Child Support, Abandonment and Constructive Emancipation of a Child

I am asked occasionally whether a parent’s child support obligation can be terminated on the grounds that the child stopped all contact with the parent in order to avoid parental control. My usual response is that it can be done, but the parent must establish either abandonment or constructive emancipation, and faces a substantial burden of proof.
The Family Court Act §413 mandates that parents support their children until they reach the age of 21. The courts in New York have held that a child’s right to support and the parent’s right to custody and services are reciprocal, and that a parent may impose reasonable regulations. Generally, where a minor of employable age and in full possession of her faculties, voluntarily and without cause, abandons the parent’s home, against the will of the parent and for the purpose of avoiding parental control, the child forfeits his/her right to demand support. Roe v. Doe, 29 N.Y.2d 188 (1971); Matter of Ontario County Department of Social Services (Christopher L.) v. Gail K., 269 A.D.2d 847 (4th Dept. 2000), leave denied, 95 N.Y.2d 760 (2000).
While the duty to support is a continuing one, the child’s right to support and the parent’s right to custody and services are reciprocal. Roe v. Doe, 29 N.Y.2d 188 (1971). Thus, a parent, in return for maintenance and support, may establish and impose reasonable regulations for his/her child. In Roe v. Doe, supra, the Court of Appeals explained:

Accordingly, though the question is novel in this State, it has been held, in circumstances such as here, that where by no fault on the parent’s part, a child “voluntarily abandons the parent’s home for the purpose of seeking its fortune in the world or to avoid parental discipline and restraint [the child] forfeits the claim to support” . . . To hold otherwise would allow, at least in the case before us, a minor of employable age to deliberately flout the legitimate mandates of her father while requiring that the latter support her in her decision to place herself beyond his effective control.

The doctrine of constructive emancipation is applicable to the non-custodial parent where the child unreasonably refuses all contact and visitation. Matter of Commissioner of Social Services (Jones) v. Jones-Gamble, 227 A.D.2d 618 (2nd Dept. 1996). In that case, the court held that the evidence clearly established that the child wanted no relationship with her father. Despite the father’s prior support payments, there was essentially no parent-child relationship between them. The appellate court held that, to require the father to provide reimbursement for the support of a daughter who had renounced and abandoned him would have clearly resulted in an injustice under the facts of that case.
In the Fourth Department case, Perez v. Perez, 239 A.D.2d 868 (4th Dept. 1997), appeal dismissed, 91 N.Y.2d 956 (1998), the record established that the parties’ 18 year old daughter had refused to visit with the father or to have any relationship with him. That child was found to be a minor of employable age and in full possession of her faculties, who had voluntarily refused to have a relationship with plaintiff. The child thereby forfeited her right to support from her father. Accordingly, the Fourth Department rejected the mother’s contention that the lower court erred in modifying the parties’ divorce decree by suspending father’s obligation to pay child support for the parties’ child until further order of the court.
Children of employable age and in full possession of their faculties who voluntarily and without cause abandon their home, against the will of their parents and for the purpose of avoiding parental control, forfeit their right to demand support, even if they are not financially self-sufficient. Guevara v. Ubillus, 47 A.D.3d 715 (2nd Dept. 2008). In that case, petition for child support was denied where the petitioner, without good cause, abandoned the mother’s home on her 18th birthday in order to avoid parental control and to gain independence from her mother’s restrictive household rules; the petitioner was found to have abandoned her mother’s home against the mother’s will and without cause.
In Rubino v. Morgan, 224 A.D.2d 903 (3d Dept. 1996), the Appellate Division held that the lower correct properly terminated the father’s support obligation on the grounds that his daughter’s refusal to visit with him and the child’s unprovoked rejection of him constituted abandonment. The Third Department noted that at the time of the hearing, the daughter was 17 years old, and she had refused to visit with the father since she was 14 years old. Even after the daughter refused to visit with her father, he continued for years to send letters and cards to her. The letters were never answered. He also attempted to talk with the child, without success. His actions and requests were not arbitrary, and there was no evidence of malfeasance, misconduct or neglect. The Appellate Division upheld the lower court’s findings that the daughter chose to permanently breach her relationship with the father, notwithstanding her generalized claim of “emotional abuse”, and that the father did not contribute significantly to his daughter’s decision to distance herself from him.
Furthermore, where it can be established by the non-custodial parent that the custodial parent has unjustifiably frustrated the non-custodial parent’s right of reasonable access, child support payments may be suspended. Usack v. Usack, 17 A.D.3d 736 (3d Dept. 2005). In that case, the father had encouraged the children’s unbridled enmity toward, and total exclusion of, their mother through a course of conduct calculated to inflict the most grievous emotional injury upon her. The Appellate Division held that mother’s child support obligation should have been suspended due to the father’s deliberate actions in alienating the parties’ children from her.

Assigned Counsel in Divorce and Custody Cases

I am often asked whether there is a right to assigned counsel in divorce and custody cases that are either brought or are pending in the Supreme Court. While assignment of counsel to those who cannot afford it is a common place occurrence in the Family Court, until fairly recently, there was no right to assigned counsel in the Supreme Court. However, the New York Legislature recognized that litigants in custody and visitation cases brought in the Supreme Court should have the same right to the assignment of free counsel as litigants in custody and visitation cases brought in the Family court. Thus, Judiciary Law §35 has been amended to require justices in the Supreme Court to assign counsel in such cases. The Supreme Court justices are now required to notify parties of the right to counsel, as well as the right to an adjournment to obtain counsel, and to the right to the appointment of free counsel, if they can not afford to retain an attorney. In divorce cases, the right to assigned counsel exists only where custody or visitation are at issue. Therefore, if you are a defendant in a divorce action, and the custody or visitation is at issue, you can have a court appointed attorney represent you if you cannot hire your own counsel.

Grandparents’ Right of Visitation

In New York, grandparents have a right to seek assistance of the court to obtain visitation with their grandchildren. That right is included in both the Domestic Relations Law and the Family Court Act. Section 72(1) of the Domestic Relations Law states that

“[w]here either or both of the parents of a minor child, residing within this state, is, or are deceased, or where circumstances show that conditions exist which equity would see fit to intervene, a grandparent may apply to [supreme or family court] and . . . the court, by order after due notice to the parent or any other person or party having the care, custody, and control of such child, to be given in such manner as the court shall prescribe, may make such directions as the best interest of the child may require, for visitation rights for such grandparent or grandparents in respect to such child.”

Section 72(1) “does not create an absolute or automatic right of visitation. Instead, the statute provides a procedural mechanism for grandparents to acquire standing to seek visitation with a minor grandchild”. Wilson v. McGlinchey, 2 N.Y.3d 375, 380 (2004). When grandparents seek visitation under §72(1), the court must undertake a two-part inquiry. “First, [the court] must find standing based on death or equitable circumstances”; and “[i]f [the court] concludes that the grandparents have established the right to be heard, then it must determine if visitation is in the best interest of the grandchild”. Emanuel S. v. Joseph E., 78 N.Y.2d 178, 181 (1991).

Since 1976, visitation may be awarded to grandparents in matrimonial actions. The 1976 amendment added the following to DRL §240: “Such direction [of a court in a matrimonial action] may provide for reasonable visitation rights to the maternal or paternal grandparents of any child of the parties.” In New York, the statute provides that grandparents may obtain visitation rights even though their child is not deceased, and the nuclear family is intact.

Last year, the Court of Appeals in E.S. v. P.D., 8 N.Y.3d 150 (2007), unanimously rejected a constitutional challenge to New York’s grandparent visitation law. In upholding the New York Law which permits grandparents, under certain circumstances, to seek visitation with their grandchildren, the Court distinguished the New York law from the overly broad Washington law struck down by the United States Supreme Court in Troxel v Granville, 530 U.S. 57 (2000).

The statute invalidated in Troxel permitted “‘[a]ny person’ to petition for visitation rights ‘at any time,’ and authorize[d] that court to grant such visitation rights whenever ‘visitation may serve the best interest of the child'” (Troxel, 530 U.S. at 60 [quoting Wash Rev Code § 26.10.160(3) (1994)]). The Washington statute explicitly applied a presumption in favor of grandparent visitation, placing on the parent “the burden of disproving that visitation would be in the best interest” of her children.

The New York Statute, on the other hand, is based upon the presumption that the parent’s wishes represent the best interests of the children. The Court noted that:

. . . courts should not lightly intrude on the family relationship against a fit parent’s wishes. The presumption that a fit parent’s decisions are in the child’s best interests is a strong one. And while, as we made clear in Wilson, the problems created by parent-grandparent antagonism cannot be ignored, an acrimonious relationship is generally not sufficient cause to deny visitation. “It is almost too obvious to state that, in cases where grandparents must use legal procedures to obtain visitation rights, some degree of animosity exists between them and the party having custody of the child or children. Were it otherwise, visitation could be achieved by agreement” (Lo Presti v. Lo Presti, 40 N.Y.2d 522, 526 (1976)).

While this presumption creates a significant burden for the grandparent, the grandmother in this case was able to overcome it, because from the time the child was almost four until he was seven, grandmother was the primary caretaker. The court then considered all of the many circumstances bearing upon whether it was in the child’s best interest for his relationship with grandmother to continue, such as whether the father’s objections to grandmother’s access to the child were reasonable, her caregiving skills and attitude toward father, the law guardian’s assessment and the child’s desires, before granting visitation.