Terminating Spousal Support Provisions After Divorce Due to Change In Circumstances

In New York, spousal support, also sometimes referred to as “alimony” or “spousal maintenance” can be granted in a divorce case to either spouse by the court pursuant to Domestic Relations Law §236. Alternatively, the parties can agree to a specific amount of maintenance, its duration, and the circumstances under which it will terminate in their settlement agreement.

Factors that a judge or the parties will consider in determining spousal support, among others, include:

The duration of the marriage and the age and health of both parties;
The present and future earning capacity of both parties;
The ability of both to become self-supporting;
The reduced or lost lifetime earning capacity resulting from having foregone or delayed education, employment training or career opportunities during the marriage;
The presence of children;
Tax consequences.

Even once the amount of maintenance is determined and included in the judgment of divorce or settlement agreement, spousal maintenance can be modified.

However, if the maintenance was set by the parties’ settlement  agreement, the party seeking its modification due to a change in circumstances will have to meet a significant burden of proof. Specifically, the party seeking the change will have to show prima facie evidence of “extreme hardship” before the court can hold a hearing to resolve these issues. Extreme hardship means that the payor’s circumstances are so adverse that the party can’t meet its living expenses without modifying spousal support. In a recent decision, McKelvey v. McKelvey, 2015 N.Y. Slip. Op. 02830 (3rd Dept. 2015), the Appellate Division found that the husband presented such evidence when he was able to show that “the undisputed proof indicating that the husband earns, after taxes, less than his monthly support obligation was sufficient to demonstrate prima facie evidence of extreme hardship, and Supreme Court should have held a hearing on his request to modify his support obligation.” Once such evidence is presented then the court hearing the case would hold a fact-finding to determine how spousal maintenance should be modified.

If spousal maintenance was set by a judge after a hearing, the party seeking the modification must establish a substantial change in circumstances and show that the needs of the dependent spouse or financial abilities of the paying spouse that warrant modification. The party making such request would face a significant burden and the court will have to consider such factors as the party’s current and past earnings, costs of living, financial obligations, as well as assets and liabilities.  In Klapper v. Klapper, 204 A.D.2d 518 (2d Dept. 1994), the Second Department held that, in determining whether there was a substantial change in circumstances sufficient to warrant downward modification, “the change is to be measured by a comparison between the payor’s financial circumstances at the time of the motion for downward modification and at the time of divorce or, as the case may be, the time that the order of which modification is sought was made.”

Further, a party who willfully or voluntarily reduces income will not receive a reduction in support payments. If evidence of such actions is presented to the court, the party seeking modification will not receive and is also likely to be ordered to pay the other spouse’s attorneys’ fees.

Enforcement of Payment Obligations Pursuant to Judgment of Divorce

One of the issues that occurs in cases where a party is ordered to make spousal maintenance or child support after the judgment of divorce is entered, is that party may fail to make such payments. This brings up a question of what remedy should be utilized under those circumstances.

A recent decision of Keller v. Keller, 2015 N.Y. Slip. Op. 02453 (2d Dept. 2015) demonstrates how the court approaches a contempt application based upon payor’s failure to pay child support and related expenses. In Keller, a contempt application was brought after the money judgment for child support went unpaid for a number of years, and 6 Family Court orders were apparently ignored by the payor. In discussing the remedies available, the Appellate Division stated that

Pursuant to Domestic Relations Law § 245, a spouse may be punished for contempt for failing to make payments pursuant to [a judgment of divorce], but it must appear presumptively, to the satisfaction of the court,’ that payment cannot be enforced pursuant to Domestic Relations Law §243 (sequestration), Domestic Relations Law §244 (money judgment), CPLR §5241 (income execution) or CPLR §5242 (income deduction)” (Jones v. Jones, 65 A.D.3d 1016, 1016; see Klepp v. Klepp, 35 A.D.3d 386; Higbee v. Higbee, 260 A.D.2d 603). Thus, contempt may be warranted where the record demonstrates “that resort to other, less drastic enforcement mechanisms [has] been exhausted or would be ineffectual” (Capurso v. Capurso, 61 A.D.3d 913, 914; see Jones v. Jones, 65 A.D.3d at 1016; Rosenblitt v. Rosenblitt, 121 A.D.2d 375).

While discussing the specific circumstances of the case, the Appellate Division stated that plaintiff repeatedly failed to pay child support as directed in the parties’ judgment of divorce, or to abide by the court orders and money judgments subsequently entered against him on account of child support arrears and related expenses. The record further showed that the defendant either exhausted all enforcement remedies other than contempt, or that such further attempts “would have been futile”. The court further held that the plaintiff had the burden of going forward with evidence of his inability to make the required payments. After reviewing the facts and applicable law, the Appellate Division found that holding plaintiff in contempt of court was the correct remedy.

If Keller was brought in Family Court, the court’s would apply a different set of rules. In Family Court, under Family Court Act §454(3), there is a presumption that a parent’s failure to pay court ordered child support is willful. Payee’s sworn testimony as to nonpayment of ordered child support payments from payor is a prima facie evidence of a willful violation. Once the violation is shown, the burden shifts to the payor to demonstrate inability to make the required payments.  Upon the court’s finding of willful violation, the court may grant attorneys’ fees, enter a money judgment, make an income deduction order, require an undertaking, make a sequestration order or suspend the respondent’s driving, professional or business license. Further, the court may direct incarceration of 6 months as a remedy as well. Thus, defendant would not have to make a showing that all available remedies were exhausted.

The above discussion illustrates that other remedies should always be considered before seeking a finding of contempt since a finding of contempt may require a substantial motion practice and, most likely, a hearing.  Thus, contempt motions should not be brought unless all other remedies were exhausted or, alternatively, if nonpayment of child support, a willful violation petition should be filed in Family Court.

Constructive Emancipation and the Child’s Conduct

I have previously written about constructive emancipation issue and also addresses some of the applicable law in another post.  Generally, a child can become emancipated through his actions when the child either refuses to have contact with the parent or voluntarily abandon’s parent’s home. However, what happens when a child engages in abusive conduct directed toward the non-residential parent?

In a recent decision, Cornell v. Cornell, 2015 NY Slip Op 25030 (Sup. Ct. Monroe Co. 2015), the court held that where a child’s conduct directed at the parent is abusive and inappropriate, the court can construe such conduct as abandonment. In Cornell, the evidence presented to the court established that the child engaged in communications that established “a substantial hatred and/or disrespect for the mother”. In the court’s view,

a child who utters such terms about their parent cannot realistically expect this court to ignore such conduct and order the maligned parent to pay any form of support for the child. A child over the age of 18, seeking reimbursement for college expenses, cannot use such language toward a parent and then, either directly or through his other parent, seek child support, and/or payment of college expenses. No one should be permitted to refer to their mother in such fashion, and then, without recanting or asking for forgiveness, seek the court’s assistance to have that person support their future life. This court will not condone such actions by an unworthy son.

Thus, the court emancipated the child and the mother was no longer obligated to contribute toward support of the child or pay a portion of his college expenses.

This decision is particularly interesting because of the court’s emphasis on the child’s negative conduct directed at the mother. The court also mentioned that the child refused subsequent contact with the mother. While refusal to have contact is significant, according to the controlling cases, the court also has to analyze the parent’s efforts to reestablish contact with the child. Unfortunately in Cornell, the court did not discuss what specific actions the mother undertook to reestablish contact with the child.

Ultimately, I think that the court has reached result.  It will be interesting to see if this decision will be appealed and what the Appellate Division’s decision will be.

Tracing Method of Dividing Defined Contribution Retirement Assets

I have previously written about division of marital retirement assets which is traditionally done by computing a time based coverture fraction pursuant to the New York Court of Appeals’ decision in Majauskas v. Majauskas, 61 N.Y.2d 481 (1984). Majauskas was the seminal New York case that decided that the portion of the spouse’s pension or a retirement plan such as 401k, earned during the marriage, is marital property subject to equitable distribution. To the extent that a pension was earned or 401k contributions were made during the marriage, they are, for purposes of New York law, are considered to be marital property. The Majauskas decision sets forth the formula that normally is to be followed in dividing retirement assets and consists of a fraction computed on the basis of duration of the marriage and duration of the party’s employment.

While Majauskas has been the prevailing law for the last 30 years, a recent decision suggests that with regard to defined contribution retirement plans such as 401k or 403b plans, or their equivalents, the trial court has discretion to utilize a tracing method of equitable distribution. According to Jennings v. Brown, 43 Misc.3d 1229(A) (Sup. Ct. Seneca Co. 2014), “a small minority of cases have started to hold that use of a time-based fraction to determine the marital share of a defined contribution plan is permitted”. Tracing would allow the court to treat appreciation on any separate property portion of such retirement assets as separate property, thereby reducing the non-titled party’s interest in the asset. The court observed that utilization of time coverture fraction methodology utilized by the Court of Appeals in Majauskas may result in overvaluation of non-vested party’s interest and tracing method would remedy that problem.

In Jennings, the plaintiff argued that the tracing method should be utilized to establish defendant’s interest in plaintiff’s 401k plan. However, while accepting tracing methodology as valid, the court held that it was constrained by the terms of the parties’ judgment of divorce which referenced Majauskas method of dividing retirement assets.

While Jennings is a trial level decision, and I question at least one of the cases it relies on, it suggests that with regard to defined contribution retirement funds, tracing method could be accepted by the trial court. Under appropriate circumstances, tracing method may greatly benefit the titled spouse. It also suggests that when the case is tried, the party seeking to utilize tracing method will need to present expert testimony on this issue. In Jennings, an affidavit of a CPA was presented to the court.  Since Jennings is a trial level decision, it remains to be seen whether the appellate courts will agree with its reasoning.

Temporary Maintenance and Payment of Additional Expenses by Monied Spouse

One issue that comes up fairly often in divorce cases is the issue of whether the monied spouse who is paying temporary maintenance is also responsible for additional expenses incurred by the non-monied spouse. At least some of the prior decisions held that when the temporary maintenance is being paid, the recipient was responsible for his or her living expenses, including any mortgage payments or housing expenses.

However, it appears that at least some of the appellate decisions hold otherwise. In Vistocco v. Jardin,116 A.D.3rd 842 (N.Y.A.D. 2 Dept.), the parties were married in 1995 and had three unemancipated children. The wife made a request for temporary maintenance as well as for payment of carrying costs on the marital residence. The trial court awarded the defendant $3,000 per week for child support and $3,000 per week in temporary spousal maintenance, directed the plaintiff to pay the mortgage and taxes on the marital residence where the defendant resided with the parties’ children, directed the plaintiff to pay the defendant’s car insurance, and awarded the defendant interim counsel fees and expert fees in the sums of $12,500 and $3,500, respectively. The Appellate Division affirmed.

The plaintiff argued that the Supreme Court erred in directing him to pay, in addition to spousal maintenance, the mortgage and taxes on the marital residence and the defendant’s car insurance. He contended that the pendente lite maintenance award is intended to cover the defendant’s basic living expenses, which include the mortgage, property taxes, and her car insurance. The Appellate Division held that the formula to determine temporary spousal maintenance that is outlined in Domestic Relations Law § 236(B)(5-a)(c) is intended to cover all of a  payee spouse’s basic living expenses, including housing costs, the costs of food and clothing, and other usual expenses (see  Khaira v. Khaira, 93 AD3d 194). It further held that it may be appropriate to direct payment by the monied spouse of the mortgage and taxes on the marital residence and other expenses of the nonmonied spouse under certain circumstances (see id.). In light of the evidence that the plaintiff’s income exceeded $500,000 and the gross disparity between the plaintiff’s income and the defendant’s income, the trial court properly awarded additional support in the form of a directive to the plaintiff to pay the mortgage and taxes on the marital residence (Domestic Relations Law § 236[B][5-a][c][2][a][ii] ), as well as the defendant’s car insurance.

Unfortunately, until the Court of Appeals hears a case involving these issues, it is likely that there will not be uniformity among the trial court decisions. If you are non-monied spouse, you have nothing to lose by making a request for carrying costs of the marital residence, provided that there is financial wherewithal on the part of the monied spouse. Ultimately, a decision of whether such additional should be requested should be made on case by case basis.

Updates to New York’s Child Support Standards Chart

According to the Child Support Standards Chart, prepared by New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, Division of Child Support Enforcement, and released March 12, 2014, the 2014 poverty income guideline amount for a single person as reported by the United States Department of Health and Human Services is $11,670 and the 2014 self-support reserve is $15,755. These numbers are highly relevant for child support calculations and may have a role in determining child support arrears in situations where payor’s income is less than the guideline amount for a single person. The Chart is found at this link. The Child Support Standards Chart is released each year on or before April 1.

Additionally, as required by the Child Support Standards Act, the combined parental income amount used to calculate basis economic support has been changed to $141,000. This figure is adjusted every two years (effective January 31st) based on the average annual percent changes to the federal Department of Labor’s Consumer Price Index for Urban Consumers. The basic economic support figure is highly relevant in the cases where combined parental income is substantially in excess of it since the court may utilize parental income in excess of the basic economic support figure under appropriate circumstances.

Surrogacy and Adoption

One area where New York still lags behind other states has to do with surrogacy contracts. New York does not recognize surrogacy contracts statutorily since it deems the underlying surrogacy contracts to be against public policy, and they are void and unenforceable in New York. See N.Y. Dom. Rel. L. § 122. However, what happens to a child born as a result of such contract?

In a recent decision, Matter of J.J., 2014 N.Y. Slip. Op. 24089 (Fam. Ct. Queens Co. 2014), New York Family Court held that a child born as a result of a surrogacy contract can be adopted in the State of New York, notwithstanding the fact that such contract would be void and unenforceable.  In that decision, Judge Salinitro held that a man may legally adopt his husband’s biological twins even though they were born to a woman under a surrogacy agreement that is illegal in New York State. According to the court, the best interests of the twins is the most important consideration in weighing the adoption petition, not the surrogacy agreement that resulted in their birth. According to the decision, a home study provided to the court showed that the children are thriving in the care of the parents.

Thus, the court stated that it is not being asked to enforce the surrogacy contract that forms the basis for the adoption, nor does the relief sought include claims relating to the surrogacy agreement itself. Rather, the case involved proposed adoptive parent who wanted to have equivalent legal status as the birth parent, and is prepared to assume the rights and responsibilities that accompany legal parentage.

Therefore, the surrogacy agreement with the woman who bore the children in Mumbai, India, in 2013 was of no consequence to the adoption. The court specifically found that “where a surrogacy contract exists and an adoption has been filed to establish legal parentage, such surrogacy contract does not foreclose an adoption from proceeding”.

Section 122 of Domestic Relations Law declares that “surrogate parenting contracts are hereby declared contrary to the public policy of this state, and are void and unenforceable”. The judge said she found a “paucity” of previous rulings in New York on surrogacy and none directly focused on surrogacy contracts in the adoption context. Accordingly, she called the issue before her an apparent question of first impression in New York courts.

I think that the judge made the right decision. Given that the law does not always keep up with changes in medical technology and society, the courts have to step in and address these types of issues.

Minors and Rescission of Acknowledgment of Paternity

A recent bill signed into law by Governor Cuomo, allows minors who acknowledged paternity of their children to have a brief period of time when they turn 18 to seek to rescind that acknowledgment . Family Court Act §516-a will permit young men who signed the acknowledgment of paternity up to 60 days, starting on their 18th birthday, to file a petition seeking to vacate.

Under the present law, if someone over the age of eighteen has signed an acknowledgment of paternity, the signatory may seek to rescind the acknowledgment by filing a petition with the court to vacate the acknowledgment within the earlier of sixty days of the date of signing the acknowledgment or the date of an administrative or a judicial proceeding (including, but not limited to, a proceeding to establish a support order) relating to the child in which the signatory is a party. The “date of an administrative or a judicial proceeding” means the date by which the respondent is required to answer the petition.

Sponsors of the legislation had said that seeking a rescission of paternity will not necessarily extinguish the paternal rights but could result in a judge ordering a DNA test to conclusively establish or disprove parenthood. Signing the acknowledgment of paternity is a serious matter since it carries responsibilities, such as paying child support for non-custodial children until they turn 21.

According to the legilative history of the statute, the change was prompted by the recognition that minors often sign acknowledgments without guidance from their parents or other adults, or sign them for children they know are not theirs without realizing the long-term ramifications. If acknowledgment is signed and, subsequently, there is evidence that the party who signed it is not the birth father, it may be too late to do anything about it.

A safer course of action is not to sign an acknowledgment. If the acknowledgment of paternity is not signed, then paternity will needs to be established, and Family Court is the proper venue for filing a paternity petition. If the either parent files a petition for Paternity, then the father can either consent to paternity or, if he does not, the court can order Genetic Marker (DNA) Test to confirm that he is actually the biological father. Generally, the DNA test is conclusive evidence of who the biological parent is. However, before the DNA test is ordered by the court, it will have to address any equitable estoppel issues that may arise.  Assuming that equitable estoppel issues have been resolved, and the DNA test takes place, then the Court will issue an Order of Filiation, which is provided to the DHMH for the issuance of a new birth certificate.

Equitable estoppel in those situations may be raised both offensively and defensively by either the man initially believed to be the biological father or the man believed to be the true biological father.  Not all fathers cooperate since an Order of Filiation typically results in an order for child support and, possibly, a liability for birth expenses.

Shared Custody and Child Support – Number of Overnights Controls

I have previously written about the case of Baraby v. Baraby, 250 A.D.2d 201, 681 N.Y.S.2d 826 (3d Dept, 1998), where the Appellate Division held that in an equally shared custody case the parent who has the greater income should be considered the noncustodial parent for purposes of child support. This has been the rule in shared custody cases for the last 15 years.

However, in a recent decision, Rubin v. Salla, 107 A.D.3d 60 (N.Y.A.D. 1 Dept. 2013), the Appellate Division held that based on the plain language of the Child Support Standards Act, that a custodial parent cannot be directed to pay child support to a noncustodial parent, and that the “custodial parent”, in an equally shared custody case, is “the parent who has the child the majority of the time, which is measured by the number of overnight time that parent has with the child.”

In Rubin, the parties were the unmarried parents of a 9–year–old son. The mother and father always lived separately. After trial, the court awarded primary physical custody to the father during the school year, with the mother having parenting time on alternate weekends (from Friday after school to Monday morning) and every Thursday overnight. During the summer, the schedule was reversed and the child would live primarily with the mother, but would spend Thursday overnights and alternate weekends with the father. The mother would also have the child each winter vacation, and the other vacations were evenly divided. Additionally, each parent had two weeks with the child during the summer. With respect to legal custody, the court awarded the father decision-making authority, after consultation with the mother, over educational and medical issues. The mother was given authority, after consultation with the father, over decisions on summer and extracurricular activities, and religion.

Following the custody decision, the father sought to dismiss the mother’s cause of action for child support. He argued that, by the terms of the custody order, he was the custodial parent because the child would spend the majority of the year with him. He argued that, as a matter of law, the court could not order him to pay child support to the mother, the noncustodial parent. The father established that during the period from July 2012 to June 2013 there were 206 overnights with the father and 159 with the mother. These custodial periods amounted to the child being with the father 56% of the time and with the mother 44% of the time.

The trial court denied the father’s motion for summary judgment, holding that an award of child support to the mother was not precluded because the parties had “parallel legal custody” of their son and both spent some time with the child, it was impossible to say, as a matter of law, that the father was the custodial parent for child support purposes. The court also focused on the disparity between the parents’ financial circumstances and concluded that, regardless of whether the father was the custodial parent, it had the discretion to award the mother child support because she needed funds to pay her monthly rent and to maintain the type of home she could not otherwise afford without the father’s assistance.

The Appellate Division reversed, holding that under the Child Support Standards Act, the father, as the custodial parent, cannot be directed to pay child support to the mother, the noncustodial parent. According to the decision, the CSSA provides for “a precisely articulated, three-step method for determining child support” awards in both Family Court and Supreme Court. Under the CSSA’s plain language, only the noncustodial parent can be directed to pay child support. Domestic Relations Law § 240(1–b)(f)(10) and FCA § 413(1)(f)(10) state that, after performing the requisite calculations, “the court shall order the non-custodial parent to pay his or her pro rata share of the basic child support obligation.”

After analyzing the applicable case law, the Appellate Division stated that only where the parents’ custodial time is truly equal, such that neither parent has physical custody of the child a majority of time, have courts deemed the parent with the higher income to be the noncustodial parent for child support purposes. Where parents have unequal residential time with a child, the party with the greater amount of time is the custodial parent for CSSA purposes. The great disparity in overnights here—56% to 44%—forced the court to make a finding that the mother was the non-residential parent.

Unlike the trial court which counted the waking hours each parent spent with the child, the Appellate Division decision held that the number of overnights, not the number of waking hours, is the most practical and workable approach. The court stated that:

Allowing a parent to receive child support based on the number of daytime hours spent with the child bears no logical relation to the purpose behind child support awards, i.e., to assist a custodial parent in providing the child with shelter, food and clothing (see e.g. Higgins v. Higgins, 50 A.D.3d 852 (2d Dept. 2008) [food, clothing and shelter costs are inherent to the basic child support obligation]). Furthermore, because a child’s activities are subject to constant change, the number of hours spent with each parent becomes a moving target. Outside of school hours, a child may participate in after-school activities, spend time with a child care giver, be enrolled in tutoring, or attend summer camp. During those times, the child may not be with either parent. The child’s activities may vary day to day and will change as the child ages, unnecessarily creating the need to recalculate the parties’ parenting time and possibly modify the custodial parent designation. Moreover, the use of this type of counting approach could also lead parents to keep their children out of camp or other activities simply to manipulate their time spent with the child so as to ensure that they are designated the “custodial parent”.

Thus, Rubin makes it clear that even in shared custody situations, the courts will seek to determine who is the residential parent for child support purposes.  In some respects, counting overnights makes it easier for the courts, however, under certain circumstances, counting overnights only does not represent a true picture of parental involvement.  At the same time, this decision introduces much needed clarity.

Validity of Prenuptial Agreements in New York

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.