It is common for a divorce settlement agreement to provide that a child will be emancipated if he or she leaves the residence of the custodial parent. The result is the stated reduction in child support payments to the custodial parent. However, if the child not only leaves the custodial parent, but moves in with the non-custodial parent, may that parent obtain child support from the former custodial parent? That will depend on the language, or more particularly, the lack of language of the parents’ agreement.

Such is the lesson of the July 10, 2013 decision of the Appellate Division, Second Department, in Samuelson v. Samuelson. In that case, the parties were divorced in January, 2011. The divorce judgment incorporated the parties’ 2009 surviving stipulation of settlement.

Under that agreement, the father agreed to pay the mother basic child support of $1,150 per month for the parties’ two children until the occurrence of an “emancipation event,” defined to include a “change in custody.” The stipulation further provided that in the event one child was emancipated, the father’s basic child support obligation would be reduced to $846 per month.

Two months after the divorce judgment was entered, the parties agreed to transfer custody of their son from the mother to the father. Several months later, the father moved for an award of child support from the mother, to be “credited against my child support payments re our minor daughter.” The father claimed he was on the verge of personal bankruptcy.

Supreme Court Queens County Justice William Harrington denied the father’s motion, accepting the mother’s argument, and finding that the parties’ obligations were set by their agreement. The father failed to establish an unanticipated and unreasonable change in circumstances, or that the child’s needs were not being met.

The Second Department affirmed. The parties’ agreement was binding. Since the stipulation set forth the plaintiff’s child support obligation in the event of a change of custody of one of the children, a change in custody of one of the children could not be considered unanticipated.

Continue Reading Child Support: When One of the Children Switches Homes

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

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