Posts Tagged ‘Family Law’

Updates to New York’s Child Support Standards Chart

Saturday, May 3rd, 2014

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

Saturday, May 3rd, 2014

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

Sunday, February 2nd, 2014

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

Monday, September 2nd, 2013

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

Sunday, 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.

 

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

Saturday, 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

Sunday, 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.

Interference with Visitation May Result in Change in Custody

Sunday, September 4th, 2011

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

Saturday, August 6th, 2011

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?

Tuesday, July 26th, 2011

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.