Can a Child Bring Petition Seeking Modification of Custody?

While the vast majority of cases petitions seeking to modify custody are brought by parents, can any one else bring a petition seeking to modify custody? I have written previously about petitions brought by non-parents, such as grandparents or someone who has a relationship with a child. A recent decision brought forth yet another party who can bring a petition seeking to modify custody – a child himself. In a recent decision, Trosset v. Susan A., 2011 N.Y. Slip. Op. 21151 (Fam Ct. Otsego Co. 2011), the court held that a child had standing to bring a petition seeking modification of present custodial arrangement. In Trossett, the child’s attorney filed a petition to modify prior court order. Respondent moved to dismiss the petition arguing that child’s attorney lacks standing to file petition concerning custody on behalf of child. The court held that  “[w]hile absence of specific authority regarding custody and visitation is problematic, absence of statute granting child standing, such standing depends upon whether party has alleged facts showing disadvantage to himself or herself.” (citations omitted).  According to the decision, the attorney for child made allegations that directly relate to child’s desire to live with father. The court opined that the child has stake in outcome sufficient to confer standing upon him to file petition, or by child’s attorney on child’s behalf.

The decision does not provide much in a way of facts or legal authority for the court’s decision, however, I would guess that the child was older and, therefore, would have an opportunity to have input on any custody decisions. In addition, I would think that the parties were involved in court proceedings previously since the child had an attorney representing him.

Since the decision dealt with procedural issues related arising out of petition being filed by attorney for the child, we may never know how the case was resolved. However, I suspect that this issue may be appealed in the future and we may learn of further developments in the case.

A Brief Summary of Collaborative Law – A Way Toward Amicable Divorce

I have previously written about Collaborative Family Law as an alternative to traditional litigation methods of resolving family disputes. Here is some additional information that describes the process and the goals of Collaborative Law.

Collaborative Law is a method for conflict resolution in which the participants focus their efforts on reaching a mutually agreeable resolution. Attorneys and other professionals are retained during the collaborative process for the sole purpose of assisting their clients in reaching this goal.

The client and their lawyers agree to work respectfully and in good faith to gather all information needed to reach an agreement, including developing the interests of each client. The participants do not engage in traditional discovery process since it tends to be expensive and lengthy. The clients and their collaborative attorneys agree from the beginning that they will produce and exchange all necessary information and documents voluntarily and in a timely fashion. Non-legal professionals are usually retained as joint neutrals and work together with the participants to define the scope of their assignment and to gather information.

The process typically includes various meetings at which the clients and their attorneys, as well as other professionals meet together to discuss the issues, make any necessary interim arrangements, and to plan for information gathering (not every professional will be present at every conference.) These conferences continue to be utilized to exchange and clarify information and to brainstorm possible options for resolution. The clients and their lawyers focus on educating everyone regarding the underlying information, each client’s interests and possible solutions. Out of this process, a settlement which meets the approval of all clients can be fashioned. Negotiations are based upon efforts to find options that will serve the interests of all clients and other affected persons, and if applicable, create the possibility for a positive continuing relationship.

The clients and their collaborative attorneys agree that they will not go to court during the time they are working towards settlement. If the clients are unable to reach an agreement, the collaborative attorneys and other professionals withdraw and litigation attorneys take the dispute to court.

Collaborative family law started with one attorney in Minnesota in 1990 and is now practiced across the United States, Canada, and internationally. Collaborative family law was started in Rochester, New York, and Monroe County, a few years ago as an attorney centered method in family law. However, more recently, other affiliated professionals including financial analysts, psychologists, counselors and coaches also became involved.  Here in Rochester, collaborative professionals belong to Collaborative Law Association of the Rochester Area, Inc. (“CLARA”) which includes among its members attorneys, child specialists, coaches, mediators and financial professionals.

Here are some questions and answers about Collaborative Law.

1. What is Collaborative Law?

Collaborative Law is a way to resolve disputes between people in a fair, open and respectful manner. In Collaborative Law, the goal is to reach a mutually acceptable settlement of a dispute that both parties will be able to abide by. The parties retain Collaborative professionals such as attorneys, accountants, financial planners, and therapists, who agree to work in good faith to gather and share all information needed to reach an agreement. The parties and their Collaborative attorneys agree in advance that they will not go to court to ask a judge to resolve their dispute for them during the collaborative process. If they are unable to reach an agreement, and one of the parties decides to go to court, the Collaborative professionals withdraw from the case. Another set of attorneys is then retained by the parties to represent them in court.

2. How does Collaborative Law differ from other methods of dispute resolution?

There are many ways to resolve disputes. Litigation is the traditional legal approach. In litigation, lawyers work hard to convince a judge (or jury) that the lawyer’s client’s version of facts is correct. Often, this includes challenging the other party’s version of the facts. Trial is often compared to a battle, in which the best side wins. However, all lawyers understand that the “best side” doesn’t always win and that in many disputes, the party who “wins” at trial still loses in other ways. In some circumstances, litigation is the only appropriate option. For example, if a party consistently hides information or is abusive, the formal procedures used in litigation may be necessary. If a party is unwilling to negotiate in good faith, a third party decision may be needed. Litigation usually costs more than other forms of dispute resolution and the outcome is typically less satisfactory.

In mediation, a neutral professional assists the parties in settling the dispute. Generally, the parties agree that all information will be shared and that they are seeking a “win-win” solution. The mediator does not represent either party and the parties do not go to court. In some forms of mediation, attorneys serve only in a consulting or reviewing capacity. In other situations, attorneys participate in the mediation. Mediation can work well for parties who have the ability to communicate their needs directly to the other person and who have similar understanding of the financial and other information being presented.

Collaborative Law combines the positive qualities of litigation and mediation. As in litigation, each party has an independent lawyer who will give her or him quality legal advice and will assist in putting forward his or her interests. Similarly to mediation, the parties and their Collaborative attorneys commit to both an open information gathering and sharing process and to resolve their differences without going to court. In addition, the parties can mutually agree to engage other professionals such as child specialists, financial specialists, coaches, vocational counselors or other neutral consultants to provide them with specialized assistance. The parties acknowledge that the best result for each of them will occur when they reach the best result for all of them.

3. How is information gathered in Collaborative Practice?

The parties do not engage in expensive legal procedures to obtain information. The parties and their Collaborative attorneys agree from the beginning that they will share all necessary information and documents voluntarily and in a timely fashion. Hiding documents or unnecessary delays are not permitted. If a party is not acting in good faith and “hides the ball”, it is the duty of the attorney to work with the client to change his or her behavior and to withdraw if the behavior continues. If a party continues to refuse to act in good faith, the Collaborative process can be terminated.

The parties decide what type of additional assistance is needed in the information gathering process and jointly engage consultants. For example, the parties can jointly hire a financial specialist to assist them in gathering and organizing financial information and to create projections for future financial possibilities. Or, they can jointly engage an appraiser to provide them with an opinion regarding the value of a particular asset.

4. How are questions relating to children addressed in Collaborative Practice?

One of the most important aspects of Collaborative Practice in a divorce dispute is the opportunity to resolve the divorce in a manner which creates a healthy co-parenting relationship so that the children’s interests and family relationships are protected. Sometimes, the parties have developed a working co-parenting relationship prior to entering the Collaborative Process. However, in many cases, the parents need assistance in transitioning from parenting in one household to parenting in two households. Divorce coaches and child specialists can assist parents in developing effective communication and in creating a parenting agreement. The Collaborative attorneys assist as needed in working out an agreement and preparing the necessary final legal documents.

5. How do the parties and professionals work together?

After initial meetings with their own Collaborative attorneys, the typical process is to start the case with a 4-way conference — the parties and Collaborative attorneys, and sometimes coaches, meet together to discuss the issues, make any necessary interim arrangements regarding children or finances, and to plan for information gathering. In addition, the parties can work individually and jointly with coaches to develop effective communication techniques and to manage the intense emotions that often accompany conflict. Additional consultants such as financial specialists, child specialists, or appraisers can also be hired to assist in other aspects of information gathering and processing. The multi-person conferences continue to be the normal means of exchanging and clarifying information and to brainstorm possible options for resolution. The Collaborative professionals work together and with their clients to plan each meeting. The parties and Collaborative attorneys focus on educating everyone regarding the underlying information, each party’s interests and possible solutions. Out of this process, a settlement which meets the approval of the parties can be fashioned.

6. Does it work to have everyone together in the same room in the middle of a conflict?

The job of the Collaborative professionals is to establish positive communication. People in a legal dispute often feel vulnerable and emotional and can be less aware of how their patterns of communication can cause problems. The Collaborative professionals help each client to present his or her interests and needs in a positive manner that will be heard by the other participants. Meeting together can help everyone to be “on the same page”, which ultimately facilitates reaching an agreement. The focus of the meetings is to find a solution, not attack each other.

7. Must an agreement be reached in Collaborative Practice?

No. All parties must voluntarily agree to the solution. No party is forced to accept a solution that does not meet his or her interests and needs. The parties understand that the goal is to fashion a solution that comes as close as possible to a “win-win” agreement, while recognizing that they won’t receive everything on their “wish list.”

8. If the parties reach an agreement through Collaborative Practice, what happens next?

The Collaborative attorneys will draft the necessary legal documents to memorialize the parties’ agreement. This paperwork is then submitted to the court for approval. A court hearing is not required.

9. What happens if a settlement cannot be reached?

If the parties cannot reach an agreement, the parties can explore other options for settlement such as mediation, arbitration, private judging and neutral case evaluation, some of which may allow them to stay within the collaborative framework. If court hearings are required, the Collaborative attorneys withdraw and each party retains a new attorney for trial.

10. Why is it necessary for the Collaborative attorney to withdraw if an agreement is not reached?

Attorneys are typically trained to approach cases with the underlying assumption that a court will make the ultimate decision. Cases are analyzed with this foundation and are settled with the backdrop being “what will happen if we go to court.” “Going to court” can often become a threat that makes communications difficult and pushes the parties apart rather than moving them toward a settlement. Since settlement has not been the focus from the very beginning, cases often do not settle until the parties are “at the courthouse steps,” after incurring substantial attorney’s fees and depleting their emotional resources.

The agreement by both the parties and Collaborative attorneys that their Collaborative attorneys will not go to court focuses everyone on creative means of settling the case in a way that is acceptable to all parties. The focus of the process stays on reaching an agreement rather than preparing a case for trial since the Collaborative attorneys will not be representing the parties in court. The tendency to “drift” to court as the default decision-making method is reduced.

11. Who should consider the Collaborative approach for their dispute?

Collaborative Practice works best for parties who wish to settle without going to court and are willing to commit to a good faith effort to do so. In Collaborative Practice, you maintain control over your decision making rather than letting a judge decide. You can also control the amount of information that becomes a part of the public record (normally, the entire divorce file is open to the public, including any allegations made by either party in obtaining temporary orders or at trial.)

People in conflict often have continuing relationships with each other, as co-parents, business colleagues, or through their circle of friends and relatives. Collaborative Practice will increase the possibility of maintaining a civil or even cordial relationship with the other person after the resolution of your conflict.

You should also consider Collaborative Practice if you wish to dramatically reduce your legal fees. A dispute that goes through the entire legal process including a trial can cost tens of thousands of dollars for each party. The formal legal procedures take much more attorney time (and your money) than the informal process used in Collaborative Law. The focus on settlement moves the case to resolution faster than the typical court-directed case, which also reduces your fees.

12. What do I do if I want to use Collaborative Practice for my dispute?

You will need to find a Collaborative attorney whom you can trust to provide you with both quality legal advice and the skills needed to work towards a settlement. You can discuss with the Collaborative attorney the ways of approaching the other parties about the collaborative process, which can include you discussing the idea with him or her, your attorney contacting the other party, or your attorney discussing it with the other party’s attorney(s), if one has been retained. In the alternative, you can contact coaches or other professionals who may be involved in the collaborative approach and discuss the process with them.

Parental Interference, Parental Alienation and Available Sanctions

Parental interference and parental alienation are very common problems.  Unfortunately, the courts are reluctant to punish parties responsible for such conduct and rarely sanction parties for engaging in such behavior.  However, in a recent decision, Ted R. v. Lauren R., 2010 N.Y. Slip. Op. 50931(U) (Sup. Ct. Nassau Co. 2010), the court made a civil contempt finding based on the mother’s violation of the parties’ Stipulation of Settlement where the mother attempted to undermine the relationship between the children and the father and replace him with her new husband, manipulated the father’s parenting access, engaged in “unfettered vilification” of the father with the children, falsely reported sexual misconduct, and has caused the children to fear her tirades and punishment if they embrace the relationship they want to have with their father. The Court sentenced the mother to a period of incarceration of six weekends.

In addition, while noting that the father’s request during the contempt hearing for a change in custody has provided adequate notice to the mother, the Court amends the father’s application to conform to the evidence presented at the hearing and ordered a hearing regarding modification of custody.

The court went into great detail describing the mother’s behavior toward her ex-husband. The factual findings concerning the mother’s behavior as stated in the decision are extensive and in view of the mother’s behavior, I will quote them in order to demonstrate the mother’s conduct.  The mother’s behavior included the following:

“Plaintiff intentionally scheduled their child’s (N.’s) birthday party on a Sunday afternoon during defendant’s weekend visitation, and then refused to permit defendant to attend. She demanded that N. be returned home early, in order to “prepare” for her party, but D., the other child, was enjoying the time with her father and wished to remain with him until the party began. Plaintiff castigated N. for “daring” to invite her father to take a picture of her outside her party. According to the plaintiff, “this doesn’t work for me!” Plaintiff threatened to cancel N.’s party, and warned her that her sister, too, would be punished “big time” for wanting to spend time with her father. Plaintiff’s taped temper tantrum, offered into evidence, vividly detailed one instance of how D. and N. have been made to understand that enjoying time with their father will be met with their mother’s wrath and threat of punishment.”

Mother consistently lied about father’s custody rights, including to third parties.  Specifically:

“Plaintiff conceded that when she completed N.’s registration card for XXX., she wrote that defendant is “not authorized to take them. I have custody. Please call me.” At trial, she claimed to fear that defendant would retrieve the girls directly from school. However, she later admitted that defendant had never even attempted to pick them up at school. Her testimony at trial sharply contradicted her sworn affidavit dated January 23, 2008, in which she stated that “the defendant consistently attempts to pick up the girls unannounced from their schools and activities, which disrupts not only the girls, but those in charge of the aforementioned.” In her sworn affidavit, plaintiff claimed that she completed the registration card because defendant sought to attend the end of D.’s art class and then had the audacity to drive his daughter home. The art class “incident” occurred well after the registration card was completed by the plaintiff. Moreover, nothing in the parties’ agreement prohibits the defendant from visiting the children at extra-curricular events or from driving them to or from such events. In point of fact, there was no dispute that D.’s Friday art class in Huntington ended as defendant’s alternate weekend visitation commenced.”

“Plaintiff wrote to Dr. L.1 (then the XXX. principal) and Ms. T. (N.’s fifth grade teacher), demanding that they restrict their conversations with the defendant to N.’s academics, as plaintiff is “solely responsible for her academic progress and emotional well being. Notwithstanding the nature of their joint legal custody plaintiff insisted before me that, “I have custody, he has visitation.””

“The plaintiff made/completed an application for admission to XXX on behalf of N. in October, 2007. On the application, she checked the box “Mother has custody,” rather than the box directly below which says “Joint custody.” She identified her new husband, R. L., as N.’s “parent/guardian,” and she failed to mention the defendant. During cross examination, plaintiff insisted that she only omitted reference to the defendant for fear that his financial circumstances would adversely impact N.’s chances for acceptance. However, no financial information was requested anywhere on the application. Moreover, plaintiff acknowledged that none was required until after an applicant was invited to attend.”

“By applying to XXX without defendant’s knowledge – – but with N. completely involved in the process, plaintiff orchestrated the decision to be made, as well as alienating the child. Had the defendant not consented to N.’s attendance at XXX, after the fact, N. would be angry with him for purportedly interfering with the enrollment, even if defendant’s objections to a private school placement were sound. In no event was he consulted as to this educational decision.”

“When asked how she might handle things differently now, plaintiff did not indicate that she would first discuss the possibility of a private school with the defendant, as she is obligated to do pursuant to the Stipulation.”

“In a similar pattern of being advised “after the fact,” defendant testified that there were countless times when plaintiff deliberately scheduled theater tickets, family events and social activities for the girls during his visitation, and he was compelled to consent or risk disappointing the girls. These occurrences continued even during the time span of proceedings before me.”

Mother claimed that children didn’t want to see father, specifically:

“Plaintiff was forced to concede at trial that the defendant was prevented from enjoying his visitation rights after he returned with the girls from his niece’s Bat Mitzvah until this Court granted defendant’s emergency application to compel the plaintiff to allow the defendant to take D. and N. for the ski trip he had scheduled for his half of the Christmas recess. Plaintiff insisted that it was D. and N. who refused to see their father, because they were angry with the ‘choices” he had made on their behalf, including his objection to N. attending XXX. Defendant was made aware of the children’s position because they parroted their mother’s demands on several occasions. D. even read from a script during the brief dinners he was permitted. As plaintiff wrote in one e-mail when she was describing her role with respect to the children: “I am in charge here, not them. What I [sic] say goes. They may bring their shoes. You are responsible for the rest. End of story.””

“In vivid testimony, the defendant recalled how the plaintiff willfully prevented him from exercising his rights to visitation with the children from November 4, 2007 through December 21, 2007. I observed the plaintiff smirk in the courtroom as defendant emotionally related how he was deprived of spending Hanukkah with his children, and was relegated to lighting a menorah and watching his daughters open their grandparents’ presents in the back of his truck at the base of plaintiff’s driveway on a December evening.”

“The fact that the children were as angry as they were with the defendant in November and December, 2007, demonstrates, in my view, that efforts to alienate the children and their father were seemingly effective. The children demanded that defendant meet “their” demands before they would permit him to visit with them again. They demanded that defendant permit N. to attend F. A., that he withdraw his objection to their participation in therapy with their mother’s therapist, and that he pay for 75% of D.’s Bat Mitzvah but limit his invitations to a handful of guests and have no role in the planning of the event. Plaintiff’s contention that she had no involvement in these children’s “demands” was belied by the very fact that the children had intimate knowledge of their mother’s position on all of these issues. The children, in effect, were evolved into plaintiff’s sub-agents and negotiators, having specific details of the financial demands of the plaintiff, and information as to the marital agreement.”

“The mother alluded to the ambivalence of the children in seeing the defendant. But such abrogation to the children’s wishes, under these circumstances, was in violation of the agreement. It was wholly improper for the mother to adhere to the children’s wishes to forego visitation with their father (see, Matter of Hughes v. Wiegman, 150 AD2d 449).”

“Plaintiff half-heartedly testified that she wants the children to have a relationship with the defendant. Her view of the defendant’s role was a numbing, desired nominality, evident by her actions that were without any semblance of involvement by the defendant – – notwithstanding the clear joint custodial provisions. At critical points in the cross-examination, plaintiff was noticeably off balance – – hesitating and defensive – – with answers that dovetailed to either narcissism, or, a poor grasp of the affects of her conduct. The plaintiff was dispassionate, sullen, and passively resistant to the alienating efforts of the plaintiff. The continued litany of instances of alienating conduct, turned repression of the defendant’s joint custodial arrangement into farce. The endurance in recounting instance upon instance of alienating conduct herein, was as daunting as it was indefensible.”

Mother’s behavior toward father in front of the children included the following:

“Plaintiff relegated the defendant to waiting endlessly at the bottom of her long driveway. When defendant drove up her driveway on October 26, 2007, so that the children would not have to walk down with their heavy bags in a torrential rain, plaintiff ran down the driveway where she had left her car, drove up the driveway and blocked defendant’s vehicle. The children watched as the police listened to their mother angrily demand that their father be arrested and, when the police refused, heard their mother scream that she is a taxpayer and the police work for her. She frequently disparaged the defendant in the presence of the children, calling him a “deadbeat,” “loser,” “scumbag,” and “f——-g asshole.” On one particular occasion, while holding N. and D. in her arms, plaintiff said to the defendant, “We all hope you die from cancer.” Just this past summer, when defendant insisted that D. retrieve her clothes from plaintiff’s home in preparation for their visit to N. on her camp visiting day, plaintiff urged to defendant that “Judge Ross will not be around forever, d___.” Before the beginning of each of defendant’s vacations with the children, the plaintiff staged prolonged and tearful farewells at the base of the driveway, during which plaintiff assured the children that they will return to “their family soon,” and if “things get too bad, they can always tell Daddy to bring them home.””

Mother accused father of sexual abuse:

“The crescendo of the plaintiff’s conduct involved accusations of sexual abuse. Plaintiff falsely accused defendant of sexual misconduct in June, 2008, shortly after defendant moved to Huntington and the children’s friends were enjoying play dates at defendant’s home. Plaintiff testified that D. shared that she was uncomfortable when the defendant tickles her, and conceded that she knew there was nothing “sexual” involved. Undaunted by the lack of any genuine concern for D.’s safety, plaintiff pursued a campaign to report the defendant to Child Protective Services. To facilitate this, she spoke with W. M, the psychologist at the school D. attended. Plaintiff also “encouraged” D. to advise Dr. C. (the chidren’s pediatrician) that defendant inappropriately touched her – – but he saw no signs of abuse. Plaintiff also advised Dr. A., Ms. M., Dr. R. (the children’s prior psychologist) and family friends of the allegations and, ultimately, the Suffolk County Department of Social Services opened a file on June 3, 2008, and began an investigation.”

“According to the Case Narrative contained in the New York State Case Registry, a complaint was made that “On a regular basis, father inappropriately fondles 13 year old D.’s breasts. This makes D. feel very uncomfortable. Last Sunday, Father hit D. on the breast for unknown reason… ” When the caseworker and Suffolk County detectives interviewed D. on June 3, 2008, she reported only that her father tickles her on her neck and under her arms, and she categorically denied her father ever fondled her breasts. She admitted that her father was not attempting to make her uncomfortable, but that he still regards her to be a tomboy. The detectives closed their investigation.”

“Thereafter, and significantly, when the CPS caseworker met with plaintiff on August 19, 2008, plaintiff was quick to state that her ex-husband “did it again.” Plaintiff claimed that the defendant hugged D. too hard. According to the caseworker’s notes, the caseworker repeatedly cautioned the plaintiff not to bring the children into her disputes with the defendant. This warning was contained in CPS records.”

“Although unfounded child abuse reports are required to be sealed (see, Social Services Law §422[5]), such reports may be introduced into evidence,”by the subject of the report where such subject… is a plaintiff or petitioner in a civil action or proceeding alleging the false reporting of child abuse or maltreatment” (Social Services Law §422[5][b][1]). Allegations that defendant had injured the child were found to be baseless and, by making such allegations, plaintiff needlessly subjected the child to an investigation by Child Protective Services, placing her own interests above those of the child. This report was not made in “good faith” – – rather, the investigating agency warned the mother not to re-utilize the allegations and her children in her custodial litigation with the defendant.”

Mother’s behavior was not affected by pending contempt proceeding:

“The concern of a pending contempt proceeding did not affect the plaintiff’s conduct. For example, knowing that defendant had parenting access with D. on July 3, 2009, plaintiff invited D.’s close friend, C. C., to a country club for a fireworks display and advised D. of this invitation. She then instructed D. to tell her father she was invited to a friend’s party on that date. Another example occurred on June 13, 2009, when plaintiff quietly escorted D. from Alice Tulley Hall during the intermission, ignoring the instructions from the G. Y. Orchestra staff that everyone remain until the conclusion of the entire program. Plaintiff purported she was unaware that defendant attended this special program in Lincoln Center. Defendant, who was in attendance at the concert, was left waiting at the stage door with flowers for D. Plaintiff ignored his text messages questioning where his daughter was. The plaintiff, when confronted with the notion that she may have precipitously ushered her daughter away before her father was able to give her flowers, retorted to the Court that “it was not her responsibility to make plans for T.””

In view of the mother’s behavior described above, the court held:

“The evidence before me demonstrates a pattern of willful and calculated violations of the clear and express dictates of the parties’ Stipulation of Settlement, incorporated but not merged into their Judgment of Divorce. The extensive record is replete with instances of attempts to undermine the relationship between the children and their father and replace him with her new husband, manipulation of defendant’s parenting access, utter and unfettered vilification of the defendant to the children, false reporting of sexual misconduct without any semblance of “good faith,” and her imposition upon the children to fear her tirades and punishment if they embrace the relationship they want to have with their father. The unfortunate history here also reflects the plaintiff’s hiring and firing of three different counsel, expressed disdain towards the children’s attorney, and utter disregard for the authority of the Court.”

With respect to parental alienation, the court stated:

“Differing “alienation” theories promoted by many public advocacy groups, as well as psychological and legal communities, have differing scientific and empirical foundations. However, interference with the non-custodial parent’s relationship with a child has always been considered in the context of a “parent’s ability to encourage the relationship between the non-custodial parent and a child,” a factor to be considered by the Court in custody and visitation/parental access determinations. See, Eschbach v. Eschbach, supra. Our Appellate Courts recognize such factor, as they have determined that the “interference with the non-custodial parent and child’s relationship is an act so inconsistent with the best interests of a child, as to, per se, raise a strong probability that the offending party is unfit to act as a custodial parent.”

“Where, as in the instant case, there is a finding of a willful violation of a court order demonstrated by a deliberate interference with a non-custodial parent’s right to visitation/parental access, the IAS Court, as a general rule, must schedule an evidentiary hearing before making any modification of custody.”

Judge Ross found Lauren R. in civil contempt of court and ordered her to spend every other weekend in the Nassau County Correctional Facility during June, July and August.

Judge Ross acknowleged that “An imposition of sentence upon a finding of contempt should contain a language permitting the contemnor an opportunity to purge.” However, in this case, a jail sentence was the only option available because it is no longer within the power of the plaintiff (mother) to purge since the violation was of a past court order. Furthermore, remedial intervention through counseling and parental training during the course of the trial was unsuccesful and if re-utilized, the “Court cannot release from imprisonment upon future compliance.”

The matter of approximately $165,000 in attorney fees will be the subject of another hearing.

What can we learn from this case? We can learn that it took years of inappropriate conduct, $165,000 in attorneys fees, and unquantifiable amount of damage to the relationship between the father and his daughter, before the court would punish this type of behavior. In view of the mother’s conduct, 6 weeks of weekends in jail seems inadequate. I do not know whether the court will change the residence of the children, however, it is clear that the joint custodial arrangement did not work in this situation. My guess would be that the court would likely to change custody to sole custody and grant the residence of the children to the father. The court is also likely to impose tight restrictions on the mother’s access to the children and her conduct toward the children and the father.

Asserting Equitable Estoppel As a Defense to a Paternity Proceeding

I have previously written about equitable estoppel.  In a typical equitable estoppel situation, the birth parent, typically the mother, asserts equitable estoppel to prevent genetic blood marker testing to determine whether the individual who believed himself to be the child’s father is in fact that child’s biological father.

In a recent case, Juanita A. v. Kenneth Mark N., 2010 N.Y. Slip. Op. 03758 (2010), the Court of Appeals held that a biological father may assert an equitable estoppel defense in paternity and child support proceedings, where there is another father-figure is present in the child’s life.

On June 25, 1994, the child was born. At the time, mother was unmarried, but living with Raymond S., who was listed as the child’s father on her birth certificate. Mother and Raymond had a previous child together and, after the birth of that child, had another child. When the child was seven years old, during a family dispute, she became aware that Raymond may not be her biological father. At that time, mother called Kenneth at his home in Florida and had him speak with the child. The conversation lasted less than ten minutes, during which time A. asked questions concerning his physical characteristics. Kenneth’s attempt to speak with the child a second time was rebuffed by Raymond, who warned Kenneth not to speak to her again. Kenneth has had no further contact with the child.

In 2006, when the child was approximately twelve years old, mother filed the instant petition against Kenneth, seeking an order of filiation and child support. Kenneth appeared before Family Court for the first time by way of telephone. The Support Magistrate advised Kenneth, among other things, that he had the right to admit or deny that he was the father of the child. However, the Magistrate did not advise Kenneth that he had the right to assignment of counsel, or inquire whether he wished to consult with counsel prior to proceeding. Kenneth agreed to the ordered genetic marker testing, which indicated a 99.99% probability that Kenneth is indeed the child’s biological father.

At a hearing in January 2007, Kenneth, having now been assigned counsel, appeared once again via telephone, but protested that he had yet to speak with the lawyer assigned to him. Counsel admitted that he had not spoken to his client, and that the “file fell through the cracks for me.” Despite Kenneth’s protest, the Support Magistrate proceeded with the hearing. When the issue of equitable estoppel was raised by Kenneth, the Magistrate, lacking the authority to hear that issue, transferred the case to a Judge of the Family Court. That court, determining the issue on motion papers and oral argument, held that Kenneth was the father of A. and entered an order of filiation.

The Appellate Division affirmed, holding that the doctrine of equitable estoppel is applicable in paternity proceedings only where it is invoked to further the best interests of the child, and “generally is not available to a party seeking to disavow the allegation of parenthood for the purpose of avoiding child support” (Aikens v. Nell, 63 AD3d 1662 (4th Dept. 2009)). The court also rejected Kenneth’s contention that he was denied effective assistance of counsel.

In Shondel J. v Mark D., 7 N.Y.3d 320 (2006), the Court of Appeals set forth the law applicable to equitable estoppel in paternity and child support proceedings. It held that

purpose of equitable estoppel is to preclude a person from asserting a right after having led another to form the reasonable belief that the right would not be asserted, and loss or prejudice to the other would result if the right were asserted. The law imposes the doctrine as a matter of fairness. Its purpose is to prevent someone from enforcing rights that would work injustice on the person against whom enforcement is sought and who, while justifiably relying on the opposing party’s actions, has been misled into a detrimental change of position.

We concluded that the “paramount” concern in such cases “has been and continues to be the best interests of the child.

Id. at 326.

Equitable estoppel has been used, as it was in Shondel J., to prevent a man from avoiding child support by claiming that he is not the child’s biological father. In such a case, the man has represented himself to be the child’s father and the child’s best interests are served by a declaration of fatherhood. The doctrine in this way protects “the status interests of a child in an already recognized and operative parent-child relationship” (In re Baby Boy C., 84 NY2d 91, 102n [1994]). Here, Kenneth sought to invoke the doctrine against mother, who led Kenneth to form the reasonable belief that he was not a father and that Raymond is A.’s father. He argued that it is not in A.’s best interest to have her current, child-father relationship with Raymond interrupted.

At the time the instant petition was brought, A. was 12 years old and had lived in an intact family with Raymond and her mother. His name appears on her birth certificate and he is the biological father of her older and younger siblings. For most of A.’s life, she referred to Raymond as father. Thus, Kenneth appropriately raised an issue as to whether it is in A.’s best interest to have someone besides Raymond declared her father this late in her childhood. As a result, the Court concluded that it was proper for him to assert a claim of estoppel to, among other things, protect the status of that parent-child relationship.

The Court of Appeals disagreed with the Law Guardian’s position that a person who has already been determined to be a child’s biological father cannot raise an equitable estoppel argument. The Court stated that the doctrine has been used to prevent a biological father from asserting paternity rights when it would be detrimental to the child’s interests to disrupt the child’s close relationship with another father figure. The same best-interests considerations that justify estopping a biological father from asserting his paternity may justify preventing a mother from asserting it. Indeed, whether it is being used in the offensive posture to enforce rights or the defensive posture to prevent rights from being enforced, equitable estoppel is only to be used to protect the best interests of the child. Therefore, the Court held that the doctrine of equitable estoppel may be used by a purported biological father to prevent a child’s mother from asserting biological paternity — when the mother has acquiesced in the development of a close relationship between the child and another father figure, and it would be detrimental to the child’s interests to disrupt that relationship.

As a result of the Court’s decision, the case was remanded for a hearing where Raymond will be joined as a necessary party, so that Family Court may consider the nature of his relationship with the child and make a proper determination of the child’s best interests.

I think that this is an important case but its application is limited to very specific factual situations.

Custody and Other Issues Related to Emancipation of Minors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Custody, Visitation and Disclosure of Parent’s Psychological Records

In this action for divorce and ancillary relief, the defendant-husband (hereinafter “husband”) moves for an Order permitting him to depose the treating therapist of the plaintiff-wife (hereinafter “wife”), Dr. E.C., and authorizing the issuance of a Subpoena Duces Tecum to be served upon Dr. C. instructing her to disclose all of her notes to counsel for the husband regarding her treatment of the wife. The wife opposes the motion claiming that it has no basis in law or in fact. She also cross-moves for various relief which is addressed in this Court’s decision on Motion Sequence 003.
It is the husband’s position that given the wife’s allegations, which he contends are false, that he abused the parties’ son and repeatedly raped her, he has “no choice as a loving, responsible father but to ask that the Court order [the wife’s] psychiatrist of 15 years, Dr. C., to turn over the notes and records of L’s extensive psychiatric treatment and that my attorneys be [*2]allowed to take Dr. C.’s deposition regarding her treatment of [the wife] prior to any trial in this case.” According to the husband, he does not seek to hurt the wife, but, rather, wants to help his son. He states that he could not in good faith agree to any final custody arrangement, nor should the Court make a custody determination, without more information regarding the wife’s psychological condition, which, he contends, has allowed her to level these vicious accusations at him. Moreover, Dr. C., the husband states, is the person with the most information about the wife’s medications and how her condition “can be kept in check and how it could potentially worsen over the next 16 crucial and formative years of [the child’s] life.”
According to the husband, when he first married the wife he was unaware that she had a condition that required extensive psychological treatment. In fact, he claims that the wife would see Dr. C. 18 times per month and even spoke with the therapist regularly during the parties’ honeymoon. However, it was not until the parties went through the in vitro fertilization process that the husband says that he learned that the wife had been prescribed different types of medication throughout the years and was currently taking 5 milligrams of Valium twice a day. In addition, it is the husband’s belief that the wife has paranoid tendencies evidenced by her telling her attorney who then relayed it to the Court that she was being followed by a van and that a man was taking photographs of her in the park.
In opposing the husband’s motion, the wife points out that the husband has failed to provide any authority which supports his request. While she acknowledges that the parties have put their respective mental conditions at issue by contesting custody, she argues that this does not mean that either party is entitled to pretrial discovery regarding the other’s mental health history. Rather, she states that pretrial review of the parties’ mental conditions and parenting ability is precisely the reason why a neutral forensic evaluator is appointed for custody disputes as one has been appointed in this action.
The wife also contends that it was the husband who repeatedly lost touch with reality, “erupting into screaming tirades that our housekeeper was trying to poison him; he often repeatedly screamed that someone was trying to kill him in the shower through poisonous gas being fed through the water lines; he fired our baby nurse in the middle of the night. . ., claiming she was trying to hurt our son’s penis; he became hysterical when our son flushed the toilet without shutting the lid because poisonous vapors escaped through the toilet; he wrote notes about time travel; he insisted that someone was defecating on our towels even though they were clean; [and] he told our son in front of me that he was capable of killing me just as the character in a movie they were watching had killed his wife. . . .” Additionally, she annexes to her papers affidavits from two individuals who witnessed some of the acts of which she accuses the husband and which describe other allegedly idiosyncratic behavior on the husband’s part. She further alleges that during the marriage the husband sexually, verbally and emotionally abused her, causing her love for him to turn to fear. Notably, she does not controvert the husband’s allegations in connection with Dr. C.
It is well established that pretrial disclosure of privileged medical records is limited, especially in a custody litigation given the sensitive nature of the issues involved and the potential for the abuse of such discovery. See, e.g., Ferguson v. Ferguson, 2 Misc 3d 277 (Supreme Court, Nassau County 2003); Garvin v. Garvin, 162 AD2d 497 (2nd Dept. 1990); Coderre v. Coderre, 1990 WL 312774. As the Coderre, supra , court noted, since the wholesale pretrial discovery of the medical records of one party does not provide any mechanism to ensure that only relevant and [*3]material confidential information is disclosed, these records may contain communications that are “embarrassing, humiliating, potentially damaging and totally irrelevant to the issue of present and future parental fitness.”
However, privileged information may be disclosed “where it is demonstrated that the invasion of protected communications between a party and a physician, psychologist or social worker is necessary and material to a determination of custody. . . .” State ex rel. Hickox v. Hickox, 64 AD2d 412 (1st Dept. 1978) citing, Perry v. Fiumano, 61 AD2d 512 (4th Dept. 1978).Accordingly, this department has adopted a policy which requires that a party’s medical records be reviewed by the Court and that only portions of the records deemed to be relevant and material, if any, be disclosed. Hickox, supra . This policy was recently reaffirmed in the case of Penny B. v. Gary S., 61 AD3d 589 (1st Dept. 2009), wherein the court held on the father’s petition for an award of custody, that the court had acted properly when it conducted an in camera review of the notes of the husband’s therapist and determined that it was unnecessary to release them or for the therapist to testify since the court had sufficient information about the father from other sources.
Based on the foregoing, the Court finds that under the circumstances here an in camera review of Dr. C.’s notes and records concerning the wife is appropriate. Accordingly, Dr. E.C. is directed to produce to the Court all of her notes and records regarding the treatment of the wife for in camera inspection. Such production shall be made no later than January 8, 2010. Upon review, the Court shall disclose any portion of the material which it deems to be material and necessary for the purpose of determining custody of the parties’ child. The husband’s application to depose Dr. C and his request that the Court authorize the issuance of a Subpoena Duces Tecum to be served on her instructing that she disclose all of her notes to counsel for the husband regarding her treatment of the wife is denied.

One issue that often comes in divorce actions, as well as in custody actions, involves disclosure of a party’s psychological or counseling records.  The party seeking the records typically is aware of some damaging information that may contained in them and would like to force their disclosure to the court or the attorney for the children.  The party whose records are being sought typically opposes such demands on the grounds that such records are private and extremely sensitive.  Psychological records may contain information with respect to a party’s psychological condition or mental illness, or other information, that may have impact on the parent’s fitness for custody or visitation.

In a recent case, L.W. v. E.S., 2009 NY Slip Op 52718(U) (Sup. Ct. New York Co.), the court had to address issues dealing with the husband’s motion seeking to depose the treating therapist of the wife , and authorizing the issuance of a Subpoena Duces Tecum to be served upon the therapist, instructing her to disclose all of her notes toattorney for the husband regarding her treatment of the wife.  The wife opposed the motion.  The court engaged in a discussion of the parties’ positions and applicable legal principles.  The court stated that it is well established that pretrial disclosure of privileged medical records is limited, especially in a custody litigation given the sensitive nature of the issues involved and the potential for the abuse of such discovery.

Since the wholesale pretrial discovery of the medical records of one party does not provide any mechanism to ensure that only relevant and material confidential information is disclosed, these records may contain communications that are embarrassing, humiliating, potentially damaging and totally irrelevant to the issue of present and future parental fitness.  However, privileged information may be disclosed where it is demonstrated that the invasion of protected communications between a party and a physician, psychologist or social worker is necessary and material to a determination of custody.  Accordingly, in view of these concerns, the court has adopted a policy which requires that a party’s medical records be reviewed by the court and that only portions of the records deemed to be relevant and material, if any, be disclosed.  Instead of providing unlimited access to the records, the court would usually conduct an in camera review of the notes of the therapist and determine if it is necessary to release them or for the therapist to testify.

The husband alleged that he was not aware of the wife’s psychological issues when he married her and that her psychological condition caused her to accuse the husband of various forms of misconduct.  The husband also alleged that the wife’s condition impacted her ability to parent.  After reviewing each party’s allegations, the court found that under the circumstances here an in camera review of the therapist’s notes and records concerning the wife was appropriate.  Upon review, the court shall disclose any portion of the material which it deems to be material and necessary for the purpose of determining custody of the parties’ child.

The courts approach requests for disclosure of psychological or mental health records carefully since there are significant reasons to limit disclosure of such records.  If the party’s divorce or custody lawyer can demonstrate that such records contain information that likely to be relevant to the parties’ custody or visitation dispute, such records will be disclosed.

Return From Military Service and Reconsideration of Custody Orders

Laws of 2009, Ch 473, effective November 15, 2009, amended the Domestic Relations Law, the Family Court Act and the Military Law to provide that the return of a parent from activation or deployment by the military will automatically be considered a ‘substantial change in circumstance’ for seeking reconsideration of a custody or visitation order. The amendment changes the law enacted last year which requires that all child custody orders issued when a parent is on active military duty be deemed temporary and subject to revision when the parent returns to civilian life.
Laws of 2009, Ch 473, § 1 amended Domestic Relations Law § 75-l ( entitled Military service by parent; effect on child custody
orders) to provide unless the parties have otherwise stipulated or agreed, if an order was issued under Domestic Relations Law § 75-l, the return of the parent from active military service, deployment or temporary assignment shall be considered a substantial
change in circumstances. Upon the request of either parent, the court shall determine on the basis of the child’s best interests whether the custody judgment or order previously in effect should be modified.
Laws of 2009, Ch 473, § 2 amended Domestic Relations Law 240, subdivision 1 to add a new paragraph (a-2) to read as follows:
(a-2) Military service by parent; effect on child custody orders.
(1) During the period of time that a parent is activated, deployed or temporarily assigned to military service, such that the parent’s ability to continue as a joint caretaker or the primary caretaker of a minor child is materially affected by such military service, any orders issued pursuant to this section, based on the fact that the parent is activated, deployed or temporarily assigned to military service, which would materially affect or change a previous judgment or order regarding custody of that parent’s child or children as such judgment or order existed on the date the parent was activated, deployed, or temporarily assigned to military service, shall be subject to review pursuant to subparagraph three of this paragraph. Any relevant provisions of the Service Member’s Civil Relief Act shall apply to all proceedings governed by this section.
(2) During such period, the court may enter an order to modify custody if there is clear and convincing evidence that the modification is in the best interests of the child. An attorney for the child shall be appointed in all cases where a modification is sought during such military service. Such order shall be subject to review pursuant to subparagraph three of this paragraph. When entering an order pursuant to this section, the court shall consider and provide for, if feasible and if in the best interests of the child, contact between the military service member and his or her child, including, but not limited to, electronic communication by e-mail, webcam, telephone, or other available means. During the period of the parent’s leave from military service, the court shall consider the best interests of the child when establishing a parenting schedule, including visiting and other contact. For such purposes, a “leave from military service” shall be a period of not more than three months.
(3) Unless the parties have otherwise stipulated or agreed, if an order is issued pursuant to this paragraph, the return of the parent from active military service, deployment or temporary assignment shall be considered a substantial change in circumstances. Upon the request of either parent, the court shall determine on the basis of the child’s best interests whether the custody judgment or order previously in effect should be modified.
(4) This paragraph shall not apply to assignments to permanent duty stations or permanent changes of station.
Laws of 2009, Ch 473, § 3 amended Family Court Act § 651 to add a new subdivision (f) which reads exactly the same as Domestic Relations Law 240, subdivision 1 (a-2).

On November 15, 2009, amendments to the Domestic Relations Law, the Family Court Act and the Military Law became effective that provide that the return of a parent from activation or deployment by the military will automatically be considered a “substantial change in circumstance” for seeking reconsideration of a custody or visitation order.  The amendments change the law enacted last year which requires that all child custody orders issued when a parent is on active military duty are deemed temporary and subject to revision when the parent returns to civilian life.

Specifically, Domestic Relations Law §75-l ( entitled Military service by parent; effect on child custody orders) provides that unless the parties have otherwise stipulated or agreed, if an order was issued under Domestic Relations Law §75-l, the return of the parent from active military service, deployment or temporary assignment shall be considered a substantial change in circumstances.  Upon the request of either parent, the court shall determine on the basis of the child’s best interests whether the custody judgment or order previously in effect should be modified.

Domestic Relations Law §240(1), was amended to add a new paragraph (a-2) as follows:

(a-2) Military service by parent; effect on child custody orders.

(1) During the period of time that a parent is activated, deployed or temporarily assigned to military service, such that the parent’s ability to continue as a joint caretaker or the primary caretaker of a minor child is materially affected by such military service, any orders issued pursuant to this section, based on the fact that the parent is activated, deployed or temporarily assigned to military service, which would materially affect or change a previous judgment or order regarding custody of that parent’s child or children as such judgment or order existed on the date the parent was activated, deployed, or temporarily assigned to military service, shall be subject to review pursuant to subparagraph three of this paragraph. Any relevant provisions of the Service Member’s Civil Relief Act shall apply to all proceedings governed by this section.

(2) During such period, the court may enter an order to modify custody if there is clear and convincing evidence that the modification is in the best interests of the child. An attorney for the child shall be appointed in all cases where a modification is sought during such military service. Such order shall be subject to review pursuant to subparagraph three of this paragraph. When entering an order pursuant to this section, the court shall consider and provide for, if feasible and if in the best interests of the child, contact between the military service member and his or her child, including, but not limited to, electronic communication by e-mail, webcam, telephone, or other available means. During the period of the parent’s leave from military service, the court shall consider the best interests of the child when establishing a parenting schedule, including visiting and other contact. For such purposes, a “leave from military service” shall be a period of not more than three months.

(3) Unless the parties have otherwise stipulated or agreed, if an order is issued pursuant to this paragraph, the return of the parent from active military service, deployment or temporary assignment shall be considered a substantial change in circumstances. Upon the request of either parent, the court shall determine on the basis of the child’s best interests whether the custody judgment or order previously in effect should be modified.

(4) This paragraph shall not apply to assignments to permanent duty stations or permanent changes of station.

The Family Court Act § 651 was amended to add a new subdivision (f) which contains identical language as Domestic Relations Law §240(1) (a-2).

If you are in the military service, the amendments provide some degree of comfort that any changes to the preexisting custody arrangements as a result of being called to the active duty can be reevaluated.  At the same time, in order to do so, the service person will be required to go to court and is likely to require assistance of a family law lawyer.

Modification of Visitation Based On the Age of the Child

It is no uncommon to see vistation arrangements involving very young child.  While family lawyers can plan for many different situations, not everything can be planned for or predicted.  What happens to such arrangements when the child gets older?

In a recent case of Sett v. Balcom, 64 A.D.3d 934 (3rd Dept. 2009), the Appellate Division, Third Department, had to address issues related to visitation arrangments put in place when the child was a year old.  Initially, the father was granted two-hour Sunday visitation the mother’s residence, and the mother received sole custody.  The order also permitted unsupervised and additional visitation but only at the mother’s sole discretion.  As the child was now 5 years old, the father brought a modification petition, prompted by the mother’s persistent refusals to permit expanded visitation, and sought joint custody and increased visitation, including overnight visitation.

Following a fact-finding hearing at which both parties testified, Family Court denied the father’s request for joint custody but granted him additional visitation, including overnight visitation.

The Applellate Division held that sound and substantial basis found in record to support Family Court’s decision to modify visitation on ground that petitioner made sufficient showing of change in circumstances warranting modification to promote child’s best interests.  Initial restrictions on father’s visitation stemmed from child’s young age at time and father not having meaningful contact with daughter.  At the time the modification petition was brought, the father was gainfully employed, involved in a stable relationship, lives in home with bedroom for child and enjoys cordial relationship with mother and extended family.  Moreover, when the mother was asked about her objections to increased visitation, the mother’s only stated concern was that the child might be uncomfortable. The mother never voiced any concern about the father’s ability to parent or the child’s safety in his presence. Moreover, again when asked, she raised only two minor concerns about his home, one of which was that it lacked toys. The mother also conceded that the child should have a close relationship with the father and that they played well together during visits.

According to the Appellate Division, nothing in the record—including potential reticence typical of a young child—revealed that expanded visitation would be harmful or detrimental to the child.

Therefore, if you are dealing with a custody and visitation arrangement that entered when the child was young, that arrangement might be ripe for modification. If you believe that a change would be appropriate, discuss your situation with an experienced family law attorney.

Pendente Lite Motions And Available Relief

A divorce case could easily last for a year or, occasionally, much longer. Therefore, it is common for the parties to seek various forms of relief from the court while the action is pending.  This type of relief is commonly referred to as pendente lite and is usually obtained by making a motion, brought by an order to show cause.  Such motion is usually supported by affidavits, exhibits, and statements of net worth. A pendente lite motion may seek such things as temporary custody of children, temporary schedule of visitation with the minor children, temporary child support, temporary maintenance, exclusive possession of the marital residence, temporary order of protection, interim award of attorneys fees, interim award of expert fees, and an order restraining marital assets.  Since pendente lite motions are made on expedited basis, not all facts may be known at the time the motion is brought.  Once the relief sought in the pendente lite is granted, the court’s decision is unlikely to be reversed on appeal since numerous cases have held that the proper remedy for objections to a pendente lite order is a plenary trial.  As the court stated in Penavic v. Penavic, 60 A.D.3d 1026 (2nd Dept. 2009), “[t]he best remedy for any perceived inequities in the pendente lite award is a speedy trial, at which the disputed issues concerning the parties’ financial capacity and circumstances can be fully explored.” After the final decision is made, the trial court has the power to adjust the pendente lite relief.

The most significant form of pendente lite relief in many cases is temporary maintenance.  As the court stated in Mueller v. Mueller, 61 A.D.3d 652 (2nd Dept. 2009), “pendente lite awards should be an accommodation between the reasonable needs of the moving spouse and the financial ability of the other spouse . . . with due regard for the  preservation standard of living”. It is the burden of the party seeking pendente lite relief to demonstrate the need for the award sought. The standard of living previously enjoyed by the parties is a relevant consideration in assessing the reasonable needs of a temporary maintenance applicant.

One critical issue that can be addressed by a pendente lite motion is preservation of marital assets. Pursuant to Domestic Relations Law § 234, a court has broad discretion in matrimonial actions to issue injunctive relief in the interest of justice to preserve marital assets pending equitable distribution. Place v. Seamon, 59 A.D.3d 913 (3rd Dept. 2009). Such request for restraints on property transfers can be granted upon the movant demonstrating that the spouse to be enjoined “is attempting or threatening to dispose of marital assets so as to adversely affect the movant’s ultimate rights in equitable distribution”.

Pendente lite financial relief is usually retroactive to the date of filing of the motion.

For many, getting exclusive occupancy of the marital residence during the pendency of a divorce action can be as important as the ultimate divorce itself. Yet the emotional need to be free of the company of one’s spouse is never enough. The courts do not lightly infringe upon the right of a spouse to remain in his or her home even where, for example, that spouse continues an adulterous relationship, or the marital residence was owned by the other spouse prior to the marriage.

Where both parties remain in the home when the application for temporary exclusive occupancy is brought before the court, the party seeking occupancy must show that the other party is a threat to the safety of person(s) or property. The party seeking such relief must present detailed allegations supported by third party affidavits, police reports and/or hospital records may be needed to convince the court that the application is not an effort to force the other party out of the house. Even then, if the other party contradicts the allegations of the application with his or her own sworn affidavit, the court may order that a hearing be held to resolve the conflicting versions of the facts. Occasionally, the evidence of the threat to safety is sufficiently persuasive that a court will dispense with the requirement of a hearing, and grant an order of exclusive occupancy based only upon a review of the papers submitted. As I have written before, such relief can also be obtained from the Family Court on expedited basis and, occasionally, on ex parte basis,  if the safety of a party is at issue.

A pendente lite motion which requests either child support, maintenance or attorneys fees, must include a statement of net worth as an exhibit, even if the statement of net worth has been filed separately.

One form of relief that is typically not available as a part of a pendente lite application, is the order directing the sale of the marital residence. Such relief can only be obtained after trial.

If a party decides to violate the pendente lite order, the proper application is contempt. Shammah v. Shammah, 22 Misc.3d 822 (Sup. Ct. Nassau Co. 2008).

Usually, a pendente lite motion sets up the parties’ positions with respect to critical issues in their divorce case.  If a lawyer is successful in obtaining the relief sought, his/her client’s position going forward will better and the client’s negotiating posture may improve significantly.  Most  divorce attorneys recognize this and are careful in making pendente lite motions.

Attorneys Fees Ordered in Family Court and Discharge in Chapter 7 Bankruptcy

I have previously written how the bankruptcy courts deal with attempted discharge of the so-called domestic support obligations. However, that post focused primarily on discharge of obligation that arose as a result of divorce proceedings and child support. Occasionally, I see an attempt to discharge an obligation arising out of Family Court proceedings, specifically, attorneys fees.

While it is clear that the child support or spousal support obligations are not dischargeable in bankruptcy as domestic support obligations, the question of attorneys fees granted in a child support or other proceeding in Family Court was less clear cut until Ross v. Sperow, 57 A.D.3d 1255 (3rd Dept. 2008), where the Appellate Division, Third Department, held that the award of counsel fees by the Family Court was, in part, “in the nature of support” and, therefore, excepted from discharge in bankruptcy.

In Ross, the mother filed a petition for violation of a prior order of custody and visitation in 2005. In response, multiple cross petitions were filed by the father alleging violations by the mother and seeking modification of custody. In an August 2006 order resolving the parties’ petitions, Family Court sustained the mother’s motion for counsel fees and ordered that the father pay $ 5,000 of her counsel fees. The father subsequently filed for bankruptcy under chapter 7 of the Bankruptcy Code and, in Schedule F of his petition, he listed the award of counsel fees as an unsecured debt. The father was discharged by order of the Bankruptcy Court in January 2007 and, shortly thereafter, the mother commenced the present proceeding in Family Court for the violation of a court order based upon the father’s failure to pay the counsel fees. Contending that the debt had been discharged in bankruptcy, the father moved to dismiss the petition. Family Court, among other things, concluded that the counsel fees awarded in its prior order were a nondischargeable domestic support obligation, denied the father’s motion and granted the mother’s petition in part, finding the father to be in violation of a prior order.

The Appellate Division noted that state and federal courts have concurrent jurisdiction over the issue of the dischargeablity of a particular debt following the discharge of the debtor in bankruptcy. It reviewed the father’s contention that the counsel fees, although awarded in the context of a Family Court proceeding regarding custody and visitation, were not “in the nature of support” for the parties’ children. The Court held that since the mother’s initial petition commencing the proceeding clearly raised issues of financial need and hardship and her motion for counsel fees, which was sustained by Family Court in the August 2006 order, proposed consideration of her circumstances as one basis for an award of counsel fees. The Court held that the term “in the nature of support” is to be given a broad interpretation in the context of the discharge of debt obligations in bankruptcy and agreed with Family Court’s determination that the award of counsel fees in its prior order was, in part, “in the nature of support” and, therefore, excepted from discharge in bankruptcy.

The real issue in this case is whether the custody petition really was in the nature of support. The mother’s lawyer was able to persuade the both the Family Court and the Appellate Division that it was. While the Appellate Division relied on the award of attorneys’ fees and the relevant standard under the Family Court Act, an argument can be made that the Court should have looked to the underlying proceeding only and that proceeding dealt exclusively with custody issues. One of the factors in any award of attorneys’ fees is ability to pay, so that can make an award of attorneys fees in any proceeding in Family Court to be in the nature of support.