Downward Modification of Child Support, Scope of Job Search and Custody Issues

I have previously written about downward modification of child support in a situation where the payor has lost his job or experienced a significant reduction in his income. Recently, I was personally involved in a case which also involved custody issues that directly impacted payor’s job search and were raised as a defense to an argument that the job search was insufficient. While I almost never write about cases while they are still pending, in this case, an article about the decision was published in the paper serving Rochester legal community, and I think that it is interesting one, because of the interplay between the child’s need for support and parent’s wish not to search for a job outside of his present community.

In Szalapski v. Schwartz n/k/a Szalapski, Justice Richard A. Dollinger had to decide whether an unemployed parent with support obligations must clearly make a diligent job search limited to the Rochester area, or expand it beyond Rochester. Mr. Szalapski, who lost his employment earning six-figure income a number of months ago, brought a downward modification obligation claiming that despite his diligent job search, he was unable to find a comparable job and his income for child support purposes should be reduced to $15,000 per year. Mr. Szalapski has a number of advanced science and engineering degrees, and has held both teaching and industry positions. When Ms. Schwartz raised an argument that Mr. Szalapski was obligated to search for a job outside of Rochester area, Mr. Szalapski claimed that because of the parties’ custodial and visitation arrangements, and his involvement in one of his children’s life, he did not have to search for employment beyond 60 mile radius from his present residence. As result, the court had to address the apparent tension between the children’s need for support and the parent’s wish to maintain existing relationship with his child. Mr. Szalapski argued that if he is forced to accept a job some distance away from Rochester, his relationship with his son would be negatively impacted.

The court ruled that a potentially high earning plaintiff such as Mr. Szalapski, who is seeking modification, should be required to examine the prospects of employment in another area before the court substantially reduces his child support obligation. “New York law is strangely silent on this issue and, based on this court’s research, the question of the ‘radius of a reasonable job search’ has been seldom analyzed in the Empire State,” Justice Richard A. Dollinger wrote in the decision. “In essence, the husband [plaintiff] must prove that the benefit of the increased support, occasioned by finding a job in a new location, would be outweighed by the deleterious impact on his relationship with his son and that no alteration in the visitation schedule could accommodate his visitation with his son.” The court suggested that a high paying job (in excess of $100,000) in a nearby city such as New York, Boston, Cleveland or Washington, D.C., may be able to accommodate a visitation schedule that requires a short airplane flight.

“The paramount importance of maintaining the child’s standard of living is what drives the need for a diligent job search when an obligated parent loses their employment,” Justice Dollinger wrote. “In this court’s view then, the scope of the job search should extend beyond the convenience of either parent, and reach to a point where the benefit of employment in a new more distant location outweighs the consequence s of distance on the relationship between the parent and child” the justice continued. The court noted that the burden of  establishing whether the job search was adequate rests with the plaintiff seeking modification to prove “diligent search for employment” and ordered a hearing on the adequacy of his job search.

I think that this is an interesting decision and that Justice Dollinger did an excellent job addressing both sides of this factual scenario. As far as hearing, it is still in the future.

Child Support and Imputed Income

It is not infrequent for the non-custodial parent to claim an annual income far less than he/she actually earns. In those situations, the courts can impute additional income to the party paying child support. As held by the Appellate Division, Second Department, in Strella v. Ferro, the court “need not rely upon the party’s own account of his or her finances, but may impute income based upon the party’s past income or demonstrated earning potential.” The imputed income can be established in several different ways.

One way to establish that a party’s actual income is higher than his/her reported income is to demonstrate how his/her reported lifestyle could not be supported by the reported income.

In Strella, the father claimed that he had been unemployed and only recently begun to earn $500 per week despite having recently earned as much as $101,000 per year. The Court imputed an income of $96,000 to the father. In doing so, the Appellate Court noted that:

Here, the father’s claimed annual household expenses were approximately double his claimed annual income in 2004 and 2005. Additionally, his financial data did not indicate that he used money from his savings or that he incurred greater debt to pay the remaining amount of his annual expenses not covered by his average annual income. During the relevant period, he did not liquidate any of his investments, he had no outstanding balance on his home equity line of credit, and his credit card statements showed no unpaid balances of a size and nature to correspond to his household expenses.

In Barnett v Ruotolo, the Appellate Division, Second Department, held that in exercising the discretion to impute income to a party, a Support Magistrate is required to provide a clear record of the source from which the income is imputed and the reasons for such imputation. In that case, the father did not testify and chose to rely on the financial documentation he had submitted. The father’s financial documentation indicated that his monthly income was only approximately one-third of his stated monthly expenses, and no evidence was submitted to show that these monthly expenses were not being paid in a timely manner. The Appellate Division held that lower court properly exercised its discretion in imputing income based upon the father’s self-reported financial affidavit for the purpose of calculating his child support obligation.

If the party’s expenses exceed his/her reported income, and there is no obvious diminution of the party’s assets, then the reported income is likely to be under-reported. Under those circumstances, the court should look beyond the filed tax return to calculate the appropriate child support amount.

The court can also impute income by averaging what was reported on most recent individual tax returns. In Y.W., v. T-T.J., the Appellate Division, First Department, reversed a child support order of $3,288 per month and remanded the case back for recalculation of the basic child support obligation. The Appellate Division held that since each party claimed that the income as reflected on the other’s tax return was not accurate, and the parties were unable to produce sufficient evidence to otherwise convince the support magistrate about their respective incomes, the magistrate properly decided to impute income to the parties by averaging what was reported on their most recent (2004 and 2005) individual tax returns.