Child Support Modification and Contents of a Family Court Petition

In order for the parent having primary physical residence of the child to seek upward modification of an existing child support obligation, a Family Court petition must present factual allegations representing a substantial change in circumstances. If such allegations are not presented, such petition fails to state a cause of action and is subject to dismissal. In meeting such burden, the party must establish the “’specific increases in the costs associated with the child’s basic necessities’ … ‘as well as the expenses associated with the child’s varied interests and school activities’ and cannot ‘[rely] on generalized claims of increases due to the child’s maturity or inflation’”. Cadwell v. Cadwell, 294 A.D.2d 434 (2d Dept. 2002); Gentry v. Littlewood, 269 A.D.2d 846 (4th Dept. 2000); Greenway v. Greenway, 262 A.D.2d 855 (3rd Dept. 1999).
Therefore, a petition should contain specific allegations addressing the change in the child’s needs and explaining how the parent with whom the child resides is unable to meet them.

Family Court Lacks Power to Modify Maintenance Provision in Separation Agreement

In a recent decision, Johna M.S. v. Russell E.S., the Court of Appeals held that the Family Court lacks power to modify maintenance provisions contained in the parties’ separation agreement. The separation agreement that the wife and the husband both signed, explicitly stated that the wife is “completely disabled” and will be in need of maintenance “for the remainder of her life”. The agreement provided for current maintenance payments of $100.00 per week payable to the wife and recited that this being only a determination of her “present” need and his “present” economic circumstances. It further stated that the wife could if need be seek a “modification” of those sums in a “de novo” proceeding in a court of “appropriate jurisdiction”. A divided Court of Appeals held that the Family Court is not such an “appropriate” court and that in respect of spousal (as opposed to child) maintenance, family court lacks subject matter jurisdiction of a “modification”.

The Court pointed out that there was no risk that the wife would become a public charge. According to the Court of Appeals, the danger of a spouse becoming a public charge is the only circumstance in which, under Family Court Act § 463, the Family Court can modify a separation agreement when the matrimonial action has not been brought as of yet.

A key factor in Johna M.S. was that Family Court lacks “equity” jurisdiction. As Judge Smith points out in his dissent, the prior cases held that Family Court’s attempt to “modify” such a separation agreement amounts to a kind of “reformation or rescission”, which are equitable remedies: they seek to alter the parties’ agreement and there was no effort by the wife to do that here. On the contrary, the agreement itself contemplated modification, wholly negating the “equity” analogy. As a result, the disabled wife’s only choice is to either accept maintenance of $100.00 per week as permanent, or to sue in supreme court for a divorce or separation, where she will be able to seek a greater amount of maintenance.

Out-of-State Orders and New York Child Support

In a recent decision, Spencer v. Spencer, the New York Court of Appeals has finally clarified issues related to application of the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act (“UIFSA”).

Prior to Spencer, in situations where a party had a child support order from a state where the age of emancipation was less than 21, the child support order expired due to the age of the child, and if New York courts had jurisdiction over the party, the custodial parent could bring a new child support petition in New York. Since the petition was treated as a new filing, and not a modification of the out-of-state order, the New York courts then could order child support to continue until the age of 21. This was highly inequitable to parties who had child support orders from the states where the age of emancipation was 18, such as Ohio, or 19, such as California.

Spencer was decided under the following facts. The parties in dispute were married and had several children while living in Connecticut. Following divorce, the mother moved to New York while the father continued to reside in Connecticut. When the eldest son turned 18, the Connecticut support order expired. In 2004, the alimony obligation also expired and the father, as the court noted, “began working three days a week as a consultant.” The mother brought a new child support petition in New York. The New York Family Court issued a new order in 2005 directing payment of child support lasting until age 21.

The Court of Appeals held that the New York order was a modification of the Connecticut support order under the one-order policy of the UIFSA. The Court of Appeals stated that the New York Family Court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to modify an out-of-state order, and child support terminated pursuant to the terms of the initial order. As a result of the decision, prior orders entered under similar circumstances should be vacated. Unfortunately, the Court of Appeals did not address whether recoupment of the child support paid under a new New York order is available to the parent who was paying child support.