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.

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.

What Happens to My Court Case During the Coronavirus Pandemic?

Over the course of the last few weeks, it has become clear that the consequences of the COVID-19 (“Coronavirus”) pandemic are far reaching. In order to protect the health and safety of individuals, certain precautionary measures have been implemented.

On March 15, 2020, Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence K. Marks issued a Memorandum outlining updated operational protocols for the trial courts of the New York State Unified Court System. The Memorandum provides that, effective 5:00 p.m. on March 16, 2020, all non-essential functions of the trial courts are postponed until further notice. The Memorandum, in its entirety, can be found at http://nycourts.gov/whatsnew/pdf/Updated-Protocol-AttachmentA3.pdf.

But what does this mean for your civil court case? The answer to this question depends on the particular stage of litigation that your case is in.

For those courts that permit electronic filing, lawsuits may still be commenced by such electronic filing. However, you should discuss with your attorney whether filing a complaint at this time is prudent. For instance, a complaint must be served on the opposing party within 120 days of filing the complaint. Due to the implementation of such precautionary measures as social distancing, serving such pleadings may be difficult or dangerous.

If your case is in the discovery stage, document production and responding to demands can continue. However, delays should be expected as many attorneys have been forced to work remotely without the assistance of a fully staffed law firm. Depositions may also take place, but social distancing protocol should be observed.

Any motions, court conferences, and mediations will be postponed until at least May 2020. All civil trials (not commenced before March 13, 2020) have also been stayed indefinitely.

If your case has been appealed to the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court Fourth Judicial Department, all matters calendared for the March/April 2020 term will be considered on submission only, without oral argument. All matters currently scheduled for the May 2020 term are adjourned and will be re-calendared for a later term. The Court will, however, entertain emergency matters.

An unintended consequence of the foregoing changes will be the creation of an overwhelming backlog of cases for the Courts to deal with. It appears that litigants and the Courts will continue to feel the effects of this pandemic long after the crisis has passed.

Certain types of cases are exempted from the updated protocol, including, but not limited to, mental hygiene, guardianship, and civil commitment matters. In addition, certain specific types of matters are subject to a separate set of updated protocols, including, but not limited, evictions and foreclosures. For more information about these exemptions/exceptions, please consult our Litigation Department or your legal counsel.

If you have a case in the United States District Court of New York or Bankruptcy Court, operational protocols have also been updated. Such Orders can be found on each District’s website.

Obtaining Original (Pre-Adoption) Birth Certificate for Adoptees

On January 15, 2020, New York’s law, allowing adoptees to receive a certified copy of their original, or pre-adoption, birth certificate when they turn 18-years-old, went into effect. The new law gives the right to all adult New York adoptees to obtain information about their birth and biological parents. Thus, adult adoptees are able to obtain information about their origins, family histories and medical backgrounds .

Starting on January 15, 2020, the New York State Department of Health began accepting requests from adoptees 18-years-old and older born in New York State, outside of New York City, who want to receive their original birth certificate. If the adoptee is deceased, direct line descendants, such as a child, grandchild or great-grandchild of the adoptee, may request a copy of the adoptee’s birth certificate. Also, a lawful representative of an adoptee or a lawful representative of a deceased adopted person’s direct line descendant may also apply for an original birth certificate.

The Department of Health has birth records for all of New York State except New York City. Adoptees born in New York City must apply through the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Applications for the birth certificate can be made online and are likely to result in faster issuance of the birth certificate. Paper applications will also be accepted by mail and in person. All certificates will be issued via regular mail; no certificates will be issued in person or via email.

Previously, the original birth certificates were sealed pursuant to the provisions of the Public Health Law and Domestic Relations Law. They could not be released except by the order of the court without meeting a high level of proof.

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.

 

Final Custody Determination Requires a Plenary Hearing

A mother who lost custody of her children after she broke windows at their father’s house and set fire to his clothes in the driveway should have received an evidentiary hearing, the Court of Appeals has ruled in S.L. v. J.R., 2016 N.Y. Slip. Op. 04442 (2016).  According to the filings, the mother, identified as S.L., and the father, identified as J.R., were married in 1997 and had two kids together.

In September 2012, after 15 years of marriage, S.L. filed for divorce from J.R., and sought full custody of the children. Also that month, she texted J.R.—who had moved out of the family’s house several months prior—that she would burn down the house and set his clothes on fire.

J.R. arrived at the house to find his clothes burnt in the driveway and windows at the house smashed out.  He filed for temporary sole custody of the children, alleging that he feared for their safety because of incidents involving harassment by S.L. and that she also had extramarital affairs and abused alcohol and drugs.

S.L. admitted to setting fire to J.R.’s wardrobe and her involvement in several other incidents, including a past charge of aggravated assault. In October 2012, the trial ruled that there were “enough red flags” to justify granting temporary sole custody of the children to J.R. In April 2013, S.L.’s visitation was suspended after a therapist determined that it would not be in the best interest of the children to allow visitation to continue until she entered anger management therapy.

A few months later, the trial court granted sole custody to J.R. without having a hearing, writing that a hearing was not necessary because the “allegations are not controverted” and that S.L. was being charged in three pending cases in the Integrated Domestic Violence part. In two of the cases, the judge said, S.L. was charged with breaking orders of protection prohibiting her from contacting J.R. or the children.

S.L. appealed trial court’s ruling, but in 2015, the Appellate Division, Second Department affirmed the lower court in S.L. v. J.R., 126 A.D.3d 682 (2nd Dept. 2015), writing that, while custody decisions are generally only made following a comprehensive evidentiary hearing, no hearing is necessary when the court “possesses adequate relevant information to enable it to make an informed and provident decision as to the child’s best interest,” citing its 2004 ruling in Matter of Hom v. Zullo, 6 A.D3.d 536 (2nd Dept. 2004).

But, on June 9, the Court of Appeals unanimously reversed the Second Department’s decision. The Court wrote that while there should be no “one size fits all” rule mandating a hearing in every custody case, custody decisions should generally be made after a full and plenary hearing. In the case of S.L., there were facts relevant to the best interest analysis that were still in dispute, and the trial court appeared to base its decision on hearsay and on the statements of a forensic investigation whose credibility was not questioned by either party.

While the mother was successful in reversing the trial court’s determination, ultimately, I do not believe that it will make a difference when the case is tried. Given the conduct at issue, it is unlikely that the parties will be able to have a joint custodial arrangement.

What Makes a Marriage Valid?

Occasionally, it is not clear whether the parties have a valid marriage which can be critical to such issues such as spousal maintenance and equitable distribution. So what makes a marriage valid?

In a recent decision, a trial court held that a purported marriage between an Orthodox Jewish woman and a man was invalid, even though the parties lived together for ten years after a rabbi performed a marriage ceremony for them without a marriage license. Devorah H. v. Steven S., 2015 N.Y. Slip Op. 25228 (Sup. Ct., N.Y. Co.).

The parties never obtained a marriage license. They were living together with their young children from prior marriages in a small apartment, and sought help from their rabbi in finding more suitable housing when a complaint by the woman’s ex-husband to the Administration for Children’s Services caused alarm. The rabbi found them a larger apartment and suggested they should marry before moving. He then officiated an abbreviated religious marriage ceremony for them on the spot, partially completing a standard form certificate (which he didn’t sign) and urged them to get a marriage license. The parties did not not obtain one, however.

Ten years after the purported marriage ceremony, the woman filed for divorce and the man moved to dismiss, contending they were never validly married. The woman relied on New York Domestic Relations Law Sec. 25, which provides that a “properly solemnized” marriage is valid despite the lack of a marriage license.

After hearing the extensive testimony of the man, the woman, and the rabbi on the issue of whether this marriage was “properly solemnized,” the court concluded that the marriage was invalid, noting particularly the rabbi’s testimony that he had repeatedly urged the parties to “go to City Hall” to get a license, and that they had to know that they would need a new solemnization after a license was issued. The man testified that after they left the rabbi’s office, he had torn up the copy of the certificate that the rabbi gave them.

The trial court relied upon the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges (576 U.S. – [2015]):

In the over 100 years since the enactment of DRL Sec. 25, the way citizens marry in New York has changed immeasurably. While at one time the wedding ceremony was the central element of the process, that is no longer the case; church weddings are more and more the exception rather than the rule, and the new wage of marriage ceremonies would be almost unrecognizable to earlier generations.  What is key to the process is the marriage license itself.  This is not only true for New York, but for the entire nation.  After all, when the United States Supreme Court issued its historic decision in Obergefell v. Hodges (576 U.S. – [2015]) making the right to same-sex marriage the law of the land, it did so by decreeing that ‘States are required by the Constitution to issue licenses to same-sex couples’ (emphasis added).

Domestic Relations Law Sec. 25 was also critical to the court’s decision, with the court writing that:

DRL Sec. 25, in its present form, serves no useful function in today’s world. Conceivably, if the statute was amended to allow couples who justifiably believed they were legally married with a valid marriage license to protect the marriage from the claim that the license was improperly executed or otherwise defective, that would certainly serve the public interest. But as it exists now, the statute allows for the wholesale disregard of New York’s licensing requirements – requirements that, as we have seen, play a vital role in insuring that marriages are legally valid. Until DLR Sec. 25 is repealed or reformed, courts will be forced to grapple with situations like this, where the parties fully understood that they did not legally marry but one side seeks to abuse the statute to attain the financial remedies only available to litigants who are married to one another.

The court concluded that “[i]n light of the foregoing, it must be concluded that plaintiff cannot show that she and defendant are married, and therefore has failed to prove an essential element of her prima facie case for divorce.”

The court disregarded the couples’ ten years of cohabitation after the quick marriage ceremony as a basis for finding the woman eligible to seek a formal divorce and disposition equitable distribution of the parties’ assets. The court  concluded that the woman could not under the circumstances claim justifiable reliance on a belief that she was in a valid marriage with the man. The court noted that the man, the woman and the rabbi each provided a different account of what happened, leaving the court to sort out questions of credibility, which were resolved against the woman.

So in order for the marriage to be valid, there has to be a marriage license and that the ceremony be performed. Ultimately, it will be interesting to see if this decision will be upheld on appeal.