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.

Duration of Residency in New York as Prerequisite to Divorce Action

In order to have a valid divorce action in New York, certain residential requirements have to be satisfied. Domestic Relations Law §230 requires that:

1. You and your spouse were married in New York, and either of you is a resident of New York when the divorce action is started and has been a resident of New York for a continuous period of one year immediately before the commencement of the divorce action;
2. You and your spouse have resided in New York as husband and wife, and either of you is a resident of New York when the divorce action is started and has been a resident of New York for a continuous period of one year immediately preceding the beginning of the divorce action;
3. The grounds for divorce occurred in New York, and either you or your spouse has been a resident of New York for a continuous period of at least one year immediately before the beginning of the divorce action;
4. The grounds for divorce occurred in New York, and both you and your spouse are residents of New York at the time of the commencement of the divorce action;
5. Either you or your spouse has been a resident of New York for a continuous period of at least two years immediately preceding the commencement of the divorce action.

The statute requires that the residency be continuous. What happens if the party spends significant periods of time outside of New York?

In Murjani v. Murjani, 2014 N.Y. Slip. Op. 08366 (1st Dep’t. 2014), the Appellate Division held that durational residency requirements were satisfied by the defendant, despite the fact that defendant would spend significant periods of time in India and elsewhere. The court held that since defendant had maintained a permanent residence in New York and would return there with regularity, those facts satisfied continuous residency requirements. Thus, as long as permanent residence is being maintained in New York, and the party either returns or intends to return there, Domestic Relations Law §230 is satisfied and a divorce action can be maintained.

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.

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.

Mother Ordered to Stop Posting About Her Children on Facebook

As social media continues to permeate every aspect of our lives, there is a continuing controversy about parents should post information about their children on social media sites. The controversy is grounded in both safety concerts, as well as concerns that children, who have not consented to having this information shared with the world, may suffer an invasion of their privacy or emotional harm.   A recent decision demonstrates how these issues can be addressed by the courts in New York.

In Melody M. v Robert M., 103 A.D.3d 932 (3rd Dept. 2013), the Third Department affirmed a Family Court order that among other changes to the prior joint custody, issued an order of protection against the mother that prohibited her from, among other things, posting any communications to or about the children on any social network site. From the decision, it appears that while the parties initially had a joint custodial arrangement, that arrangement broke down primarily due to the mother’s pattern of inappropriate behavior and its effect on the parties’ oldest child, who had mental health issues. The mother did not participate in the child’s counseling because she did not like the therapist, or follow therapist’s  recommendation with respect to household routines. The mother also testified that she frequently called the father for him to take the oldest child away during her parenting time because she could not deal with his behavior. The mother admitted that she swore and yelled at the oldest child, and often resorted to physical means to deal with him.

In addition, the court quoted some of the mother’s testimony which was astounding:

[mother] utilized Facebook to insult and demean the child, who was then 10 years old, by, among other things, calling him an “asshole.” She testified without remorse that she did so because that is what “[h]e is,” and she thought it was important for her Facebook friends to know this. Charitably stated, her testimony reflected a lack of insight as to the nature of her conduct toward her oldest child.

As a result of the mother’s use of physical force and disparagement of the oldest child on Facebook, the father had filed a violation petition. Since there was sufficient evidence regarding the mother’s inappropriate use of the Internet to demean and disparage the oldest child, as well as her lack of remorse or insight into the inappropriateness of such behavior, the Appellate Division held that the lower court was justified in issuing an order of protection.

It is clear that the mother’s behavior was clearly inappropriate and that the court was justified in protecting the child. Just like with anything else involving the children, if you want to maintain custody of your children in the age of social media, it is best not to disparage them on Facebook.

Statute of Limitations and No-Fault Divorce

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.

Ratification of Settlement and Separation Agreement

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.

Parent’s Obligation to Pay for College Is Not Limited To Cost of SUNY Education Unless Proven Otherwise

In Pamela T. v. Marc B., 2011 N.Y. Slip. Op. 21355 (N.Y.Sup.2011), the court had to decide whether the parent’s obligation to pay for college should be limited to the so-called “SUNY cap”. The Supreme Court concluded that parent’s argument that before a parent can be compelled to contribute towards the cost of a private college, there must be a showing that a child cannot receive an adequate education at a state college, has no basis in the law.

The parties were divorced on December 23, 2008 and have two sons, 18 and16 years old. Their judgment of divorce was silent as to the payment of the children’s college tuition and expenses.

In 2007, the older child was diagnosed with emotional and learning/anxiety disorders, which resulted in certain educational accommodations. Despite his disabilities, he graduated in 2011 from a selective public high school in Manhattan. He was accepted at Syracuse University, SUNY Binghamton and SUNY Buffalo, as well as other schools. The costs of college education varied from Syracuse at approximately $53,000 a year to attend, to SUNY Binghamton and SUNY Buffalo that cost about $18,000 a year. The child decided to attend Syracuse which he is now attending as a freshman.

The both parents are practicing attorneys in New York City. Plaintiff’s 2010 federal income tax return reported adjusted gross income of $109,896. Defendant’s 2010 federal income tax return reported adjusted gross income of $105,135. Plaintiff’s net worth statement showed she had assets of approximately $1,230,000. Defendant’s net worth statement showed he had assets of approximately $580,000. Both plaintiff and defendant went to private undergraduate colleges and law schools.

Defendant did not oppose an order directing him to contribute to his older child’s college education, but he requested that the court to apply the SUNY cap and limit his responsibility to a percentage of the costs of a state university education rather than to a percentage of a private college education. Defendant’s position was based on his claim that he was unable to meet the financial demands of paying for private college and on his belief that his son could receive as good an education at SUNY Binghamton as he could at Syracuse.

The court stated that Domestic Relations Law 240(1- b)(c)(7) gave the courts of this state the authority to “direct a parent to contribute to a child’s private college education, even in the absence of special circumstances or a voluntary agreement. The statute provides that when a court exercises its discretion to direct such a contribution from a parent, it is to do so “having regard for the circumstances of the case and the parties, the best interests of the child, and the requirements of justice.” The courts interpreted the provisions of DRL 240(1-b)(c)(7) by setting forth specific factors that are to be considered in determining whether to award college expenses. These factors include the educational background of the parents and their financial ability to provide the necessary funds, the child’s academic ability and endeavors, and the type of college that would be most suitable for the child.

The Court stated that DRL 240(1-b)(c)(7) does not provide for a SUNY cap. The SUNY cap appeared in a number of decisions rendered since the enactment of the statute. These cases have not provided an explanation as to when a SUNY cap might be properly applied over the objection of the parent who is seeking an award for college expenses.

The court found that Berliner v. Berliner, 33 A.D.3d 745, 749 (2d Dept. 2006) was instructive because in that case the Second Department stated that there “is no basis in this record” for imposing the SUNY cap implied that the burden falls on the proponent of the cap to demonstrate that it is warranted. The inference to be drawn is that there is no presumption that a parent’s obligation to pay for college is to be limited to the cost of a SUNY education unless proven otherwise; if anything, the presumption goes the other direction. It was also instructive because the decision’s reference to the “so-called SUNY cap” implied that even the Second Department views the SUNY cap as something less than an established doctrine.

The court rejected defendant’s argument that plaintiff be required to prove that Syracuse was a better school than SUNY Binghamton, in order for him to be required to pay Syracuse’s higher expenses. The decision noted that it is difficult to conceive of a workable procedure, let alone a methodology, for a court to make a finding that one college is “better” than another. The court found that there was sufficient showing to support the child’s choice of Syracuse, irrespective of whether it is ranked lower, higher or the same as SUNY Binghamton or any other SUNY school. If there are funds are available to finance the child’s education, the fact that Syracuse was a private school and cost more than a public school was not a reason to interfere with the child going to the school he chose and he wanted to attend.

The court further held that one of the factors to be considered when making a determination under DRL 240(1-b)(c)(7) is the parents educational background. Inasmuch as plaintiff attended Northwestern and defendant attended Columbia, the court could reasonably assume that there would exist an expectation in the family, and in the child himself, that he too could attend a private college.

Having found that defendant had to contribute to his son’s education at Syracuse University, the court had to consider the defendant’s ability to pay. It was defendant’s position that even though plaintiff may have the means to pay the high cost of their son attending Syracuse, he lacked the means to do so. Consequently, he argued that he should have to pay no more than $9,000 a year towards his son’s education, an amount that is roughly 50% of the present annual cost of a SUNY school.

The court rejected defendant’s contention as to his inability to pay a significant share of the child’s actual educational expenses being incurred at Syracuse. The court held that the parties’s incomes and assets would allow them to pay for their child’s education at Syracuse.

The court further held that there was no basis to impose the SUNY cap, to the extent that it should be imposed at all, where the party seeking to invoke the cap has the financial ability to contribute towards the actual amount of his or her child’s college expenses. Although defendant’s contribution should be less than plaintiff’s, based on the difference between their net assets, and in particular what each of them had available for eventual retirement, that contribution should not be subject to some artificial construct like the SUNY cap. On this basis, the court held that defendant shall be obligated to contribute 40% of the total cost of the older child attending Syracuse University, with those costs to include tuition, room and board, fees and books.

Thus, this decision confirms that if a parent is hoping to place a limit on future college costs, it is very important to include provisions in the parties’ separation agreement or settlement stipulation placing an upper limit on such costs.

Tax Implications in Divorce – Need for Trial Evidence

One of the issues that frequently comes up in divorce is cases has to do with tax implications of the divorce action.  Tax issues may involve dependency exemptions, or may involve issues dealing with allocation of taxes on income or assets subject to equitable distribution.  The courts have addressed these issues in the past and have always required some admissible proof with respect to tax implications of the relief sought in the divorce action. However, some parties still fail to present admissible trial evidence that would allow the court to make decisions allocating tax liabilities, if any.

In Bayer v. Bayer, 80 A.D.3d 492 (1st Dept. 2011), the Appellate Division had to address whether the trial court properly disregarded the tax consequences impacting plaintiff’s receipt of fifty percent of monies which defendant had earned in the fiscal quarter preceding commencement of the divorce action.  The Appellate Division held that since defendant failed to present evidence from which the court could determine the amount of such taxes, the trial court acted properly.  The Appellate Division relied upon D’Amico v. D’Amico, 66 A.D.3d 951 (2nd Dept. 2009).  In D’Amico, the court held that “[W]hile this court has recognized that the value of a pension should be discounted by the amount of income tax required to be paid by a party, where the party seeking the discount fails to present any evidence from which the court could have determined the dollar amount of the tax consequences, the computation of the award without regard to tax consequences will be deemed proper”. (citations omitted)

Therefore, if there are tax issues associated with dependency exemptions, maintenance, retirement assets or equitable distribution, in order to have trial court consider those issues , a party must present admissible evidence of any tax consequences that may result. If a party fails to do so, the trial court will not consider any tax implications. As a result, a party seeking the court’s decision with respect to tax issues will have to present expert testimony of an accountant who would be able to present admissible evidence of any tax implications.

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.