As of January 31, 2016, the “income cap” for maintenance is $178,000.

The presumptive final maintenance formula on the first $175,000 of the payor’s annual income only just came into effect 6 days before that, for cases filed on or after January 25, 2016 (New York’s Laws of 2015, chapter 269 (D.R.L. §236[B][6][b][4]). For temporary maintenance, the $175,000 income cap under D.R.L. §236(B)(5-a)(b)(4) became effective for cases filed after October 24, 2015.

The Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) to the $175,000 income cap is to be made every two years:

“[B]eginning January thirty-first, two thousand sixteen and every two years thereafter, the income cap amount shall increase by the sum of the average annual percentage changes in the consumer price index for all urban consumers (CPIU) as published by the United States department of labor bureau of labor statistics for the prior two years multiplied by the then income cap and then rounded to the nearest one thousand dollars. The office of court administration shall determine and publish the income cap.”

However, the income cap for child support purposes is still the $141,000 that has been in place since January 31, 2014.

Why? Because under New York’s Laws of 2015, chapter 347, Social Services Law §111-i was amended to change the COLA date from January 31st to March 1st. The child support cap will remain $141,000 until March 1, 2016.
Continue Reading Cost of Living Adjustments to the Maintenance and Child Support Formulas

Service by Facebook of a father’s petition to terminate child support was directed by Richmond County Family Court Support Magistrate Gregory L. Gliedman in a September 12, 2014 decision in Matter of Noel B. v. Maria A. (NYLJ link).

The father filed that application to terminate child support based on the alleged emancipation of his son.

The father was unable to effect service of court papers upon the mother by normal means. He submitted an affidavit that the mother was unknown to the current occupant of the the mother’s last known address. The father called and sent text messages to his 22-year old daughter to ask the mother’s location, but that no one answered the call or replied to his texts and voicemail. He also called and sent a text message to his son (the subject child on the instant petition) requesting that information, but again there was no reply of any kind. The father also did a Google search, but was unable to find any location for the mother.

Magistrate Gliedman noted that the Support Collection Unit (“SCU”) to which the father mailed his support checks still had that same last known address on file for the mother, meaning that all correspondence and communication with respect to the funds she was receiving for child support were being  sent to that address. The magistrate further noted that the mother provided that same address to the court when she sent an electronic testimony application to the court in March, 2013 in connection with a prior matter between the parties.

The father told the court that the mother maintains an active social media account with Facebook. The mother’s current spouse maintains her own Facebook account, and has posted photos that have been “liked” by the mother as recently as July, 2014.

Magistrate Gliedman described Facebook as a social networking website that allows its users to interact with friends, relatives, acquaintances and individuals with common interests. Due to its online nature, there are no geographic limitations on Facebook — people with whom an individual interacts with on Facebook can be as close as the house next door or as far away as a continent on the other side of the world.

Continue Reading Court Authorizes Facebook Service Of Child Support Petition

New York’s Domestic Relations Law §25, enacted in 1907, provides that a marriage is valid, even in the absence of a marriage license, if it was properly solemnized. However, New York County Supreme Court Justice Matthew F. Cooper, in his May 29, 2014 decision in Ponorovskaya v. Stecklow held that D.R.L. §25 could not be used to validate a marriage ceremony that failed to meet the  legal requirements of Mexico where the ceremony was performed. While so holding, Justice Cooper called for the statute to be amended or repealed, and joined the debate on whether Universal Life Church “ministers” could “properly solemnize” marriages.

Justice Cooper’s recitation of the facts merits quotation:

[Ms. Ponorovskaya], who is a clothing designer and business owner in Manhattan, and [Mr. Stecklow], a lawyer, began their relationship in 2004. While in Mexico for a 2009 New Year’s celebration, [Mr. Stecklow] proposed to [Ms. Ponorovskaya] overlooking the Mayan ruins in Tulum. The parties subsequently planned a Mexican destination wedding at the Dreams Tulum Resort & Spa. . . . On February 18th, the couple had a wedding ceremony on the resort’s beach. The ceremony was performed under a chuppah, a canopy under which a couple stands during a Jewish wedding. Certain Hebrew prayers were recited, vows were exchanged, and there was a glass-breaking ritual, as is customary at Jewish weddings.

Despite these traditions, the ceremony was not performed by a rabbi. Instead it was conducted by [Mr. Stecklow]’s cousin, Dr. Keith Arbeitman, a dentist who lives in New York. In 2003, in order to perform a marriage for friends, he became an ordained minister of the Universal Life Church (“ULC”), a distinction easily achieved by paying a fee on the ULC’s website. . . . [A]t oral argument on the motion, [Ms. Ponorovskaya]’s counsel produced a certificate that he printed off the internet certifying that Dr. Arbeitman is indeed a minister in good standing with the ULC. Likewise, during the ceremony Dr. Arbeitman told the audience, “I am an ordained minister — this will be a legal union.”

Continue Reading Invalidity of Licenseless Mexican Marriage Calls For Dismissal of New York Divorce Action

A spouse’s pre-divorce judgment death results in the unenforceablitity of divorce action orders, including the automatic orders mandated by Domestic Relations Law §236(B)(2)(b). As a result, Westchester County Supreme Court Justice Paul I. Marx held in his April 17, 2014 decision in A.V.B. v. D.B. that a husband was without a remedy for his wife removing the husband as a beneficiary of her retirment account and life insurance policy.

After 13 years of marriage and two children, the wife commenced this divorce action on September 12, 2012. Pursuant to stipulated Preliminary Conference Orders, it was agreed that the wife would be awarded the divorce on the grounds of irretrievable breakdown, an Attorney for the Child was appointed and the pre-trial schedule was fixed.

On April 22, 2013, the wife committed suicide. During the administration of her Estate, it was learned that on February 14, 2013, while the divorce action was pending, the wife had changed the named beneficiaries on her ING 403(b) account from her husband as her sole beneficiary to the parties’ two children as 50% primary beneficiaries. It was further discovered that on or about March 10, 2013, the wife changed her designation of the husband as the sole named beneficiary on her Prudential life insurance policy to the husband as a 1% primary beneficiary, the parties’ daughter K. as a 49% beneficiary and daughter R. as a 50% beneficiary.

The husband’s counsel then submitted a letter to Justice Marx with a proposed order directing that the named beneficiaries on the wife’s ING account and Prudential life insurance policy revert back to the date of the commencement of the action and directing ING and Prudential to pay out the balance in the wife’s annuity and the “death benefit” under her life insurance policy to the named beneficiaries that existed before the changes were made. At that time, the husband’s lawyer also submitted the supporting affirmation of the attorney for wife’s Estate, declaring that the Estate consented to the proposed order.

Justice Marx declined to sign the proposed order. Instead, the Court scheduled a conference at which the Court directed defense counsel to move by Order to Show Cause. Although no papers were submitted in response to that motion, Justice Marx nevertheless denied it. The relief sought in the motion was not warranted by the law, nor by a good faith extension of the law.

While it is regrettable that Plaintiff violated the automatic orders and seems to have reached beyond the grave to thwart Defendant’s efforts to recover his share of her assets, this Court is unable to remedy the violation in this proceeding.

Continue Reading Automatic Orders, Violated During Divorce Action, Cannot Be Enforced After Pre-Judgment Death

In a May 8, 2013 decision in Mejia v. Mejia, the Appellate Division, Second Department, modified a divorce judgment’s provisions concerning the cap on combined parental income, the disposition of the marital residence, college expenses for three children ages 14, 10 and 6, and judgment inconsistencies with the underlying decision and judgment  formalities.

After the parties separated, they each petitioned the Family Court for custody of the children. The parties consented that they share joint legal custody, and that the father have primary physical custody.

After a non-jury trial on certain financial issues, the Family Court considered the first $200,000 of combined parental income in determining child support, based upon, among other things, “the economic reality of life in Rockland County,” and a determination that the gross income of the mother was substantially less than that of the father. The mother’s pro rata share of the basic child support obligation was 37% of 29% of the first $200,00 of combined parent income was fixed at $1,789 per month in the 2011 Family Court order.

The marital residence, titled in the parties’ joint names, was awarded to the father and the children, based upon the father’s claim that there was no equity in the house. The court further concluded in its decision that the father should maintain health insurance for the children, and that the mother should pay 37% of the college expenses of the children.

The Second Department lowered to $150,000 the applied cap on combined parental income, “considering the substantial difference between the parties’ income, the fact that the [mother] has less income than the [father], and the amount of parenting time awarded to the [mother].” Calculated on that basis, the mother’s pro rata share of the child support obligation was $1,341 per month.

Continue Reading The Second Department Rules on Child Support Parental Income Cap, Transfer of the Marital Residence, and Judgment Formalities

Islam symbol.jpgIt seems that every decision after trial rendered by Kings County Supreme Court Justice Jeffrey S. Sunshine is a divorce law treatise. His July 4, 2012 decision in Mojdeh M. v. Jamshid A. is no exception.

In addition to issues of property division, spousal maintenance for the husband, child support, and insurance, Justice Sunshine also considered the husband’s refusal to provide his wife with an Islamic divorce.

The parties were born in Iran and married in the Islamic faith. After 11 years of marriage, with one child, the wife commenced this action for divorce in 2007. In 2008, the wife was granted a divorce on the grounds of constructive abandonment after a grounds trial.

At the current trial before Justice Sunshine to determine the issues ancillary to the secular divorce, the wife testified that she had repeatedly asked her husband, both in person and by email, to accompany her to a mosque to obtain a religious divorce. The wife advised the Court that in accordance with the parties’ religious practices in the Islamic faith, the only way the parties can obtain a religious divorce is for he husband to accompany the wife to a mosque where “… there is a gentleman or lady that will read some part of the Koran that we are divorced. So it’s going to be transported to [her] birth certificate” thereby officially divorcing the parties.

The wife also testified that in the Islamic faith, until her birth certificate reflects her religious divorce, she will be unable to remarry. In addition, without a religious divorce, the wife testified that were she to travel to Iran, the husband could legally withhold his permission for her to leave Iran indefinitely. The wife asserted that she would have no remedy; a civil judgment of divorce would bear no impact in this situation.

Despite the wife’s efforts, the husband would not participate in this process. He simply stated “no comment. I have to talk to my lawyer.”

The wife requested that in consideration of the husband’s failure to provide the wife a religious divorce, the husband be barred from equitable distribution and maintenance. The husband contended that the issue of the religious divorce should have no impact on his award of maintenance or equitable distribution.

The Court held that the misuse of the unequal allocation of power between spouses to terminate a religious marriage can be taken into consideration when determining equitable distribution. Justice Sunshine noted that Domestic Relations Law §236[B][5][h] authorizes the court to consider the effects of a barrier to remarriage of one of the spouses when determining equitable distribution.

[The subdivision] was enacted … to codify and to prevent one spouse from using the requirement of voluntarily removing barriers to remarriage as financial leverage against the other spouse and conceding them to secure an agreement that barriers will be removed.

The section, added in 1992, codified the then seminal Supreme Court decision which characterized the husband’s refusal to give a “Get,” a Jewish divorce, as another “factor” to take into consideration when determining the distribution of assets between parties (Schwartz v. Schwartz, 153 Misc.2d 789, 583 N.Y.S.2d 716 [Kings Co. Supreme Ct. 1992 (Rigler, J.)]). In 1997, the Appellate Division affirmed the decision and held that the former husband forfeited any right to distributive awards due to his initial refusal to give his wife a Get (Schwartz v. Schwartz, 235 A.D.2d 468, 652 N.Y.S.2d 616 [2 Dept. 1997]).

D.R.L. §253[6] defines barrier to remarriage as including, without limitation, any religious or conscientious restraint or inhibition, of which the party required to make the verified statement is aware, that is imposed on a party to a marriage, under the principles held by the clergyman or minister who has solemnized the marriage, by reason of the other party’s commission or withholding of any voluntary act.

Justice Sunshine credited the wife’s testimony that she had made arrangements for the parties to meet at a local mosque to address the religious divorce, but that the husband simply did not respond. The Court found that the husband had his own agenda.

This led Justice Sunshine to find that the husband’s refusal to give the wife a religious divorce was a basis for the Court to exercise its discretion under Domestic Relations Law 236[B][5][h] to disproportionately distribute marital assets. Justice Sunshine gave the husband 45 days from the date of this decision to take any necessary steps to remove any barriers to the wife’s remarriage. In the event that the husband failed to comply, the husband forfeited the (very limited) maintenance and equitable distribution awards which the Court also made in the decision.

Handshake 1.jpgParticularly when it comes to agreements fixing child support obligations, “shaking on it” is simply not enough.

Both the Domestic Relations Law and the Family Court Act authorize parents to enter agreements which establish their child support obligations. DRL §§236B(3) and 240(1-b)(h) and FCA §413(1)(h) set out many requirements for such agreements.

Nothing suggests that modifications of such agreements are any less prescribed. Indeed, a “belt and suspenders” approach calls for nothing less than a fully-restated support obligation agreement to implement the slightest change to which parents agree.

Consider the March 29, 2012 decision of the Appellate Division, Third Department, in Hirsch v. Schwartz. The parties’ 2007 separation agreement was incorporated into and survived their 2009 judgment of divorce. It required the father to pay 96% of all child-care expenses for the parties’ two children. Shortly after the divorce, the mother sent the father a letter offering to  reduce the father’s child-care expenses from 96% to 75%. Although the father did not sign and return the letter, he made at least two full reimbursement payments and several partial payments in the months that followed.

The mother subsequently commenced a Saratoga County Family Court proceeding to enforce the child support provisions of the original judgment of divorce. The father argued that the mother’s letter offer served to modify his support obligations and that the terms of this subsequent agreement should be enforced. Following a trial, the Support Magistrate found that the letter offer did constitute a valid modification of the parties’ separation agreement; the father’s child-care share of expenses was reduced to 75%. However, upon the mother’s written objections, Family Court Judge Gilbert Abramson concluded that the Support Magistrate lacked the authority to enforce the terms of the purported modification agreement. Therefore, the original provisions of the judgment of divorce concerning the father’s child-care obligations controlled.

The Third Department affirmed, holding that the Family Court, as a court of limited jurisdiction, may only enforce or modify child support provisions contained in a valid court order or judgment. Thus, even assuming that the mother’s letter offer constituted a valid modification of the parties’ separation agreement, the Family Court “does not have subject matter jurisdiction [to] enforce the amended agreement which stands as an independent contract between the parties.”

It is noted that the Appellate Division, Second Department, in its April 24, 2012 decision in Tammone v. Tammone, also held that “the Family Court did not have jurisdiction to make a declaration as to the validity of an alleged oral modification of a separation agreement.”

The Third Department in Hirsch did not discuss whether the father might have a separate contract remedy enforceable in Supreme Court to recoup any “over-payments.” However, perhaps the lesson to be learned is that nothing less than a fully-restated court-approved child support agreement is sufficient to put into effect the slightest of modifications. Thus, among other provisions, the restated modification agreement should:

  • be in writing;
  • be signed by the parties;
  • be acknowledged before a notary public;
  • include a provision stating that the parties were advised of the provisions of the CSSA (Child Support Standards Act) and that the basic amount of child support provided for in the CSSA would “presumptively result in the correct amount of child support to be awarded”;
  • set forth the amount that the basic child support obligation would have been and the reasons why the parties may not have provided for the CSSA amount in their agreement or stipulation;
  • contain opting-out language limiting future modifications;
  • contain recitations regarding enforcement methods; and
  • contain, or at least reference and reaffirm all other related agreement provisions such as emancipation, health insurance and expenses, child care and college.

Then, the agreement should be submitted, on consent, to the Supreme Court to obtain a modified divorce judgment or order of support.

Yes, all this means that lawyers, for both parents, must be re-involved. However, nothing less will give peace of mind.

Anne Reynolds Copps of Albany represented the father. Jennifer P. Rutkey, of Gordon, Tepper & DeCoursey, L.L.P., of Glenville represented the mother.