Posts Tagged ‘procedure’

Transmutation of Separate Property into Marital Property

Sunday, March 23rd, 2014

One of the basic theories in equitable distribution and divorce litigation is that of transmutation. Transmutation theory holds that by their actions, the parties are able to modify the status of the property they own from separate property to marital property. Most of the time transmutation occurs when the parties commingle separate property with marital property or place what otherwise be separate property into both parties’ names.  This was demonstrated in Fehring v. Fehring, 58 A.D.3d 1061 (3rd Dept. 2009), where the money received on account of personal injuries by the husband, would be initially classified as his separate property. However, the husband deposited check in brokerage account held and used jointly by the parties. In January 2006, husband used $50,000 from account to purchase real property. The court held that transferring separate property assets into a joint account raises rebutable presumption that funds are marital property subject to equitable distribution and that the husband failed to rebut presumption of marital property given commingling of funds. It held that the lower court providently exercised discretion in distributing equally the value of interest in real property purchased with funds held in joint account.

Another example of how separate property may become a marital asset was addressed in a recent decision from the Appellate Division, Fourth Department. In Foti v. Foti, 2014 N.Y. Slip Op 00835 (4th Dept. 2014), defendant received several pieces of real property as gift from her father. Subsequently, tax losses associated with those properties were taken on the parties’ joint income tax returns. The court held that there was a question of fact whether defendant commingled her interests in the entities with marital property and whether a joint federal tax return in which defendant reported her interest in the entities as tax losses, precluded her from taking “a position contrary to a position taken in an income tax return”.

Unfortunately, the Foti decision does not give us enough facts to find out exactly what the tax returns stated. Nonetheless, this shows that even a seemingly innocuous act of filing a tax return may change the status of the property. In my view, decisions like this one, could have been prevented if the parties had signed either a prenuptial or a postnuptial agreement. If you are contemplating divorce, be careful to avoid taking any action that converts your separate property to marital property. Once transmutation takes place, it is highly unlikely that you would be able to change the property’s status back to separate property, even with a lawyer’s assistance.

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.

There Is No Right to Grounds Trial In A No-Fault Divorce Case

Sunday, January 6th, 2013

I have previously written on the issue of whether there was a right to trial in a divorce case brought under the no-fault grounds. Earlier, trial level decisions were split, with some courts holding that a party was still required to establish no-fault grounds at trial, and other courts holding that a sworn statement that the marriage was irretrievably broken for a period of 6 months or longer was sufficient to establish that party’s right to divorce.

Finally, the Appellate Division, Fourth Department, issued a decision resolving this issue. In Palermo v. Palermo, 2012 N.Y. Slip Op. 07528 (4th Dept. 2012), the court affirmed Justice Dollinger’s decision holding that there is no right to dispute an allegation of irretrievable breakdown under the no-fault divorce ground provided by DRL §170(7). Appellate Division agreed with the key language in Justice Dollinger’s decision which stated that:

Under DRL §170(7), the grounds cannot be disputed. Either a party swears the marriage is irretrievably broken or they do not. The grounds are established by the oath; there is no legislative requirement of a judicial finding on the reliability or veracity of the oath.

As the no-fault statute requires, in order for a judgment of divorce to be entered, all the issues relating to the divorce, including equitable distribution, maintenance, child custody and support need to be resolved before a party can be granted a divorce.

The Appellate Division’s decision in Palermo is significant since it clarifies the Legislature’s intent in creating a true no-fault divorce in New York. Further, as a result, the parties will be able to avoid costly grounds trials that usually result in added animosity between the parties.

Statute of Limitations and No-Fault Divorce

Monday, September 3rd, 2012

Since no-fault divorce became law in New York State almost 2 years ago, it was still unclear whether a statute of limitations would apply to to a cause of action under Domestic Relations Law §170(7), specifically, allegations that the relationship between the parties was irretrievably broken. Basically, this question can be asked in this way: from what date does the clock begin to run on this cause of action and when does the clock expire?  The answer was recently given by the Appellate Division, Fourth Department.

In a recent case, Tuper v. Tuper, 2012 N.Y. Slip Op 04467 (4th Dept. 2012), the Appellate Division held that the statute of limitations under DRL §170(7) does not begin to run while the relationship between the parties remain broken.  Specifically, the court held that a cause of action for divorce under the no-fault statute should be treated similarly to a cause of action for divorce based upon imprisonment of a spouse (DRL §170 (3), which is also governed by the five-year statute of limitations set forth in section 210).  In holding so, the Fourth Department relied upon the Court of Appeals’ decision in Covington v. Walker, 3 N.Y.3d 287, 291 (2004), which held that a cause of action for divorce based on imprisonment “continues to arise anew for statute of limitations purposes on each day the defendant spouse remains in prison for three or more consecutive years’ until the defendant is released.” The Appellate Division stated that “[l]ike a spouse serving a life sentence, an irretrievable breakdown in a married couple’s relationship is a continuing state of affairs that, by definition, will not change. After all, the breakdown is “irretrievable.” It thus stands to reason that a cause of action under the no-fault statute may be commenced at any time after the marriage has been “broken down irretrievably for a period of at least six months”.

I think that this is the correct result.  Alternatively, a contrary ruling would force a spouse to unwillingly remain in a dead marriage. If the accrual date of a no-fault cause of action were to be determined to arise only on the day that the relationship initially became irretrievably broken, assuming that an exact date could even be identified, the only couples who could get divorced under the no-fault statute would be those whose relationships irretrievably broke down within the past five years but not within the last six months. Couples whose relationships irretrievably broke down more than five years ago would have to remain married.  Clearly, the New York Legislature did not intend such result in passing the no-fault statute.

A Cause of Action for DRL 170(7) Can Be Added to A Divorce Complaint Filed Prior to October 2010

Sunday, April 22nd, 2012

One of the more interesting procedural issues that arose after the New York State Legislature added a cause of action under Domestic Relations Law §170(7), irretrievably broken marriage for a period of 6 months or longer, is whether this cause of action can be introduced in divorce actions filed prior to the statute’s enactment. At least one court addressed this issue by holding that a separate action can be filed by the defendant alleging a cause of action under DRL §170(7), and the two actions can be consolidated.

A recent decision by Justice Richard A. Dollinger of the Monroe County Supreme Court,  G.C. v. G.C., 2012 N.Y. Slip Op 50653(U) (Sup. Ct. Monroe. Co. 2012), held that a defendant in a divorce action, filed prior to the enactment of the no-fault statute, can assert a counterclaim based on no-fault grounds.  Specifically, Justice Dollinger reviewed the procedural aspects related to counterclaims and analyzed whether such counterclaim would prejudice plaintiff’s substantive rights in the divorce.

The facts of the case are as follows. The plaintiff brought a divorce action prior to October 10, 2010. He alleged that his wife had engaged in cruel and inhuman treatment toward him. The wife answered the complaint, denying the specific allegations, and has stated that she would contest the grounds for the divorce.  Meanwhile the parties lived apart and the wife moved to Ohio.

The husband moved to amend the complaint to assert two new grounds: a ground under Section §170(2) for abandonment and a claim under Section §170(7) for an “irretrievably broken” marriage. The wife opposed the abandonment amendment, claiming that the husband can not allege abandonment when it occurred during a year after the filing of complaint and that its assertion, now, after the action has been pending for more than two years, is untimely and prejudicial. The wife also opposed the amendment on the grounds of Section §170(7), arguing that this recently-enact statutory amendment can not be asserted in this action because the complaint was filed prior to the effective date of the change. She argued that the husband, in order to pursue this claim, needed to file a new complaint. The husband argued that if he files the new complaint with a Section §170(7) cause of action, he could then move for consolidation under CPLR §602(a), and the cases would likely be consolidated because they involve the same facts.

CPLR §3025(b), by its express language, envisions that other causes of actions, based on developing facts that occur during the pendency of the action, can be the subject of a proposed amendment to the original compliant. The statute uses the terms “subsequent transactions or occurrences” as the basis for a proposed amendment. The statute also permits an amendment “at any time.” CPLR §3025(b).

A cause of action under Domestic Relations Law §170(2) requires allegations that a spouse’s actual physical departure from the marital residence for one year is unjustified, voluntary, without consent of the plaintiff spouse, and with the intention of the departing spouse not to return. The amended complaint, on its face, met this minimal pleading requirement since it alleged that the wife left the marital residence in 2009, has not returned and her leaving was without justification.

In October, 2010, the Legislature added a statutory change to the Domestic Relations Law which created “no-fault divorce” and permitted one party to be granted the divorce upon a sworn declaration that the marriage was “irretrievably broken for a period in excess of six months” and the parties had agreed on all the issues related to support and equitable distribution. DRL §170(7). The statutory amendment states that the “act . . . shall apply to matrimonial actions commenced after the effective date.”, specifically after October 12, 2010. The Legislature apparently intended not allow litigants to simply amend their complaints, after the amendment took effect, and allow those claims to proceed to adjudication on the basis of the new “no-fault” allegations by claiming that the six months of “irretrievable breakdown” included time before the effective date of the amendment.

After reviewing statutory history, Justice Dollinger held that the husband was not seeking any relief other than that sought in the original complaint: a divorce and accompanying property distribution. By virtue of the statutory change, the husband, having waited six months after its effective date, can now meet the time requirement of six months because all of the time accrued after the amendment took effect. Justice Dollinger further found that  the husband was merely seeking to “invoke what the Legislature extended to him: a cause of action that has ripened because more than six months have passed since the date of the amendment and during that time, the husband swears that his marriage has been irretrievably broken.”

I think that this was the right result. If a party is able to assert a cause of action under DRL §170(7), the length and expense of the case are likely to be reduced since a trial on the issue of grounds will no longer be required.  This is likely to result in shorter and less costly divorce cases.

 

Violation Petition Must Be Sufficiently Specific to Provide Notice of Alleged Violation

Saturday, February 4th, 2012

In Miller v Miller, 90 A.D.3d 1185 (N.Y.A.D. 3 Dept.) the parties were the parents of two children, born in 2004 and 2005. A custody order entered in March 2008 granted sole legal custody to mother with visitation to father as agreed between the parties. The order, among other provisions, required that the children be properly supervised at all times, and that neither parent smoke or permit a third party to smoke in a vehicle in which the children are passengers.

In June 2010, the father filed a violation petition alleging that the mother was in contempt of this order by failing to properly supervise and discipline the children, since she had permitted the older child to be violent towards others and to smoke. Finding that the petition lacked sufficient specificity to provide the mother with proper notice and failed to outline how the father’s rights had been prejudiced, Family Court dismissed the petition without a hearing, but ordered a child neglect investigation by the local Department of Social Services.

The Appellate Division held that the petition was subject to the requirements of CPLR §3013, and it was required to “be sufficiently particular” as to provide notice to the court and opposing party of the occurrences to be proved and the material elements of each cause of action. Since petition only included generalized allegations of the petition, even liberally construed, it had failed to provide the mother with notice of a particular event or violation such that she could prepare a defense.

Further, according to the Appellate Division, the father failed to assert how the mother’s alleged failings defeated, impaired, impeded or prejudiced his rights, as required to warrant a civil contempt finding. While Family Court ordered an investigation to determine whether a neglect or abuse proceeding should be initiated, the investigation did not fix the defects in the father’s petition. Accordingly, the appellate court concluded that the trial court properly dismissed the petition without a hearing.

The rule for sufficiency of petitions is simple: a party must alleging facts with sufficient particularity so that notice of events and elements of legal issues is given to the opposing party and the court. If petition is insufficient, it will be dismissed.  Alternatively, the court may give a party an opportunity to amend the petition.

Ratification of Settlement and Separation Agreement

Saturday, January 14th, 2012

I have previously written about settlement agreements, their contents, modification, validity, and formalities related to their execution.

Even in situations where the agreement may have not been executed properly or otherwise invalid, if the party does not promptly act to challenge the agreement and accepts its benefits, the court may refuse to vacate the agreement. This is the situation that the Appellate Division, Second Department, addressed in Kessler v. Kessler, 89 A.D.3d 687 (2nd Dept. 2011).

In Kessler, the parties’ separation agreement was incorporated but not merged into the judgment of divorce. The parties entered into the separation agreement on June 10, 1980, after 25 years of marriage. The parties’ separation agreement, provided that the plaintiff husband would, among other things, make payments to the defendant wife for her support and maintenance and for the mortgage and carrying costs relating to the marital residence, where the defendant continued to reside. The plaintiff complied with the terms of the separation agreement and, in 2009, he commenced this action for a conversion divorce. In response to the plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment, the defendant submitted an affidavit asserting that the plaintiff had procured the separation agreement through fraud and duress, and that the agreement was unconscionable.

The defendant alleged, among other things, that the plaintiff had concealed from her his vast wealth, and had induced her to enter into the separation agreement at a time when, unbeknownst to her, New York’s equitable distribution law was about to be enacted. The Supreme Court granted the plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment, and subsequently entered a judgment of divorce, which, inter alia, directed the parties to comply with the terms of the separation agreement which was incorporated, but not merged into, the judgment of divorce. The defendant appealed.

The Appellate Division held that party who “accepts the benefits provided under a separation agreement for any considerable period of time” is deemed to have ratified the agreement and, thus, “relinquishes the right to challenge that agreement”. By contrast, when a party “received virtually no benefits from the agreement,” he or she “cannot be said to have ratified it”.

The Appellate Division further stated that assuming the truth of the allegations set forth in the defendant’s affidavit, the benefits she received pursuant to the separation agreement were far less than those she likely would have received had there been an equitable distribution of the assets accumulated during the marriage. The record, however, did not support a finding that the defendant received “virtually no benefits” from the agreement. Moreover, while “a spouse will not necessarily be held to have ratified an agreement if it is found to be the product of duress and overreaching”, the disadvantage to the defendant created by the alleged fraud and duress in this case cannot be deemed to have persisted throughout the 29-year period during which the defendant accepted the benefits of the separation agreement without challenging it.

The court held that the plaintiff made a prima facie showing that the defendant ratified the separation agreement and that the trial court properly granted the plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment.

There is a simple rule that applies to settlement and separation agreements. The party receiving substantial benefits under the agreement can’t challenge the agreement after a substantial period of time passes.

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.

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.

Contempt and Enforcement of Court Orders

Wednesday, April 20th, 2011

One remedy to a failure of one party to abide by existing court orders that is available to the parties in divorce and other family law actions is contempt of court. The power to punish for contempt arises out of the inherent power of the court, which is limited by §753(A)(3) of the Judiciary Law. It provides, in part:

753. Power of courts to punish for civil contempts
A. A court of record has power to punish, by fine and imprisonment, or either, a neglect or violation of duty, or other misconduct, by which a right or remedy of a party to a civil action or special proceeding, pending in the court may be defeated, impaired, impeded, or prejudiced, in any of the following cases:
3. A party to the action or special proceeding, an attorney, counsellor, or other person, for the nonpayment of a sum of money, ordered or adjudged by the court to be paid, in a case where by law execution can not be awarded for the collection of such sum except as otherwise specifically provided by the civil practice law and rules; or for any other disobedience to a lawful mandate of the court.
8. In any other case, where an attachment or any other proceeding to punish for a contempt, has been usually adopted and practiced in a court of record, to enforce a civil remedy of a party to an action or special proceeding in that court, or to protect the right of a party.

The power of contempt is exists to punish the party who engages in an evasion or a violation of duty, or misconduct, which resulted in defeating or prejudicing the other party’s rights. There are a number of procedural requirements that have to be strictly followed in order for the court to find a party in contempt. A motion to punish for contempt will be dismissed unless on its face it contains both a notice that the purpose of the hearing is to punish for contempt and that such punishment may consist of a fine or imprisonment. Without this notice and warning, the court is without jurisdiction to punish for contempt.

The party must also be advised by the court of the right to counsel and assigned an attorney if financially unable to obtain counsel. In addition, DRL §245 requires a finding that payment cannot be enforced pursuant to DRL §243 or §244 or CPLR §5241 and §5242 and the exhaustion of these remedies or a finding that they would be ineffectual as a prerequisite to a contempt for disobeying an order requiring payment of money in a matrimonial action.  The court must find that the violation was willful and find expressly that the actions of the defaulting spouse were calculated to or actually did defeat, impair or impede or prejudice the other spouses rights or remedies. Nonpayment alone does not establish the requisite willfulness to support contempt. DRL §246(3) provides that financial inability to pay is a defense to a contempt proceeding under DRL §245. A person who asserts in an opposing affidavit financial inability to comply with the order is entitled to an evidentiary hearing to determine whether he or she has an ability to pay.

The punishment for contempt for failure to make ordered payments is imprisonment until payment is made. The defaulting spouse may pay the money due and be released. If the court finds that the party committed the offense charged and that it was calculated to or actually did defeat, impair, impede or prejudice the rights or remedies of the other spouse, the court must make a final order directing fine, imprisonment or both, as it finds necessary.

Civil Rights Law §72 limits the length of imprisonment for nonpayment of alimony, maintenance, distributive award, special relief in a matrimonial action and counsel fees in a divorce case to three months for a default of less than $500, and to six months for $500 or more. Noticeably absent is any mention of child support. If a party has an actual loss or injury because of the proven other spouse’s misconduct, a fine must be imposed sufficient to indemnify the aggrieved party and when collected, paid to the aggrieved party.

In contrast to the DRL, the Family Court Act (FCA) takes a tougher approach by providing for commitment as one of the remedies for nonpayment of support. Section 454(2) provides that where a respondent is brought before the court for failure to obey any “lawful order” of the Family Court for support and following a hearing the court is satisfied that the respondent has failed to obey the order, it may 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.

Here is an example of how a contempt application will be viewed by the court. In a recent case, H.S.M. v J.T.M., 2011 N.Y. Slip. Op. 50069(U) (Sup. Ct. Nassau Co. 2011), the court was asked to hold defendant in contempt of Court for his willful failure to comply with the Judgment of Divorce entered in this action , and for his willful refusal to pay the sum of $43,351.87, together with interest. The parties’ marriage was dissolved pursuant to the Judgment of Divorce, entered June 24, 2008, which incorporated but did not merge with a Stipulation of Settlement, dated December 19, 2007. The Stipulation stated in pertinent part that:

The Husband shall pay to the Wife, as and for child support, the sum of One Thousand Seven Hundred Eighty-five ($1,785.00) Dollars per month … The parties agree that the child support payments will be made through the Nassau County Support Collection Unit. [Article XXVI]

Pursuant to the Order of the Hon. Denise L. Sher, J.S.C., dated October 4, 2006, the Court ordered pendente lite relief awarding to the Wife the sum of One Thousand Four Hundred ($1,400.00) Dollars per month temporary maintenance, as well as child support in the sum of Two Thousand ($2,000.00) Dollars per month. The award was retroactive to the date of service, which was July 18, 2006. [Article XXVII]

The Husband agrees that arrears for child support and maintenance as of the date of execution of this Agreement amount to Thirty-Eight Thousand Two Hundred ($38,200.00) Dollars, and agrees to the entry of judgment for said arrears. Said arrears shall be liquidated by the Husband paying to the Wife the sum of Three Hundred ($300.00) Dollars per month until all arrears are paid. The Father further agrees that in order to liquidate arrears, the Father shall remit to the Mother his income tax return refunds that he receives commencing with the tax year 2007 and shall pay over to the Mother the entire refund by June 1, 2008, and by June 1st every year thereafter until such time as his arrears have been liquidated. [Article XXII]

The Husband shall pay to the Wife, as and for spousal maintenance, the sum of Four Hundred ($400.00) Dollars per month…through support collection. [Article XXXVI]

Pursuant to the “So-Ordered” Stipulation of the parties dated May 19, 2010, “Def[endant] agrees to pay to Pl[aintiff] as and for child support arrears the minimum sum of $1,000.00 (One Thousand and no/100) by May 26, 2010.

Wife claimed that Husband has willfully failed to i) comply with the Judgment of Divorce dated August 6, 2008, which incorporates the Stipulation; ii) comply and pay the money judgment entered on February 3, 2010, in the sum of $49,746.27; and iii) comply with the “So-Ordered” Stipulation entered into by the parties on May 19, 2010. Wife claimed that subsequent to the entry of the money judgment, she contacted the Nassau County Office of Child Support Enforcement to seek payment of the child support obligation for the parties’ three children, as well as maintenance for herself. She claimed that notwithstanding the attempts of the Child Support Enforcement Bureau, no payments have been received from the defendant or his employer. She further alleged that the total sum now due and owing is $87,864.01, and that none of it has been paid.

In February of 2010, husband testified that he has no assets nor property which could be sequestered. In support of her application, wife claimed that nothing less than a fine and incarceration will persuade the husband to comply with the Court orders and judgments. She argued that other enforcement devices, including income deduction orders, income executions or sequestration will be unsuccessful in view of husband having made himself judgment proof; moving out of the State of New York; and failing to comply with any judgment or stipulation entered into by the parties.

Wife claimed that she is attending graduate school but that in the interim, she is completely dependent on her family for her support and the support of the parties’ three children. She claimed that the last time she received any funds from husband was in March of 2010, and that since that time she has received no support payments or maintenance. She argued that based upon those facts, husband’s intentional non-compliance with the judgment, orders and “So-Ordered” Stipulation has defeated, impaired and prejudiced her rights.

The court stated that a contempt citation is a drastic remedy which should not be granted absent a clear right to such relief.  Further, to prevail on a motion to punish a party for civil contempt, the movant must demonstrate that the party charged with contempt willfully violated a clear and unequivocal mandate of a court’s order, with knowledge of that order’s terms, thereby prejudicing the movant’s rights.  The court further held that pursuant to Domestic Relations Law §245, before a defaulting party can be held in contempt for the non-payment of a sum of money, it must appear “presumptively, to the satisfaction of the Court,” that the movant exhausted the less drastic enforcement remedies available under Domestic Relations Law §§ 243, 244 and 245, CPLR §§ 5241 and 5242, or such other enforcement mechanisms that would be ineffectual.  Once the movant has made a prima facie showing that the party against whom a contempt citation is sought has failed to pay a sum of money as ordered, the burden then shifts to the obligor to adduce some competent, credible evidence of his inability to make the required payments, in order to show that the failure to pay was not willful. The court determined that wife has satisfactorily demonstrated the existence of a clear and unequivocal mandate of the court, and that husband has knowingly violated the order’s terms, thereby prejudicing her rights. The court also found that other methods of enforcement would prove ineffective in light of husband having made himself judgment proof. The court, however, determined that it must conduct a hearing to determine husband’s willfulness in violating the subject orders. In order for a non-compliant party be incarcerated for his willful violation of the court’s mandates, the movant must prove such willfulness beyond a reasonable doubt.

The above decision illustrates that while contempt is a remedy, it may require a substantial motion practice and, most likely, a hearing.  Thus, contempt motions should not be brought unless all other remedies were exhausted.