Using the state’s Child Support Enforcement Services can have unintended results. Having support payments made through a Support Collection Unit triggers a cost-of-living adjustment procedure that may result in a significant change to the court-ordered support obligations to which parties had agreed.

Consider the September 26, 2018 decision of the Appellate Division, Second Department, in Murray v. Murray. There, the former spouses in their 2001 surviving divorce settlement agreement had agreed to share joint custody of their children, with the mother having physical custody.

The parties had opted out of the basic child support obligations of the Child Support Standards Act (C.S.S.A.), with the father agreeing to pay a certain sum for child support from August 1, 2001, through January 31, 2006. The parties also executed a rider to their stipulation, in which they agreed that beginning on February 1, 2006, until both children were emancipated, the father would pay child support to the mother based on the C.S.S.A., but using the parties’ total combined income for the year 2005.

In an 2009 order, the Family Court, upon the parties’ consent, directed the father to pay $740.56 per week in child support for both children through the Support Collection Unit (the SCU).

In March 2017, the SCU notified the parties of the presumptive cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) to the father’s child support obligation authorized by Family Court Act §413-a. That would increase the father’s weekly child support obligation to $822.00.

The mother filed an objection to the cost of living adjustment pursuant to Family Court Act §413-a(3), requiring that a hearing be held for a redetermination under the C.S.S.A. After that hearing, Suffolk County Support Magistrate Aletha V. Fields, in effect, vacated the COLA increase. At the time, the subject child was 20 years old and entering her third year of college. Upon recalculating the amount of child support, Magistrate Fields fixed the father’s child support obligation at $360.00 per week. The Support Magistrate found that although the parties’ combined parental income was $371,697.08, the mother failed to set forth a basis upon which to apply the statutory child support percentage to any income above the statutory cap of $143,000.00.

The mother filed objections to the Support Magistrate’s order. However, Family Court Judge Anthony S. Senft, Jr., denied the mother’s objections. The mother appealed.

Continue Reading Child Support Payments Through Support Collection Units May Result in Unanticipated Changes

The Child Support Standards Act authorizes parents to agree to a child support obligation that deviates from the presumptive formula provided in that statute. However, if they are going to deviate from the formula, the parents must state what the obligation would have been if the formula were to be applied, and the reasons why the parties have agreed to deviate.

In its September 26, 2018 decision in Fasano v. Fasano, the Appellate Division, Second Department, held that if one of those reasons no longer applies, such is a “substantial change in circumstances” warranting a new child support determination.

The parties were married in 1993 and have two children together. In October, 2012, the parties entered into a stipulation of settlement of a prior divorce action after which that action was discontinued.

That stipulation provided that although the husband’s monthly child support obligation using the C.S.S.A. calculation would be $1,994.45 on the first $130,000.00 of combined parental income (then, the “cap”) and $2,575.61 on the total combined parental income, the parties had agreed that the husband’s monthly child support obligation would be $1,500.00. The stipulation also provided that there would be no “add-ons” or “additional health costs” added to these child support payments, even though the C.S.S.A. generally provides that each parent’s share of unreimbursed health care expenses is to be prorated in the same proportion as each parent’s income is to the combined parental income.

The stipulation contained an explanation that the deviation from the C.S.S.A. calculation was necessary “to allow the [husband] to retain the marital residence as a place for the children to be with him when they are together” and had “been agreed by the parties to be in the best interests of the children to provide them continuity and stability in their living and educational environments.”

Continue Reading A Child Support Redetermination Is Warranted If a Stated Reason Parties Deviated From CSSA No Longer Applies

It’s one of my pet topics. How do you provide — how do you write a provision awarding one spouse credit for paying down the mortgage principal while a divorce action is pending or thereafter?

Consider the August 29, 2018 decision of the Appellate Division, Second Department, in Westbrook v. Westbrook.

In April 2008, the wife commenced this action for a divorce and ancillary relief. In a pendente lite order, the Supreme Court, inter alia, directed the husband to pay temporary child support in the sum of $150 per week. The court also directed the husband to pay a majority of the carrying charges on the marital residence, which included a first mortgage on the two-thirds share of the value of the marital residence that had been purchased from the husband’s siblings, as well as a home equity line of credit (hereinafter HELOC) that was secured by the marital residence.

On or about November 24, 2009, the parties executed a stipulation agreeing, inter alia, that the husband would have exclusive use and occupancy of the marital residence effective December 1, 2009, and that the husband would pay child support to the wife in the sum of $350 per week commencing on December 1, 2009. Thereafter, the wife moved, inter alia, to increase the husband’s temporary child support obligation. In a pendente lite order dated May 21, 2010, the Supreme Court directed the husband to pay $700 per week in temporary child support during the pendency of the action.

Following the trial, as is here relevant, Suffolk County Supreme Court Justice Marlene L. Budd declined to award the husband a credit for the payments made by him during the pendency of the action to reduce the principal balances of the first mortgage and the HELOC. In addition, the court directed that the marital residence be listed for sale, and that the husband make the payments towards the first mortgage and the HELOC if he continued to reside in the marital residence until the residence was sold.

Continue Reading Calculating Divorce Credits for Mortgage and HELOC Payments

May a parent be directed to maintain life insurance in a Family Court support proceeding? Do an aunt and uncle awarded primary residential and, with the father, joint legal custody of his children, share responsibility for the children’s health and education expenses? Such were the questions addressed by the Appellate Division, Second Department, in its September 12, 2018 decision in Lozaldo v. Cristando.

Following the death of the children’s mother, the maternal aunt and uncle were awarded residential custody of the children and shared joint legal custody with the father. The aunt and uncle commenced this proceeding for child support from the father. After a hearing, Nassau County Family Court Support Magistrate Patricia Bannon entered a support order which, inter alia, required the father to pay 100% of the children’s unreimbursed medical and educational expenses, and to maintain a life insurance policy in the sum of $1,000,000, designating the children as irrevocable primary beneficiaries. The father objected to these provisions of the order of support. Family Court Judge Conrad D. Singer denied his objections. The father appealed.

The Second Department agreed with requiring the father to pay 100% of the children’s medical and educational expenses. There was no basis to find the maternal aunt and uncle liable for a portion of such expenses.

Continue Reading Family Court-Mandated Life Insurance | Non-Parent Liability for Health and Education Expenses

Tom Griffiths, psychologist, cognitive scientist and Princeton professor, concludes his TED talk, 3 ways to make better decisions — by thinking like a computer, with the following lesson:

“You can’t control outcomes, just processes; and as long as you’ve used the best process, you’ve done the best that you can.”

Dr. Griffiths has researched the connections between natural and artificial intelligence to discover how people solve the challenging problems they encounter in everyday life. His 2016 book authored with Brian Christian, Algorithms to Live By, illustrates how the algorithms used by computers can inform human decision-making (and vice versa). The book was named one of the Amazon.com “Best Science Books of 2016” and appeared on Forbes’s “Must-read brain books of 2016” list as well as the MIT Technology Review’s “Best books of 2016” list.

In New York, most couples going through a divorce, although aware of litigation and mediation, do not know that they have a choice of a third structured process to unravel the marital relationship and transition the family through the divorce. Most divorcing couples don’t know that they have a chance to apply Griffiths’ lesson and select a process that can reduce the time, cost, anguish and damage that so often accompanies divorce litigation, yet address the shortcomings of mediation.

Continue Reading Divorcing Couples Can Learn a Lesson From Computer Algorithms

Here’s a reminder. Look over the “boilerplate” counsel-fees-on-default provision of your settlement agreements; and re-read them when resolving enforcement proceedings.

Take a lesson from the July 25, 2018 decision of the Appellate Division, Second Department, in Posner v. Posner. There, The parties’ 2010 judgment of divorce incorporated, but did not merge, their stipulation of settlement. That stipulation provided that where one of the parties commences litigation to enforce it, and that litigation does not “result in a judgment or order in favor of the party” who commenced the litigation, that party shall reimburse the other party for any and all expenses, including attorney’s fees.

In 2011, the husband commenced litigation in the Family Court to enforce certain stipulation provisions. Thereafter, the wife filed a contempt motion under a separate docket number. After eight days of trial over nine months, the parties agreed to withdraw their respective petitions with prejudice. The parties nevertheless “reserve[d] all other rights provided for” in the 2010 stipulation of settlement.

In January 2014, the wife filed a motion in the Supreme Court seeking an award of attorney’s fees pursuant to the parties’ 2010 stipulation of settlement for the 2011 Family Court litigation. Westchester County Supreme Court Justice Francis A. Nicolai granted the wife’s motion to the extent of finding that the wife was entitled to an award of attorney’s fees and set the matter down for a hearing as to the appropriate amount. In a judgment entered September 27, 2016, after a hearing, Justice Janet C. Malone awarded the wife a judgment for attorney’s fees in the sum of $224,287. The husband appealed.

Continue Reading Counsel Fees Per Divorce Settlement For Withdrawn Enforcement Proceedings

The prospective husband’s attorney who drafted a couple’s prenuptial agreement was not disqualified from representing the husband in the couple’s divorce action, nor in the action to set aside the prenuptial agreement that had been joined for trial. So held the Appellate Division, Second Department, in its August 15, 2018 decision in Lombardi v. Lombardi. Moreover, it was held that an interim award of counsel fees to the wife was improper.

In 2004 the parties entered into a prenuptial agreement setting forth their rights and obligations in the event of a divorce. The wife commenced this action for a divorce in 2011.

Approximately one year later, the wife commenced a separate action to set aside the prenuptial agreement on the grounds of duress, coercion, undue influence, and unconscionability, and to recover damages for legal malpractice against the husband’s attorney, Dorothy Courten, who had drafted the prenuptial agreement on the husband’s behalf.

On a prior motion, Supreme Court, Suffolk County, Justice Hector D. LaSalle granted the husband’s motion to dismiss the complaint in the second action. On appeal, the Second Department modified that order by denying those branches of the motion which were to dismiss the causes of action alleging fraudulent inducement against the husband and seeking to set aside or rescind the prenuptial agreement on the basis of duress, coercion, undue influence, and unconscionability (see, Lombardi v. Lombardi, 127 A.D.3d 1038, 7 N.Y.S.3d 447 [2015]). However, the award of summary judgment dismissing the complaint insofar as asserted against Ms. Courten was affirmed.

Thereafter, the wife moved to consolidate this divorce action with the second action, to disqualify Ms. Courten and her law firm from representing the husband, and for an award of interim counsel fees. Justice James F. Quinn joined the two actions for trial, disqualified Ms. Courten and her law firm from representing the husband, and awarded the wife $10,000 interim counsel fees.

Continue Reading Attorney-Draftsman of Prenuptial Agreement Not Disqualified; No Interim Counsel Fee

 

JengaOn June 12, 2018, the Court of Appeals in a 5-2 decision, affirmed the ruling discussed below.

It is common in agreements, and often the case in judicial decisions, for the parent paying periodic child support to receive a credit against those payments for college room and board expenses paid by that parent. May parties agree that the credit exceed the amount allocated by the parties to the support of the particular child attending college? No, (probably) said the Appellate Division, First Department, in its April 6, 2017 decision in Keller-Goldman v. Goldman.

The parties entered into a Stipulation of Settlement and Agreement that resolved all issues surrounding their separation. As may be relevant to the court’s determination, although the parties had four unemancipated children, the agreement only provided for support for the three children for whom the wife was deemed the custodial parent (the parties were to share equal time with these three). The husband retained custody of the fourth child, but agreed to receive no support for him from the mother. The opinion noted that had the parties not negotiated the issue of child support, the mother stood to collect $5,000 per month in child support payments, pursuant to the Child Support Standards Act, a fact acknowledged by the agreement. Instead, she agreed to monthly child support payments of $2,500.

Paragraph 10.3 of the parties’ agreement provided for a graduated reduction in the father’s child support payments upon the emancipation of each of the three children. Upon the first emancipation his monthly payment would be reduced by $350 to $2,150 per month; and upon the second emancipation the payment would be reduced to $1,462 per month.

The agreement provide for a room and board credit at paragraph 10.4, immediately following the support reduction schedule:

During the period in which a Child is attending a college and residing away from the residences of the parties and [the father] is contributing towards the room and board expenses of that Child, [the father] shall be entitled to a credit against his child support obligations in an amount equal to the amount [the father] is paying for that Child’s room and board. The credit shall be allocated in equal monthly installments against [the father’s] child support payments.

Continue Reading Uncapped Room and Board Credit Violates Public Policy

In its July 25, 2018 decision in Crago v. Diegel, the Appellate Division, Second Department, affirmed a counsel fee award to a wife, the monied spouse in this divorce action. Supreme Court Kings County Justice Esther M. Morganstern had awarded the wife 55% of her total counsel fees. Upholding the award, the Second Department noted:

In its determination of a counsel fee application, the trial court must consider the relative financial circumstances of the parties, the relative merit of their positions, and the tactics of a party in unnecessarily prolonging the litigation. Although the defendant correctly contends that he is the less monied spouse, the Supreme Court’s award to the plaintiff of 55% of her total counsel fees, upon its determination that the defendant’s obstructionist conduct unnecessarily prolonged the pretrial motion practice and the trial, was not an improvident exercise of discretion.

The Second Department cited Meara v. Meara, 104 A.D.3D 916, 960 N.Y.S.2d 911 (2013) in which the financial circumstances of the parties was not discussed, and Quinn v. Quinn, 73 A.D.3d 887, 899 N.Y.S.2d 859 (2010), in which the parties were described as being on equal footing.

However, a counsel fee award to the monied spouse is contrary the rule in the First Department as announced in Silverman v. Silverman, 304 A.D.2d 41, 47-49, 756 N.Y.S.2d 14, 19-21 (1st Dept. 2003). Below, Supreme Court New York County Justice Marilyn Diamond had awarded the husband $50,000 in attorney’s fees, out of a total of over $ 200,000 incurred, based upon the dilatory conduct of the wife and her then counsel. Eliminating the award, the First Department held:

This award of attorney’s fees was not proper under Domestic Relations Law §237, because awarding attorney’s fees to the monied spouse does not comport with the purpose and policies of that section of the Domestic Relations Law.

Continue Reading Awarding Counsel Fees to the Monied Spouse: Conflict in the Departments

Jerilyn Klein Bier writes “How Advisors Help HNW [High Net Worth] Clients ‘Collaborate’ On Divorce” in the current issue of Financial Advisor, a monthly publication for financial planners, registered investment advisors and independent broker-dealers, She begins with a quote from Danny DeVito, portraying a divorce attorney in The War of the Roses, “When a couple starts keeping score, there is no winning, it’s only degrees of losing.”

Wealth managers “are having more success getting clients to settle their affairs amicably through collaborative divorces that enable splitting spouses to retain more of their wealth for themselves, their kids and their charities. Retaining wealth is particularly important for couples divorcing later in life with significant assets because there’s less time to rebuild wealth and finances before retirement.”

Ms. Bier reports that mediation and Collaborative Divorce are better divorce forums than the courts, providing the family the opportunity for holistic planning and a variety of flexible financial solutions to maintain family wealth.

She tells of Kim Kenawell-Hoffecker, a Pennsylvania Certified Divorce Financial Analyst (CDFA), who works several ways on collaborative divorces. She serves as a financial neutral on collaborative divorce teams for couples who are not clients. Ms. Kenawell-Hoffecker also takes on divorcing or divorced clients to manage their wealth.

But never both. The rules of the Collaborative Process assure the couple that financial and mental health experts will be neutral, in part, by prohibiting the expert from taking on a spouse as a client following the divorce. The Process demands there be no incentive for a neutral expert to favor one side.

Conversely, financial advisors and therapists who represent one or both spouses can be confident referring their clients to the Collaborative Process, because the experts retained to be neutral during the divorce will not “steal” their clients after the divorce.

Ms. Kenawell-Hoffecker also reminds dueling spouses that with the hourly rates being charged for legal fees, that it is easy to quickly blow past the cost of the actual assets the couple is fighting over. Additionally, “the divorce is a tough enough decision to come to,” she says, “without adding salt to the wound.”

A Collaborative Divorce can avoid that, while expanding available solutions to maximize the goals of the couple.