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.

Sperm Donation, Paternity, and What Not to Do

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Expanding Definition of What It Means to Be a Parent

The New York State Court of Appeals ruled last week in Brooke S.B. v Elizabeth A.C.C., 2016 N.Y. Slip. Op. 05903, that a loving caretaker who is not related to, or the adoptive guardian of, a child could still be permitted to ask for custody and visitation rights.

The ruling came from a litigation between a couple, known in family court papers only as Brooke S.B. and Elizabeth A. C.C. In 2008, Elizabeth became pregnant with the couple’s child through artificial insemination. Though Brooke had no legal or biological ties to the child, a boy, she maintained a close relationship with him for years, cutting his umbilical cord at birth, giving him her last name and raising him jointly with Elizabeth. In 2013, after their relationship ended, Elizabeth tried to cut off Brooke’s contact with the boy. Brooke sued for custody and visitation privileges, but was turned down by a lower court, which found that legal precedent pursuant to Alison D. v. Virginia M., 77 N.Y.2d 651 (1991), did not define a non-adoptive, non-biological caretaker as a parent.

In its ruling, the Court of Appeals overturned Alison D., stating that “the definition of ‘parent’ established by this court 25 years ago in Alison D. has become unworkable when applied to increasingly varied familial relationships.” It further held that “where a partner shows by clear and convincing evidence that the parties agreed to conceive a child and to raise the child together, the non-biological, non-adoptive partner has standing to seek visitation and custody.”

While Brooke S.B. seems to be applicable primarily to same sex couples, it is easy to see that the same type of argument may be applicable to heterosexual couples in situations where one partner is artificially inseminated.  The Court of Appeals declined to state what the proper test should be in cases where no preconception agreement can be shown to have existed between nonbiological couple. As far as the proof of the parties’ intent, the courts are likely to look at the parties’ participation such activities as birthing classes, partners’ inclusion on birth notices and other traditional indications of the existence of a pre-conception agreement between a couple.

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.

Parent Who Is Prevented From Seeing Child By Other Spouse Is Not Obligated To Pay Child Support

I have previously written about situations where a child becomes constructively emancipated as a result of the child’s refusal to have contact with the parent.  What happens in situations where a parent is prevented from seeing the child by the other parent? In Coull v. Rottman, 131 A.D.3d 964 (2nd Dept. 2015) the Appellate Division, Second Department suspended father’s obligation to make child support payments.

The father last visited his son in February 2010. For the next several months, he said he would go to the exchange location on visitation days, but often neither the mother nor his son would be there. In one instance, both the mother and the child appeared, but the mother said the boy would not leave the car.

The court also found that the mother assumed an inappropriately hostile stance toward the father and witnesses who testified in his favor.  She further stated many times that she would never allow the father to see his child and would do “whatever it takes” to keep the boy away from him.

Given the circumstances, the court concluded that the father’s obligation to pay child support should be suspended.  While parents have a duty to continually support their children until they are 21 years old, where the noncustodial parent establishes that his or her right of reasonable access to the child has been unjustifiably frustrated by the custodial parent, child support payments may be suspended.

Further, the relationship between the father and the child had deteriorated and while the boy had participated in therapy for several months to foster a relationship with his father, he remained “vehemently opposed” to any type of visitation with the father.  Since the child was 13 at the time of the hearing, and the judge had placed great weight on the child’s wishes, since he was mature enough to express them.

A similar result was reached by the court in Argueta v. Baker, 2016 N.Y. Slip. Op. 01838, where the Appellate Division held that the father had demonstrated that the mother actively interfered with and deliberately frustrated his visitation with the child by failing to provide him with the child’s Florida address, preventing him from seeing the child when he was in Florida, and failing to notify him when the child was in New York. Therefore, the father was entitled to suspension of his child support obligations.

Both parental alienation and parental interference cases turn on specific proof of the child’s and parents’ actions. They may also require testimony of the child. If the parental relationship with the child is already bad, forcing the child to testify is not likely to improve it.

Allocation of Child Care Costs in Child Support Cases

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

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

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

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

Enforcement of Payment Obligations Pursuant to Judgment of Divorce

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

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

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

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

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

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

Updates to New York’s Child Support Standards Chart

According to the Child Support Standards Chart, prepared by New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, Division of Child Support Enforcement, and released March 12, 2014, the 2014 poverty income guideline amount for a single person as reported by the United States Department of Health and Human Services is $11,670 and the 2014 self-support reserve is $15,755. These numbers are highly relevant for child support calculations and may have a role in determining child support arrears in situations where payor’s income is less than the guideline amount for a single person. The Chart is found at this link. The Child Support Standards Chart is released each year on or before April 1.

Additionally, as required by the Child Support Standards Act, the combined parental income amount used to calculate basis economic support has been changed to $141,000. This figure is adjusted every two years (effective January 31st) based on the average annual percent changes to the federal Department of Labor’s Consumer Price Index for Urban Consumers. The basic economic support figure is highly relevant in the cases where combined parental income is substantially in excess of it since the court may utilize parental income in excess of the basic economic support figure under appropriate circumstances.

Surrogacy and Adoption

One area where New York still lags behind other states has to do with surrogacy contracts. New York does not recognize surrogacy contracts statutorily since it deems the underlying surrogacy contracts to be against public policy, and they are void and unenforceable in New York. See N.Y. Dom. Rel. L. § 122. However, what happens to a child born as a result of such contract?

In a recent decision, Matter of J.J., 2014 N.Y. Slip. Op. 24089 (Fam. Ct. Queens Co. 2014), New York Family Court held that a child born as a result of a surrogacy contract can be adopted in the State of New York, notwithstanding the fact that such contract would be void and unenforceable.  In that decision, Judge Salinitro held that a man may legally adopt his husband’s biological twins even though they were born to a woman under a surrogacy agreement that is illegal in New York State. According to the court, the best interests of the twins is the most important consideration in weighing the adoption petition, not the surrogacy agreement that resulted in their birth. According to the decision, a home study provided to the court showed that the children are thriving in the care of the parents.

Thus, the court stated that it is not being asked to enforce the surrogacy contract that forms the basis for the adoption, nor does the relief sought include claims relating to the surrogacy agreement itself. Rather, the case involved proposed adoptive parent who wanted to have equivalent legal status as the birth parent, and is prepared to assume the rights and responsibilities that accompany legal parentage.

Therefore, the surrogacy agreement with the woman who bore the children in Mumbai, India, in 2013 was of no consequence to the adoption. The court specifically found that “where a surrogacy contract exists and an adoption has been filed to establish legal parentage, such surrogacy contract does not foreclose an adoption from proceeding”.

Section 122 of Domestic Relations Law declares that “surrogate parenting contracts are hereby declared contrary to the public policy of this state, and are void and unenforceable”. The judge said she found a “paucity” of previous rulings in New York on surrogacy and none directly focused on surrogacy contracts in the adoption context. Accordingly, she called the issue before her an apparent question of first impression in New York courts.

I think that the judge made the right decision. Given that the law does not always keep up with changes in medical technology and society, the courts have to step in and address these types of issues.