Interference with Visitation May Result in Change in Custody

In Keefe v. Adams, 85 A.D.3d 1225 (3d Dept. 2011), the Appellate Division, Third Department, had to address issues related to interference with visitation which were raised by the father who brought a petition to modify existing  custodial and residential arrangement.  The parties had a custody and residential arrangement on the basis of May 2007 consent order which provided for joint custody, with mother having primary physical custody and father having visitation. In August 2009, father sought a modification of custody, alleging that mother moved out of county without his consent and is consistently late in exchanging child at drop-off location.

The court held that a significant change in circumstances occurred which reflected real need to modify parties’ stipulated custody order. The court found that mother admitted to moving with child to different county, 42 miles away from father, without informing him, and parties’ relationship deteriorated to point of inability to discuss important matters concerning their child. Further, mother also consistently arrived between 15 minutes to 2 hours late in dropping child off or picking child up. Mother interfered with father’s visitation rights by arriving late for dropping off and picking up child. The court also held that evidence showed as well that mother promoted her boyfriend as substitute for child’s father and that her relocation both required the child to change schools and hindered the father’s involvement in the child’s life. The father, on the other hand, manifests a markedly greater ability to control his behavior in front of the child, as well as a willingness to foster the relationship between the mother and child. The court noted that while custody with the father will unfortunately separate the child from his half brother, with whom he has a close relationship, the father testified that the half brother would be welcome in his home.

In view of the above circumstances, the court held that an award of sole custody to father with visitation to mother in child’s best interests. The court’s decision to modify existing custodial arrangement is not a common one. In most cases, courts are likely to fashion a less drastic remedy.

Step-Parent Adoption and Consent of Biological Father

Step-parent adoptions are generally simple if the biological parent provides his/her consent to the adoption. However, such consent may not be obtainable in every situation. Under some circumstances, consent of the biological parent will not be required by the court. Generally, for adoption purposes, the court qualifies biological parents into two categories: consent parent and notice parent.

If a parent is deemed to be a consent parent, that parent’s consent is required in order for the adoption to proceed. If a parent is deemed to be a notice parent, that parent receives a notice of adoption but his/her consent is not required.

The consent of a parent to the adoption of his child will not be required if the parent has abandoned the child. The child will be deemed abandoned if the parent evinced an intent to forego his parental or custodial rights and obligations by failing for a period of six months prior to the filing of an adoption petition to visit the child and communicate with the child or person having legal custody of the child although able to do so”. Domestic Relations Law §111(2)(a). The courts presume, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, the ability to visit and communicate with a child or person having custody of a child. DRL § 111(6)(a).

DRL §111(6)(b) states that, “evidence of insubstantial or infrequent visits or communication by the Father shall not, of itself, be sufficient as a matter of law to prevent a finding that the consent of the Father to the child’s adoption shall not be required”. Insignificant expressions of parental interest will not by themselves prevent a finding of abandonment.

Further, DRL § 111(6)(c) states that, “the subjective intent of the Father whether expressed or otherwise unsupported by evidence of acts specified in DRL § 111(2)(a) manifesting such intent, shall not prevent a determination that the consent of the Father to the child’s adoption shall not be required”.

In Matter of Ethan, 32 Misc.3d 1212(A) (Monroe Co. Fam. Ct. 2009), the birth father opposed proposed step-parent adoption and argued that his consent was necessary. Judge Joseph G. Nesser held a hearing and determined that the biological father has abandoned the child for a period of six months or longer, preceding the filing of the adoption petition.

Specifically, the court found that Father had not seen the child in well over one year before the adoption petition was filed nor did he speak to the child within that six month period. It was also uncontroverted that there were no cards, gifts, financial assistance or child support forwarded by father to mother for the child at least six months prior to the adoption petition being filed. Father’s letters postmarked May 13, 2008 and June 20, 2008 were forwarded to mother concerning the child. The court found that this was the only contact in over one year prior to the adoption petition being filed. Further, father knew members both in his family and in mother’s family to contact, but never had them contact mother to communicate with the child within six months prior to the filing of adoption petition.

The court also found that father was able to contact mother, knew her address; her telephone number; and her mother’s address and telephone number which were published but failed to contact her within six months prior to filing the adoption petition.

Just as important was the court’s finding that the father, for more than one year prior to the filing of the adoption petition, never provided any child support to Mother or any type of financial assistance whatsoever. Mother’s last child support payment was received on November 7, 2005, and the last financial assistance she received from father was in February of 2006.

Based on the above facts, the court determined that father evidenced an intent to forego his parental rights and obligations that was manifested by his failure for a period of six months to visit the child and communicate with the child or with mother, although able to do so, and of his failure to provide fair and reasonable child support according to his means for the child. Thus, the court dispensed with the father’s consent and allowed step-parent adoption to proceed.

Can a Parent Travel with Young Child Abroad Over Custodial Parent’s Objections?

One issue that may come up in custody cases is whether a nonresidential parent has ability to take a child abroad during his or her period of visitation. It is not uncommon for a residential parent to object to such request, and sometimes parties wind up in court seeking a determination whether such travel can be permitted.

In a recent case, Russo v. Carmel, 2011 N.Y. Slip. Op. 05889 (4th Dept. 2011), the Appellate Division, Fourth Department, permitted the father to travel to Italy with his two year old child for a period of not more than 15 days on 60 days’ notice to the mother. The mother opposed the request, arguing that the child was never away from the mother for longer than 48 hours, that the father’s visitation was limited to 48 hour periods and that the child would be in an unfamiliar environment with relatives who were unknown to the child.  The court held that the record established that, although the father’s visitation with the child was limited, the father has a close bond with her and, during visitation, he prepared her meals, bathed her, administered medication as necessary and took her on outings. Further, the mother did not express any concerns that the father would abscond with the child. The court concluded that it is in the best interests of the child to travel with the father to Italy to meet her extended family.

While in most cases the court is unlikely to allow a parent to travel abroad with a very young child, in this case, the father was able to present convincing evidence that the trip was intended to introduce the child to her relatives abroad. Further, the mother was unable to present any evidence of the father’s inability to take care of the child and was not afraid that the father would refuse to come back to the United States. In view of these facts, the trial court’s decision and the Appellate Division’s decision were clearly correct.  While the residential parent may have a significant measure of control over non-residential parent’s ability to travel with the child, the residential parent should not raise objections unless there is specific evidence that such travel would be inappropriate and not in the best interests of the child.

Can a Child Bring Petition Seeking Modification of Custody?

While the vast majority of cases petitions seeking to modify custody are brought by parents, can any one else bring a petition seeking to modify custody? I have written previously about petitions brought by non-parents, such as grandparents or someone who has a relationship with a child. A recent decision brought forth yet another party who can bring a petition seeking to modify custody – a child himself. In a recent decision, Trosset v. Susan A., 2011 N.Y. Slip. Op. 21151 (Fam Ct. Otsego Co. 2011), the court held that a child had standing to bring a petition seeking modification of present custodial arrangement. In Trossett, the child’s attorney filed a petition to modify prior court order. Respondent moved to dismiss the petition arguing that child’s attorney lacks standing to file petition concerning custody on behalf of child. The court held that  “[w]hile absence of specific authority regarding custody and visitation is problematic, absence of statute granting child standing, such standing depends upon whether party has alleged facts showing disadvantage to himself or herself.” (citations omitted).  According to the decision, the attorney for child made allegations that directly relate to child’s desire to live with father. The court opined that the child has stake in outcome sufficient to confer standing upon him to file petition, or by child’s attorney on child’s behalf.

The decision does not provide much in a way of facts or legal authority for the court’s decision, however, I would guess that the child was older and, therefore, would have an opportunity to have input on any custody decisions. In addition, I would think that the parties were involved in court proceedings previously since the child had an attorney representing him.

Since the decision dealt with procedural issues related arising out of petition being filed by attorney for the child, we may never know how the case was resolved. However, I suspect that this issue may be appealed in the future and we may learn of further developments in the case.

Multiple Child Support Orders and Change In Circumstances Warranting Modification of Child Support

One of the issues that I periodically see in child support cases is that a party who is already paying child support has another child or children with a different party, resulting in additional child support orders.  Usually in those circumstances, the child who is the subject of the first order is receiving support on the entire income of the payor.  The subsequent children receive child support on the basis of payor’s income after child support payable pursuant to the first order is deducted.  As a result, the child who is the subject of the first order will always receive higher child support amount than the child or children receiving child support under the subsequent orders.  In addition, the payor’s income is subject to multiple orders and can pay half or more of his gross income in child support.

The above approach has been traditionally applied in Family Court cases.  In a recent decision, Demetrius D. v. Lori T., 2011 N.Y. Slip. Op. 21025 (Fam. Ct. Clinton Co. 2011), the court questioned the logic of this approach.  The court noted that:

From the children’s perspective, the fact that one child receives more child support than another child based solely upon which custodial parent obtains the first support order is unfair and irrational. Obviously, the children cannot control which parent applies for support first nor can the child control the speed of litigation. Nevertheless, this is the statutory law of the State of New York. It should be noted that it is not the age of the children, but rather the order in which the children receive a child support order that determines which children will receive preference under the law[FN4]. Of course, it would also be unfair and irrational to give preference to one child over another based solely upon birth order.

Id. at 3.

Further, the court stated that creation of these additional support order may be grounds for modifying the original child support obligation under Family Court Act § 413(1)(b)(5)(vii)(D):

Subdivision D also raises multiple issues with respect to modification petitions. There is no express provision in the Family Court Act which limits the Subdivision D deduction in modification cases to court orders issued prior to the original order sought to be modified. In other words, in the event that a parent demonstrates a material change of circumstances which warrants the re-application of the Child Support Standards Act, there is no language that excludes new orders issued between the date of the original order and the date of the hearing on modification petition from Subdivision D. Thus, the Court concludes that if there is a material change of circumstances that warrants the new application of the Child Support Standards Act, the non-custodial parent would be entitled to a deduction under Subdivision D for all child support actually paid pursuant to Court orders for other children, whether or not the Court orders for other children were issued before or after the original order for the subject child.

But in Demetrius D., what the court gave with one hand, it took with the other.  The more flexible approach as stated in the decision, was subject to application of general child support modification standards, including a determination that the hardship came as a result of payor’s voluntary actions and was self-inflicted. The court found that having additional children was a self-inflicted hardship that came as a result of his voluntary actions that does not warrant downward modification of payor’s child support obligation.

What is the lesson here for the family law lawyers? If the payor can establish that somehow the act of having more children was involuntary, then the payor may be entitled to a modification of the original child support obligation on the basis of subsequent orders.  It is hard to see the circumstances where it would be remotely possible. On the other hand, under appropriate circumstances, the above approach may help a payor dealing with multiple child support orders.

Does Family Court Have Jurisdiction Over Family Offenses Committed Outside of New York?

In a recent case, the Appellate Division had to decide whether the Family Court has subject matter jurisdiction over family offense proceedings where the alleged acts occurred outside of the state and even outside of the country.  In Richardson v. Richardson, 2010 N.Y. Slip. Op. 07943 (2nd Dept 2010), the court held that Family Court Act §812 grants the Family Court subject matter jurisdiction to hear such proceedings, and that the Family Court properly exercised jurisdiction over the parties’ petitions, despite the fact that the acts alleged occurred on the island territory of Anguilla.

On March 4, 2009, petitioners filed three separate family offense petitions seeking the entry of orders of protection. The alleged family offenses included, inter alia, assault, harassment, and menacing. The petitions detailed certain incidents which allegedly occurred on February 19, 2009, on the island of Anguilla.

The Appellate Division began its decision by stating that the Family Court is a court of limited jurisdiction constrained to exercise only those powers conferred upon it by the state Constitution or by statute.  Included within the actions and proceedings over which the Family Court has been given subject matter jurisdiction are family offense proceedings. Pursuant to the New York State Constitution, family offense proceedings are to determine “as may be provided by law . . . crimes and offenses by or against minors or between spouses or between parent and child or between members of the same family or household” (N.Y. Const, art VI, § 13 [b] [7]). In light of the provision stating “as may be provided by law,” the grant of jurisdiction to the Family Court over family offense proceedings is permissive and requires legislative action to be implemented.

Family Court Act Article 8 delineates the parameters of the Family Court’s subject matter jurisdiction. The Family Court Act and the Criminal Procedure Law provide the criminal court and the Family Court with “concurrent jurisdiction” over certain enumerated criminal offenses when allegedly committed by one family member against another. Thus, while a family member may choose to seek redress for a family offense in the Family Court, a parallel criminal proceeding also is available. Indeed, the Legislature has specifically authorized a petitioner to commence a family offense proceeding in either or both Family Court and criminal court. Moreover, each court has the authority to issue temporary or final orders of protection.

Family Court Act § 812(1) provides:

Jurisdiction. The family court and the criminal courts shall have concurrent jurisdiction over any proceeding concerning acts which would constitute disorderly conduct, harassment in the first degree, harassment in the second degree, aggravated harassment in the second degree, sexual misconduct, forcible touching, sexual abuse in the third degree, sexual abuse in the second degree as set forth in subdivision one of section 130.60 of the penal law, stalking in the first degree, stalking in the second degree, stalking in the third degree, stalking in the fourth degree, criminal mischief, menacing in the second degree, menacing in the third degree, reckless endangerment, assault in the second degree, assault in the third degree or an attempted assault between spouses or former spouses, or between parent and child or between members of the same family or household except that if the respondent would not be criminally responsible by reason of age pursuant to section 30.00 of the penal law, then the family court shall have exclusive jurisdiction over such proceeding. Notwithstanding a complainant’s election to proceed in family court, the criminal court shall not be divested of jurisdiction to hear a family offense proceeding pursuant to this section.

Furthermore, Family Court Act § 812(2)(b) provides: “[t]hat a family court proceeding is a civil proceeding and is for the purpose of attempting to stop the violence, end the family disruption and obtain protection.” There is no geographic limitation in Family Court Act § 812, or elsewhere in the Family Court Act, as to where a family offense is to have occurred in order to confer subject matter jurisdiction upon the Family Court. Family Court Act, Article 8, as enacted in 1962, was intended by the New York State Legislature to provide “practical help” to domestic violence victims through the use of civil proceedings in the Family Court.

The history of Family Court Act § 812, provides no indication that the Legislature intended to prohibit the Family Court from exercising jurisdiction over family offenses where the alleged acts occurred in another state or country. However, a question that arises is whether the geographic or territorial limitation on the jurisdiction of the criminal court also limits the jurisdiction of the Family Court. Criminal Procedure Law § 20.40(1)(a) provides, in pertinent part, that “[a] person may be convicted in an appropriate criminal court of a particular county, of an offense . . . when conduct occurred within such county sufficient to establish [a]n element of such offense.”

The Appellate Division concluded “[t]hus, to the extent that the appellant contends that the geographic limitation on the jurisdiction of the criminal court also applies to limit the jurisdiction of the Family Court over family offense proceedings, we hold that contention to be without merit.”

Therefore, if an act that would give a rise to an order of protection takes place anywhere, the party against whom it is committed can seek an order of protection in New York’s Family Court, provided that other procedural requirements are met and personal jurisdiction is obtained.

Major Changes in New York’s Family Law Are Now In Effect

Today is the day when New York’s family law begins a new era. The no-fault divorce law is now in effect and grounds for divorce will no longer preclude someone from obtaining a divorce.    In addition to the new no-fault divorce legislation, three new laws applicable to divorces and child support proceedings became effective including:

1.   a new procedure and formula for setting awards of temporary maintenance while a divorce is pending;
2.  a presumption toward grating attorneys fees to the less monied spouse during the divorce; and
3.   new circumstances for reviewing and modifying child support awards.

Here is the summary of the most important provisions of the new laws:

No-Fault Divorce

There is a new no-fault cause of action for divorce that can be granted if the spouse filing for divorce makes a sworn statement that the marriage has irretrievably broken down for a period of six months preceding the commencement of the divorce action.

Temporary Maintenance

The new law provides that maintenance is to be awarded during the divorce when one parties’ income is less than 2/3of the other spouse’s income.

The amount of maintenance is determined by the following formula as the lesser of a) 30% of the payor’s income minus 20% of the non-payor’s income or b) 40% of the combined income minus the non payor’s income.

Attorneys Fees

The  attorneys fee bill creates a  presumption that the “monied”  spouse should pay to the “non-monied” spouse interim attorneys fees in all divorce or family law case.  The purpose of the law is to make both spouses to be able to litigate their divorce case on equal basis.

Modification of Child Support

The Family Court Act (“FCA”) and matching provisions of the Domestic Relations Law (“DRL”) were amended to allow modification of an order of child support due to “substantial change in circumstances” which is now defined in a change in either party’s gross income by 15% or more.  Also, if three years have passed since the last order was entered, modified, or adjusted, the court can modify an order entered after October 13, 2010 order, unless the parties specifically opt-out of that provisions.  Additionally, a reduction in a party’s income shall not be considered as a ground for modification, unless it was involuntary and the party has made diligent attempts to secure employment.

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

Varying From Statutory Child Support Percentages

I have previously written about the court’s ability to consider not only the income one or both parties actually reported but the income as should have been reported.  What is not commonly known is that the court, whether Supreme Court or Family Court, can vary from the statutory percentages, by either increasing or reducing child support amounts.

In Irkho v. Irkho, 66 A.D.3d 682 (2d Dept. 2009), the Appellate Division held that Family Court properly denied the father’s objections to the order of the Support Magistrate, which departed from the numerical guidelines of the Child Support Standards Act and directed him to pay 50% of the child’s regular monthly expenses.  The Appellate Division held that a hearing court is not bound to apply the statutory percentage established in Family Court Act 413(1)(c), but may determine the child support obligation through the application of the percentage set forth in Family Court Act 413(1)(c), the factors delineated in Family Court Act 413(1)(f), or a combination of both (see Cassano v. Cassano, 85 N.Y.2d 649 (1995)).  Family Court providently exercised its discretion in departing from the prescribed percentage.

The above is fairly uncommon situation since in vast majority of the cases the courts will apply the CSSA.  It is unfortunate that the Appellate Division did not discuss the facts of the case in detail.  Whatever the circumstances were that resulted in the court’s decision may applicable in other cases.  If the child’s monthly expenses exceed the amount that the father would be obligated under the CSSA, family law lawyers would certainly appreciate knowing under what circumstances their clients may receive or be obligated to pay child support in excess of the CSSA amounts.

Limitations on Child Support Arrears and Child Support Standards Act

One question that I am often asked with respect to child support arrears is whether there is a limit on the amount of child support arrears that can be accrued.  My usual response is that there is only one limitation in the Child Support Standards Act with respect to the limits on child support arrears and it exists solely in situations where the payor’s income is below the amount set by the poverty income guidelines for the single person, as reported by the federal Department of Health and Human Services.

Specifically, where the payor’s annual income is below the poverty income guidelines, then in accordance with the Family Court Act §413(1)(g), then payor’s child support arrears are limited to $500.00.  For 2009, the federal poverty guideline for a single person was set at $10,830.00.  This provision can be very helpful to family law lawyers and their clients since this provision allows for retroactive limitation on child support arrears, but it is limited to those situation where the party who owes child support has an extremely low level of income.

There are some limitations even in situations where the payor’s income was below the poverty guideline amount.  The party charged with paying child support couldn’t have voluntarily reduced his/her income, and must demonstrate inability to earn a higher amount (i.e., cannot have income imputed on the basis of ability to pay or other factors).  On practical level, the most likely situation where this provision becomes applicable is typically where a party becomes disabled and does not seek downward modification of the child support obligation until after child support arrears have accrued.

What is also interesting about the Family Court Act §413(1)(g), is that it directly contradicts Family Court Act §451, which prohibits the court from reducing or annulling arrears accrued prior to the filing of a modification petition unless the party shows good cause for failure to make the application sooner.  The courts were able to harmonize both sections by deciding that if the payor’s income is below the poverty level guideline, then by operation of section 413(1)(g) the arrears had never accrued.  Ronald F. v. Kathy Jo O., 25 Misc 3d 1229 (Fam.Ct. Erie Co. 2009)

Child Support and Public Assistance

While I have repeatedly written about various issues involving New York’s Child Support Standards Act, here, here, here, and here, one issue that was not previously discussed and bears mentioning, is the interplay between the Child Support Standards Act and public assistance received by the parent receiving child support.  In Gregory v. Gregory, 68 A.D.3d 770 (N.Y.A.D. 2 Dept), the Appellate Division, Second Department decided the amount of child support payable by the non-custodial parent to the custodial parent was receiving public assistance.

In Gregory, the parents physically separated and the mother retained custody of the children.  Eventually, the parents agreed that the father would have primary custody of their two sons, and the mother would have primary custody of their daughter.  While there was no written agreement or court order concerning child support, the father claimed that he and the mother agreed that each parent would support the child or children in her or his custody, respectively.

Thereafter, the mother applied for and was awarded public assistance.  The mother received public assistance from August 1, 2004, until May 31, 2007, totaling $26,830.67, of which $13,415.44 was attributable to the support of the parties’ daughter, who was the child in mother’s custody.  In May 2007 the mother commenced a proceeding seeking child support for the parties’ daughter.  The Department of Social Services (DSS) intervened in the proceeding, seeking payment of child support from the father, which sum included the money it had paid to the mother on behalf of the parties’ daughter.

After a hearing, the Support Magistrate calculated the father’s support obligation for his daughter for the period to be $26,006.26, and directed him to pay that amount to the DSS.  The Appellate Division held that Family Court’s directive that the father pay the DSS the sum of $26,006.26 was proper.  Since the support obligation of a parent of a child receiving public assistance is measured by the child’s needs and the parent’s means, not by the amount of public assistance paid on behalf of the child, the Family Court acted properly in declining to limit the amount required to be paid by the father to the DSS to the child’s share of the public assistance grant.  Contrary to the father’s contention, he was not entitled to offset alleged unpaid child support from the mother against the amount he owed to the DSS. During the relevant time period, there was no support obligation imposed upon the mother for the children who were in the custody of the father.

The lesson of this case is that whenever the DSS is involved in assisting the custodial parent, this assistance is likely to come at a high price to the non-custodial parent.  What is significant in the opinion is that the typical child assistance payment amounts to a few hundred dollars.  On the other hand, the amount of child support owed by the non-custodial parent and calculated on the basis of that parent’s income, can be several times higher.  The non-custodial parent will not receive the difference between the two figures since it would be retained by the DSS.  In similar situations, depending on the incomes involved, a family law lawyer may recommend to the non-custodial parent to pay the custodial parent the total amount of public assistance privately since it may cost a lot less.