It is not rare, and may be commendable, to resolve child support obligations based upon anticipated future circumstances: an expected job, obtaining a degree or license, etc. However, when doing so, care must be taken to anticipate not meeting those expectations. When is relief available? The issue is complicated if the parties “opt out” of the statutory ability to seek a modification upon a 15% change in income or three years from the support order.

Consider the 2021 decision of the First Department in Matter of Solomon M. v. Adelaide M., 192 A.D.3d 424, 142 N.Y.S.3d 542. There, at the time the parties entered their child support stipulation, the husband was unemployed and had no income. When the husband later obtained a job, the husband complained his take home pay was inadequate to cover his agree-upon support obligations.

The husband petitioned the Family Court for a downward modification. Bronx County Support Magistrate Shira Atzmon denied the husband’s petition. The Magistrate noted that the husband’s financial situation and potential earning capabilities had actually improved by the time of his petition as compared with the time of the stipulation he sought to modify. By the time of his petition, the husband had earned an MBA and was earning approximately $30,000 per year. Bronx County Family Court Judge Phaedra Perry denied the husband’s objections to the Magistrate’s order. The Appellate Division, First Department, affirmed.

Continue Reading Anticipating Future Finances when Agreeing to Support Obligations

Does a four-day delay in notarization by the mediator/notary of a separation agreement  executed by the parties in a Zoom session with the mediator render the agreement invalid? In his June 29, 2021 decision in Ryerson v. Ryerson, Warren County Acting Supreme Court Justice Richard B. Meyer held it did not.

The parties used William J. McCoskery as mediator to assist them in resolving various matters attendant to their divorce. They met once in person with the mediator, during which he advised both parties to consult with an attorney. Based upon his discussions with the parties, the mediator prepared a 15-page separation agreement and emailed it to both parties for their review. The husband claimed not to have read the complete document.

The Governor declared the Covid state of emergency on March 7, 2020. Notarization using audio-video technology was authorized by Executive Order No. 202.7. That Order provides:

Any notarial act that is required under New York State law is authorized to be performed utilizing audio-video technology provided that the following conditions are met:

    • The person seeking the Notary’s services, if not personally known to the Notary, must present valid photo ID to the Notary during the video conference, not merely transmit it prior to or after;
    • The video conference must allow for direct interaction between the person and the Notary (e.g. no pre-recorded videos of the person signing);
    • The person must affirmatively represent that he or she is physically situated in the State of New York;
    • The person must transmit by fax or electronic means a legible copy of the signed document directly to the Notary on the same date it was signed;
    • The Notary may notarize the transmitted copy of the document and transmit the same back to the person; and
    • The Notary may repeat the notarization of the original signed document as of the date of execution provided the Notary receives such original signed document together with the electronically notarized copy within thirty days after the date of execution.

Continue Reading Delayed Notarization by Mediator Does Not Invalidate Separation Agreement Signed Over Zoom

Is a divorce settlement agreement that mandates that the children attend school within a particular school district satisfied by the children being home schooled within that district? Maybe, held the Third Department in its June 17, 2021 decision in Matter of John U. v. Sara U.

The parties were the divorced parents of two children (born in 2010 and 2012). They entered a separation agreement in October 2017, which was modified in September 2019. The agreement provided for joint legal custody and shared physical custody of the children. As is here relevant, it contained a provision that:

[s]o long as the [father] maintains a residence in [a certain school district,] the children shall continue to attend school within [that school district] unless both parties expressly agree in writing to change the schools of the children.

Prior to the 2019-2020 school year, the children had attended a certain public elementary school in that school district. The children had a religious exemption from vaccination. After a June 2019 change in state law eliminated such religious exemptions for students (see Public Health Law § 2164), and after the district’s denial of the mother’s requests for medical exemptions, the unvaccinated children were removed from their school in September 2019 and the mother began home schooling instruction at her home.

Continue Reading Is Home-Schooling “Attending” School?

It is common for child support to continue to be paid while a child is away at college. A child often will return  home for perhaps four months of the year. What happens when the student just stays there year round?

Often in divorce stipulations of settlement, the parties will define when a child will be deemed emancipated terminating the child support obligation. One of those occasions is often a permanent change of residence of the child away from the residence of the deemed custodial parent.

It is common for such a change of residence to exclude one occasioned by a child’s attending college away from home. Such reflects that the custodial parent must have shelter available; and pay for food and other expenses while the child is home. Often, expenses for clothing, entertainment, and other items are paid year round. Sometimes a credit is given against the periodic support obligation for all or some fraction of the room and board expenses paid by child support payor.

What happens when a child simply does not return home while attending college? That was the issue presented to Nassau County Family Court Support Magistrate Sondra Toscano in Matter of Anthony C. v. Alison C., 2021 N.Y.Misc. Lexis 3115.

Continue Reading Terminating Child Support While Child Away at College

The calculation of a retroactive periodic child support award to the wife and offsetting that award with credits for a retroactive award to the husband for the wife’s unpaid share of add-on expenses was the subject of the September 30, 2020 decision of the Appellate Division, Second Department in Levi v. Levi.

The parties were married in 2003 and had two children. On May 7, 2014, the husband commenced this action for a divorce. Pursuant to a pendente lite order dated September 3, 2014, the husband was directed to pay the wife $500 per month for temporary spousal maintenance, $750 per month for temporary child support, 100% of unreimbursed medical, dental, and eyeglasses expenses for the wife and the children, and to pay the expenses for certain therapists and tutors for the children.

At trial, it was established that the husband was employed full-time by the MTA, then earning a salary of $ 99,000 annually. The wife, a licensed optician, worked part-time at a neurovisual practice, earning $20 per hour, for an average of 25 hours per week.

In a February 8, 2017 decision after trial, Supreme Court Nassau County Justice Robert A. Bruno determined that the wife’s annual earnings of $26,000 represented 21% of the parties’ combined income. The trial court calculated the husband’s child support obligation under the Child Support Standards Act at $1,899.91 monthly, awarding that sum retroactive to the date of the wife’s application for pendente lite support.

Child support arrears were calculated to be $66,496.85, using the husband’s income at the time of trial to base the award retroactive to mid-2014, some 2½ years earlier when the husband was earning less. The husband appealed.

Continue Reading Retroactive Child Support Awards: Heads I Win, Tails You Lose?

Can a court order a parent to impose discipline on children who voluntarily refuse to engage in court-ordered visitation with the other parent? Yes, said Monroe County Supreme Court Justice Richard A. Dollinger in his September 18, 2020 opinion in Matthew A. v. Jennifer A., enforcing a separation agreement’s schedule. The parents had determined what was in their children’s best interests; it was the Court’s job to help them “drive the bus,” using the parents’ authority to impose discipline on children, as well as the Court’s contempt powers, to enforce that schedule.

The parties were the parents of three boys, 10, 12 and 14, who resided primarily with their mother under a separation agreement that was less than two years old. Because of the distance between the parents’ homes, the father’s agreed-upon one midweek dinner with the boys was not specified. However, the agreement provided that if the father moved closer to the mother’s home, such would constitute a substantial change in circumstances permitting the father to seek a modification.

A year after the divorce, the father did move closer to the mother’s home. The father filed a motion seeking to expanded his alternate weekend time with the children to include Sunday overnights. He also sought to hold the mother in contempt for her alleged failure to follow the original schedule. For her part, the mother filed her own visitation modification petition seeking fewer visitation hours alleging, “the children’s wishes have changed;” the children did not want to have any dinner visits with their father if they had organized activities after school.

At a preliminary appearance, Justice Dollinger warned the mother that he was ordering the mother to restrict the children’s privileges and access to extracurricular activities if the children continued to fail to attend visitation. Justice Dollinger warned that he could hold a residential parent in contempt if the parents failed to strictly enforce the disciplinary restrictions set forth in a court order.

Continue Reading Making Mom Make the Kids Visit Dad

Generally, it is the more “successful” spouse who submits the proposed judgment of divorce to the Court to be signed and entered. In all events, a spouse who intends to take an appeal on an issue must make sure:

  • that the issue to be appealed is covered by the judgment;
  • or an appeal is taken separately from the order deciding the issue; or
  • an amended judgment is entered and an appeal is taken from that amended judgment.

Take the July 8, 2020 decision of the Appellate Division, Second Department, in D’Arrigo v. D’Arrigo. Among the issues resolved on appeal, the Second Department extended to five years the three-year maintenance award of $7,500 per month made by Westchester County Supreme Court Justice Victor Grossman.

The Second Department also affirmed Justice Grossman’s award to the husband of a $118,000 separate property credit for realty he owned before the marriage and transferred to himself and the wife, jointly, after the marriage. This was not a dollar-for-dollar credit, but rather a credit calculated, in part, upon the proof of the husband’s equity in the property. The lower court had denied the husband’s request for a credit representing the full value of the property at the time that it was converted to marital property because of deficiencies in his proof of the mortgage balance at the time it was converted to marital property.

However, the Second Department declined to consider the husband’s contention that the award of counsel fees to the wife was excessive. Justice Grossman’s order awarding the wife fees, was decided on the same day as the judgment of divorce was signed, and was not incorporated into the judgment. Thus, the order did not “necessarily affect” the final judgment and could not be reviewed (CPLR 5501[a][1]). Either the husband needed to take an appeal from the order, itself, or make sure that the award was included in the judgment (or amended judgment) appealed from.

Maureen A. Dunn, of Johnson & Cohen, LLP, of White Plains, represented the wife. Heidi A. Tallentire and Ryan J. Casson, of Blank Rome, LLP, of Manhattan, represented the husband.

The parties’ 2013 divorce stipulation of settlement provided that child support for their two children would be adjusted annually. Beginning May 1, 2014:

“the parties shall set by April 30, a payment schedule of the Parent’s total obligation for base child support ‘made pursuant to the formula set forth below and income caps for the fiscal year beginning May 1 and continuing through April 30th of the following year. This schedule shall be based on the actual income’ for the previous calendar year. The Father shall then pay this base child support’ amount to the Mother in monthly installments.” [emphasis added]

For the purpose of computing base child support, the stipulation defined “income” as “the gross earned income solely attributable to a party and as listed on the Form 1040 United States Individual Income Tax Return filed by the parties, less (1) FICA taxes actually paid; (2) Medicare taxes actually paid; less (3) New York City or Yonkers income or earnings taxes actually paid.”

In 2016, the mother received a salary of $86,801 for her work as a veterinarian. She also received $39,631 in “[o]rdinary dividends” and $245,629 in “[r]ental real estate, royalties, partnerships, S corporations, trusts, etc.”  In 2017, the father calculated his base child support obligation using the mother’s adjusted gross income of $369,092. The mother disputed the calculation, contending that the income derived from her ownership interest in the LLCs was not “earned” income and therefore did not fall under the stipulation’s definition of “income.”

Continue Reading Drafting Income Calculations in Divorce Settlement Agreements

Under their 2013 mediated divorce settlement agreement, these ex-spouses agreed to continue to jointly own and operate their distribution business. The agreement reported that their “solid working relationship with a high level of trust in one another’s skills” made “co-ownership a viable solution.” The ex-husband was to receive 30% of the joint business’s profit going forward, and the ex-wife would retain the remaining 70%.

Five years later, the ex-wife commenced this action alleging that after the divorce, the ex-husband began distributing rival products, poached a number of associates from the joint business, ceased recruiting new associates for the joint business, and assisted his new fiancée in establishing her own competing business — all to the detriment of the parties’ joint business. Based on these allegations, the ex-wife claimed that the joint business was no longer viable. She sought, in effect, to terminate the business and obtain such other relief to which she may be entitled.

Continue Reading Continuing a Jointly-Owned Business after a Divorce

Appreciation. Innovation. Frustration. All can be heard in New York County Supreme Court Justice Matthew Cooper’s May 18, 2020 decision in Chu v. Lin, dealing with parenting and marital residence issues in an ongoing divorce action. Justice Cooper begins with praise of the New York court system’s stepping up to adapt and press on during the COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, it may “its finest hour.” At the same time, he bemoans the inadequacy of the new technology.

“While the true heroes of this medical emergency are undoubtedly health care workers, first responders, and other front-line workers who have put their health, and even their lives, on the line caring for others and supplying vital goods and services, an immense amount of credit must also be given to those who have managed to keep our courts open and running under the most difficult of circumstances imaginable. An independent, operational court system may not be an absolute necessity for sustaining life itself, but it is nevertheless an essential component of life as we know it in this country, as it is of any full-fledged constitutional democracy.”

In Chu, the pandemic exacerbated existing problems with parental access. Throughout the divorce action’s two-year history, a lasting resolution on custody and parental access had been stymied by a toxic mix of dysfunctional parenting, allegations of domestic violence, the existence of a Family Court Order of Protection, and an inability to abide by court orders.

Continue Reading Parenting Issues under COVID, Part II