Trinity timesIn its February 18, 2016 decision in Michael J. D. V. Carolina E. P., the Appellate Division, First Department, held that because the trial court did not follow the precise requirements of the CSSA when determining that private school education and summer, extracurricular and weekend activities should be paid over and above basic child support, those awards would be vacated.

When making child support awards, the requirements of the Child Support Standards Act (CSSA) (Family Court Act §413 and Domestic Relations Law §240[1-b]) must be strictly followed. After the calculation of the basic periodic child support amount, the statute allows for the payment of certain categories of enumerated add on expenses, prorated according to the parents’ relative incomes.

The add on expenses expressly addressed in the CSSA are:

  1. child care expenses when a custodial parent is working, looking for work and/or engaged in an educational or training program that will lead to employment;
  2. health insurance and unreimbursed medical expenses; and
  3. educational expenses.

In the case before it, the parties were the parents of a son born December 17, 2008. The parties were never married and were not living together when the child was born. After the father learned he had a son, the mother and the child moved into the father’s luxury apartment in lower Manhattan. The parties were hopeful of continuing as a family and while living together, discussed marriage and the possibility of having a second child. They also discussed their son’s future, and the possibility he would attend a private school. It was their expectation at that time that the child would enjoy the “best of everything.” This living arrangement, however, was short-lived, lasting only four months (from May – August, 2009).

Continue Reading Child Support Awards of Private School Tuition and Activities Require Statement of Factors Considered

Calulator on 100s 3In its April 1, 2015 decision in Pittman v. Williams, the Appellate Division, Second Department, reversed a decision of Supreme Court, Kings County Court Attorney/Referee (and now Family Court Judge) J. Machelle Sweeting that awarded child support equal to 17% of the father’s entire $441,000 income.  The Second Department also deleted a requirement that the father pay private school tuition after preschool, and allocated the wife’s child care expense equally between the father’s child and another of the mother’s children for whom care was provided.

In this child support proceeding, the parties’ combined income was $489,937. The father’s income represented 90% of this sum or C.S.S.A.-adjusted income of approximately $441,000 per year; the mother’s 10% share was approximately $49,000. Referee Sweeting directed the father to pay child support in the sum of $6,246 per month, child care expenses in the sum of $291.60 per week, and his pro rata share of the child’s tuition at the Brooklyn Waldorf School.

The Second Department reversed and remitted the matter for a new determination of the amount of the basic child support obligation.

The Child Support Standards Act sets forth a formula for calculating child support by applying a designated statutory percentage, here 17% for one child, to combined parental income up to a particular ceiling. The court, in fixing the basic child support obligation on income over the ceiling, i.e., the “statutory cap” (in this case, $136,000), has the discretion to apply the factors set forth in the statute, or to apply the statutory percentage, or to apply both.

However, there must be some record articulation of the reasons for the court’s choice to facilitate review. The court’s decision should reflect a careful consideration of the stated basis for its exercise of discretion, the parties’ circumstances, and its reasoning why there should or should not be a departure from the prescribed percentage. In addition to providing a record articulation for deviating or not deviating from the statutory formula, a court must relate that record articulation to the statutory factors.

Here, the Second Department held that the Referee properly determined that the parties’ combined parental income was $489,937. However, when determining the amount of child support, Referee Sweeting failed to articulate her reasons for applying the statutory percentage of 17% to the combined parental income over the statutory cap of $136,000. As a result, her determination was reversed. It was held that the matter must be remitted for a new determination in this regard and the court must articulate its reasons for the new determination.

Continue Reading Reasons To Apply CSSA Formula to Father's $441,000 Income Must Be Stated; No Private School Payment Without Proof Of Superiority Of Education

It is often said that it is difficult, if not impossible to prove a negative. The concept may be extended to finding the intent of the parties to a contract, and more particularly a divorce settlement agreement

One would think a divorce settlement agreement would provide for all of the rights and obligations of a divorcing couple arising from their marriage, children, and divorce. So what happens when a subject is not specifically covered? If the agreement does not state that a specific child support-related expense is to be paid by the non-custodial parent, does that mean that that parent does not have such an obligation? Is an agreement required to specifically provide that any obligation not specifically stated does not exist?

Take the November 26, 2014 decision of the Appellate Division, Third Department, in Malone v. Malone. In that case, the Third Department upheld the denial of an ex-wife’s requested upward modification of the ex-husband’s child support because the underlying divorce settlement agreements were not unfair or inequitable when entered into; there was no proof the children’s needs were not being met (pardon the double negative); and there was no other basis for an upward modification. Doing so the Third Department affirmed the holding of Rensselaer County Supreme Court Acting Justice Peter A. Lynch.

Continue Reading Divorce Settlements: It’s Not Just What You Say, But What You Don’t Say

Where a divorce settlement agreement contains a SUNY cap on the parents’ obligations to contribute to college expenses, do you subtract financial aid first from the SUNY cap, or first from the total actual costs of the child who chose to attend a private college? Do you include loans in the “financial aid” formula?

In its February 20, 2014 decision in Apjohn v. Lubinski, the Third Department decided to benefit the child.

The parties’ 1994 separation agreement contained a SUNY cap provision limiting the obligations of these parents to contribute to their then 1-year-old son’s college education. Each parent’s obligation would be limited to half of the cost of tuition, room and board at a college or university that is part of the State University of New York.

The agreement further provided that the son must apply to “the said college or university” for all possible grants, scholarships and financial aid before either party would be obliged to pay any college costs. Here, the son applied for and obtained financial aid from the private college where he enrolled in September 2011. the son also received an outside scholarship.

Refusing to make any contribution, the father contended that the agreement required the son to apply to a SUNY institution for financial aid. As the son did not do so (he applied to his private college), the father argued he had no obligation to contribute anything.

The Third Department resolved the ambiguity as to whether the requirement to apply to “the said college or university” for financial aid referred to a SUNY institution or to the college attended by the son, by noting that the agreement did not require the son to attend or apply for admission at a SUNY school. (The father also did not show that it was  possible to apply to a SUNY institution for financial aid without also applying for admission.)

Continue Reading Applying the Ambiguous SUNY-Capped Contribution-to-College Clause

Two decisions within the last 10 days confirm the need for agreements relating to support to be in (an acknowledged) writing, and then incorporated in a court order.

In one, the Second Department affirmed the award of maintenance arrears without a hearing despite the claimed reduction of maintenance under an oral modification of the parties’ separation agreement. In the second, Albany County Family Court Judge W. Dennis Duggan directed a father to pay 71% of his older son’s private middle school expense, despite the mother’s conceded agreement to pay the full tuition.

In its January 30, 2103 decision in Parker v. Navarra, the Second Department affirmed the award of maintenance arrears by Dutchess County Supreme Court Justice James V. Brands. The ex-husband alleged that he and his ex-wife had orally modified the maintenance provisions of their separation agreement and, alternatively, that the ex-wife should be equitably estopped from enforcing the maintenance provisions of the separation agreement. The ex-husband had requested an evidentiary hearing so that he could present the testimony of witnesses on those issues. Justice Brands denied the request for an evidentiary hearing, awarding arrears on the basis of the parties’ submissions.

The Second Department affirmed, noting that the ex-husband failed to make a showing sufficient to entitle him to a hearing on this issue:

Where, as here, the parties’ separation agreement contains a provision that expressly provides that modifications must be in writing, an alleged oral modification is enforceable only if there is part performance that is unequivocally referable to the oral modification. The defendant did not demonstrate that the plaintiff’s acceptance of reduced monthly maintenance payments was unequivocally referable to an alleged oral modification by, for example, demonstrating that consideration was given in exchange for the plaintiff’s alleged oral agreement to accept reduced maintenance payments.

Moreover, to establish a defense of equitable estoppel, the ex-husband was required to have shown that the ex-wife’s conduct induced his significant and substantial reliance upon an oral modification. Again, the ex-husband was required to have shown that the conduct relied upon to establish estoppel was not otherwise  compatible with the agreement as written.

Continue Reading Support Modification Agreements: Get’em in Writing; Get’em into Court (Part II)

College Fund 3.jpgIt is not uncommon for divorce settlement agreements to limit a parent’s contribution to a child’s college education to a portion of the expense to attend a campus within the State University of New York system. This is known as the “SUNY cap.”

A scholarly October, 2011 decision of New York County Supreme Court Justice Matthew F. Cooper tackled head-on the assumption that a court would not impose on a parent a share of the expenses of a private college education.

Pamela T. v. Marc B., involved the parents of 16- and 18-year old sons. The older boy, a child with “moderate emotional difficulty,” was a freshman at Syracuse University intending to study computer engineering and computer graphics. He was a graduate of a selective public Manhattan high school. The decision resolved the father’s objection to paying more than his share of a SUNY education.

A SUNY education would cost approximately $18,000 per year. Syracuse University, on the other hand, costs three times that amount, some $53,000 per year.

Both parents were lawyers, with private college and law school backgrounds. Each parent earned just over $100,000 per year. The mother had some $1,230,000 in savings and retirement accounts; the father $580,000.

Justice Cooper directed the father to bear 40% of the costs of that Syracuse University education. There is no SUNY cap mandated by New York law. The thrust of Justice Cooper’s decision was that:

the SUNY cap–to the extent that it stands for the proposition that before a parent can be compelled to contribute towards the cost of a private college there must be a showing that a child cannot receive an adequate education at a state college–is a doctrine that in many cases is harmful to the children of divorced parents, acts to discriminate against them, and is largely unworkable.

Continue Reading Divorced Parents may be Liable to Provide Children with a Private College Education

College Fund 1.jpgAugust is off-to-college month. For divorced parents, the joys and sorrows of a child leaving the nest are often compounded by the parents’ disagreement over their division of college expenses.

Last Spring’s decision of the Second Department in Yorke v. Yorke provides guidance.  The parties are the parents of a child who entered college beginning in the Fall 2007 semester.  By two 2007 orders, the father was directed to pay 83% of the college tuition for the subject child prior to March 2009, and 82% of the tuition thereafter.

Those orders provided that the father was not responsible for contributing towards the child’s room and board at college.  This 2011 opinion did not discuss why room and board had been excluded, or the basis for the prospective (2009) change in the allocated percentages.

Instead, this 2010 Family Court, Orange County, proceeding involved only the calculation of the father’s  share of tuition. At the heart of the dispute was the effect of the child’s financial aid package, both as it reduced the tuition expense, but also as it was required to be spread over the costs for room and board.

Continue Reading College Financial Aid and Calculating the Divorced Parent's Pro Rata Obligation for Tuition

Divorce Agreementl.jpgIn its February decision in Fragin v. Fragin, the Second Department interpreted a 1995 separation agreement which survived the entry of the parties’ 1995 divorce judgment. Pursuant to that agreement, the ex-wife was obligated to contribute to the basic graduate school expenses of the parties’ unemancipated children. However, in fact and not surprisingly, at the time the children enrolled in graduate school, they were emancipated under the terms of the agreement.

The Court does not provide us with the precise language of the parties’ agreement, if any, which defined that point at which a child would be deemed emancipated. In the absence of such a provision, a child is “unemancipated” for support purposes upon reaching age 21.  It is common, however, for there to be such a defining provision in an agreement. Often, a child will be deemed unemancipated for the purposes of the agreement beyond age 21 if the child is in college. There may be a limit on that extension, however, e.g., reaching age 22 or 23.

Here, it would seem absurd for the agreement to discuss payments for graduate school if such payments were only to be for the graduate-school education of children who were unemancipated at the time of their attendance in graduate school. Most children will not be attending graduate school before their very early 20s, or before they finish college. However, on the surface, this is how the Court appears to have reconciled the provisions of the agreement: there was no obligation to pay graduate school expenses of emancipated children. Accordingly, the ex-husband’s motion to enforce the agreement and compel the ex-wife to contribute to the payment of graduate school expenses was denied.

If I have misconstrued the decision (and the agreement) or the facts, it certainly won’t be the first time, or the last, and I apologize.

Nonetheless, as a general rule, and particularly when interpreting the nuances of an agreement, it would be extremely helpful for the Court to quote the language of all the relevant provisions of the agreement being reconciled.

Another example: In its 2007 decision in Weinberger v. Frankel, the Second Department interpreted a stipulation under which a father obligated himself “to pay his pro rata share of the tuition charged by his younger child’s school, the Adolph Schreiber Hebrew Academy of Rockland. The stipulation limited the appellant’s payments to the pro rata cost of the younger child’s prior school, the Hebrew Academy of Nassau County” (this is a quote from the decision, but apparently not the stipulation as no quotation marks are provided in the decision). After the mother enrolled the child at a school not listed in the stipulation, she sought the father’s share of tuition. Did the stipulation obligate the father to pay his share of the tuition charged by the Hebrew Academy of Nassau County, or did the stipulation obligate the father to pay his share of tuition at any school, but limited to a particular dollar amount; i.e., a sum equal to his share of tuition at the current school? The Court held that naming the school(s) in the stipulation was not a limitation of the schools for which the father agreed to pay, but only a limitation of cost. The father was required to pay.

Splitting hairs? Yes; but that’s what we do. Consider the time and expense needed to resolve these matters for the parties, their counsel, and the court.  Consider the angst of the children.

One of the primary purposes of the publication of judicial decisions should be to announce the effect of certain words or conduct. In that way, we may be guided in the future. Hopefully, and particularly in this time of budget crisis increasingly facing the judiciary branch, each published decision will help to reduce future litigation.