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.

Contempt and Enforcement of Court Orders

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.

Can a Divorce on No-Fault Grounds Be Opposed?

One question that so far has not been resolved with any degree of certainty by the courts is whether in a divorce action brought pursuant to the new no-fault divorce statute requires specific proof that the parties’ marriage was irretrievably broken for a period of six months or longer. It is an important question since in the past divorce attorneys were able to challenge grounds for divorce and force plaintiffs to establish that there were adequate grounds for divorce. In a significant number of cases, grounds trials were held for economic reasons, i.e., the monied spouse did not want to divide assets and/or pay spousal maintenance.

Six months after the no-fault statute was enacted by the New York’s legislature, we are learning that the courts are divided on this issue, with some courts requiring proof that the marriage was actually irretrievably broken for a period of six months or longer, and with some courts holding that there is no defense to the no-fault grounds.

In Strack v. Strack, 2011 N.Y. Slip. Op. 21033 (Sup. Ct. Essex Co. 2011), the court held that the question of whether the marriage was irretrievably broken was a question of fact requiring a trial.

The facts in Strack are as follows. The parties were married on May 25, 1963 and plaintiff sought a divorce based upon the no-fault grounds contained within Domestic Relations Law §170 (7). Defendant moved to dismiss the complaint, contending (1) that the complaint lacked specificity; (2) that the conduct alleged in the complaint was barred by the five-year statute of limitations; and (3) that the complaint failed to state a cause of action for divorce under Domestic Relations Law §170 (7).

Effective relative to actions commenced on or after October 12, 2010, Domestic Relations Law §170 (7) permits divorce where “[t]he relationship between husband and wife has broken down irretrievably for a period of at least six months, provided that one party has so stated under oath.” This additional ground for divorce has given parties the option of securing a divorce without alleging fault.

Here, the allegations in the complaint were as follows:

The relationship between husband and wife has broken down such that it is irretrievable and has been for a period of at least six months. For a period of time greater than six months, Defendant and Plaintiff have had no emotion in their marriage, and have kept largely separate social schedules and vacation schedules. Each year Plaintiff and Defendant live separately throughout most of the winter months. Though they share the residence for several months out of the year, Plaintiff and Defendant have not lived as husband and wife for a period of time greater than six months. Plaintiff believes the relationship between she and Defendant has broken down such that it is irretrievable and that the relationship has been this way for a period of time greater than six months.

Having decided that the above allegations stated a cause of action and were not barred by the statute of limitations, the court stated that Domestic Relations Law §170 (7) is not a panacea for those hoping to avoid a trial. Rather, it is simply a new cause of action subject to the same rules of practice governing the subdivisions which have preceded it. By referring to Domestic Relations Law §173 which provides that “[i]n an action for divorce there is a right to trial by jury of the issues of the grounds for granting the divorce” and, here, the Legislature failed to include anything in Domestic Relations Law §170 (7) to suggest that the grounds contained therein are exempt from this right to trial.  The court further held that since the phrase “broken down such that it is irretrievable” is nowhere defined in the statute, the determination of whether a breakdown of a marriage is irretrievable is a question to be determined by the finder of fact.

In a more recent decision, A.C. v. D.R., 2011 N.Y Slip. Op. 21113 (Sup. Ct. Nassau Co. 2011), the court held that once the plaintiff makes a sworn allegation that the marriage had irretrievably broken down, a trial not required, and there is no defense to the action. The court held that the only requirement to satisfy the no-fault ground for divorce is a party’s sworn statement alleging that the marriage has irretrievably broken down. Specifically, the court stated:

It is sufficient that one or both of the parties subjectively decide that their marriage is over and there is no hope for reconciliation.  In other words, a plaintiff’s self-serving declaration about his or her state of mind is all that is required for the dissolution of a marriage on grounds that it is irretrievably broken.

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.

While I am not aware of the court decisions on this issue here in Rochester, I hope that the courts will grant divorce solely on the party’s subjective allegation that the marriage has irretrievably broken down. Since the trial courts are split on the issue, it is likely that appellate courts will have to address this issue eventually.  I hope that the holding of the more recent case will be widely adopted follwint he Legislature’s intent in creating a true no-fault divorce in New York.

Multiple Child Support Orders and Change In Circumstances Warranting Modification of Child Support

One of the issues that I periodically see in child support cases is that a party who is already paying child support has another child or children with a different party, resulting in additional child support orders.  Usually in those circumstances, the child who is the subject of the first order is receiving support on the entire income of the payor.  The subsequent children receive child support on the basis of payor’s income after child support payable pursuant to the first order is deducted.  As a result, the child who is the subject of the first order will always receive higher child support amount than the child or children receiving child support under the subsequent orders.  In addition, the payor’s income is subject to multiple orders and can pay half or more of his gross income in child support.

The above approach has been traditionally applied in Family Court cases.  In a recent decision, Demetrius D. v. Lori T., 2011 N.Y. Slip. Op. 21025 (Fam. Ct. Clinton Co. 2011), the court questioned the logic of this approach.  The court noted that:

From the children’s perspective, the fact that one child receives more child support than another child based solely upon which custodial parent obtains the first support order is unfair and irrational. Obviously, the children cannot control which parent applies for support first nor can the child control the speed of litigation. Nevertheless, this is the statutory law of the State of New York. It should be noted that it is not the age of the children, but rather the order in which the children receive a child support order that determines which children will receive preference under the law[FN4]. Of course, it would also be unfair and irrational to give preference to one child over another based solely upon birth order.

Id. at 3.

Further, the court stated that creation of these additional support order may be grounds for modifying the original child support obligation under Family Court Act § 413(1)(b)(5)(vii)(D):

Subdivision D also raises multiple issues with respect to modification petitions. There is no express provision in the Family Court Act which limits the Subdivision D deduction in modification cases to court orders issued prior to the original order sought to be modified. In other words, in the event that a parent demonstrates a material change of circumstances which warrants the re-application of the Child Support Standards Act, there is no language that excludes new orders issued between the date of the original order and the date of the hearing on modification petition from Subdivision D. Thus, the Court concludes that if there is a material change of circumstances that warrants the new application of the Child Support Standards Act, the non-custodial parent would be entitled to a deduction under Subdivision D for all child support actually paid pursuant to Court orders for other children, whether or not the Court orders for other children were issued before or after the original order for the subject child.

But in Demetrius D., what the court gave with one hand, it took with the other.  The more flexible approach as stated in the decision, was subject to application of general child support modification standards, including a determination that the hardship came as a result of payor’s voluntary actions and was self-inflicted. The court found that having additional children was a self-inflicted hardship that came as a result of his voluntary actions that does not warrant downward modification of payor’s child support obligation.

What is the lesson here for the family law lawyers? If the payor can establish that somehow the act of having more children was involuntary, then the payor may be entitled to a modification of the original child support obligation on the basis of subsequent orders.  It is hard to see the circumstances where it would be remotely possible. On the other hand, under appropriate circumstances, the above approach may help a payor dealing with multiple child support orders.

Does Family Court Have Jurisdiction Over Family Offenses Committed Outside of New York?

In a recent case, the Appellate Division had to decide whether the Family Court has subject matter jurisdiction over family offense proceedings where the alleged acts occurred outside of the state and even outside of the country.  In Richardson v. Richardson, 2010 N.Y. Slip. Op. 07943 (2nd Dept 2010), the court held that Family Court Act §812 grants the Family Court subject matter jurisdiction to hear such proceedings, and that the Family Court properly exercised jurisdiction over the parties’ petitions, despite the fact that the acts alleged occurred on the island territory of Anguilla.

On March 4, 2009, petitioners filed three separate family offense petitions seeking the entry of orders of protection. The alleged family offenses included, inter alia, assault, harassment, and menacing. The petitions detailed certain incidents which allegedly occurred on February 19, 2009, on the island of Anguilla.

The Appellate Division began its decision by stating that the Family Court is a court of limited jurisdiction constrained to exercise only those powers conferred upon it by the state Constitution or by statute.  Included within the actions and proceedings over which the Family Court has been given subject matter jurisdiction are family offense proceedings. Pursuant to the New York State Constitution, family offense proceedings are to determine “as may be provided by law . . . crimes and offenses by or against minors or between spouses or between parent and child or between members of the same family or household” (N.Y. Const, art VI, § 13 [b] [7]). In light of the provision stating “as may be provided by law,” the grant of jurisdiction to the Family Court over family offense proceedings is permissive and requires legislative action to be implemented.

Family Court Act Article 8 delineates the parameters of the Family Court’s subject matter jurisdiction. The Family Court Act and the Criminal Procedure Law provide the criminal court and the Family Court with “concurrent jurisdiction” over certain enumerated criminal offenses when allegedly committed by one family member against another. Thus, while a family member may choose to seek redress for a family offense in the Family Court, a parallel criminal proceeding also is available. Indeed, the Legislature has specifically authorized a petitioner to commence a family offense proceeding in either or both Family Court and criminal court. Moreover, each court has the authority to issue temporary or final orders of protection.

Family Court Act § 812(1) provides:

Jurisdiction. The family court and the criminal courts shall have concurrent jurisdiction over any proceeding concerning acts which would constitute disorderly conduct, harassment in the first degree, harassment in the second degree, aggravated harassment in the second degree, sexual misconduct, forcible touching, sexual abuse in the third degree, sexual abuse in the second degree as set forth in subdivision one of section 130.60 of the penal law, stalking in the first degree, stalking in the second degree, stalking in the third degree, stalking in the fourth degree, criminal mischief, menacing in the second degree, menacing in the third degree, reckless endangerment, assault in the second degree, assault in the third degree or an attempted assault between spouses or former spouses, or between parent and child or between members of the same family or household except that if the respondent would not be criminally responsible by reason of age pursuant to section 30.00 of the penal law, then the family court shall have exclusive jurisdiction over such proceeding. Notwithstanding a complainant’s election to proceed in family court, the criminal court shall not be divested of jurisdiction to hear a family offense proceeding pursuant to this section.

Furthermore, Family Court Act § 812(2)(b) provides: “[t]hat a family court proceeding is a civil proceeding and is for the purpose of attempting to stop the violence, end the family disruption and obtain protection.” There is no geographic limitation in Family Court Act § 812, or elsewhere in the Family Court Act, as to where a family offense is to have occurred in order to confer subject matter jurisdiction upon the Family Court. Family Court Act, Article 8, as enacted in 1962, was intended by the New York State Legislature to provide “practical help” to domestic violence victims through the use of civil proceedings in the Family Court.

The history of Family Court Act § 812, provides no indication that the Legislature intended to prohibit the Family Court from exercising jurisdiction over family offenses where the alleged acts occurred in another state or country. However, a question that arises is whether the geographic or territorial limitation on the jurisdiction of the criminal court also limits the jurisdiction of the Family Court. Criminal Procedure Law § 20.40(1)(a) provides, in pertinent part, that “[a] person may be convicted in an appropriate criminal court of a particular county, of an offense . . . when conduct occurred within such county sufficient to establish [a]n element of such offense.”

The Appellate Division concluded “[t]hus, to the extent that the appellant contends that the geographic limitation on the jurisdiction of the criminal court also applies to limit the jurisdiction of the Family Court over family offense proceedings, we hold that contention to be without merit.”

Therefore, if an act that would give a rise to an order of protection takes place anywhere, the party against whom it is committed can seek an order of protection in New York’s Family Court, provided that other procedural requirements are met and personal jurisdiction is obtained.

Equitable Distribution of Businesses and Enhanced Earning Capacity Does Not Always Mean Equal Distribution

I have previously written about equitable distribution issues here and here.  One of the most important issues that divorce attorneys have to address in dealing with equitable distribution is division of businesses or enhanced earning capacity arising as a result of acquisition of a professional degree or a license by one of the spouses.

In distributing marital property of almost every variety, the courts have focused on the relative significance of the non-titled spouse’s contribution toward the marriage, which would almost always result in equal or almost equal distribution.  However, with respect to distribution of business interests and enhanced earning capacity, as of late, the courts have focused on the degree to which the non-titled spouse’s efforts contributed toward the acquisition of each specific asset.

In the past, the non-titled spouse’s contributions to the other party’s business, career or degree, usually resulted in equal distribution of those assets.  However, the recent trend in court decisions has been to grant the non-titled spouse less than one half of the asset.

The courts have described their reasoning as follows: “[a]lthough in a marriage of long duration, where both parties have made significant contributions to the marriage, a division of marital assets should be made as equal as possible. . . there is no requirement that the distribution of each item of marital property be made on an equal basis.”  Kaplan v. Kaplan, 51 A.D.3d 635, 637 (2d Dept. 2008). In equitably distributing a spouse’s business interest, the court must consider the direct contributions the non-titled spouse made to the business as well as the indirect contributions to the ma-rital partnership, including homemaking, parenting, and providing the necessary emotional and moral support to sustain the titled spouse in carrying on the business.  Price v. Price, 69 N.Y.2d 8, 15 (1986).
Unlike other marital assets, in valuing a non-titled spouse’s share in a spouse’s business interest, the trend has been toward awards between 25% and 35% to the non-titled spouse. Chalif v. Chalif, 298 A.D.2d 348, 349, (2d Dept. 2002)(25% award to wife of husband’s medical practice and enhanced earning capacity); Granade-Bastuck v. Granade-Bastuck, 249 A.D.2d 444, 445 (2d Dept. 1998)(25% award to plaintiff of defendant’s law practice); Giokas v. Giokas, 73 A.D.3d 688 (2d Dept. 2010)(10% award to wife of husband’s business); Kerrigan v. Kerrigan, 71 A.D.3d 737 (2d Dept. 2010)(35% award to wife of the husband’s business); Ciampa v. Ciampa, 47 A.D.3d 745, 747 (2d Dept. 2008)(35% award to wife of husband’s business); Kaplan v. Kaplan, 51 A.D.3d 635, 637 (2d Dept. 2008)(30% award to wife of the husband’s dental practice).

This has been a trend state-wide and has been followed by the Appellate Division, Fourth Department, which is located here in Rochester, New York, and to which decisions from Allegany, Cattaraugus, Cayuga, Chautauqua, Erie, Genesee, Herkimer, Jefferson, Lewis, Livingston, Monroe, Niagara, Oneida, Onondaga, Ontario, Orleans, Oswego, Seneca, Steuben, Wayne, Wyoming and Yates Counties are appealed to.

As a result, the non-titled spouses and their divorce lawyers have an uphill fight if they try to obtain a substantial share of such assets as a spouse’s business, educational degrees or professional licenses.

Upcoming Changes to New York’s Child Support Law and Social Services Law

When New York’s Legislature finally passed the no-fault divorce law and made changes to temporary maintenance and attorneys fees awards, it also passed a number of less publicized changes to the Child Support Standards Act, and related laws, which govern child support in New York. The new legislation modified the Family Court Act, Domestic Relations Law and the Social Services Law, substantially altering the parties’ ability to modify child support awards. It also gave the Family Court additional powers in situations where the party paying child support is unemployed.

The following will describe the most significant changes included in the new legislation.

Family Court Act (FCA) §451 was amended to conform the language of the FCA provision governing the modification of child support orders to the Domestic Relations Law (DRL) so that both provisions provide for a “substantial change in circumstances” as a basis for modification of an order of child support.

This section further provides two new bases for modification of an order of child support: (1) the passage of three years since the order was entered, last modified, or adjusted; or (2) a 15 percent change in either party’s income since the order was entered, last modified or adjusted provided that any reduction in income was involuntary and the party has made diligent attempts to secure employment commensurate with his or her education, ability and experience. The parties may specifically opt out of the two new bases for modification in a validly executed agreement or stipulation. This section would provide that incarceration is not a bar to finding a substantial change in circumstances under certain conditions and also would clarify that retroactive support is paid and enforceable as provided under FCA §440.

DRL §236B(9)(b) was amended to separate out the “substantial change of circumstances” basis for modification of child support orders into its own section for clarity and would provide two new bases for the modification of an order of child support: (1) the passage of three years since the order was entered, last modified, or adjusted; or (2) a 15 percent change in either party’s income since the order was entered, last modified or adjusted provided that any reduction in income was involuntary and the party has made diligent attempts to secure employment commensurate with his or her education, ability and experience. The parties may specifically opt out of the two new bases for modification in a validly executed agreement or stipulation. This section provides that incarceration is not a bar to finding a substantial change in circumstances under certain conditions.

The bill also added a new FCA §437-a to authorize the Family Court to require the non-custodial parent of a child to seek employment, or to participate in job training, employment counseling or other programs designed to lead to employment, where such programs are available, if he or she is unemployed at the time the court is establishing the support order unless he or she is in receipt of supplemental security income (SSI) or social security disability (SSD) benefits.

Another section of the bill amended Social Services Law (SSL) §111-h to provide that if the respondent is required to participate in work programs or activities, and if the order of support is made payable on behalf of persons in receipt of public assistance, the support collection unit may not file a petition to increase the support obligation for twelve months from the date of entry of the order if the respondent’s income is derived from the work activity or program. FCA §461 was also amended to reflect the two new bases for modification of an order of child support.

Sections of the bill dealing with modification of child support only apply to child support orders which incorporate but do not merge stipulations or settlement agreements if the stipulation or agreement was executed on or after the effective date of the bill. The amendments, with exception of certain sections of the Tax Law, become effective 90 days after the passing of the bill.  The effective date of the amendments is October 14, 2010.

This bill represents a substantial change to the prior statutory provisions and case law dealing with modification of child support.  While New York’s child support orders were always subject to modification, these changes will make modification of child support easier. I do not know at this time how these provisions will apply to the orders already in place and whether the party seeking modification of child support will be able to use some of the new provisions to modify existing child support orders.

No-Fault Divorce Becomes Law In New York

The no-fault divorce bill has been signed by the Governor Patterson and will go into effect in 60 days.  That means that starting on October 13, 2010, someone who wants to be divorced in New York will no longer be required to make allegations of martial fault by the other spouse and will only be required to swear that the relationship between husband and wife has  broken  down  irretrievably  for  a period of at least six months.  The new law will apply to the divorce actions commenced on or after such effective date.

In addition, the Governor signed legislation that will revise the process for setting awards of temporary maintenance while a divorce is pending, by creating a formula and list of factors that would presumptively govern such awards. This would allow for speedy resolution of the maintenance issue, and prevent less well-off parties to divorce proceedings from falling into poverty during litigation, because they lack the resources to obtain a temporary maintenance order. Another bill would create a presumption that a less monied spouse in a divorce case is entitled to payment of attorneys’ fees. Under current law, a party that cannot afford to secure representation in a divorce proceeding must make an application for fees at the end of the process, which can force a poor individual to proceed without a lawyer, or to surrender on important issues due to lack of means. Provisions of the Domestic Relations Law related to temporary maintenance and attorneys fees will go into effect in 60 days as well.

These are important development in New York’s family law and I think that it will take some time to assess their impact.  At the same time, I think that they will be welcomed by divorce lawyers in this state and will make divorce easier for the divorcing spouses. With respect to the bill establishing the formula for temporary maintenance, it is highly likely that any such temporary maintenance award is going to be used by the courts as a basis for a permanent maintenance award.

Acknowledgment of Paternity – Should It Be Signed By the Putative Father?

During the last few months, I have been involved with a case that involved an acknowledgment of paternity that was signed by someone who was not the child’s biological father.  While most of the time the acknowledgment is signed without a great deal of consideration, I think that putative fathers should be careful and only sign the acknowledgment if they understand the full set of legal issues associated with this document.

Once the acknowledgment is signed, there is a limited period of time during which the acknowledgment can be vacated.  Usually this comes up in a situation where either the father or the mother discovers that the father of her child is not the biological father and wants to change his name to either hers, or that of the biological father. Unfortunately, it is not that simple.

Most of the time, a child, who has the father’s last name, has acquired it when the father signed the Acknowledgement of Paternity soon after the child was born, particularly where the parties were not married. In this situation, changing the child’s last name to either the mother’s name or the actual father’s name may require several steps in court, because the “notice” (the one who signed the acknowledgment) father can object to any proposed change.  In a situation where paternity needs to be established (or re-established), Family Court is the proper venue for filing a petition.  The mother can file a petition requesting that the Acknowledgement of Paternity be vacated based on the fact that the father is not the actual father, or; either she or the biological father, can file a Paternity petition.  In the first situation, assuming that the filing is timely, the court granting the mother’s request for vacating the Acknowledgement of Paternity does not automatically establish the real father of the child as the father for any purpose. Once the Acknowledgment is vacated, legally, there is no father that the court will acknowledge until there is someone that can be identified and brought to court.  Thus, a Paternity petition must be filed by either party to obtain an Order of Filiation, which establishes the father as the “legal” father, from the Court.  This is the legal document that is required by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (”DHMH”) to issue a new birth certificate with the new name on it, that of the father’s.

In second situation, 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.  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.  The courts are reluctant to vacate an Acknowledgement of Paternity where there is currently a child support order against the man, initially believed to be the biological father, unless the court can identify the actual father so that the child has someone to support him.

There are several good reasons for someone to establish paternity.  For example, although a father whose name is on the child’s birth certificate is considered the “notice” father, his rights with regards to adoption, termination of parental rights and abuse/neglect matters in Family Court are limited, until paternity is established.  A father whose paternity has been established is the “legal” father, on the other hand, has no limits with regards to his rights in any case in any court.

In almost all circumstances, it is wise to ascertain who the actual father is as soon as possible after the child’s birth, so as to limit any other legal issues that may arise, such as equitable estoppel.

Limitations on Child Support Arrears and Child Support Standards Act

One question that I am often asked with respect to child support arrears is whether there is a limit on the amount of child support arrears that can be accrued.  My usual response is that there is only one limitation in the Child Support Standards Act with respect to the limits on child support arrears and it exists solely in situations where the payor’s income is below the amount set by the poverty income guidelines for the single person, as reported by the federal Department of Health and Human Services.

Specifically, where the payor’s annual income is below the poverty income guidelines, then in accordance with the Family Court Act §413(1)(g), then payor’s child support arrears are limited to $500.00.  For 2009, the federal poverty guideline for a single person was set at $10,830.00.  This provision can be very helpful to family law lawyers and their clients since this provision allows for retroactive limitation on child support arrears, but it is limited to those situation where the party who owes child support has an extremely low level of income.

There are some limitations even in situations where the payor’s income was below the poverty guideline amount.  The party charged with paying child support couldn’t have voluntarily reduced his/her income, and must demonstrate inability to earn a higher amount (i.e., cannot have income imputed on the basis of ability to pay or other factors).  On practical level, the most likely situation where this provision becomes applicable is typically where a party becomes disabled and does not seek downward modification of the child support obligation until after child support arrears have accrued.

What is also interesting about the Family Court Act §413(1)(g), is that it directly contradicts Family Court Act §451, which prohibits the court from reducing or annulling arrears accrued prior to the filing of a modification petition unless the party shows good cause for failure to make the application sooner.  The courts were able to harmonize both sections by deciding that if the payor’s income is below the poverty level guideline, then by operation of section 413(1)(g) the arrears had never accrued.  Ronald F. v. Kathy Jo O., 25 Misc 3d 1229 (Fam.Ct. Erie Co. 2009)