Archive for the ‘jurisdiction’ Category

No-Fault Divorce Becomes Law In New York

Sunday, August 15th, 2010

The no-fault divorce bill has been signed by the Governor Patterson and will go into effect in 60 days.  That means that starting on October 13, 2010, someone who wants to be divorced in New York will no longer be required to make allegations of martial fault by the other spouse and will only be required to swear that the relationship between husband and wife has  broken  down  irretrievably  for  a period of at least six months.  The new law will apply to the divorce actions commenced on or after such effective date.

In addition, the Governor signed legislation that will revise the process for setting awards of temporary maintenance while a divorce is pending, by creating a formula and list of factors that would presumptively govern such awards. This would allow for speedy resolution of the maintenance issue, and prevent less well-off parties to divorce proceedings from falling into poverty during litigation, because they lack the resources to obtain a temporary maintenance order. Another bill would create a presumption that a less monied spouse in a divorce case is entitled to payment of attorneys’ fees. Under current law, a party that cannot afford to secure representation in a divorce proceeding must make an application for fees at the end of the process, which can force a poor individual to proceed without a lawyer, or to surrender on important issues due to lack of means. Provisions of the Domestic Relations Law related to temporary maintenance and attorneys fees will go into effect in 60 days as well.

These are important development in New York’s family law and I think that it will take some time to assess their impact.  At the same time, I think that they will be welcomed by divorce lawyers in this state and will make divorce easier for the divorcing spouses. With respect to the bill establishing the formula for temporary maintenance, it is highly likely that any such temporary maintenance award is going to be used by the courts as a basis for a permanent maintenance award.

Update on Dissolution of Out-of-State Civil Unions

Saturday, April 3rd, 2010

I have previously written regarding the problem posed by out-of-state civil unions.  Under New York law, while such unions are recognized through the principles of comity, New York does not have any legislation that addresses how these unions may be dissolved once one or both of the parties reside in New York.

The prior decision, made by the trial court, stated that the court would have jurisdiction to address dissolution of the civil union.  However, the court was searching for the way to accomplish this and suggested that the complaint be pled to seek dissolution of a civil union, as opposed to a divorce, as a complaint was plead initially.  As a trial court decision, B.S. v. F.B., did not carry a significant weight of authority and would not be binding on other trial courts.

Now we have the first appellate level decision to address this issue.  In Dickerson v. Thompson, 2010 N.Y. Slip. Op. 02052 (3rd Dept. 2010), the Appellate Division, Third Department, held that New York court have subject matter jurisdiction “to entertain an action for equitable and declaratory relief seeking dissolution of a civil union validly entered into outside of this state.”  The court did not determine the scope of the relief that may be available in such action.

What is obvious from the decision is that the Appellate Division believed that the courts had authority to handle such cases, but was struggling come up with the way to accomplish the dissolution.  What makes it difficult, is the fact that when a divorce takes place, the court will address such issues as custody, child support, spousal maintenance, and equitable distribution.  All of the above issues are resolved in accordance with the provisions of the Domestic Relations Law.  What is unknown is how the courts will handle custody, child support, spousal maintenance and equitable distribution in dissolution of a civil union, something that apparently carries less weight in New York courts than a traditional marriage.  Does entering into a civil union create a potential entitlement to a spousal maintenance?  I don’t know the answer to that question, I suspect that the courts do not know the answer to it either.  It is quite likely that New York legislature will have to address these issues and, until then, the courts will try to come up with some ways of addressing these issues.

For a divorce lawyer, the above represents an excellent example of uncertainty created by the lack of uniformity in the states’ treatment of same-sex relationships. It also brings up a host of interesting legal issues that attorneys must recognize in handling similar situations.

Divorce and Dissolution of Out-Of-State Civil Unions

Sunday, August 2nd, 2009

I have previously written about New York’s recognition of foreign marriages, including same-sex marriages and divorce. While same-sex marriage and divorce are becoming more common, some states have incorporated civil unions into their statutes as an alternative to same-sex marriage.  One of New York’s neighbors, Vermont, has permitted such civil unions for some time.  Until recently, it was unclear what position New York courts would take if the parties who entered into a civil union sought divorce, or dissolution of that union in New York.

In B.S. v. F.B., 2009 N.Y. Slip Op. 29315 (Sup. Ct. Westchester Co. 2009), the court had to decide whether it could grant a divorce to a couple who entered into a civil union in Vermont.

In B.S., the parties have resided together for a number of years. In October 2003 the parties entered into a “Civil Union” in the state of Vermont. In 2009, plaintiff by Summons with Notice and Verified Complaint commenced an action in Westchester County Supreme Court seeking dissolution of “the marriage between the parties” on DRL § 170 (1) grounds of cruel and inhuman treatment.

The Vermont statute, effective July 1, 2000, provides that parties to a civil union be entitled to “the benefits and protections” and “be subject to the rights and responsibilities” of “spouses” (Vermont Stat Ann, Title 15, § 1201 [2]). Civil union affords “all the same benefits, protections and responsibilities under law, whether they derive from statute, administrative or court rule, policy, common law or any other source of civil law, as are granted to spouses in a marriage” (Vermont Stat Ann, Title 15 § 1204 [a]). A party to a civil union is included in the definition of the term spouse, family, immediate family, dependent, next of kin and “other terms that denote the spousal relationship, as those terms are used throughout the law.” (Vermont Stat Ann, Title 15, § 1204 [b].) Parties to a civil union are responsible for support “to the same degree and in the same manner as prescribed under the law for married persons” (Vermont Stat Ann, Title 15, § 1204 [c]). Annulment, separation, divorce, child custody and support, property division and maintenance apply to parties to a civil union (Vermont Stat Ann, Title 15, § 1204 [d]).

Defendant argued that New York courts lacked jurisdiction to grant a divorce in a situation where the parties entered into a civil union, as opposed to a marriage. After discussing how neighboring states treated civil unions and whether or not those states were able to grant divorce to the couples who entered into civil unions, the court examined New York’s law dealing with these issues.

The Supreme Court stated that New York has not attempted to create any method by which same sex partners can “legalize” their relationships. In the absence of such a rule, regulation or statute, this Court has no precedent or authority to use as a standard to address plaintiff’s application herein. New York’s judicial position with respect to permitting same sex marriage is currently articulated in Hernandez v. Robles, 7 N.Y.3d 338 (2006). In Hernandez, the New York Court of Appeals declined to extend the right to marry to the same sex couples.

New York courts have recognized same sex unions celebrated in a sister state or foreign country by application of the principal of full faith and credit. By extending full faith and credit to same sex marriages from other jurisdictions, New York has recognized the same sex spouse’s right to health and other insurance benefits; in estate proceedings to qualify as a surviving spouse in the probate of an intestate estate; and in divorce actions. See Martinez v. County of Monroe, 50 A.D.3d 189 (4th Dept. 2008). But the essential predicate for Martinez and subsequent judicial determinations was the existence of a valid marriage.

As a matter of comity, New York courts will generally recognize out -of-state marriages, including common law marriages, unless barred by positive law (statute) or natural law (incest, polygamy), or where the marriage was otherwise offensive to public policy. While falling short of placing a civil union on the same level as a valid marriage, New York has evidenced by executive and local orders a clear commitment to respect, uphold and protect parties to same sex relationships and their families. The Vermont Legislature’s decision to create a civil union was an recognition of the right of same sex couples to have some legal protections and some of the rights and responsibilities of opposite sex married people.

At the same time, civil unions were never treated by New York court as equal to marriage. Therefore, the court felt constrained by judicial precedent and legislative inaction and  held that it could not treat the civil union as a marriage and, therefore, could not grant a divorce. Yet, after finding that it could not grant a divorce under New York law, the court attempted to come up with a road map for the parties and stated that if the plaintiff plead a complaint to dissolve a Vermont civil union, New York Supreme Court would have jurisdiction to hear and decide the case.

While New York Supreme Court has the general jurisdiction to hear and decide all equitable civil actions, it is unclear to me whether it could dissolve a civil union in the absence of some action by New York’s Legislature. For a divorce lawyer, the above represents an excellent example of uncertainty created by the lack of uniformity in the states’ treatment of same-sex relationships. It also brings up a host of interesting legal issues that attorneys must recognize in handling similar situations.

Custody, UCCEJA and Jurisdictional Issues

Sunday, July 26th, 2009

I often deal with situations where either parent  and/or their child relocates to out of state and the other wishes to petition the court for custody of the child, visitation, or modification of existing order or, perhaps, enforcement of a custody order.  While in many cases the noncustodial parent seeks court intervention because the custodial parent relocated without permission, there are situations where the consent was given initially but then intervening events resulted in the need for modification or enforcement of the current custody order.

New York, as well as many other states, has adopted the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (“UCCEJA”).  UCCEJA aims to discourage interstate child abductions and to prevent “forum shopping” by parents trying to strategically remove the child to a state  to avoid another state’s jurisdiction.  The statute explicitly sets forth the circumstances in which New York courts have jurisdiction, particularly when there is a question which state has the right to exercise jurisdiction because one parent and/or the child no longer resides in New York.  Although it is usually invoked in petitions seeking custody or visitation, or modification and/or enforcement of custody or visitation orders, it also applies to guardianship proceedings, divorce, paternity, child abuse or neglect, termination of parental rights, and domestic violence cases. Since jurisdiction is usually not in issue when the child lives in New York or has moved from the state within six months of filing the petition, the UCCJEA helps to resolve jurisdictional issues in other circumstances where the child has moved to another state or his or her physical presence in the state.  These include cases where the noncustodial parent lives in New York but the child does not; where the child moved from the state more than six months prior to the filing of the petition (but without the noncustodial parent’s consent or to somewhere unknown to that parent);  or where the child is in New York and there are concerns of abuse and/or neglect. These are all scenarios that warrant the application of the UCCJEA.

The UCCJEA sets forth alternative rounds of asserting jurisdiction, which are:  1)  where it is in the best interests of the child based on the “significant connections”  to the state and there is “substantial evidence” within the court’s jurisdiction concerning the child’s current or future care; 2) where there is an emergency situation ; 3) where no other state has jurisdiction or 4) another state has refused jurisdiction.

New York courts’ jurisdiction under the first ground only applies to cases where there is no home state and there has not been a home state for the past six months.  This limitation is imposed by the federal statute, the Parental Kidnapping Prevention Act which trumps the UCCJEA because of the constitutional supremacy clause (Article VI, Clause 2).  This act serves to provide more uniformity amongst states, resolve conflicts between various states that may have an interest and to address the inconsistency caused by the application of the prior act, the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Act (“UCCJA”), which was the basis for states applying their own version resulting in inconsistent orders.  Its objective is to avoid forum shopping, while encouraging the preference for the issuing state to maintain jurisdiction so long as one of the parents or the child remains a resident of the state.  Based on this, as well the two part analysis required to meet the criteria, there are rare cases where this particular section applies.  For example, showing that there are “significant contacts with the state” may be attainable, but proving that there is “substantial evidence” concerning the child’s current or future care is much more challenging.

New York courts’ jurisdiction under the second ground arises typically in child abuse or neglect cases or where the child was abandoned by the parent or legal guardian.  However, although the act serves to limit jurisdiction to situations where some emergency intervention by the courts is required, the statute is strictly construed.  In other words, a mere allegation of abuse and/or neglect is not enough, the courts must be convinced that abuse or neglect actually exist, placing the child’s physical and/or emotional well-being into question.   And even still, the courts may assert only limited or temporary jurisdiction, deferring the case to the home state of the child for further proceedings.  Furthermore, the child must physically be present in the state, and cannot be removed from the state for any reason under this provision.

New York courts will assert jurisdiction under the third ground in the cases where the child has not had a home state anywhere during the previous six months and no significant connections or emergency situation exists.  This is really a safety measure, an effort to avoid the case going unheard by any court.  Cases like this arise when the child moved from New York, then to another state for a short period (less than six months), then back to New York less than six months before the filing of the petition.

New York courts’ jurisdiction under the fourth ground will be asserted in the cases where another state, presumed to have been the child’s home state, has denied jurisdiction based on its own provisions.  Typically states will deny jurisdiction for lack of significant ties, there is a case already pending in another state, there is a more convenient forum or merely for parties’ failure to ascertain legitimate residence, as is the case when parents take the child from another state and hide him or her from the noncustodial parent long enough to establish jurisdiction.

When it comes to modifying a child custody order in New York that was issued by another state, New York will not exercise jurisdiction unless the state that entered it no longer has jurisdiction.  So even if it is the non-custodial parent that remains in the issuing state, while the child and the custodial parent relocated to New York, that state still has jurisdiction unless it declines jurisdiction.  Conversely, New York will enforce a custody order if the child and one parent lives in the state if the order is registered in New York.

The above issues tend to be factually oriented, and family law lawyers will carefully review the parties’ circumstances before and after the move, and any other fact relevant to jurisdictional determinations.

A recent example of application of the above principles, took place in Felty v. Felty, 2009 N.Y. Slip. Op. 05859 (2d Dept. 2009). In Felty, the primary question was whether New York should exercise home-state jurisdiction in a child custody proceeding. The Appellate Division held that the facts supported the mother’s contention that she intended to remain permanently in New York where the children’s six-week visit to Kentucky during the summer of 2007 was a temporary absence, which did not interrupt the six-month pre-petition residency period required by the UCCJEA.

The court found that the father took no affirmative steps prior to the commencement of the New York proceeding to establish permanent residence for the children in Kentucky and the children’s six-week summer visit was merely a temporary stay similar to a summer vacation.
The court stated that even if there was a wrongful removal by the mother, such a removal will not be treated as a temporary absence if there is evidence that the taking or retention of the child was to protect the mother from domestic violence. Here, the mother misled the father about agreeing to reconcile their marriage because he would not permit her to return to New York if she refused to attempt reconciliation. Finally, the court agreed with the lower court’s finding that treating the six-week visit as a temporary absence “permits parties to child custody proceedings to freely vacation and visit family members in other states without fear of losing home-state status.”

As described above, courts will carefully review all of the circumstances related to the parties’ and children’s residences, as well as the reasons for any move. If you are dealing with a situation where a dispute may be litigated in two different states, it would be a good idea to speak with an attorney who has experience dealing with UCCJEA.

Modification of Child Support Orders and Family Court’s Jurisdiction

Sunday, July 12th, 2009

I frequently see child support petitions in Family Court seeking to modify child support provisions of either judgments of divorce, or stipulations or settlement agreements incorporated in the judgments of divorce. Sometimes these petitions argue that the child support provisions of the judgment of divorce, stipulation or settlement agreement are invalid as violating the Child Support Standards Act. Unfortunately, if brought in the Family Court, these petitions suffer from certain jurisdictional defects as demonstrated in Savini v. Burgaleta, 34 A.D. 686 (2nd Dept. 2006).

In Savini, in 1996, the father entered into a stipulation with the mother which provided that the father would “pay to the [mother] as and for child support 29 percent of his gross salary as defined under the Child Support Standards Act on a weekly basis calculated on actual income.” That stipulation was later incorporated but did not merge into a judgment of divorce.

In a 1997 handwritten agreement, which was neither incorporated nor merged into the divorce judgment, the mother allegedly agreed, inter alia, to accept the sum of $200 per week from the father as child support and not to commence any proceeding to recover the difference between that amount and the percentage of gross salary specified in the prior stipulation.

Subsequently, a child support proceeding was commenced in the Family Court by the mother, and the Family Court Support Magistrate, sua sponte, determined that “the prior Judgment of Divorce and the stipulations did not comply with the Child Support Standards Act” and therefore informed the parties that she would consider the issue of child support de novo. She directed the father, in the interim, to pay child support in the amount $446.15 per week effective February 11, 2005. After a hearing, the Support Magistrate determined, in relevant part, that the father should pay $559.78 per week in child support until June 29, 2005, and $482.57 thereafter, and made the order retroactive to the date of the petition. The Support Magistrate also awarded the mother an attorney’s fee in the sum of $11,990.

The father filed various objections to the Support Magistrate’s findings and order. He claimed that the Support Magistrate was without jurisdiction to hold a de novo hearing on the issue of child support as if the judgment of divorce had never existed. By order entered February 8, 2006, the Family Court, inter alia, denied the father’s objections and father appealed.

The Appellate Division agreed with the father that the Family Court was without subject matter jurisdiction, in effect, to vacate as illegal so much of the judgment of divorce as directed the father to pay child support and, thereafter, to determine the issue of child support de novo. What is particularly interesting in this case was its reasoning.  The Appellate Division made this determination on constitutional grounds, stating that New York Constitution, article 6, §13 (c) provides that the Family Court is vested with limited jurisdiction “to determine, with the same powers possessed by the [S]upreme [C]ourt, the following matters when referred to the [F]amily [C]ourt from the [S]upreme [C]ourt: . . . in actions and proceedings for . . . divorce, . . . applications to fix temporary or permanent support . . . or applications to enforce judgments and orders of support”. Similarly, Family Court Act §466 provides, in relevant part, that, unless the Supreme Court directs otherwise, the Family Court may entertain an application to enforce an order or decree of the Supreme Court granting support, or an application to modify such order or decree “on the ground that there has been a subsequent change of circumstances and that modification is required.” The Supreme Court’s judgment of divorce provided, in relevant part, that the Supreme Court “retain[ed] jurisdiction of the matter concurrently with the Family Court for the purpose of specifically enforcing such of the provisions of the stipulation of child support as are capable of specific enforcement, to the extent permitted by law”.

The Court held that “nowhere in the Constitution, in the Family Court Act, or in the judgment of divorce itself, is the Family Court empowered, in effect, to invalidate a stipulation incorporated into the judgment of divorce entered by the Supreme Court. Significantly, the purpose of the mother’s petition was to enforce the terms of the stipulation of October 29, 1996 – not to have it declared illegal. Had either party questioned the legality of the stipulation, the issue should have been determined by the Supreme Court, which had issued the judgment in which the stipulation was incorporated. Accordingly, the Family Court was without jurisdiction to invalidate the stipulation and determine the child support issue de novo.”

What makes this situation different from typical modification of child support, which I previously discussed, here and here, is that fact that the provisions of the judgment apparently violated the Child Support Standards Act. In those situations, the Supreme Court has the jurisdiction to vacate any child support provisions of the judgment and recalculate child support de novo, going back to the original date of the judgment or the parties’ agreement.  The Family Court does not have the jurisdiction to do so. Accordingly, this is an important procedural point that should be familiar to most divorce and family law lawyers handling child support issues.  If the provisions of the judgment of divorce dealing with child support violate the Child Support Standards Act, the proper venue to address such issues lies in the court that issued the judgment of divorce.

Child Support, Equitable Estoppel and Same-Sex Relationship

Monday, June 15th, 2009

I have previously written about issues of equitable estoppel, which may result in non-biological parent being treated as a biological parent of the child. Recently, I came across a case, H.M. v. E.T., 2009 N.Y. Slip Op. 04240 (2nd Dept. 2009) that dealt with applicability of equitable estoppel to child support in a same-sex relationship situation.

In October of 2006, H.M., an Ontario resident, and the birth mother of a 12-year-old child, filed a “Support Application” with a Canadian agency, seeking to have E.T., a Rockland County resident, and H.M.’s former same-sex partner, adjudicated a parent of the child. H.M. also sought an award of child support retroactive to the date of the child’s birth.  In support of her application, H.M. alleged that in August 1989, the parties lived in New York, entered into a monogamous relationship, and started cohabitating. H.M. alleged that the parties then agreed that she would attempt to become impregnated via artificial insemination, and that after a child was born, they would parent that child together. H.M. alleged that pursuant to this agreement, and with E.T.’s assistance and encouragement, she became impregnated by sperm from an anonymous sperm donor. In September 1994, H.M. gave birth to the child. H.M. alleged that over the next few months, E.T. acted as a parent to the child by nurturing and caring for him. However, H.M. alleged that in January 1995, E.T. ended the parties’ relationship. H.M., who subsequently relocated with the child to Canada, alleged that after the relationship ended, she made numerous requests of E.T. for child support, all of which were refused.

After the child support proceeding was commenced in Canada, the case was transmitted to the Family Court, Rockland County pursuant to the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act (Family Ct Act art 5-B (hereinafter “UIFSA”).  Initially, the Support Magistrate found that under the present law of New York, there was no basis upon which the Family Court could adjudicate E.T. a parent of the subject child and require her to pay child support. In this regard, the Support Magistrate noted that E.T. was not the birth mother of the child or an adoptive parent of the child, never executed an official acknowledgment of parentage of the child, and was not in a legally recognized same-sex marriage or civil union with H.M. when she gave birth to the child. The Support Magistrate, pointing out that the Family Court is a court of law with limited subject matter jurisdiction, found no provision in Family Court Act Article 5, or in any other article of the Family Court Act, applicable to a controversy between a birth mother and another female concerning the other female’s parentage of a child. Finally, the Support Magistrate, deeming all of H.M.’s factual allegations to be true, and observing that equitable considerations might suggest that E.T. be adjudicated a parent of the child and required to pay child support, noted that the Family Court cannot grant equitable relief.

Subsequently, after the objections to the Support Magistrate’s Order were filed, the Family Court overturned the Support Magistrate’s Order citing cases where courts “held individuals responsible for the support of a child even though they were not related to the child by biology or adoption.” The Family Court observed that in those cases, the courts applied the doctrine of equitable estoppel which, the Family Court noted, will be applied in order to protect the best interests of a child born out-of-wedlock. Thus, the Family Court concluded that “a paternity proceeding [can] proceed against a same sex partner if circumstances are established justifying the [doctrine's] application.” Then, the Family Court, noting that the subject child was born as a result of E.T.’s “promises,” concluded that H.M.’s allegations, if true, could support a finding that E.T. “should be estopped [from denying] her role as a person responsible to provide support for [that] child.” Accordingly, the Family Court directed a hearing to determine whether E.T. “should be equitably estopped [from denying] her responsibility to provide support to the subject child.”

E.T. appealed from the order of the Family Court. The Appellate Division, Second Department, reversed the Family Court’s order and reinstated the order of the Support Magistrate dismissing the petition. The Appellate Division stated that the basic premise of the petition was that  H.M. who was never married to or in a civil union with E.T., sought to have E.T., a woman having no biological or legal connection to the subject child, adjudicated a parent of that child and required to pay child support. Since the Family Court received H.M.’s support application pursuant to UIFSA, it was authorized to determine “parentage” (Family Ct Act § 580-301[b][6]; § 580-701). UIFSA provides that in deciding such a proceeding, the Family Court is required to apply the procedural and substantive law generally applicable to a “similar” proceeding originating in this State, and may only exercise whatever “powers” and provide whatever “remedies” that are “available” in such a proceeding.

The only proceeding in this State “similar” to a proceeding for a determination of “parentage” is a proceeding pursuant to Family Court Act article 5. Yet, as the Support Magistrate recognized, Family Court Act article 5, entitled “paternity proceedings,” only provides a vehicle for resolving controversies concerning a man’s fatherhood of a child.  After analyzing the language of the Family Court Act, the court concluded that a paternity proceeding requires “the male party” to be “the father” of the child.

The court further held that although the doctrine of equitable estoppel can be applied in a proceeding pursuant to Family Court Act  Article 5, when the Family Court applies the doctrine, the Family Court is merely precluding a party from “denying a certain fact”.  This is not the same thing as the Family Court granting equitable relief, something the Family Court lacks the power to do. Therefore, when the Family Court applies the doctrine, the Family Court is doing so as a means of granting relief specifically authorized by the Constitution or statute. That is, the Family Court is applying the doctrine as a means of adjudicating a “male” “the father” of a child. However, H.M. has demanded certain relief the Family Court is not specifically authorized by the Constitution or statute to grant. Under these circumstances, the Family Court could not apply the doctrine, and could not reach the issues of whether E.T. should be estopped from denying her parentage of the subject child, and whether estopping E.T. from denying her parentage of the child would be in the child’s best interests. If the Family Court applied the doctrine as a means of granting relief not specifically authorized by the Constitution or statute, that would be tantamount to the Family Court granting equitable relief.

The logic of the Appellate Division’s decision, its heavy emphasis on the language of the Family Court Act, and especially the use of the term “male”, raise the question of whether a different result would have been reached on these facts if both parties to this litigation were male. Since recent decisions in this area of family law have been gender neutral, it seems likely that the Court of Appeals, if the case is appealed, will likely focus on on whether any such applications should be considered on a gender neutral basis and also, even more importantly, whether the courts will move away from “paternity by estoppel” toward “parentage by estoppel” as a matter of equity. I believe that we may learn the answer to this question in the foreseeable future.

Same-Sex Spouse Needn’t Be Certified to Adopt Partner’s Child

Monday, January 19th, 2009

In November of 2008, I wrote about New York courts granting a divorce to a same sex couple. In C.M. v. C.C. (Sup. Ct. New York Co. October 14, 2008), the trial court held that the New York court had subject matter jurisdiction to grant a divorce to a same sex couple who were married in Massachussetts. The trial court held that in following Martinez v. County of Monroe and other cases dealing with recognition of the same sex marriage, it had the subject marriage jurisdiction and the divorce case between two women could continue. Since that time, we are seeing various rulings that followed the holding in Martinez. A few days ago, in Matter of Donna S., 2009 N.Y. Slip Op. 29009 (Fam. Ct., Monroe County, AC-14386-08), Judge Joan S. Kohout, held that there was no need for the same-sex spouse of a woman due to give birth in March to seek pre-certification to adopt her partner’s child. Judge Kohout ruled that because the couple’s Canadian marriage is recognized under New York law, the spouse could be treated exactly the same as the husband of a woman who became pregnant through donor insemination, in which case neither pre-certification nor an adoption proceeding would be necessary to establish a parental relationship with the child.

According to Judge Kohout’s opinion, Donna R.S. and Lisa P. were married on July 4, 2007, in Ontario, Canada. Lisa has become pregnant through donor insemination, and is due to give birth in March. Donna initiated the process of being approved as an adoptive parent, with the intention of adopting the child when he/she is born. As part of a normal adoption process, she submitted to a home study by a social worker, who produced a positive report, and then she submitted her petition to the court to be “pre-certified” as an adoptive parent, so the adoption procedure could be handled expeditiously after the child is born.

Pre-certification is a legal process that is typically handled at the start of every adoption. A successful pre-certification process is critical and involves filing pleadings with the appropriate court, a home study, child abuse clearance and criminal record check. Once a prospective adoptive parent has been precertified, he/she can proceed with pursuing a domestic adoption. The “certification” includes a homestudy, child abuse clearance and criminal record check prior to the adoption, and a follow-up homestudy before the adoption is finalized. This requirement was brought into being as a result of the infamous Steinberg case, so that all parties in the adoption process are protected.

The petition did not specify that Donna was seeking to adopt any particular child, but merely wished to be certified as qualified in general to be an adoptive parent. The home study made it clear to the court that her intention was to adopt her same-sex spouse’s child.

Judge Kohout considered the pre-certification process to be unnecessary. Pointing out that the Appellate Division’s ruling last year in Martinez means that “the marriage of same sex couples legally married in other jurisdictions must be recognized by New York,” and mentioning as well that Governor David Paterson had directed New York state agencies to “apply statutes and regulations in a gender neutral manner to same sex parties validly married in another jurisdiction,” Judge Kohout decided to treat Donna similarly to the husband of a woman who has become pregnant through donor insemination.

In those situations, an adoption proceeding is unnecessary. Spouse’s parental status is established by the parties’ execution of a consent form, indicating their agreement that the birth mother’s spouse will be the legal parent of the child.

Additionally, Judge Kohout considered an alternative approach: “Since Ms. S. is the spouse of Ms. P., she will at the very least be considered a step-parent to Ms. P.’s child after the child’s birth. Step-parents are not required to be pre-certified as qualified adoptive parents for the purpose of adopting their spouse’s child.” However, step-parents would have to fulfill a one year waiting period to adopt, or get approval to waive the waiting period from the court.

In conclusion, Judge Kohout stated that the situation could be resolved by the statute governing donor insemination, pointing out that “a child born to a married woman by artificial insemination is deemed the legal child of the husband if both spouses execute a consent to that effect. Given the holding in Martinez, it would seem that by the simple execution of a consent, Ms. S. could become the baby’s legal parent without the necessity of an adoption.”

However, since all the paperwork was in order and there was a positive home study report on file, Judge Kohout granted the pre-certification petition, so the petitioner was eligible to adopt a child until the expiration of the petition in May 2010.

Interstate Custody Disputes and Jurisdictional Issues

Sunday, December 14th, 2008

Periodically I am asked about jurisdictional issues that arise when one parent and/or their child relocates to out of state and the other wishes to petition the court for child custody or visitation, a modification or change in custody or enforcement of a custody order. Although there are cases where the noncustodial parent seeks court intervention because of the fact that the custodial relocated without permission, there are in fact times where consent was given initially but subsequent events may raise a need for a modification or enforcement of the current custody order.

New York has adopted the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (“UCCEJA”). This statute attempts to discourage interstate child abductions and to prevent “forum shopping” by parents trying to remove the child to a state to avoid another state’s jurisdiction. The statute explicitly sets forth the circumstances in which New York courts have jurisdiction, particularly when one parent and/or the child no longer resides in New York. While UCCEJA issues are most commonly seen in family court petitions seeking custody or visitation, modifications and enforcements of custody or visitation orders, it also applies to guardianship, divorce, paternity, child abuse or neglect, termination of parental rights and domestic violence cases. Since jurisdiction is usually not in issue when the child lives in New York or has moved from the state within six months of filing the petition, the UCCJEA helps to iron out jurisdictional issues in other circumstances where the child’s residence is in question based on a move from the state or his or her physical presence in the state. These include cases where the noncustodial parent lives in New York but the child does not; where the child moved from the state more than six months prior to the filing of the petition (but without the noncustodial parent’s consent or to somewhere unknown to that parent); or where the child is in New York and there are concerns of abuse or neglect. These are all scenarios that require the application of the UCCJEA.

The UCCJEA sets forth alternative situations for asserting jurisdiction, which are: 1) where it is in the best interests of the child based on the “significant connections” to the state and there is “substantial evidence” within the court’s jurisdiction concerning the child’s current or future care; 2) where there is an emergency situation ; 3) where no other state has jurisdiction or 4) another state has refused jurisdiction.

Situation 1: This section only applies to cases where there is no home state and there has not been a home state for the past six months. This limitation is imposed by the federal statute, the Parental Kidnapping Prevention Act which trumps the UCCJEA because of the constitutional supremacy clause (Article VI, Clause 2). This act serves to provide more uniformity amongst states, resolve conflicts between various states that may have an interest and to address the inconsistency caused by the application of the prior act, the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Act (“UCCJA”), which was the basis for states applying their own version resulting in inconsistent orders. Its objective is to avoid forum shopping, while encouraging the preference for the issuing state to maintain jurisdiction so long as one of the parents or the child remains a resident of the state. Based on this, as well the two part analysis required to meet the criteria, there are rare cases where this particular section applies. For example, showing that there are “significant contacts with the state” may be attainable, but proving that there is “substantial evidence” concerning the child’s current or future care is much more challenging.

Situation 2: This section applies mainly in child abuse or neglect cases or where the child was abandoned by the parent or legal guardian. However, although the act serves to limit jurisdiction to situations where some immediate attention should be given, the statute is strictly construed. In other words, a mere allegation of abuse or neglect is not enough, the courts must be convinced that abuse or neglect actually exist, placing the child’s physical and/or emotional well-being into question. And even still, the courts may assert only limited or temporary jurisdiction, deferring the case to the home state of the child for further proceedings. Furthermore, the child must physically be present in the state, and cannot be removed from the state for any reason under this provision.

Situation 3: This section typically applies in cases where the child has not had a home state anywhere during the previous six months, (no significant connections or emergency situation exists). This is a safety measure included in the statute to avoid the case going unheard by any court. Cases like this arise when the child moved from New York, then to another state for a short period (less than six months), then back to New York less than six months before the filing of the petition.

Situation 4: This section applies to cases where another state, presumed to have been the child’s home state, has denied jurisdiction based on its own provisions. Typically states will deny jurisdiction for lack of significant ties, there is a case already pending in another state, there is a more convenient forum or merely for parties’ failure to ascertain legitimate residence (as is the case when parents take the child from another state and hide him or her from the noncustodial parent long enough to establish jurisdiction).

When it comes to modifying a child custody order in New York that was issued by another state, New York will not exercise jurisdiction unless the state that entered it no longer has jurisdiction. So even if it is the non-custodial parent that remains in the issuing state, while the child and the custodial parent relocated to New York, that state still has jurisdiction unless it declines jurisdiction. Conversely, New York will enforce a custody order if the child and one parent lives in the state, if the order is registered in New York.

Divorce and New York’s Residency Requirements

Monday, November 17th, 2008

Requiring a period of residence for divorce actions ensures that individuals will not look for a state with more advantageous divorce laws, or use the courts of a state to obtain a “quickie divorce” without having established any real connection with the state.

New York’s residency requirements for filing for divorce are relatively strict compared to many other states. Section 230 of the Domestic Relations law provides that an action for divorce may be maintained only when any of the following conditions of New York residency apply:

1. You and your spouse were married in New York, and either of you is a resident of New York when the divorce action is started and has been a resident of New York for a continuous period of one year immediately before the commencement of the divorce action;
2. You and your spouse have resided in New York as husband and wife, and either of you is a resident of New York when the divorce action is started and has been a resident of New York for a continuous period of one year immediately preceding the beginning of the divorce action;
3. The grounds for divorce occurred in New York, and either you or your spouse has been a resident of New York for a continuous period of at least one year immediately before the beginning of the divorce action;
4. The grounds for divorce occurred in New York, and both you and your spouse are residents of New York at the time of the commencement of the divorce action;
5. Either you or your spouse has been a resident of New York for a continuous period of at least two years immediately preceding the commencement of the divorce action.

If any of the above five requirements are fulfilled, then either party may file for divorce in New York; not just the party meeting the residency requirement. Thus, it is possible to commence a divorce action in New York even if one spouse resides outside of New York State.

New York Court Grants Same Sex Divorce

Monday, November 3rd, 2008

A New York judge has ruled recently in C.M. v. C.C. (Sup. Ct. New York Co. October 14, 2008), that the New York court had subject matter jurisdiction to grant a divorce to a same sex couple who were married in Massachussetts. The court held that in following Martinez v. County of Monroe and other cases dealing with recognition of the same sex marriage, it had the subject marriage jurisdiction and the divorce case between two women could continue. The couple can now obtain their divorce in New York, assuming that they have sufficient grounds to do so, and meet other jurisdictional requirements of New York’s Domestic Relations Law.

I have previously written about Martinez v. County of Monroe, so this decision is merely a logical extension of that decision.