Three Second Department decisions within eight days this month reveal the discretion of the trial court when income is not apparent (no pun intended) on a determination of a parent’s basic child support obligation.
In Fein v. Fein, the Appellate Division, Second Department, affirmed the determination of Westchester County Supreme Court Justice Bruce E. Tolbert to impute $125,000.00 as the annual income of the father, and $65,000.00 as the annual income of the mother, but then to cap the non-custodial husband’s support obligation on his share (65.79%) of the $130,000.00 Child Support Standards Act (C.S.S.A.) cap in effect when the 2011 order was made. The court awarded $450.00 per week in child support and also awarded the wife $346.15 per week ($18,000.00 per year) for 3 years as maintenance.
In Fein, the parties had three children (29%). The husband had worked as a trader in the financial industry before losing his job in late 2009. The mother stayed at home with the children. The Second Department stated that it was proper for Justice Tolbert to have imputed to the husband an annual income of $125,000.00 for the purpose of calculating child support, given the plaintiff’s current employment situation, his future earning capacity, and the evidence presented relating to additional streams of income.
[The actual calculation, though, is not discussed. If the combined parental income was imputed to be $190,000.00, the husband's share would be 65.79% of the total. For the three children, using the formula, the father's base obligation would be 65.79% of 29% of $130,000.00, or $24,802.83 per year ($476.98 per week). Alternatively, and deducting the $18,000.00 annual maintenance from the $130,000.00 cap, would leave $112,000.00 in parental income. The father's support obligation based on this sum would be $410.31 per week ($21,336.11 per year). Perhaps the difference was based on attributed FICA and Medicare taxes, or other adjustments.]
More difficult to explain is the January 15, 2014 decision in Best v. Hinds. There the Second Department affirmed the order of Kings County Family Court Alan Beckoff (who, in turn, denied the father’s objections to the order of Support Magistrate John M. Fasone) that granted a father’s downward modification of his child support obligation, but only to $738.00 per month. When doing so, the Family Court imputed an annual income to the father in the sum of $35,000.00.
$738.00 per month for the one child to benefit from this order, would gross up to $52,094.12 per year as the income upon which to apply the C.S.S.A. formula ($738.00 x 12 ÷ 17%). The failure to limit the child support award to the formula application to his imputed income of $35,000.00 per year is more noteworthy, as the father also had custody of three other children. Although the Second Department held that Support Magistrate Fasone’s failure to consider this fact was not properly preserved for appellate review, the appellate court did state that such was not an improvident exercise of discretion. In determining whether the full amount of support under the standard guideline would be unjust or inappropriate, a court may consider the needs of the children of the noncustodial parent who are not the subject of the support proceeding and for whom the noncustodial parent is providing support.
However, the court may only take this factor into consideration where the resources available to support such children are less than the resources available to support the children who are the subject of the proceeding.
Such a finding was not supported by the evidence.
[The May 31, 2012 blog post reported on the Second Department's decision in Bershadskaya v. Nemirovsky, which reversed a determination of Magistrate Fasone because he did not impute income to a father received in fringe benefits.]
Finally, in the January 8, 2014 decision in Speranza v. Speranza, the Second Department upheld the order of Dutchess County Family Court Judge Denise M. Watson (who, in turn, denied the father’s objections to the order of Support Magistrate Rachelle Kaufman) that had based a support award on income of the father imputed to be the income represented by the father some five years earlier.
The earlier representation of the father’s annual income of $61,467.00 formed the basis of a November 30, 2007 Family Court support order had been issued on the consent of the parties. In a December, 2010 stipulation of settlement that was incorporated, but not merged into the parents’ 2011 judgment of divorce, the parties agreed that the father’s obligation to pay child support would be suspended for 15 months, after which his child support obligation would resume and be calculated pursuant to the C.S.S.A.
When the mother petitioned the Family Court to so redetermine the father’s support obligation, the father failed to make any financial disclosure. To resolve the matter the Magistrate used the 2007 income figure. That was upheld by the Family Court Judge and, here, the Second Department.
Where a respondent in a support proceeding fails, without good cause, to comply with the compulsory financial disclosure . . . , ‘the court on its own motion or on application shall grant the relief demanded in the petition or shall order that, for purposes of the support proceeding, the respondent shall be precluded from offering evidence as to respondent’s financial ability to pay support’ . . . .
Under the circumstances it was a provident exercise of discretion to direct that the father pay child support based upon an annual income of $61,467.00.
We don’t know whether the father benefited from this or not. What is clear is that when basing support on imputed income, the trial court has a large degree of flexibility and discretion, both in determining the amount of income imputed and then in how to apply the C.S.S.A.
In Fein, Evan Wiederkehr of DelBello Donnellan Weingarten Wise & Wiederkehr, LLP, of White
Plains, represented the mother. Bryce R. Levine of Jeffrey S. Schecter & Associates, P.C., of Garden City, represented the father.
In Best, Alan S. Cabelly of Cabelly & Calderon,of Jamaica, represented the father.