parents may not end the torrent of verbal abuse directed at the other parent: even in new separate residences, a parent can unleashed verbal abuse and make demeaning comments about the other parent. The children will be exposed to that language, perhaps even harsher than what would be uttered in the company of both parents. But, the children will be spared the retort, the rising voices, the angry face-to-face confrontations that ensue when a parent begins a verbal argument. This difference — between the comments of separated parents living in separate residences and confrontations of parents living in the same residence — may be seem of minor importance to the judiciary, but it would seem to be easily classified as in the “better interests” of the children.

Justice Dollinger summarized the issues before the court as “[t]he mere suggestion that “exclusive use” should hinge, in any fashion, on the “voluntary establishment of an alternative residence” also suggests that preventing domestic violence may depend, in part, on the untenable notion that the convenience of one party’s ability to secure short-term housing away from the home is somehow more important than the emotional security of the children.”  The above holding represents a significant departure from the existing standard.  I agree with the decision and have always thought that the marital strife standard was unduly restrictive.  I will be interested to see if this decision will be followed by other court in pending divorce cases.

 

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.

Validity and Finality of Custody Stipulations

Many custody cases are resolved by agreement. When this happens, the parties often place their agreement on the record, either as an oral stipulation recorded by court stenographer or reduce it to a written agreement. Sometimes, immediately after or some time later on, a party to the stipulation may change his mind and ask that the court vacate the stipulation.

In Jon v. Jon, 2015 N.Y. Slip. Op. 51118(U) (Sup. Ct. Nassau Co. 2015), the plaintiff, immediately after entering into a written settlement stipulation, regretted her decision and changed her mind and attempted to have the stipulation vacated. Plaintiff argued that since she was not represented by counsel, that her agreement was not knowing and voluntary, and it came as a result of overreaching by defendant or undue pressure placed on her.

The court heard testimony of the parties determined that although wife was not represented by counsel, the absence of independent legal representation, without more, did not establish overreaching or require nullification of an agreement. She had the opportunity in just a few hours to negotiate with defendant’s counsel in the presence and with the assistance of a court mediator. She decided to pass on that opportunity.

Furthermore, plaintiff was not significantly disadvantaged by the lack of counsel because she could have obtained equal parenting time with her children if she had only agreed to it. She declined because she did not want the children shuttling between their parents. If defendant was not going to agree to let plaintiff have custody of the children—and he wasn’t—she decided to do what in her opinion was the next best thing: let the children stay with defendant. And she did not identify a single thing she wanted in the stipulation that was not included. Given that the stipulation was drafted and signed in “neutral territory”—the courthouse within earshot of the judge—and since the attorney for the children was present throughout, the absence of an attorney did not render the stipulation unfairly made.

The court concluded that neither the terms of the stipulation nor the circumstances surrounding its execution evidence overreaching on the part of defendant. As a result, the court held that it may “not intrude so as to redesign the bargain arrived at by the parties on the ground that judicial wisdom in retrospect would view one or more of the specific provisions as improvident” or imprudent. Christian v. Christian, 42 N.Y.2d 63, 72 (1977).

The key finding that the court made was the following:

This court does believe plaintiff in one important respect: she freely and fairly made a decision and executed an agreement that she very quickly regretted and desired to change. But there is no statute or case that affords a contracting party the opportunity to change their mind, regardless of how quickly they desire to do so, in the circumstances presented here. This court sees the wisdom in affording to an unrepresented party the opportunity within a short window the absolute right to rescind a custody agreement. That would be plaintiff’s only salvation when faithfully applying the current statutory and common law to the facts in this matter.

Stipulations are meant to bring resolution and finality to the parties. They should not be taken lightly and should be thoroughly understood before being finalized.

New York Legislature Passes New Statute Modifying Temporary and Post-Divorce Spousal Maintenance Formulas

On June 24, 2015, the New York State Senate passed Bill A7645-2015 which modified the duration and amount of temporary and post-divorce spousal maintenance. The bill passed the State Assembly on June 15th. It is expected to be signed by Governor Cuomo in the near future.

The new law’s formulas apply to actions commenced on or after the 120th day after the bill become law (except for the temporary maintenance formulas which apply to actions commenced on or after the 30th day after the bill become law). The new law can not be used as a basis to change existing orders and agreements.

The new law represents a very significant change to the post-divorce spousal maintenance provisions of Domestic Relations Law §236, as well as temporary spousal maintenance provisions that were passed in 2010.

As to maintenance, the following are the key aspects of the law contained in the Sponsor’s Memo:

The “cap” on the payor’s income used for the maintenance formula is $175,000, above which will be a matter of the court’s discretion. This reduces the cap (which now applies only to temporary pendente lite maintenance) from $543,000. The same $175,000 cap applies to post-divorce maintenance awards.

The statutes creates two formulas: one where child support will be paid to the maintenance recipient; and one where child support will not be paid, or where it will be paid to the maintenance payor. Those formulas are as follows: a. With child support where the maintenance payor is also the non-custodial parent for child support purposes: (i) subtract 25% of the maintenance payee’s income from 20% of the maintenance payor’s income; (ii) multiply the sum of the maintenance payor’s income and the maintenance payee’s income by 40% and subtract the maintenance payee’s income from the result; (iii) the lower of the two amounts will be the guideline amount of maintenance; maintenance payor is the custodial parent for child support purposes: (i) subtract 20% of the maintenance payee’s income from 30% of the maintenance payor’s income; (ii) multiply the sum of the maintenance payor’s income and the maintenance payee’s income by 40% and subtract the maintenance payee’s income from the result; (iii) the lower of the two amounts will be the guideline amount of maintenance.

First, maintenance gets calculated. Next, child support is calculated using the income of the payor after subtracting maintenance to be paid, and the income of payee income, including maintenance received.

The court may adjust the guideline amount of maintenance up to the cap where it finds that the guideline amount of maintenance is unjust or inappropriate after consideration of one or more factors, which are to be set forth in the court’s written or on the record decision. Where there is income in excess of the cap, additional maintenance may be awarded after consideration of one or more factors, which are to be set forth in the court’s decision or on the record.

When determining temporary maintenance, the court can allocate between the parties the responsibility for payment of family expenses” while the divorce action is pending. The definition of income for post-divorce maintenance will include income from income-producing property that is being equitably distributed. New factors in post-divorce maintenance will include: termination of child support, income or imputed income on assets being equitably distributed, etc. The duration of post-divorce maintenance is a function of a formula that includes ranges of different percentages of the marriage length, depending on how long the marriage lasted. For marriages of zero to 15 years, the guideline for maintenance awarded would be 15% to 30% of the length of the marriage; for marriages of more than 15 up to 20 years, maintenance would be 30% to 40% of the length of the marriage; for marriages of more than 20 years, maintenance would be for 35% to 50% of the length of the marriage. However, nothing prevents the court from awarding non-durational, post-divorce maintenance in an appropriate case.

In determining the duration of maintenance, the court is required to consider anticipated retirement assets, benefits and retirement eligibility age. Actual or partial retirement will be a ground for modification of post-divorce maintenance assuming it results in a substantial diminution of income.

As an example of the application of the formulas, consider the following calculations where a) the payor is the non-custodial parent and having C.S.S.A.-adjusted income of $150,000, and the payee is a custodial parent having C.S.S.A.-adjusted income of $50,000; and b) the payor and payee have the same incomes but there are no children being supported.

Calculation of Spousal Maintenance-page-001

Calculation of Spousal Maintenance-page-001

 

Additionally, the new law eliminates value of a spouse’s enhanced earning capacity arising from a license, degree, celebrity goodwill, or career enhancement as a marital asset. This is a significant change from the existing law. However, enhanced earnings may still be considered by the court when distributing other marital assets.

The changes to the Domestic Relations Law, once effective, will likely result  in greater uniformity of spousal support awards. Further, elimination of enhanced earnings as a distributable asset represent a significant change in New York’s law.