Custody and Other Issues Related to Emancipation of Minors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Custody, Visitation and Disclosure of Parent’s Psychological Records

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

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

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

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

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

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

Modification of Visitation Based On the Age of the Child

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

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

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

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

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

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

Custody, UCCEJA and Jurisdictional Issues

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.

Pendente Lite Motions And Available Relief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Separated Siblings and Their Right of Visitation

I occasionally see cases involving separated siblings.  In those situations, the parents, or the guardians of the children should be aware the siblings, or half-siblings have an independent right of visitation with each other. The Family Court has the same jurisdiction as the Supreme Court to determine visitation of minors, including visitation between siblings.  Family Court Act §651, Domestic Relations Law §71.  DRL §71 provides that “where circumstances show that conditions exist which equity would see fit to intervene, a brother or sister or a person on behalf of a child, whether by half or a whole blood, may apply to the family court [for visitation rights] as the best interest of the child may require.”  Thus, in cases involving sibling visitation, like grandparent visitation, the court must first determine whether equitable considerations grant a party standing to bring a petition and then, if so, whether it is in the best interests of the children to award such visitation.  E.S. v. P.D., 8 N.Y.3d 150 (2007).  The court in such a case is charged with determining what is in the best interests of all the children involved.  State ex rel. Noonan v. Noonan, 145 Misc.2d 638 (Sup. Ct. 1989).  The importance of sibling relationships has long been recognized by the courts of this state.  Eschbach v. Eschbach, 56 N.Y.2d 167 (1989).  This is manifested not only in preferring arrangements which allow siblings to live together, but also in ensuring that half-siblings have adequate contact with each other.  Olivier A. v. Christina A., 9 Misc 3d 1104 [A] (Sup. Ct. Suffolk Co. 2005).  The State’s recognition of the importance of siblings maintaining contact with each other is also manifested in Family Court Act §1027-a, which provides that foster care placement of a child with his or her siblings or half-siblings is presumptively in the child’s best interests. See also 18 NYCRR §431.10, which provides that a social services district must make diligent efforts to place siblings or half-siblings in foster care with each other unless such placement is determined to be detrimental to their best interests.

In a recent case, Isabel R. v. Meghan Mc., 23 Misc.3d 1102(A) (Fam. Ct. Dutchess Co. 2009), the court had to decide whether the half-siblings who were living in separate households after their parents’ breakup, were entitled to visitation with each other.  The court found that the evidence demonstrated that the children did indeed have a relationship until that relationship was unilaterally terminated by the mother after she and the children’s father split up.  While the mother argued that she has an absolute and unfettered right to determine whether sibling visitation should take place and that any direction by the court for sibling visitation would violate her constitutional rights. Relying on E.S. v. P.D., supra, the court held that mother’s constitutional argument was meritless and proceeded to decide whether visitation would be in the children’s best interests.  In considering the children’s best interests, the court has considered, among other factors, their prior relationship, the reason visitation was stopped, the reasons given and basis for the respondent’s decision to deny visitation at the present time, the views of the attorneys for the children, the future benefit to the children and the content of the Court’s in camera interviews. The children wished to see each other and expressed no negative feelings about doing so; the children have fond memories of times they spent together and activities they did together.  The court held that under those circumstances, visitation would be in the children’s best interests.

Parental Interference With Visitation and Suspension of Child Support

I have previously written that a child support obligation can be suspended or terminated in situations where the court makes a finding that the child has deliberately severed his/her relationship with a parent, thereby abandoning that parent. However, in order for a court to make a finding of abandonment, the child must be of employable age.

Even if the child is not of employable age, the non-custodial parent’s child support obligation can be suspended or terminated, if the breakdown in the parent-child relationship came as a result of the actions of the custodial parent.

In Ledgin v. Ledgin, 36 A.D.3d 669 (2nd Dept. 2007), the Appellate Division held that interference with visitation rights can be the basis for the cancellation of arrears of maintenance and the prospective suspension of both maintenance and child support. However, such relief is warranted only where the custodial parent’s actions rise to the level of “deliberate frustration” or “active interference” with the noncustodial parent’s visitation rights.

In Frances W. v Steven M., 15 Misc.3d 839 (Fam. Ct. Queens Co. 2007), the court held that petitioner was not entitled to child support where she intentionally aided her sister in brainwashing the child, who is almost 20 years old, into falsely believing that the father had sexually abused her when she was an infant, and otherwise poisoned the child’s relationship with respondent from the time she was four years old. The court stated that since petitioner was an active participant in destroying her niece’s relationship with the father, “she was precluded from obtaining child support from respondent as a matter of fundamental fairness.”

In S.M.B. v D.R.B, 17 Misc.3d 1132(A) (Fam. Ct. Onondaga Co. 2007), petitioner father sought vacatur of order of support contained in parties’ divorce judgment, which incorporated their opt-out agreement. Father began his action after the mother engaged in pattern of active interference and deliberate frustration of child’s relationship with father. Mother was very angry that father paid no more child support than what’s been ordered by court. Mother has withheld father’s access to child since she moved to Florida and remarried. The court found that mother’s acts of alienation were not isolated incidents but a continuing pattern. The court further found that the child now shows no interest in having relationship with father because of mother’s unfortunate endeavors. Father’s support obligation vacated since father met his burden of establishing that mother unjustifiably frustrated his right to reasonable access.

If the child is not of employable age, and the custodial parent did not interfere with the relationship between the non-custodial parent and the child, the non-custodial parent’s obligation to pay child support will not be terminated by the court. Foster v. Daigle, 25 A.D.3d 1002 (3rd Dept. 2006).

Since most of these cases are tried on the issue of parental interference, it is important that each such case, before it is brought, is carefully screened by an experienced family law lawyer. Because parental interference cases require a significant level of proof, it is important that a petitioner is represented by an attorney familiar with such cases.

Recent Amendment to Domestic Relations Law §240

On January 15, 2009, another amendment to Domestic Relations Law §240 became effective. The amendment prohibits courts from signing custody orders before they check the following registries: the domestic violence registry, the Family Court “Universal Case Management System” (for child protective decisions and orders), and sex offender registry. The court is required to notify the attorneys, self-represented parties and attorneys for children of the results of the search. This notification can be made in writing or orally, on the record, especially with with respect to the sex offender registry, since the search of that registry will not generate a report that can be shared with the parties.

As a result of the amendment, the judgments of divorce, permanent custody orders and any temporary orders involving petitions for custody or visitation, must include the language stating that required databases were reviewed and what information , if any, from the databases was relied upon by the court in issuing the order.

The above is likely to place an additional burden on the courts, litigants and attorneys.

The Role of Attorney for the Child in Custody and Visitation Disputes

Sometime ago, I became certified as an Attorney for the Child, formerly known as a Law Guardian. Since that time I represented children, primarily in Family Court, in various custody and visitation proceedings, as well as PINS (person in need of supervision) and juvenile delinquency cases.
One issue that commonly arises is that I am asked, typically by the parties, what my report to the court is going to be. I usually respond that I do not have a report to deliver, and that the reason I was appointed is to act as an advocate for the parties’ child or children. With that in mind, here are some of the basics related to what the attorney for the child does.
The Attorney for the Child is usually appointed by the court in custody and visitation disputes. He/she is there to represent the child’s interests. The person chosen to act as the Attorney for the Child is usually a lawyer who is experienced in custody matters.
Normally, the Attorney for the Child speaks with the child or children and may also speak to either or both of the parents. The Attorney may also speak with school personnel, a child’s therapist, the forensic examiner appointed in the case, or anyone else the Attorney considers appropriate to obtaining relevant and necessary information to enable him/her to state the child’s position to the Court on behalf of the child. If a child is too young to verbalize his/her thoughts, the Attorney for the Child may substitute his judgment and argue the position deemed to be in his client’s best interests.
At a hearing or during a trial, the Attorney for the Child has the right to call witnesses and to cross-examine on behalf of the child. The Law Guardian’s role is to assure that the Court hears an unbiased view of what is in the child’s best interest, a view not colored by either parent promoting his or her own agenda.
The Attorney for the Child will frequently act as a buffer between two hostile parents in an attempt to obtain a resolution that is in the child’s best interest. The most common criticism if that the Attorney for the Child frequently appears to aligns him/herself with one parent, losing objectivity and effectively becoming a second advocate for one parent.
A common mistake that parents make in custody disputes is to forget that the Attorney for the Child is the child’s attorney and not their attorney. Your own attorney will keep your communications with him/her confidential and will reveal only what is in your best interests. Your own lawyer will work with you to present your arguments in the best light. That clearly is not the same as the Attorney for the Child’s role.
In discussions with the Attorney for the Child, parents need to give reasons they believe their child’s best interests are served by that parent serving as the primary custodian or that the child will be well served by requested changes in visitation. They need to describe their positive contributions to raising the child.
On November 8, 2008, the Appellate Division, Fourth Department, has issued Guidelines for Attorneys for the Children that are applicable to both Supreme and Family Court proceedings. These guidelines must be followed by all attorneys for the children practicing in the judicial districts included in the Fourth Department. In my opinion, the guidelines represent a clear and cogent set of rules and all attorneys handling family law matters should have at least a passing familiarity with the guidelines as well.