Justice Francis A. Nicolai

In its May 25, 2016 decision in Fitzpatrick v. Fitzpatrick, the Appellate Division, Second Department, affirmed the denial of an ex-wife’s application to enforce a divorce settlement provision that called for an automatic increase in child support upon the ex-husband’s default in any other obligation of that settlement.

The parties entered into that separation agreement in 2012, which had been incorporated, but not merged into the judgment of divorce. In relevant part, the agreement provided that, in consideration of the husband’s agreement to pay 100% of the costs associated with maintaining the marital residence (in which the wife and the parties’ four children continued to reside), the husband would pay $1,500 per month in child support until the the sale of the marital residence, and $5,076.29 per month thereafter. However, the agreement continued, if at any time prior to the sale of the marital residence, the husband was not in compliance with “all of the terms” of the agreement, then his child support obligation would be increased to $5,076.29 per month.

Supreme Court, Westchester County Justice Francis A. Nicolai, after a hearing (Duffy, J.), denied that aspect of the ex-wife’s post-judgment application. The Second Department affirmed.

The appellate court recognized the agreement that there be automatic increase in child support as a liquidated damages clause. Generally, parties to an agreement may provide for the payment of liquidated damages upon its breach, and such damages will be upheld if:

(1) the amount fixed is a reasonable measure of the probable actual loss in the event of breach, and

(2) the actual loss suffered is difficult to determine precisely.

However, the Court held that if the liquidated damages do not bear a reasonable proportion to the loss actually sustained by a breach, they will constitute an unenforceable penalty.

Without discussion of how the marital residence expense clause and automatic child support increase were interrelated, the Court held that contrary to the ex-wife’s contention, the Supreme Court correctly determined that the subject provision, as drafted, constituted an unenforceable penalty clause and was unenforceable.

Ms. Fitzpatrick represented herself on the appeal. The ex-husband was represented by Joan Iacono, of Bronxville (Barbara Martensson, of counsel).

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.”]

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