Count the overnights. “Legal” custody or decision-making power does not matter. Child Support is only payable to the parent with the children the majority of the overnights. If overnights are equally shared, the parent with the higher income is deemed to be the noncustodial parent for C.S.S.A. purposes.
Such is the rule of law made clear in two recent Appellate Division cases. In its June 28, 2013 decision in Leonard v. Leonard, the Fourth Department held that despite  the father having sole legal custody, as parenting time was equally shared and the father had the higher income, the father would be deemed the noncustodial parent and obligated to pay child support.

In Rubin v. Della Salla, an April 18, 2013 decision of the First Department, where each parent had spheres of decision-making, it was held that the father with whom the child spent 56% of the overnights could not, as a matter of law, be ordered to pay child support under the C.S.S.A.

In Leonard, upheld the decision of Monroe County Supreme Court J.H.O. to award the husband sole legal custody. The wife sought joint legal custody, bu the Fourth Department agreed that the parents’ acrimonious relationship and inability to communicate effectively with respect to the needs and activities of the children made joint custody not feasible. Moreover, the J.H.O. did not abuse his discretion in failing to split decision-making “zones of influence.”

The Fourth Department, however, held that it was error for the J.H.O. to award child support to the husband. Child support should have been awarded to the wife. As the residency arrangement was shared, and neither parent had the children for a majority of the time, the party with the higher income was to be deemed to be the noncustodial parent for purposes of child support.

Here, the residency schedule affords the parties equal time with the children. Inasmuch as the husband’s income exceeded that of the wife (at the time of trial, the husband earning $134,924.48 annually, with the J.H.O. imputing income of $25,000 to the wife), the husband was the “noncustodial” parent. As such, he must pay child support to the wife.

The Fourth Department acknowledged that the authority presented by the wife involved awards of joint legal custody, whereas the husband, here, was awarded sole legal custody. That fact, however, should not affect the child support determination.

Although the award of sole legal custody to plaintiff allows him to make important decisions in the children’s lives, that decision-making authority does not increase his child-related costs. A parent’s child-related costs are dictated by the amount of time he or she spends with the children.

Continue Reading Parenting Time, Not Legal Custody, Determines Entitlement to Child Support

Two decisions this past month involved joint custody awards despite antagonism between the parents and contested custody proceedings.

In Prohaszka v. Prohaszka, Supreme Court Putnam County Justice Francis A. Nicolai had awarded the divorcing parties joint legal custody of the parties’ children, with the mother having primary physical custody and final decision-making authority. In its February 6, 2013 decision on appeal, the Second Department modified that order to add a provision directing the mother to consult with the father regarding any issues involving the children’s health, medical care, education, religion, and general welfare prior to exercising her final decision-making authority for the children, but otherwise affirmed Justice Nicolai’s order.

Although the antagonism between the parties was evident to the appellate court, it was also apparent that both parties generally behaved appropriately with their children, that they could make parenting decisions together, and that the children were attached to both parents. Under those circumstances, there was a sound and substantial basis in the record for Justice Nicolai to have found that the best interests of the children would be served by awarding the parties joint custody. Similarly, the trial record also supported the determination that primary physical custody should be with the mother and that she should have final decision-making authority.

The court, however, should have directed the plaintiff to consult with the defendant regarding any issues involving the children’s health, medical care, education, religion, and general welfare prior to exercising her final decision-making authority.

In his January 8, 2013 decision in Scott M. v. Ilona M., Kings County Supreme Court Justice Jeffrey S. Sunshine awarded the parties joint custody of their son; each parent having access alternating on a weekly basis.

Justice Sunshine did note that a significant factor in determining custody was whether the heated custody dispute, itself, indicated that an award of joint custody would be ineffective. Justice Sunshine cited to the Court of Appeals decision in Braiman v. Braiman, (44 N.Y.2d 584), which rejected joint or shared custody where the parties are in bitter conflict and do not agree to such an arrangement. That decision concluded:

Joint custody is encouraged primarily as a voluntary alternative for relatively stable, amicable parents behaving in mature civilized fashion. As a court ordered arrangement imposed upon already embattled and embittered parents, accusing one another of serious vices and wrongs, it can only enhance familial chaos.

[Question: If the children live primarily with one parent and that parent has final decision-making authority, what does “joint custody” mean? Is it merely a psychological benefit for the parent and the child? Does it entitle the non-primary custodian to make decisions in emergency situations when the other parent is not available? Braiman, itself, noted that “joint”, or, as it is sometimes called “divided”, custody reposes in both parents a shared responsibility for and control of a child’s upbringing. In Bast v. Rossoff, 167 Misc.2d 749, 752 (Sup. Ct. 1995), affd, 239 A.D.2d 106 (1st Dept 1997), affd as mod and remanded, 91 N.Y.2d 723 (1998), it was stated “In New York the term ‘joint custody’ generally is used to refer only to joint legal custody, or joint decision making.”]

Continue Reading Ordering Joint Custody in Contested Divorce Custody Proceedings

square peg2.jpgThere is a gap in New York’s child support statutes. They do not contemplate a custodial parent paying support to a non-custodial parent.

The Family Court Act does declare that both parents are chargeable with the support of their children. Moreover, the Family Court Act does not make a distinction between the “custodial” and “non–custodial” parents when declaring that parents of a child under the age of 21 years ,“if possessed of sufficient means or able to earn such means, shall be required to pay for child support a fair and reasonable sum as the court may determine.” F.C.A. §413(1)(a). (The Domestic Relations Law contains no such preamble to its section providing for an award of child support within matrimonial actions.)D.R.L. §240(1-b).

However, those same Family Court Act and the Domestic Relations Law provisions provide that awards of child support “shall″ be made “pursuant to the provisions” of those subdivisions. The subdivisions, then, set out the presumptive formula to determine awards of child support. The presumptive formula is to be varied only in the event the court finds, based upon factors specified, that the “non-custodial parent’s pro rata share of the basic child support obligation is unjust or inappropriate.” In all events, the statutes only contemplate support being paid by the non-custodial parent to the custodial parent.

Although the statutes carefully define many of the terms used, “non-custodial parent” is never defined. Thus, in ever-increasing scenarios, the courts have had to decide who is the “non-custodial.”

In Bast v. Rossoff, 91 N.Y.2d 723, 675 N.Y.S.2d 19 (1998), the Court of Appeals recognized that in most instances, the court can determine the custodial parent by identifying which parent has physical custody of the child for a majority of the time. In cases where the child’s time was divided approximately equally between the parents, the more-monied parent has been deemed the non-custodial parent because such a rule maximizes the benefits realized by the child at both homes. Baraby v. Baraby, 250 A.D.2d 201, 681 N.Y.S.2d 826 (3rd Dept. 1998).

Nonetheless, the best interests of a child may require an award of child support from the custodial parent to the non-custodial parent.

Take, for example, New York County Supreme Court Justice Ellen Gesmer’s February 29, 2012 decision in M.R. v. A. D. In that case, the court denied a father’s motion for summary judgment dismissing a mother’s claim for child support. In a painstaking decisionmade earlier in the case, Justice Gesmer (32 Misc.3d 512, 928 N.Y.S.2d 429) awarded the parents “parallel custody” of their 6-year old son with significant learning disabilities. After a through review of the evidence, and as neither parent was sufficiently better than other parent to warrant an award of sole custody, Justice Gesmer gave the father primary custody during school year, and gave the more permissive and disorganized mother primary custody during summer and other school breaks.

Continue Reading Awarding Child Support to the "Non-Custodial" Parent

Parenting Time Calendar checked off.jpgNo two custodial arrangements are the same. They are as different as the children and parents themselves. As a result, the application of a presumptive child support award to the “deemed” custodial parent is inherently arbitrary.

Take the May 5, 2011 decision of the Third Department in Riemersma v. Riemersma. The issues in the parties’ divorce concerning support of their twins had been referred to Family Court Support Magistrate Jonathan A. Heussi. The Magistrate determined in his October, 2009 order that the mother was the custodial parent.

The mother was a State Trooper working seven 7:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. shifts out of every 14 days. She earned $87,857 annually. The father, an urban forestry program manager, worked weekdays from 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. He earned $50,392 annually.

The parents crafted their parenting plan so that each parent would care for the children while the other was at work. Overnights were divided equally. However, because of the mother’s night-shifts, the court determined that the children spend 65% of the time with their mother. As a result, Magistrate Heussi’s finding that the mother was the custodial parent for C.S.S.A. purposes was affirmed a year and a half later in this appellate decision.

Strictly applying the C.S.S.A. formula would have resulted in the father paying $442 bi-weekly as his base support obligation. The magistrate had determined that such an award would have been unjust and inappropriate. Instead, he awarded the mother $200 bi-weekly.

With joint or shared arrangements the identification of the deemed custodial parent should be based upon the “reality of the situation.” The appellate court agreed the mother should be deemed the custodial parent. While a mechanical comparison of hours was not countenanced, the overall time spent with each parent was to be considered. Here, presumably because the mother worked while the children slept, she spent more time “with the children.”

The appellate court also approved the monetary result, but criticized the Magistrate for his reliance upon each parent’s need to maintain a suitable residence for the children. The “Support Magistrate failed to specify the factors relied upon to deviate from the presumptively correct child support amount or the extent, if any, of the expenses justifying such a deviation . . . . Indeed, at the fact-finding hearing, defendant testified that he had not incurred any unusual or extraordinary expenses related to the care of the children.”

Furthermore, we have previously held that the costs of maintaining suitable housing and providing food and clothing for the children during custodial periods do not constitute extraordinary expenses that would justify a deviation from the statutory formula.

Nonetheless, based upon the appellate record, the Third Department was able to determine that the application of the presumptive formula would have been unjust and/or inappropriate based the non-monetary contributions of the father and the fact that the father’s income was substantially less than the mother’s.

Continue Reading Applying the Child Support Formula in Shared Parenting Arrangements