Packed and Ready to GoAmong the hardest jobs of the matrimonial lawyer is to draft divorce settlement agreements that anticipate post-divorce events and then resolve them with precision. Two May 20, 2015 decisions of the Second Department highlight just how hard those jobs can be when it comes dealing with the child who switches his or her primary residence.

In Zaratzian v. Abadir, the appellate court affirmed a decision of Westchester County Supreme Court Justice John P. Colangelo that applied one couple’s Agreement to resolve their conflict in a manner neither party may have wanted.

Under their 2006 divorce settlement Agreement, the parties, both medical doctors, agreed to equally-shared time with their three children, and older daughter, then age 12, and 10 and 6-year old sons. Following the father’s remarriage in 2008 and the pregnancy of his new wife, the time-sharing arrangement broke down. The daughter resided only with the mother, the older son with the father and the younger son continuing to switch. Subsequent Family Court custody proceedings resulted in both boys living with their father.

Under the Separation Agreement, the father had agreed to pay the mother $1,500 per month in maintenance until the emancipation of one of the children. Until then, the father would pay an additional $1,500 per month in child support for all three unemancipated children. Upon the emancipation of one child, maintenance would stop, but child support would be increased to $1,750 per month. Upon the second emancipation, child support would be reduced to $1,000 per month.

The support Article of the Agreement contained the following typewritten provision:

Both parties agree to be bound by the provisions set forth in this Article III and each party agrees that neither party shall at any time make any application to modify the financial provisions of this Article III or the financial provisions of the divorce decree subsequently entered between the parties.

The Agreement defined various emancipation events, including:

Permanent residence away from the residence of the Father and the Mother. A residence at boarding school, camp, or college is not to be deemed a residence away from the residence of the Wife, and hence, such a residence at boarding school, camp, or college is not an emancipation event.

The emancipation Article also contained the following handwritten provision:

Notwithstanding any other term or provision contained in this agreement, in the event one or more of the children reside primarily with the Father, he shall be permitted to make any application he deems appropriate to modify his child support obligation as set forth in Article III and the resulting order shall supercede the terms of this agreement.

Following the Family Court proceedings, the mother moved in Supreme Court for an order relating to the payment of private school tuition for the daughter (she later asked for child support for the daughter computed under the Child Support Standards Act). The father cross-moved for an order requiring the mother to pay him C.S.S.A.-computed child support for the parties’ two sons.

Continue Reading "I'm Moving In With Daddy": The Child Support Perspective (Part I)

It is common for divorce settlements and custody agreements to contain “relocation clauses.” These provisions spell out the radius within which the residential custodian will be able to move without first seeking judicial approval. It is a proper subject of agreement between parents. It will almost always be honored, although such a provision can never be binding upon a court’s determination of what is in the best interests of a child.

Such a clause might read:

The parents have established their custody and visitation arrangement to reflect what they believe constitutes the best arrangements to meet their child’s needs to have a continuing and close relationship with both parties. The parties recognize that an arrangement that provided for less contact between the child and each of the parties would not be in the child’s best interests. Based upon the foregoing, the residential custodial parent agrees that prior to the emancipation of the child, he/she will not establish a domicile with the child at any point beyond ____________ miles of _______________.

That distance is often referred to as the “radius.” Relocation clauses must be careful to specify whether the radius is in road miles or “as the crow flies” (radial miles).

In actuality, the concept is one of time, not distance. A parenting schedule is constructed assuming that it will take a certain amount of time for the child to be transported from the residence of the physical custodian to that of the other parent. The parents’ agreement should contemplate the distance between homes as it may relate to dropping a child off at school on a Monday morning, allowing for mid-week visits, etc. Thus, a radius clause that allows for 50 road miles near the Thruway in upstate New York contemplates something very different than 50 road miles on Long Island. The latter trip might take twice as long.

Continue Reading Relocation Clauses Must Specify Radial or Road Mileage

Two of three November 5, 2014 custody decisions of the Appellate Division, Second Department, reversed Family Court determinations.

In the only affirmance in Mondschein v. Mondschein, the Second Department upheld the order of Westchester County Family Court Judge David Klein which, after a hearing, granted a father’s petition to modify the custody provisions of the parties’ divorce (2011) stipulation of settlement, awarding the father sole legal and physical custody of the parties’ two younger children, with supervised visitation to the mother. Affirming Judge Klein, the Second Department noted:

Since custody determinations necessarily depend to a great extent upon an assessment of the character and credibility of the parties and witnesses, deference is accorded the Family Court’s findings. Therefore, its findings should not be set aside unless they lack a sound and substantial basis in the record.

Here, contrary to the mother’s contention, the appellate court found that Judge Klein had properly considered the totality of the circumstances, and that the record supported his determination that there had been a sufficient change in circumstances requiring a change in custody to protect the best interests of the parties’ two younger children. That record included the hearing testimony and the recommendation of the court-appointed forensic evaluator.

In Burke v. Cogan, the Second Department reversed the determination of Suffolk County Family Court Judge Martha Luft that had dismissed the petition of a mother to modify a prior custody order by awarding her sole residential custody of the parties’ 13 year-old child. The appellate court awarded the mother such custody.

Continue Reading Appellate Reversals of Custody Decisions

Absent a court order specifying which parent is entitled to make educational decisions, the New York City Department of Education will follow the instructions of the primary physical custodian.

The policy was upheld in the October 22, 2013 decision of the First Department in Jennings v. Walcott. The appellate court reversed  the determination of  Supreme Court, New York County Justice Alexander W. Hunter, Jr., which had declared arbitrary and capricious the Department’s policy of deferring in educational decisions to the parent with primary physical custody. Justice Hunter had ordered the Department to include the father as a joint legal guardian on his child’s school file.

The policy of the Department of Education is to take direction from the parent with primary physical custody where, as here:

the divorced parents of a student have joint legal custody of the student;

the parents are unable to agree on a decision as to the student’s education; and

there is no court order specifying who is entitled to make educational decisions.

The Department had adopted this policy to avoid becoming entangled in custody disputes.

In Jennings, the First Department held that given the options available to the Department for resolving such a disagreement, it could not be said that the policy was without a rational basis in the record. It was not, therefore, arbitrary and capricious.

The appellate court pointed out that this policy did not affect the father’s legal rights as a parent with joint legal, but not primary physical, custody. The father was free to pursue a modification of his judgment of divorce to provide for joint decision-making as to the child’s education.

The opinion did not recite whether or not any stipulation of settlement incorporated into the father’s divorce decree contained a decision-making clause, or whether such a stipulation or the judgment merely declared the parents would share joint legal custody. Similarly, it was not stated whether the Department was refusing to honor an agreement that was incorporated by reference into the divorce judgment.

However, to be prudent, all parental rights should be specifically set forth in the judgment of divorce.

Kathy H. Chang, of counsel to Michael A. Cardozo, New York City’s Corporation Counsel, represented the Department. Thomas D. Shanahan, P.C., represented the father.

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