Validity of Prenuptial Agreements in New York

March 24th, 2013

I have previously written about prenuptial agreements and issues associated with them. Generally, in New York, a prenuptial agreement may be overturned only if the party challenging the agreement sustains the burden of proof, demonstrating that the agreement was the product of fraud, duress, or it was improperly executed.

In order to prove coercion or duress, a party must establish that he or she was somehow pressured into signing the agreement.  The threat that there will be no marriage unless the agreement is signed is not duress according to numerous court decisions.  If both of the parties were independently represented by counsel, and the agreement was the product of arm’s length negotiations, it may be nearly impossible to prove that the prenuptial agreement was procured by duress.

However, a recent appellate decision, Cioffi-Petrakis v. Petrakis, 2013 N.Y. Slip. Op. 01057 (2nd Dept. 2013), broke with the long-established line of cases and upheld a Long Island judge’s decision to void an prenuptial agreement that the wife of a millionaire says she was forced into signing by false promises made by her husband-to-be, 4 days before the wedding. The wife claimed that she believed her husband to be when he told her orally that his lawyers had made him get a prenuptial agreement signed to protect his business and promised to destroy the document once they had children and put her name on the deed to the house. She also claimed that her future husband gave her an ultimatum four days before the wedding for which her father had already paid $40,000, telling her to sign the document or it wouldn’t occur.

While the appellate decision is extremely brief, the trial decision is fairly detailed and provided the facts stated above. The key factor according to the trial judge was what he called a fraudulently induced contract and detrimental reliance on the part of the wife. Fraudulent inducement was the oral promise made by the husband to be and, according to the trial court, the bride relied upon that promise. However, most agreements in New York provide that the parties are only relying on the written representations contained in the agreement, and they are not relying on promises or representations not contained in the prenuptial agreement.

This decision is unprecedented. It is likely to create a great deal of litigation in cases where a party feels that his or her prenuptial agreement is unconscionable. I also suspect that it may get appealed to the Court of Appeals.

 

There Is No Right to Grounds Trial In A No-Fault Divorce Case

January 6th, 2013

I have previously written on the issue of whether there was a right to trial in a divorce case brought under the no-fault grounds. Earlier, trial level decisions were split, with some courts holding that a party was still required to establish no-fault grounds at trial, and other courts holding that a sworn statement that the marriage was irretrievably broken for a period of 6 months or longer was sufficient to establish that party’s right to divorce.

Finally, the Appellate Division, Fourth Department, issued a decision resolving this issue. In Palermo v. Palermo, 2012 N.Y. Slip Op. 07528 (4th Dept. 2012), the court affirmed Justice Dollinger’s decision holding that there is no right to dispute an allegation of irretrievable breakdown under the no-fault divorce ground provided by DRL §170(7). Appellate Division agreed with the key language in Justice Dollinger’s decision which stated that:

Under DRL §170(7), the grounds cannot be disputed. Either a party swears the marriage is irretrievably broken or they do not. The grounds are established by the oath; there is no legislative requirement of a judicial finding on the reliability or veracity of the oath.

As the no-fault statute requires, in order for a judgment of divorce to be entered, all the issues relating to the divorce, including equitable distribution, maintenance, child custody and support need to be resolved before a party can be granted a divorce.

The Appellate Division’s decision in Palermo is significant since it clarifies the Legislature’s intent in creating a true no-fault divorce in New York. Further, as a result, the parties will be able to avoid costly grounds trials that usually result in added animosity between the parties.

Statute of Limitations and No-Fault Divorce

September 3rd, 2012

Since no-fault divorce became law in New York State almost 2 years ago, it was still unclear whether a statute of limitations would apply to to a cause of action under Domestic Relations Law §170(7), specifically, allegations that the relationship between the parties was irretrievably broken. Basically, this question can be asked in this way: from what date does the clock begin to run on this cause of action and when does the clock expire?  The answer was recently given by the Appellate Division, Fourth Department.

In a recent case, Tuper v. Tuper, 2012 N.Y. Slip Op 04467 (4th Dept. 2012), the Appellate Division held that the statute of limitations under DRL §170(7) does not begin to run while the relationship between the parties remain broken.  Specifically, the court held that a cause of action for divorce under the no-fault statute should be treated similarly to a cause of action for divorce based upon imprisonment of a spouse (DRL §170 (3), which is also governed by the five-year statute of limitations set forth in section 210).  In holding so, the Fourth Department relied upon the Court of Appeals’ decision in Covington v. Walker, 3 N.Y.3d 287, 291 (2004), which held that a cause of action for divorce based on imprisonment “continues to arise anew for statute of limitations purposes on each day the defendant spouse remains in prison for three or more consecutive years’ until the defendant is released.” The Appellate Division stated that “[l]ike a spouse serving a life sentence, an irretrievable breakdown in a married couple’s relationship is a continuing state of affairs that, by definition, will not change. After all, the breakdown is “irretrievable.” It thus stands to reason that a cause of action under the no-fault statute may be commenced at any time after the marriage has been “broken down irretrievably for a period of at least six months”.

I think that this is the correct result.  Alternatively, a contrary ruling would force a spouse to unwillingly remain in a dead marriage. If the accrual date of a no-fault cause of action were to be determined to arise only on the day that the relationship initially became irretrievably broken, assuming that an exact date could even be identified, the only couples who could get divorced under the no-fault statute would be those whose relationships irretrievably broke down within the past five years but not within the last six months. Couples whose relationships irretrievably broke down more than five years ago would have to remain married.  Clearly, the New York Legislature did not intend such result in passing the no-fault statute.

A Cause of Action for DRL 170(7) Can Be Added to A Divorce Complaint Filed Prior to October 2010

April 22nd, 2012

One of the more interesting procedural issues that arose after the New York State Legislature added a cause of action under Domestic Relations Law §170(7), irretrievably broken marriage for a period of 6 months or longer, is whether this cause of action can be introduced in divorce actions filed prior to the statute’s enactment. At least one court addressed this issue by holding that a separate action can be filed by the defendant alleging a cause of action under DRL §170(7), and the two actions can be consolidated.

A recent decision by Justice Richard A. Dollinger of the Monroe County Supreme Court,  G.C. v. G.C., 2012 N.Y. Slip Op 50653(U) (Sup. Ct. Monroe. Co. 2012), held that a defendant in a divorce action, filed prior to the enactment of the no-fault statute, can assert a counterclaim based on no-fault grounds.  Specifically, Justice Dollinger reviewed the procedural aspects related to counterclaims and analyzed whether such counterclaim would prejudice plaintiff’s substantive rights in the divorce.

The facts of the case are as follows. The plaintiff brought a divorce action prior to October 10, 2010. He alleged that his wife had engaged in cruel and inhuman treatment toward him. The wife answered the complaint, denying the specific allegations, and has stated that she would contest the grounds for the divorce.  Meanwhile the parties lived apart and the wife moved to Ohio.

The husband moved to amend the complaint to assert two new grounds: a ground under Section §170(2) for abandonment and a claim under Section §170(7) for an “irretrievably broken” marriage. The wife opposed the abandonment amendment, claiming that the husband can not allege abandonment when it occurred during a year after the filing of complaint and that its assertion, now, after the action has been pending for more than two years, is untimely and prejudicial. The wife also opposed the amendment on the grounds of Section §170(7), arguing that this recently-enact statutory amendment can not be asserted in this action because the complaint was filed prior to the effective date of the change. She argued that the husband, in order to pursue this claim, needed to file a new complaint. The husband argued that if he files the new complaint with a Section §170(7) cause of action, he could then move for consolidation under CPLR §602(a), and the cases would likely be consolidated because they involve the same facts.

CPLR §3025(b), by its express language, envisions that other causes of actions, based on developing facts that occur during the pendency of the action, can be the subject of a proposed amendment to the original compliant. The statute uses the terms “subsequent transactions or occurrences” as the basis for a proposed amendment. The statute also permits an amendment “at any time.” CPLR §3025(b).

A cause of action under Domestic Relations Law §170(2) requires allegations that a spouse’s actual physical departure from the marital residence for one year is unjustified, voluntary, without consent of the plaintiff spouse, and with the intention of the departing spouse not to return. The amended complaint, on its face, met this minimal pleading requirement since it alleged that the wife left the marital residence in 2009, has not returned and her leaving was without justification.

In October, 2010, the Legislature added a statutory change to the Domestic Relations Law which created “no-fault divorce” and permitted one party to be granted the divorce upon a sworn declaration that the marriage was “irretrievably broken for a period in excess of six months” and the parties had agreed on all the issues related to support and equitable distribution. DRL §170(7). The statutory amendment states that the “act . . . shall apply to matrimonial actions commenced after the effective date.”, specifically after October 12, 2010. The Legislature apparently intended not allow litigants to simply amend their complaints, after the amendment took effect, and allow those claims to proceed to adjudication on the basis of the new “no-fault” allegations by claiming that the six months of “irretrievable breakdown” included time before the effective date of the amendment.

After reviewing statutory history, Justice Dollinger held that the husband was not seeking any relief other than that sought in the original complaint: a divorce and accompanying property distribution. By virtue of the statutory change, the husband, having waited six months after its effective date, can now meet the time requirement of six months because all of the time accrued after the amendment took effect. Justice Dollinger further found that  the husband was merely seeking to “invoke what the Legislature extended to him: a cause of action that has ripened because more than six months have passed since the date of the amendment and during that time, the husband swears that his marriage has been irretrievably broken.”

I think that this was the right result. If a party is able to assert a cause of action under DRL §170(7), the length and expense of the case are likely to be reduced since a trial on the issue of grounds will no longer be required.  This is likely to result in shorter and less costly divorce cases.

 

Changes in Temporary Maintenance and Child Support Statutes

March 18th, 2012

Because of the language in the statute providing for cost of living adjustments, temporary maintenance guidelines income cap was raised from $500,000 to $524,000. The “cap” on each spouses annual income, to be utilized in calculating temporary maintenance orders, has increased from $500,000 to $524,000 effective January 31, 2012 in accordance with Domestic Relations Law § 236 [B][5-a][b][5]. The statute provided that:

Beginning January 31, 2010 and every two years thereafter, the income cap increases by the product of the average annual percentage changes in the consumer price index for all urban consumers (CPI-U) as published by the united states department of labor bureau of labor statistics for the two year period rounded to the nearest one thousand dollars. The office of court administration is required to determine and publish the income cap. See Domestic Relations Law § 236[B], [5-a][b][5].

Similarly, the child support cap was modified as well. The “combined parental income amount” utilized in calculating child support orders has increased from $130,000 to $136,000 effective January 31, 2012. The amount of the “combined parental income” is established by Domestic Relations Law § 240 (1-b) (2) as the amount set forth in Social Services Law § 111-I (2) (b). Domestic Relations Law § 240 (1-b) (2) provides that the amount established shall be multiplied by the appropriate child support percentage and such amount shall be prorated in the same proportion as each parent’s income is to the combined parental income. Social Services Law § 111-I (2)(b) provides that the $130,000 cap is increased automatically on January 31, 2012 and on January 31 every two years thereafter by the product of the average annual percentage changes in the consumer price index for all urban consumers (CPI-U) as published by the United States Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics for the two year period rounded to the nearest one thousand dollars.

While the change in the temporary maintenance cap is not likely to be applicable in vast majority of divorce cases, the change in the basis economic support amount applicable to child support cases is likely to be significant in a large number of cases in Family Court and Supreme Court.

Violation Petition Must Be Sufficiently Specific to Provide Notice of Alleged Violation

February 4th, 2012

In Miller v Miller, 90 A.D.3d 1185 (N.Y.A.D. 3 Dept.) the parties were the parents of two children, born in 2004 and 2005. A custody order entered in March 2008 granted sole legal custody to mother with visitation to father as agreed between the parties. The order, among other provisions, required that the children be properly supervised at all times, and that neither parent smoke or permit a third party to smoke in a vehicle in which the children are passengers.

In June 2010, the father filed a violation petition alleging that the mother was in contempt of this order by failing to properly supervise and discipline the children, since she had permitted the older child to be violent towards others and to smoke. Finding that the petition lacked sufficient specificity to provide the mother with proper notice and failed to outline how the father’s rights had been prejudiced, Family Court dismissed the petition without a hearing, but ordered a child neglect investigation by the local Department of Social Services.

The Appellate Division held that the petition was subject to the requirements of CPLR §3013, and it was required to “be sufficiently particular” as to provide notice to the court and opposing party of the occurrences to be proved and the material elements of each cause of action. Since petition only included generalized allegations of the petition, even liberally construed, it had failed to provide the mother with notice of a particular event or violation such that she could prepare a defense.

Further, according to the Appellate Division, the father failed to assert how the mother’s alleged failings defeated, impaired, impeded or prejudiced his rights, as required to warrant a civil contempt finding. While Family Court ordered an investigation to determine whether a neglect or abuse proceeding should be initiated, the investigation did not fix the defects in the father’s petition. Accordingly, the appellate court concluded that the trial court properly dismissed the petition without a hearing.

The rule for sufficiency of petitions is simple: a party must alleging facts with sufficient particularity so that notice of events and elements of legal issues is given to the opposing party and the court. If petition is insufficient, it will be dismissed.  Alternatively, the court may give a party an opportunity to amend the petition.

Ratification of Settlement and Separation Agreement

January 14th, 2012

I have previously written about settlement agreements, their contents, modification, validity, and formalities related to their execution.

Even in situations where the agreement may have not been executed properly or otherwise invalid, if the party does not promptly act to challenge the agreement and accepts its benefits, the court may refuse to vacate the agreement. This is the situation that the Appellate Division, Second Department, addressed in Kessler v. Kessler, 89 A.D.3d 687 (2nd Dept. 2011).

In Kessler, the parties’ separation agreement was incorporated but not merged into the judgment of divorce. The parties entered into the separation agreement on June 10, 1980, after 25 years of marriage. The parties’ separation agreement, provided that the plaintiff husband would, among other things, make payments to the defendant wife for her support and maintenance and for the mortgage and carrying costs relating to the marital residence, where the defendant continued to reside. The plaintiff complied with the terms of the separation agreement and, in 2009, he commenced this action for a conversion divorce. In response to the plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment, the defendant submitted an affidavit asserting that the plaintiff had procured the separation agreement through fraud and duress, and that the agreement was unconscionable.

The defendant alleged, among other things, that the plaintiff had concealed from her his vast wealth, and had induced her to enter into the separation agreement at a time when, unbeknownst to her, New York’s equitable distribution law was about to be enacted. The Supreme Court granted the plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment, and subsequently entered a judgment of divorce, which, inter alia, directed the parties to comply with the terms of the separation agreement which was incorporated, but not merged into, the judgment of divorce. The defendant appealed.

The Appellate Division held that party who “accepts the benefits provided under a separation agreement for any considerable period of time” is deemed to have ratified the agreement and, thus, “relinquishes the right to challenge that agreement”. By contrast, when a party “received virtually no benefits from the agreement,” he or she “cannot be said to have ratified it”.

The Appellate Division further stated that assuming the truth of the allegations set forth in the defendant’s affidavit, the benefits she received pursuant to the separation agreement were far less than those she likely would have received had there been an equitable distribution of the assets accumulated during the marriage. The record, however, did not support a finding that the defendant received “virtually no benefits” from the agreement. Moreover, while “a spouse will not necessarily be held to have ratified an agreement if it is found to be the product of duress and overreaching”, the disadvantage to the defendant created by the alleged fraud and duress in this case cannot be deemed to have persisted throughout the 29-year period during which the defendant accepted the benefits of the separation agreement without challenging it.

The court held that the plaintiff made a prima facie showing that the defendant ratified the separation agreement and that the trial court properly granted the plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment.

There is a simple rule that applies to settlement and separation agreements. The party receiving substantial benefits under the agreement can’t challenge the agreement after a substantial period of time passes.

Parent’s Obligation to Pay for College Is Not Limited To Cost of SUNY Education Unless Proven Otherwise

November 13th, 2011

In Pamela T. v. Marc B., 2011 N.Y. Slip. Op. 21355 (N.Y.Sup.2011), the court had to decide whether the parent’s obligation to pay for college should be limited to the so-called “SUNY cap”. The Supreme Court concluded that parent’s argument that before a parent can be compelled to contribute towards the cost of a private college, there must be a showing that a child cannot receive an adequate education at a state college, has no basis in the law.

The parties were divorced on December 23, 2008 and have two sons, 18 and16 years old. Their judgment of divorce was silent as to the payment of the children’s college tuition and expenses.

In 2007, the older child was diagnosed with emotional and learning/anxiety disorders, which resulted in certain educational accommodations. Despite his disabilities, he graduated in 2011 from a selective public high school in Manhattan. He was accepted at Syracuse University, SUNY Binghamton and SUNY Buffalo, as well as other schools. The costs of college education varied from Syracuse at approximately $53,000 a year to attend, to SUNY Binghamton and SUNY Buffalo that cost about $18,000 a year. The child decided to attend Syracuse which he is now attending as a freshman.

The both parents are practicing attorneys in New York City. Plaintiff’s 2010 federal income tax return reported adjusted gross income of $109,896. Defendant’s 2010 federal income tax return reported adjusted gross income of $105,135. Plaintiff’s net worth statement showed she had assets of approximately $1,230,000. Defendant’s net worth statement showed he had assets of approximately $580,000. Both plaintiff and defendant went to private undergraduate colleges and law schools.

Defendant did not oppose an order directing him to contribute to his older child’s college education, but he requested that the court to apply the SUNY cap and limit his responsibility to a percentage of the costs of a state university education rather than to a percentage of a private college education. Defendant’s position was based on his claim that he was unable to meet the financial demands of paying for private college and on his belief that his son could receive as good an education at SUNY Binghamton as he could at Syracuse.

The court stated that Domestic Relations Law 240(1- b)(c)(7) gave the courts of this state the authority to “direct a parent to contribute to a child’s private college education, even in the absence of special circumstances or a voluntary agreement. The statute provides that when a court exercises its discretion to direct such a contribution from a parent, it is to do so “having regard for the circumstances of the case and the parties, the best interests of the child, and the requirements of justice.” The courts interpreted the provisions of DRL 240(1-b)(c)(7) by setting forth specific factors that are to be considered in determining whether to award college expenses. These factors include the educational background of the parents and their financial ability to provide the necessary funds, the child’s academic ability and endeavors, and the type of college that would be most suitable for the child.

The Court stated that DRL 240(1-b)(c)(7) does not provide for a SUNY cap. The SUNY cap appeared in a number of decisions rendered since the enactment of the statute. These cases have not provided an explanation as to when a SUNY cap might be properly applied over the objection of the parent who is seeking an award for college expenses.

The court found that Berliner v. Berliner, 33 A.D.3d 745, 749 (2d Dept. 2006) was instructive because in that case the Second Department stated that there “is no basis in this record” for imposing the SUNY cap implied that the burden falls on the proponent of the cap to demonstrate that it is warranted. The inference to be drawn is that there is no presumption that a parent’s obligation to pay for college is to be limited to the cost of a SUNY education unless proven otherwise; if anything, the presumption goes the other direction. It was also instructive because the decision’s reference to the “so-called SUNY cap” implied that even the Second Department views the SUNY cap as something less than an established doctrine.

The court rejected defendant’s argument that plaintiff be required to prove that Syracuse was a better school than SUNY Binghamton, in order for him to be required to pay Syracuse’s higher expenses. The decision noted that it is difficult to conceive of a workable procedure, let alone a methodology, for a court to make a finding that one college is “better” than another. The court found that there was sufficient showing to support the child’s choice of Syracuse, irrespective of whether it is ranked lower, higher or the same as SUNY Binghamton or any other SUNY school. If there are funds are available to finance the child’s education, the fact that Syracuse was a private school and cost more than a public school was not a reason to interfere with the child going to the school he chose and he wanted to attend.

The court further held that one of the factors to be considered when making a determination under DRL 240(1-b)(c)(7) is the parents educational background. Inasmuch as plaintiff attended Northwestern and defendant attended Columbia, the court could reasonably assume that there would exist an expectation in the family, and in the child himself, that he too could attend a private college.

Having found that defendant had to contribute to his son’s education at Syracuse University, the court had to consider the defendant’s ability to pay. It was defendant’s position that even though plaintiff may have the means to pay the high cost of their son attending Syracuse, he lacked the means to do so. Consequently, he argued that he should have to pay no more than $9,000 a year towards his son’s education, an amount that is roughly 50% of the present annual cost of a SUNY school.

The court rejected defendant’s contention as to his inability to pay a significant share of the child’s actual educational expenses being incurred at Syracuse. The court held that the parties’s incomes and assets would allow them to pay for their child’s education at Syracuse.

The court further held that there was no basis to impose the SUNY cap, to the extent that it should be imposed at all, where the party seeking to invoke the cap has the financial ability to contribute towards the actual amount of his or her child’s college expenses. Although defendant’s contribution should be less than plaintiff’s, based on the difference between their net assets, and in particular what each of them had available for eventual retirement, that contribution should not be subject to some artificial construct like the SUNY cap. On this basis, the court held that defendant shall be obligated to contribute 40% of the total cost of the older child attending Syracuse University, with those costs to include tuition, room and board, fees and books.

Thus, this decision confirms that if a parent is hoping to place a limit on future college costs, it is very important to include provisions in the parties’ separation agreement or settlement stipulation placing an upper limit on such costs.

Need to Preserve Relationship with Parent Does Not Take Precedence Over Economic Factors in Relocation Cases

October 29th, 2011

In Butler v Hess, 85 A.D.3d 1689 (4th Dept. 2011), petitioner father filed a petition seeking to modify the parties’ existing joint custodial arrangement. Specifically, respondent mother had primary physical residence and the father had visitation. The father sought to prevent the mother from relocating with the child to Pennsylvania and sought sole custody of the child.

The mother filed a cross petition seeking permission for the child to relocate with her to Pennsylvania. The trial court denied mother’s application and prohibited her from relocating to Pennsylvania. The Appellate Division agreed with mother’s contentions that Family Court erred in denying her cross petition.

The Appellate Division found that the record established that, pursuant to the existing arrangement, the father had regularly scheduled visitation with the child. The mother remarried in December 2003, when the child was six years old, and the mother and the child began living with the mother’s husband at that time. In December 2006, the mother lost her job as a result of budget cutbacks and, in July 2007, the mother’s husband lost his job after his position was eliminated. The mother’s husband accepted a job in Pennsylvania in October 2007, which was the basis for the mother’s cross petition seeking permission to relocate with the child to Pennsylvania to join her husband. The Court concluded that the mother established by the requisite preponderance of the evidence that the proposed relocation would serve the child’s best interests”. Tropea v. Tropea, 87 N.Y.2d 727, 741 (1996). The Court of Appeals in Tropea held that economic necessity may present a particularly persuasive ground for permitting the proposed move. According to the Appellate Division, the record reflected that the trial court did not adequately, if at all, consider the financial considerations underlying the requested relocation. The mother requested permission to relocate because she and her husband lost their jobs within a relatively short period of time. The mother’s husband testified that both his health insurance, which also covered the mother and the child, and his severance pay ran out in August 2007. After the mother’s husband lost his job, he and the mother depleted their savings and their house was placed into foreclosure. The mother and her husband testified that they unsuccessfully attempted to locate jobs in Western New York and that the mother’s husband accepted the job in Pennsylvania out of financial necessity.

The trial court based its determination primarily on its conclusion that the relocation would “qualitatively affect” the child’s relationship with the father. The Appellate Division held that this was erroneous because the need to give appropriate weight to the feasibility of preserving the relationship between the parent without primary physical custody and [the child through suitable visitation arrangements does not take precedence over the need to give appropriate weight to the economic necessity for the relocation. Further, the record established that the proposed relocation would not have a substantial impact on the visitation schedule. The mother and the husband testified that they would transport the child to and from Pennsylvania every other weekend, and they offered to pay for a hotel for the father in Pennsylvania on his off-weekends so that he could exercise additional access with the child. The mother further testified that the holiday access schedule would remain the same because she and her husband would be returning to Western New York at those times to visit with their respective families, who resided there. In addition, the mother's husband purchased video conferencing equipment for his household and the father's household to enable the father and the child to communicate during the week and on the father's off-weekends.

Thus, the mother established "the feasibility of preserving the relationship between the [father] and child through suitable visitation arrangements” Tropea, 87 N.Y.2d at 741. Therefore, the Appellate Division reversed the lower court and permitted relocation.

While the appellate court recognized the mother’s need to relocate, it is unfortunate that it took a situation where the mother and her husband both lost their job and exhausted all of their financial resources and their house went into foreclosure. In my opinion, it would be appropriate for the court to consider the parties’ economic circumstances well before they become dire. It today’s economy, it is likely that we will see these issues addressed by the courts time and time again.

Family Court Referees and Their Authority to Hear Cases

September 18th, 2011

Most of the cases in Family Court are decided by Family Court Judges who preside over most Family Court hearings. The Family Court Judges, here in Monroe County and elsewhere in New York State, typically hear child custody, visitation, adoption, juvenile delinquency and other cases. However, here in Monroe County, Court Attorney Referees hear custody, visitation, and order of protection cases. Family Court Attorney Referees are appointed pursuant to the Family Court Act and CPLR.

One of the first things that takes place in a case before a Family Court Attorney Referee is that the parties and their attorneys will be asked if they will agree to the Referee’s jurisdiction to hear and determine the matter. If the parties agree, the Referee will asked them to sign a stipulation confirming their consent. If the parties do not consent, the case is usually removed and heard by the Family Court Judge.

It is critical for the Referee to make sure that the parties consent to his jurisdiction to hear the case. A recent case, Gale v. Gale, 2011 NY Slip Op 06490 (2nd Dept. 2011), demonstrates what happens if the referee fails to obtain that consent. In Gale, the mother filed a petition seeking to modify provisions of the parties’ judgment of divorce. The case was assigned to a Family Court Attorney Referee who heard the case and ultimately modified custody provisions of the judgment of divorce, granting the petitioner sole custody of the children. The father appealed, arguing that the referee lacked jurisdiction to hear the case since the referee had failed to have the parties sign the stipulation or otherwise establish that the parties consented to her jurisidiction. The Appellate Division agreed with the father and reversed.  Specifically, the Appellate Division stated that

Upon review of the record, we find that the parties did not stipulate to a reference in the manner prescribed by CPLR 2104. In any event, there is no indication that there was an order of reference designating the referee who heard and determined the petitions at issue here. Contrary to the mother’s contention, the father did not implicitly consent to the reference merely by participating in the proceeding without expressing his desire to have the matter tried before a judge. Furthermore, a stipulation consenting to a reference to a specified referee, executed by the parties in connection with the father’s previous petition to modify the visitation schedule, expired upon completion of that matter and did not remain in effect for this matter.

Accordingly, the referee had no jurisdiction to consider the father’s petitions related to custody and visitation and the mother’s petition to modify custody, and the referee’s order determining those petitions must be reversed. (citations omitted)

While the parties cannot choose the person who will decide their case, they do not have to agree to the Family Court Attorney Referee to hear and decide it. Sometimes there are reasons to have the case heard by a Family Court Judge, and the parties should consider not agreeing to the referee’s jurisdiction under appropriate circumstances.