In its August 19, 2015 decision in Hof v. Hof, the Second Department, almost matter-of-factly, addressed a number of pendente lite and pre-nuptial agreement issues.

To begin, the Court affirmed the determination of Suffolk County Supreme Court Justice John B. Collins, that after a hearing upheld the parties’ prenuptial agreement. By that agreement, at least in part, the parties had waived interests in each other’s pensions. Contrary to the wife’s contention, that mutual waiver was not unconscionable, and was not necessarily one-sided when it was made, as both parties had accumulated approximately three years in their respective pensions at that time. Moreover, the Court stated that the husband’s threat to cancel their wedding if the agreement was not signed did not establish duress.

The Second Department modified Justice Collins’ order insofar as it deviated from the presumptive temporary maintenance formula. Domestic Relations Law § 236(B)(5-a) sets forth formulas for the courts to apply to the parties’ reported income in order to determine the presumptively correct award of temporary maintenance.

Here, the Justice Collins had downwardly deviated from the presumptive award by awarding the wife the sum of only $1,500 per month in pendente lite maintenance. While a court may deviate from the presumptive award if that presumptive award is unjust or inappropriate, the Second Department here held, however, that it was not proper to so deviate. It was an insufficient basis to deviate that the husband “was maintaining the marital residence where he was living after the wife vacated the marital residence with the children, and the fact that the wife stayed home during a portion of the marriage to take care of the children.” Such did not render the presumptive award of pendente lite maintenance unjust or inappropriate. Accordingly, the Second Department held that it must modify the award of pendente lite maintenance to provide the wife with the presumptive award of $2,549.70 per month.

On the other hand, Justice Collins was not required to apply the Child Support Standards Act to determine the award of pendente lite child support. In that regard, any perceived inequity in the temporary child support award can best be remedied by a speedy trial, at which the parties’ financial circumstances can be fully explored.

Finally, the Second increased the interim award of counsel fees from $2,500 to $20,000, the full amount of counsel fees incurred by the wife to date related to the divorce issues. The husband was the monied spouse and, thus, there was a rebuttable presumption that the wife was entitled to an award of attorneys’ fees. At the time the wife moved for her award of attorneys’ fees, the attorneys’ fees she had already incurred amounted to approximately $25,000. Domestic Relations Law §237 does not provide for an award of counsel fees in actions to enforce or rescind prenuptial agreements, and approximately $5,000 of the $25,000 in fees that she actually incurred were attributable to challenging the prenuptial agreement. Therefore, at this juncture, the Second Department held the wife should be awarded interim attorneys’ fees in the sum of $20,000, rather than only $2,500.

Arnold B. Firestone, of Firestone & Breud, PLLC, of Commack, represented the wife. C. Donald Shlimbaum, of Shlimbaum & Shlimbaum, of Central Islip, represented the husband.

Whether the payment of union dues is to be deducted for the purpose of determining C.S.S.A. income is to be decided on a case by case basis. Rejecting the deduction in S.H. v. S.H., a June 17, 2013 opinion withdrawn from publication, Supreme Court Clinton County Acting Justice Timothy J. Lawliss held that the father failed to meet his burden to show that those dues did not reduce his personal expenses.

In this divorce action, the father was employed at a union plant and paid monthly union dues to the United Steel Workers.

This opinion concerned only whether or not union dues paid by the father should be deducted from the father’s gross income prior to calculating the father’s income for child support purposes.

Domestic Relations Law §240(1-b) sets forth the methodology the Court must follow to determine the non-custodial parent’s child support obligation. Pursuant to D.R.L. §240(1-b)(b)(5), income for support purposes shall mean, but shall not be limited to, the sum of the amounts determined by the application of clauses (i), (ii), (iii), (iv), (v) and (vi) of that sub-paragraph, reduced by the amount determined by the application of clause (vii) of that sub-paragraph.

Union dues are not a specifically allowed deduction under D.R.L. §240(1-b)(b)(5)(vii), nor does the subsection contain a catch all “other” category leaving deductibility to the Court’s discretion. The question before the Court, then, was whether or not union dues qualify as a deduction under the only possible category: “unreimbursed employee business expenses except to the extent said expenses reduce personal expenditures” (subsection [vii][A]).

Continue Reading Union Dues Do Not, Here, Reduce Income For C.S.S.A. Purposes

College Fund 2.jpg“It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” Bill Clinton, August 17, 1998

“What does “means” mean?” Justice Richard A. Dollinger, June 22, 2012

By statute, a court may direct a parent to contribute to a child’s education, even in the absence of special circumstances or a voluntary agreement of the parties. Under the Child Support Standards Act (D.R.L. 240[1-b][c][7] and F.C.A. 413[c][7]) the court may award educational expenses:

Where the court determines, having regard for the circumstances of the case and of the respective parties and in the best interests of the child, and as justice requires, that the present or future provision of post-secondary, private, special, or enriched education for the child is appropriate.

In my May 9, 2012 blog, I discussed the April 24, 2012 decision in Tishman v. Bogatin, in which the Appellate Division, First Department, held that a parent’s contribution to a child’s college education would not necessarily be limited to a portion of the expense to attend a campus within the State University of New York system: the “SUNY cap.” In making a decision, there is no burden placed on a parent to show that the child’s needs cannot be met adequately at a SUNY college. “Whether to impose a SUNY cap is to be determined on a case-by-case basis, considering the parties’ means and the child’s educational needs.”

In its July 25, 2012 decision in Lynn v Kroenung, the Second Department reaffirmed that unlike the obligation to provide support for a child’s basic needs, support for a child’s college education is not mandatory. Instead, absent a voluntary agreement, whether a parent is obligated to contribute to a child’s college education is “dependent upon the exercise of the court’s discretion, and an award will be made only “as justice requires.”

In L.L. v. R.L., Monroe County Supreme Court Justice Richard A. Dollinger was compelled to determine what “means” meant in a couple’s separation agreement. That agreement provided that the parents would finance the children’s college education “according to their respective means at the time the child attends college, after grants and scholarships have been taken into consideration.”

In 2011, the parties’ oldest son applied, was accepted, and enrolled at Penn State (Harrisburg). Before he left for school, the mother moved for an allocation of the college expenses. In a prior decision, Justice Dollinger reserved this issue. When the couple’s second son recently applied to Hofstra (stated cost $33,000 annually), the mother sought an allocation of those expenses as well.

Justice Dollinger clarified the issue he would be deciding:

This Court is not deciding what the parents should contribute to their children’s college education expenses. The agreement clearly indicates that both parents would contribute something if they had the means to do so. The only issues before the court are questions of contract interpretation and contractual rights: what the parents agreed they would contribute, what obligation may be enforced against either parent under the agreement, and whether either party has, to date, breached their obligations thereunder.

Continue Reading The Divorced Parent's Obligation to Pay for College: It Depends What "Means" Means

Father and daughter.jpgParents sometimes enter child support agreements which track the presumptive formula set out in New York’s Child Support Standards Act (Family Court Act §413; Domestic Relations Law §240[1-b]). However, parents in their agreements often deviate from the presumptive formula to reflect various considerations. That deviation for a married couple may reflect the delicate balancing of property rights, spousal maintenance and child support.

For example, parents may reduce the presumptive child support amount where the child(ren) spend more time with the “non-custodial” parent than what might be considered the “normal” alternate weekends and a mid-week dinner.

May the non-custodial parent’s failure to fully exercise visitation rights under an agreement serve as a basis to increase child support?

In its July 11, 2012 opinion in McCormick v. McCormick, the Appellate Division Second Department said, “Yes.” It found that the substantial reduction in a father’s visitation with his child warranted an upward modification of the father’s child support obligation. That reduction in visitation provided the substantial change in circumstances needed to justify a support modification.

[T]he mother established that an increase in the father’s child support obligation was warranted by a change in circumstances … Specifically, the substantial reduction in the father’s visitation with the child, which significantly reduced the amount of money the father was required to spend on the child, “constituted an unanticipated change in circumstances that created the need for modification of the child support obligations.”

The Second Department was quoting from the 2002 decision of the Court of Appeals in Gravlin v. Ruppert, 98 NY2d 1, 743 NYS2d 773. That case also addressed a father’s failure to live up to his scheduled substantial parenting time.

Continue Reading Father's Failure To Visit Child Is Grounds To Increase Child Support

Salary.jpgTwo cases this month discussed the treatment of employer-provided fringe benefits in child support determinations.

In his May 14, 2012 decision in K.W. v. M.W., Onondaga County Family Court Judge Michael L. Hanuszczak rejected a father’s objections to the determination of a Support Magistrate. While doing so, Judge Hanuszczak considered the impact of certain union fringe benefits when determining income for Child Support Standards Act purposes. The father, a member of the International Association of Heat & Frost Insulators andAllied Workers Local 30, claimed his income was the union base rate of $28.55 per hour. The Support Magistrate upheld the argument of the mother that the court should also impute the value of contributions to various union benefit plans, bringing the total to $45.35 per hour. Those union plans included the pension fund, welfare fund, annuity fund, apprenticeship fund, industry advancement fund, and LMCT [presumably a Labor Management Cooperate Trust Fund]. Judge Hanuszczak stated:

As a general rule, the Court finds that such benefits must be regularly or periodically received by the recipient or must reduce the recipient’s living expenses to be considered as a part of a parent’s gross income.

Thus, for example, the amount contributed by an employer to the employee’s pension fund, 401k account, or health insurance premium would not be imputed to gross income for the purpose of calculating child support. However, an allowance for a vehicle or cell phone which is used for personal use would be considered for inclusion in the gross income amount. Such a rule would be applied by the court on a case-by-case basis taking into consideration the evidence adduced at trial on that particular proceeding.

Hanuszczak Michael.jpgJudge Hanuszczak’s rule was dicta, remarks not necessary to his determination affirming the Support Magistrate’s holding that the father was not entitled to a downward modification of his support obligation. That result was supported by “other evidence in the record at trial.” The father had failed to demonstrate an adequate change of circumstances to warrant a reduction of his child support obligation.

On May 23, 2012, the Appellate Division, Second Department, in Bershadskaya v. Nemirovsky reversed the determination of Kings County Family Court Judge Arnold Lim which had upheld the order of Support Magistrate John M. Fasone. The Family Court rulings determined that additional income should not be imputed to a father. To the contrary, when ordering that a new hearing be held, the Second Department stated:

Where the father admitted that his company paid for him to lease a late model BMW, where BMW Financial Services documents revealed that he was a general manager with a gross annual salary of $95,000, and where he failed to submit compulsory financial disclosure, it was an improvident exercise of discretion for the Support Magistrate to fail to impute additional income to the father.

The Second Department did not specifically hold that all, or any specified portion of the BMW lease payments must be added to the father’s income; only that the Family Court was incorrect when finding that additional income should not be imputed to the father.

The treatment of fringe benefits is an uncertain area. Courts have included the value of employer-provided housing, but only if residency is not mandatory. Massey v. Evans (4th Dept. 2009), C.H. v. S.H. (Sup. Schenectady 2012). It may be proper to add other benefits such as automobile insurance, gas and oil payments, vehicle maintenance and repair costs, and personal expense allowances. Skinner v. Skinner (241 A.D.2d 544, 661 N.Y.S.2d 648 [2nd Dept. 1999]). Before-tax health insurance deductions have been imputed. Bellinger v. Bellinger (3rd Dept. 2007). Mandatory public employee retirement contributions should not be considered. Ballard v. Davis, 259 A.D.2d 881, 686 N.Y.S.2d 225 (3rd Dept. 1999).

Judge Hanuszczak’s general rule seems fair and workable. Does the fringe benefit reduce living expenses? Is it regularly or periodically received? When the family was together, was it a benefit that directly or indirectly enabled more money to be available for the support of the child? Is it fair to hold that the benefit puts money in the parent’s pocket for which the child should now benefit?

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

Calulator on 100s 2.jpgIn this second of two blogs discussing Supreme Court Nassau County Justice Anthony J. Falanga‘s March 28, 2011 decision in A.C. v. D.R., we look at the Court’s temporary financial relief rulings under the recent amendments to D.R.L. §§236B(5-a) and 237. Last Monday’s blog discussed the joinder for trial of the wife’s post-no-fault action with the husband’s pre-no-fault action, as well as the Court’s denial of the wife’s partial summary judgment motion on her no-fault claim, although the Court recognized no defenses were available to a subjective irretrievable breakdown claim.

The parties were married in 1992 and have 3 children, ages 13, 10 and 7. The parties continue to reside in the marital residence.

The husband, a 52-year old physician, had 2009 earnings of $530,645.00, although the Court noted that he has $15,833.00 in monthly gross W-2 income from private practice. The wife, a 46-year old homemaker, had $8,516.00 in 2009 dividend income.

At the Preliminary Conference, the husband stipulated to pay the marital residence realty taxes (there is no mortgage), gas electric, telephone including cell, water, homeowner’s, automobile, umbrella, medical and disability insurance, cable TV and Internet, alarm, domestic help, gardening and landscaping, snow removal, sanitation and exterminating, and in-network health expenses. The husband claimed the fixed expenses totaled $7,274.00 per month ($87,288.00 per year).

Based on its determination that the husband’s income net of FICA and Medicare taxes was $529,857.00, the Court first applied the new temporary support formula to determine that the presumptive temporary maintenance award would be $148,297.00 (30% of $529,857.00 minus $8,516.00, as that result is less than 40% of the parties’ combined income less the wife’s income). The Court, then, noted that blind adherence to this formula was likely to lead to inequitable results:

. . . [I]n this court’s view, the statute requires some remedial language as strict application in almost every case will not effectuate the statute’s purpose and will result in awards that are unjust and inappropriate . . . .

Continue Reading Court Tempers Temporary Maintenance Formula and Temporary Child Support with Reality Check