Standard of Living, Diminished Income, Spousal Maintenance and Child Support

The courts in New York have had some difficulty dealing with situations were a claim of recently diminished income has been presented to the court in response to a temporary spousal support application. In most situations, the courts would either impute income or deny downward modification. The courts have been concerned with the parties’ standard of living for the non-monied spouse and the children despite  the claims of the income-producing spouse of diminished resources and/or income. One trial decision, S.A. v. L.A., 2 Misc.3d 7441 (Sup. Ct. Westchester Co.), illustrates the situation where the present financial situation – the husband earning a lot less income than existed throughout the marriage, has led the court consider present circumstances and to caution the non-monied spouse that she would have to deal with a new economic reality.

In considering interim spousal support, the court had to determine if it would apply the husband’s 2012 income of $819,049 or his far lesser annualized 2013 income imputed at $240,000. The husband was 56 years old and employed in the financial services industry. The wife was 64 years old stay-at-home wife and mother, who has not had any significant for 23 years of the marriage. The husband claimed that he was terminated from his old job through no fault of his own and he was forced to find new employment at a much lower rate of pay. The wife argued that he had voluntarily left his former employment.

The court had to address the principles of utilizing the current income as opposed to the income on the last tax return on a presumptive temporary maintenance calculation. The court determined that according to the language of the Domestic Relations Law §240 (1-b) (b) (5), the income rules applicable in child support proceedings may be used to determine an application for temporary spousal maintenance, as is available for interim child support.

The second part of the court’s analysis, and of great significance, was the court’s view of the parties’ present diminished financial situation from their historic standard of living even as measured by the immediately preceding year. The reduction in the family’s income from the husband’s 2012 adjusted gross income of $819,049.00 to the annualized 2013 income of $240,000.00, was accepted by the court. As result, instead of presumptive temporary support of $17,000.00 per month as requested by the wife, the court awarded $5,737.00 per month. The court further found that with the requested amount of $17,000.00 exceeded the wife’s legitimate monthly expenses, rendering the presumptive award unjust and inappropriate. The court ruled that the issue of whether the husband had been discharged or voluntarily separated from his old employment was reserved for trial.

In its decisions, the court stated that:

The court recognizes that the spousal support provisions in this decision and order will greatly affect the parties’ respective post-separation standards of living. They need to consider the financial predicament they are in, and how to deal with the future. They are now suffering the consequences of their prior high standard of living. It is beyond dispute that two cannot live as cheaply as one, and that “hardship” at any economic level follows drastic losses of income. It is time for the parties to recognize the financial reality they may well face in the future, given their ages, work experience and future prospects for employment. The court urges that the parties’ focus should be on financial planning with asset and debt liquidation. The continuance of this costly litigation will not heal their wounds, both economic and emotional, already suffered, but rather will exacerbate them.

The decision in S.A. v L.A. illustrates that during the difficult economic times, the parties may have to temper their expectations. If a monied spouse can not earn past levels of income through no fault of his or her own, the non-monied spouse is likely to have to share the hardship as well.

Child Support In Shared Custody Situations

Child support under Domestic Relations Law §240 or Family Court Act §413 is not difficult to calculate in situations where there is a parent who clearly has a primary physical residence of the child. However, where the child spends equal time with both parents, these issues become a lot more complicated. Domestic Relations Law §240[1-b](f) requires that “The court shall calculate the basic child support obligation, and the non-custodial parent’s pro rata share of the basic child support obligation”. Therefore, which parent becomes the non-custodial parent in shared custody situation? This question was addressed in the 1998 case of Baraby v. Baraby, 250 A.D.2d 201 (3rd Dept. 1998).

In Baraby, the Appellate Division held that:

where, as here, the parents’ custodial arrangement splits the children’s physical custody so that neither can be said to have physical custody of the children for a majority of the time, the parent having the greater pro rata share of the child support obligation, determined after application of the three-step statutory formula of the CSSA, should be identified as the “noncustodial” parent for the purpose of support.

Since the statute is silent as to joint custody arrangements, the court ruled that for purposes of complying with the statute, one parent must be deemed “custodial” and the other “non custodial.” This step must be taken before a deviation from the support guidelines could be made under Domestic Relations Law §240[1-b](f) and (g). The parent with higher income is declared to be the non-custodial parent for child support calculations. This result problematic in situations where the parents’ incomes are close to each other.

For parents who are contemplating true shared custody, the issues of child support must be carefully addressed in the separation agreement to provide language explaining the contemplated child support arrangement and the reasons the parents are entering into such arrangement. Baraby does not stand for the proposition that the parent with the higher income must pay full child support. The parents are still free to opt out of the Child Support Standards Act, provided that at least minimum statutory child support is being paid, and the reasons for the opt-out are clearly stated.

If the court is deciding these issues in the contest of child support modification, then the party with the higher income should present information allowing the court to make a deviation from the child support guidelines pursuant to Domestic Relations Law §240[1-b](f) and (g).

Calculations of Child Support in New York

The New York courts use a statutory guidelines to determine what child support amount the non-custodial parent is obligated to pay. The guidelines as applicable to the Supreme Court in actions for separation and divorce are contained in Domestic Relations Law §240 and its counterpart for the Family Court is contained in Family Court Act §413. New York child support amounts are based partly on the non-custodial parent’s adjusted gross income and partly on how many children are on the order. The court determines the non-custodial parent’s gross income, and then deducts from that amount Medicare, social security tax, New York City or Yonkers tax, and other allowable deductions to establish the non-custodial parent’s adjusted gross income. An identical calculation is performed with respect to the income of the custodial parent. The court then multiplies the combined adjusted gross income by the standard guideline percentage for the number of children. These percentages are 17% for one child, 25% for two children, 29% for three children, 31% for four children, and at least 35% for five or more children. Subsequently, that child support amount is multiplied by the ratio of non-custodial parent’s adjusted gross income to the combined adjusted gross income.

The standard guideline is applied to most parental earnings up to $80,000 (minus certain local and social security tax amounts). This includes any worker’s compensation, disability payments, unemployment benefits, social security payments, and many other forms of income. Beyond $80,000, the courts determine whether or not to use the percentage guidelines, and may consider other factors in determining the full support amount.

The State of New York provides for interest on missed payments and adjudicated arrears at a rate of 9% per year, but only on arrearages reduced to a money judgment by the courts.