Is a child who leaves one parent’s residence to live with the other “constructively emancipated,” depriving the new residential parent of child support relief? In its May 30, 2018 decision in Root v. Root, the Appellate Division, Second Department, said no.

The parties were married in 1992, and have two children together. The parties were divorced in 2012, with the judgment incorporating, but not merging the parties’ stipulation of settlement. The parties had agreed to joint custody of their children, with residential custody to the mother. Pursuant to the judgment, the father was obligated to pay the mother child support and a pro rata share of certain add-on expenses.

In August 2015, the father filed a petition to modify his support obligation. The father argued that the parties’ son had moved in with him and, therefore, he was entitled to an offset against his child support obligation for the amount he was expending to support that child. The mother opposed the petition, arguing that the father was not entitled to an offset because the son was constructively emancipated.

After a hearing, Westchester County Family Court Support Magistrate Rosa Cabanillas-Thompson issued an order in which she found that the child was constructively emancipated, and thus that the father was not entitled to an offset against his child support obligation for the amount he was expending to support that child. Family Court Judge Nilda Morales Horowitz denied the father’s objections to the Support Magistrate’s order, and the father appealed.

The Second Department reversed: the Support Magistrate should not have found that the son was constructively emancipated and that the father was not entitled to an offset against his child support obligation for the amount he was expending to support that child.

The appellate court noted that a child may be deemed constructively emancipated if, without cause, the child withdraws from parental supervision and control. Thus, a child of employable age and in full possession of his or her faculties who voluntarily and without cause abandons his or her home, against the will of the parents and for the purpose of avoiding parental control, forfeits the right to demand support.

Here, however, the mother failed to sustain her burden of establishing that the parties’ son was constructively emancipated. The son’s move from one parent’s home to the other parent’s home did not constitute constructive emancipation, as [the son] was neither self-supporting nor free from parental control.

Accordingly, the matter was remitted to the Family Court, Westchester County, for a recalculation of the father’s child support obligation.

Notably absent from the decision was any reference to what the parties’ Stipulation of Settlement did nor did not provide in the event of a change of residence of a child. Was the change of residence deemed an emancipation event? Did the Stipulation contemplate the event? Also, why would the relief be an offset based upon what the father was “expending to support that child?” Why would there not be a redermination based upon offsetting C.S.S.A. presumptive formula awards?

Daniel L. Pagano, of Yorktown Heights, represented the father; the mother represented herself.

May a non-custodial parent withhold his or her consent from the custodial parent’s efforts to obtain a passport for a child? Apparently not, especially if the need for the passport is for the child to visit an ailing grandparent.

In Snowden v. Snowden, a June 6, 2018 decision of the Appellate Division, Second Department, the parties’s June 27, 2016 divorce judgment was entered upon the father’s default. The judgment provided that the mother would have custody of the parties’ minor child, and the father would have physical access.

Following the divorce, the mother attempted to obtain a passport for the child so that the child could visit her ailing maternal grandmother in South America. However the father refused to provided his needed consent and thus, the mother was unable to obtain the passport.

As a result, and within three months of the entry of the divorce judgment, the mother filed a petition pursuant to Family Court Act Article 6, seeking to modify the judgment of divorce so as to award her sole legal and residential custody of the child and to permit her to obtain a passport for the child. Following a hearing, Suffolk County Family Court Ct. Atty. Ref. Colleen M. Fondulis granted the mother’s petition. The father appealed.

The Second Department affirmed. The Court held that Referee Fondulus had properly determined that a change in circumstances sufficient to support a modification of the judgment of divorce was established by the mother’s inability to obtain a passport for the child so that the child could visit her maternal grandmother and the father’s refusal to consent to the mother obtaining the passport. The totality of the circumstances justified the modification so as to award the mother sole legal and residential custody of the child and to permit her to obtain a passport for the child in order to protect the best interests of the child. Accordingly, the Second Department held the determination of Referee Fondulus was supported by a sound and substantial basis in the record and would not be disturbed.

It is not clear what practical changes were caused by the change in the custody award itself, as the mother had had legal and primary residential custody under the divorce judgment. However, it is clear that to withhold consent to a passport application, a parent should have a substantial reason.

Kevin G. McClancy, of Central Islip, NY, represented the mother. Gina M. Scelta, of Huntington, represented the father. Jordan M. Freundlich, of Lake Success, NY, served as attorney for the child.

What is the effect of a divorce settlement stipulation provision, incorporated in the judgment of divorce, that calls for a specified reduction in child support upon the emancipation of one of the children of the parties?

The fact pattern is almost routine. For example, say the parties have three children, 14, 17 and 19. Their divorce settlement tracks the C.S.S.A. Upon the first emancipation (presumably when the 19-year old turns 21, or, perhaps graduates college according to the definition of emancipation in the agreement), the stipulation provides that the child support obligation will go from $2,900 per month to $2,500 per month (tracking the reduction in the formula obligation from 29% for three children to 25% for two children). Assume the full stipulation is incorporated by reference into the parties’ divorce judgment.

Continuing the example, assume that upon the first emancipation, the child support payor in fact reduces his/her payment from $2900 to $2500, but does not have that reduction established by a new court order. A year later, the support recipient goes into court to seek 12 months of $400/per/month arrears. What happens?

Consider last month’s decision of the Appellate Division, Second Department, in Beckmann v. Bedckmann. There, the parties’ 2012 divorce judgment incorporated, but did not merge with, their 2011 stipulation of settlement. The parties had agreed that the husband would pay $700 semi-monthly in basic child support for their two children. In April 2013, the parties’ daughter became emancipated under the terms of the stipulation, and shortly thereafter, the husband reduced his child support payments from $700 to $476 semi-monthly [I am going to dangerously assume that an agreement that defined emancipation would also provide what was to happen on emancipation].

Continue Reading Divorce Settlements that Provide for Reductions in Child Support upon Emancipation

In its March 21, 2018 decision in Elkins v. Mizrahi, the Appellate Division, Second Department, struck a credit issued at the time a father’s new child support obligation was established. That determination tacitly affirmed the new obligation, after a lower court found that a prior waiver of future child support, to which both parties had stipulated, violated public policy. However, the same lower court had previously discharged prior arrears and terminated the father’s support obligation in the order entered that had incorporated that prior stipulation of the parties.

The parties, who have three children together, were divorced in March 2008. In 2014, the parties entered into a stipulation whereby they agreed, inter alia, that the father would pay the mother a lump sum of $50,000.00 in full satisfaction of his accrued child support arrears, which, at that time, exceeded $70,000.00, and that the father’s child support obligation would be terminated going forward. The mother received the $50,000.00 payment on November 21, 2014.

In an order dated January 29, 2015, Nassau County Family Court Judge Ellen R. Greenberg gave effect to the stipulation, terminated the father’s future child support obligation, and directed that the father’s remaining child support arrears of $21,385.46 be deemed satisfied.

Continue Reading Waiver of Future Child Support Voided, But Miscalculated Credit Struck

What happens on divorce when during the marriage, the marital residence that had been owned by one spouse prior to the marriage is conveyed during the marriage to the parties jointly? That was the issue addressed by the Appellate Division, Second Department, in its decision this month in Spencer-Forrest v. Forrest.

The parties were married on March 31, 1984. There were no children of the marriage, but children from each of the parties’ prior marriages resided with the parties in the marital residence during the children’s respective minorities. Both parties were employed for the majority of the marriage, and the wife provided care for the husband’s children, who were younger and resided in the marital residence longer than her children.

The husband had purchased the marital residence prior to the marriage, and transferred the property to himself and the wife as joint tenants in 1989. Other than the marital residence, the parties’ assets were held in their respective names. Both parties contributed to the household expenses, although the husband contributed a larger sum to household expenses and maintenance of the marital residence, and the wife ceased financial contributions in 2006 or 2007, after she retired.

In August, 2012, the wife commenced this action for a divorce and ancillary relief. The wife was 68 years old and the husband was 67 years old at the time of trial.

Except for the marital residence, Nassau County Supreme Court Justice Stacy D. Bennett divided the marital property) equally (other than the vehicles and personal items) regardless of the party holding title. As to the residence, Justice Bennett awarded the wife 20% of the appreciation in the value of the marital residence from 1989 (when the husband conveyed the home to the parties jointly) through the date of the commencement of the action, an award amounting to $30,000. The court declined to award the parties credits sought for assets allegedly secreted or wasted by the other party and denied the wife an award of maintenance.

Continue Reading When One Spouse Transfers Sole Title to the Home to Both Spouses Jointly

In the first New York appellate decision to rule on the issue, the Appellate Division, Second Department held in its February 28, 2018 opinion in Spencer v. Spencer, that violations of matrimonial action “Automatic Orders” can be grounds for a finding of civil contempt, but an application for that relief must be made before the entry of the judgment of divorce.

The facts are straightforward. Following the entry of her November, 2015 divorce judgment, the wife discovered that while the divorce action was pending, her husband sold a warehouse in Brooklyn, without the knowledge or consent of the wife or the court. He netted $300,000.00.

Under Court Rule 22 N.Y.C.R.R. §202.16-a, the listed orders are binding upon a plaintiff upon commencement of the matrimonial action and upon a defendant upon service of the summons or summons and complaint (see Domestic Relations Law § 236[B][2][b]). Automatic Orders seek to preserve the status quo while the action is pending, by prohibiting the transfer or encumbrance of real and personal property and retirement funds, the accumulation of unreasonable debt, and changes in beneficiaries on existing health and life insurance policies.

The wife, then, sought to hold the husband in civil contempt (Judiciary Law §753). After a hearing, Richmond County Supreme Court Justice Catherine M. DiDomenico granted that motion. Justice DiDomenico directed that, unless the defendant purged the contempt by immediately paying $150,000 to the wife, the husband would be incarcerated every weekend for a period of six months. The husband appealed.

Continue Reading Contempt Available for Violators of “Automatic Orders”

In its February 7, 2018 decision in Matter of Koegel, the Appellate Division, Second Department, held that defects in the acknowledgment forms in a 30-year old prenuptial agreement, i.e., the failure of the notary to recite that he knew the signatory, could be cured following the death of one of the parties.

Irene and John Koegel were married in August, 1984. Mr. Koegel had been widowed twice before marrying Irene. Mrs. Koegel had been widowed in July 1983. The Koegels were married for more than 29 years at the time of Mr. Koegel’s death in 2014. A month before their marriage, the Koegels had executed a prenuptial agreement.

Among other provisions the agreement provided that the parties ‘would not make a claim as a surviving spouse on any part of the estate of the other. Further, they irrevocably waived and relinquished ‘all right[s] to . . . any elective or statutory share granted under the laws of any jurisdiction.’ Both the decedent and Irene desired that their marriage ‘shall not in any way change their pre-existing legal right, or that of their respective children and heirs, in the property belonging to each of them at the time of said marriage or thereafter acquired.’

Continue Reading Defective Acknowledgment in Prenuptial Agreement Cured After 30 years

Despite repeated efforts to bring predictability and consistency to temporary support awards, that goal remains elusive. Consider the December, 2017 decision of the Appellate Division, Third Department, in Rouis v. Rouis.

The parties were married in 1993 and had two children. After the husband departed the marital residence, the wife commenced this action for divorce in 2014. Applying the pre-2015 temporary maintenance formula on the wife’s motion for temporary relief, Sullivan County Supreme Court Justice Mary MacMaster Work granted the wife, among other things, temporary maintenance ($1,958 per month) and child support ($2,720 per month) and required the husband to pay for the carrying costs and upkeep of the marital home ($4,859 per month), private school for the youngest child ($848 per month), health insurance for the family ($1,921 per month), interim counsel fees ($10,000) and the wife’s vehicle and fuel costs ($644 per month). The husband appealed.

Recognizing that the combined monthly awards amounted to an annual award of $155,400 plus $10,000 in interim counsel fees, to be paid from the husband’s annual gross income of $183,300.50 (the wife’s pre-award income was $11,700.00), the Third Department agreed that the temporary awards were excessive and should be modified.

The appellate court noted that the (pre-2015) temporary maintenance formula resulted in a presumptive monthly temporary maintenance amount of $4,387.50. Justice Work also granted the wife’s request that the husband also pay the $4,859 in expenses, including the mortgage, taxes, utilities, insurance and upkeep. Justice Work recognized that it would not be equitable to require the husband to pay full maintenance, child support and all carrying costs on the marital home, and therefor essentially credited the husband for one half of the carrying costs on the home ($2,429.50 per month) by reducing the presumptive maintenance award by that amount, resulting in a temporary maintenance award of $1,958 per month. The lower court also ordered the husband to pay the full monthly carrying costs on the home ($4,859) in which he did not reside. The appellate court noted that when the wife’s vehicle expenses were added ($644 per month), the total combined monthly award was $7,461, plus tuition ($848 per month) and child support. The net effect of Supreme Court’s order was that the husband was ordered to pay the full presumptive maintenance award plus one half of the carrying costs on the home and the wife’s vehicle expenses.

Continue Reading Do Temporary Support Awards Include Marital Residence Expenses?

Where the results of a 2007 prenuptial agreement waiver of maintenance would be a risk that a mother of three children would become a public charge, the agreement would be set aside for being unconscionable at the time of divorce. So held the Appellate Division, Second Department, in its January 10, 2018 decision in Taha v. Elzemity.

The parties were married in 2007, and had three children. Shortly before their marriage, they entered into a prenuptial agreement. The agreement provided, inter alia, that each party waived the right to the other’s separate property in the event of separation or divorce; each party would keep separate bank accounts; and the husband’s maintenance obligation would be limited to a lump sum payment of $20,000.

In 2008, the parties moved into the marital residence, which was purchased with funds from the husband’s bank account, and the deed and mortgage were placed solely in his name.

The husband had been practicing medicine since 1987 and earned approximately $300,000 annually. The wife, who had been employed part-time as a sales person when the parties met, did not work outside the home during the marriage, but dedicated herself to the care of the household and the parties’ children, one with special needs.

In October 2013, the husband commenced this divorce action. The wife moved to set aside the prenuptial agreement, among other grounds, because it was unconscionable. The husband cross-moved for summary judgment determining that the prenuptial agreement was valid and enforceable. After a hearing, Supreme Court, Richmond County Justice Catherine M. DiDomenico found that the prenuptial agreement was not unconscionable. The wife appealed.

The Second Department reversed. It noted that:

An agreement between spouses or prospective spouses should be closely scrutinized, and may be set aside upon a showing that it is unconscionable, or the result of fraud, or where it is shown to be manifestly unfair to one spouse because of overreaching on the part of the other spouse.

Further, the Court stated, “an agreement is unconscionable if it is one which no person in his or her senses and not under delusion would make on the one hand, and no honest and fair person would accept on the other, the inequality being so strong and manifest as to shock the conscience and confound the judgment of any person of common sense.” Moreover:

An agreement that might not have been unconscionable when entered into may become unconscionable at the time a final judgment would be entered.

Here, the appellate court held that the wife met her burden of proof as to unconscionability. Contrary to the lower court’s determination, the wife established that the prenuptial agreement was, at the time this action was before the court, unconscionable.

Enforcement of the agreement would result in the risk of the wife’s becoming a public charge. The wife, who was unemployed, largely without assets, and the primary caregiver for the parties’ young children, would, under the prenuptial agreement, receive only $20,000, in full satisfaction of all claims, even though the husband earns approximately $300,000 annually as a physician. Accordingly, the wife’s motion to set aside the prenuptial agreement should have been granted.

Catherine S. Bridge, of Staten Island, represented the wife. Arnold E. DiJoseph, P.C., of Manhattan, of counsel to Kuharski, Levitz & Giovinazzo, represented the husband.

When negotiating a divorce settlement agreement, the parties should agree on whether or not all child support-related rights and obligations must be redetermined in the event the periodic basic child support obligation is modified.

Take the recent Appellate Division, Second Department, decision in Walsh v. Walsh. There the parties’ settlement agreement was incorporated, but not merged into their 2014 judgment of divorce. Under that agreement, the father was to pay $500 per month in child support.

After the parties divorced, the father began collecting Social Security benefits in addition to his salary, which caused his income to increase by more than 15%. In their agreement, the parties did not opt out of allowing the court to modify the support order, without requiring a party to allege or demonstrate a substantial change in circumstances, where either party’s gross income changed by 15% or more since the order was entered or modified. The mother petitioned for an upward modification of the father’s child support obligation.

Family Court Suffolk County Support Magistrate Kathryn L. Coward granted the upward modification on the basis of the father’s increased income. Calculating the father’s child support obligation under the Child Support Standards Act, the Magistrate awarded the mother $2,074 per month in child support.

The father objected to the Support Magistrate’s order. Family Court Judge Matthew G. Hughes denied the father’s objections. The father appealed. The Second Department affirmed.

Continue Reading Are The Various Types of Child Support Benefits Interrelated?