Enforcement of Support and Orders

Parental Alienation RibbonThe mother’s alienation of the children from the father was the sole basis stated by the Second Department while upholding a change of custody to the father. In its March 25, 2015 decision in Halioris v. Halioris, the court affirmed an order of Suffolk County Family Court Judge Bernard Cheng.

The Second Department noted that modification of an existing court-sanctioned custody arrangement is permissible only upon a showing that there has been a change in circumstances such that modification is necessary to ensure the best interests of the child.

Parental alienation of a child from the other parent is an act so inconsistent with the best interests of the children as to, per se, raise a strong probability that the offending parent is unfit to act as custodial parent.

As custody determinations turn in large part on assessments of the credibility, character, temperament, and sincerity of the parties, Judge Cheng’s findings in connection with these issues would not be disturbed unless they lacked a sound and substantial basis in the record. Here, the Second Department found that Judge Cheng’s determinations that there had been a change in circumstances, and that a transfer of sole custody to the father would be in the children’s best interests, had such a sound and substantial basis in the record.

Moreover, the Second Department upheld Judge Cheng’s holding the mother in contempt for failing to cooperate with family therapy. Generally, in order to prevail on a motion to hold a party in civil contempt, the movant is required to prove by clear and convincing evidence:

  1. that a lawful order of the court, clearly expressing an unequivocal mandate, was in effect;
  2. that the order was disobeyed and the party disobeying the order had knowledge of its terms; and
  3. that the movant was prejudiced by the offending conduct.

Here, the father met his burden. Specifically, the father showed, by clear and convincing evidence, that the mother, with full knowledge of its requirements, violated a so-ordered stipulation that in part unequivocally mandated that the parties and the subject children engage in, cooperate with, and attend family therapy. The violation of the stipulation by the mother resulted in prejudice to the father. Accordingly, Judge Cheng properly granted the father’s petition to hold the mother in contempt for disobeying the stipulation.

Christopher J. Chimeri, of Hauppauge, represented the mother. The father represented himself. Domenik Veraldi, Jr., of Islandia, served as attorney for the children.

The third of four decisions this month with an international context was decided by New York County Supreme Court Justice Manuel J. Mendez.

In Bond v Lichtenstein (pdf), decided July 15, 2014, Justice Mendez granted a mother summary judgment in lieu of complaint under C.P.L.R. §3213 domesticating a $570,110.05 Hong Kong judgment for child support arrears.

The parties lived together for approximately one year beginning in April of 2006. The mother is a citizen of the United Kingdom and the father is a citizen of the United States. Not long after the mother found out she was pregnant, the relationship fell apart, and by April of 2007, the parties had separated.

On August 31, 2007, their female child was born in England. The mother currently resides with the daughter in Hong Kong and with another man.

On November 21, 2008, the mother commenced child support and paternity proceedings in England. There was a trial and resulting December 3, 2010 Support Order from the High Court of England.

The parties then entered into a consent summons for the purpose of obtaining a “mirror order” in Hong Kong reflecting the support obligations obtained by the mother in England and vacating the English Order. In November of 2012, the father submitted to jurisdiction in Hong Kong for obtaining the “mirror order” and resolving other related issues.

In May of 2013, the proceeding brought before the High Court of Hong Kong resulted in a four-day trial concerning child support. The father appeared for the trial by video. He submitted evidence and was represented by attorneys. On June 28, 2013, the High Court of Hong Kong, by Deputy High Court Judge, Bebe Pui Ying Chu, rendered an 87-page Opinion.

Continue Reading Melting Pot (Part 3 of 4): Domesticating the Foreign Child Support Judgment

A spouse’s pre-divorce judgment death results in the unenforceablitity of divorce action orders, including the automatic orders mandated by Domestic Relations Law §236(B)(2)(b). As a result, Westchester County Supreme Court Justice Paul I. Marx held in his April 17, 2014 decision in A.V.B. v. D.B. that a husband was without a remedy for his wife removing the husband as a beneficiary of her retirment account and life insurance policy.

After 13 years of marriage and two children, the wife commenced this divorce action on September 12, 2012. Pursuant to stipulated Preliminary Conference Orders, it was agreed that the wife would be awarded the divorce on the grounds of irretrievable breakdown, an Attorney for the Child was appointed and the pre-trial schedule was fixed.

On April 22, 2013, the wife committed suicide. During the administration of her Estate, it was learned that on February 14, 2013, while the divorce action was pending, the wife had changed the named beneficiaries on her ING 403(b) account from her husband as her sole beneficiary to the parties’ two children as 50% primary beneficiaries. It was further discovered that on or about March 10, 2013, the wife changed her designation of the husband as the sole named beneficiary on her Prudential life insurance policy to the husband as a 1% primary beneficiary, the parties’ daughter K. as a 49% beneficiary and daughter R. as a 50% beneficiary.

The husband’s counsel then submitted a letter to Justice Marx with a proposed order directing that the named beneficiaries on the wife’s ING account and Prudential life insurance policy revert back to the date of the commencement of the action and directing ING and Prudential to pay out the balance in the wife’s annuity and the “death benefit” under her life insurance policy to the named beneficiaries that existed before the changes were made. At that time, the husband’s lawyer also submitted the supporting affirmation of the attorney for wife’s Estate, declaring that the Estate consented to the proposed order.

Justice Marx declined to sign the proposed order. Instead, the Court scheduled a conference at which the Court directed defense counsel to move by Order to Show Cause. Although no papers were submitted in response to that motion, Justice Marx nevertheless denied it. The relief sought in the motion was not warranted by the law, nor by a good faith extension of the law.

While it is regrettable that Plaintiff violated the automatic orders and seems to have reached beyond the grave to thwart Defendant’s efforts to recover his share of her assets, this Court is unable to remedy the violation in this proceeding.

Continue Reading Automatic Orders, Violated During Divorce Action, Cannot Be Enforced After Pre-Judgment Death

Unemployment, alone, is not sufficient to avoid incarceration for the willful failure to pay child support. So held the First Department when on April 8, 2014 it affirmed the determination of Bronx County Family Court Judge Sidney Gribetz in Gina C. v. Augusto C.

Based upon the fact-finding determination of the Support Magistrate, Judge Gribetz had found that the father willfully violated a child support order, and committed him to the New York City Department of Corrections for a term of four months intermittent weekend incarceration, unless discharged by payment of $7,000.00 to the Child Support Collection Unit.

The First Department held that the Support Magistrate properly found that respondent wilfully violated the order of child support. The mother made her prima facie showing that the father’s failure to pay child support over a five year period was a willful violation of the order of support. The father failed to respond with a showing that the violation was not willful by evidence that he was unable to make the required payments. The father and his witnesses gave conflicting testimony as to whether he was working. There was no basis upon which to disturb the Support Magistrate’s credibility determinations.

Further, the appellate court held that unemployment alone does not establish inability to pay, especially given the father’s failure to show that he used his best efforts to obtain employment commensurate with his qualifications and experience. Moreover, prior to each court appearance, the father had appeared with a promise of employment and a minor payment on his outstanding arrears, only to lose the new job and discontinue support between hearing dates.

The father’s last minute attempts to avoid the consequences of his previous failure to pay, including staving off a potential jail sentence, should not be countenanced.

Not according to Richmond County Civil Court Judge (and Acting Suprme Court Justice) Philip S. Straniere, seemingly running afoul of a contrary body of case law, particularly in the Second Department.

Small Claims Court proceedings may well be the only practical way to redress relatively modest, but often important breaches of divorce settlement agreements as to matters of support and property. Such proceedings are quick, inexpensive, can be pursued without lawyers, and do substantial justice. Eliminating Small Claims Court as a proper forum for such relief would often leave parties without a reasonable remedy.

In his February 19, 2014 decision in Pivarnick v. Pivarnick, Judge Strainiere, held that Small Claims Court was without subject matter jurisdiction to enforce a divorce settlement agreement.

Doing so, he vacated an arbitrator’s $4,000 award to an ex-wife for counsel fees she incurred in connection with her submission to the Supreme Court of a proposed Qualified Domestic Relations Order to implement a division of the ex-husband’s pension and her defense of the ex-husband’s motion to dismiss that proposed QDRO. The ex-wife had cross-moved for sanctions “in the form of ‘attorneys’ fees for his engagement in frivolous conduct.’” Those post-divorce Supreme Court submissions were resolved by a so-ordered stipulation under which the entitlement of the ex-wife to share in the ex-husband’s pension was restated. No reference in the stipulation was made to the wife’s “attorneys’ fee claim” by cross-motion.

Thereafter, the ex-wife sought her counsel fees in Small Claims Court. The arbitrator had awarded the claimant legal fees in the amount of $4,000.00 and dismissed the defendant’s counterclaim for his own counsel fees.

Continue Reading Does Small Claims Court Have Jurisdiction to Resolve Divorce Settlement Agreement Disputes?

What is a “mandatory” college expense to be shared by the parents?

In its January 15, 2014 decision in Shaughnessy v. Cox, the Second Department upheld the order of Nassau County Family Court Judge Robin M. Kent (which in turn upheld the determination of Support Magistrate Neil Miller) directing the father to pay 50% of the college expenses of the parties’ children regardless of their emancipation. The parties’ stipulation of settlement of their divorce action so provided. Moreover, the father’s obligation included the repayment of expenses which were paid from the proceeds of student loans.

However, Magistrate Miller had required the father to pay those expenses “upon the mother’s presentation of proper documentation directly to him . . . .” This, the Second Department held was error. Rather, the documentation should be provided by the mother first to the Family Court. The Court would determine whether the expenses were mandatory and, therefore, payable by the father pursuant to the parties’ agreement.

Setting up a situation in which parties are required to go, in the first instance, to a court to determine whether a college expense is “mandatory,” seems like extra work is being created. Here, it is not explained why the mother did not present proper documentation of expenses prior to Magistrate Miller making his ruling. Alternatively, the appellate court could have set up a procedure by which only if the father disputed the mandatory nature of expenses claimed by the mother would further Family Court proceedings be necessary.

Once again, the controversy results from the failure of an agreement to properly set forth the categories of college expenses to be shared. Apparently this agreement only specified “mandatory” expenses.

Continue Reading Ambiguous Agreements to Pay for Children's College Expenses

The Second Department used its December 18th decision in El-Dehdan v. El-Dehdan to clarify the parties’ relative burdens of proof on an application for contempt where the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination has been invoked. The court also harmonized inconsistencies in case law as to the elements of civil contempt. The court held that there was no element of willfulness which needed to be shown to establish civil contempt, and that an adverse inference could be drawn from the invocation of the privilege against self-incrimination.

It is not necessary that the disobedience be deliberate or willful; rather, the mere act of disobedience, regardless of its motive, is sufficient if such disobedience defeats, impairs, impedes, or prejudices the rights or remedies of a party.

In this matrimonial action, Kings County Supreme Court Justice Eric I. Prus had held the husband in contempt of court for disobeying a court order dated January 29, 2010, which required him to deposit with the wife’s attorney the proceeds of a certain 2009 real estate transaction. Justice Prus imposed a civil sanction which allowed him to purge the contempt to avoid incarceration.

The husband appealed, contending that the wife failed to satisfy her burden of proof and that the Supreme Court improperly drew an adverse inference against him for invoking his privilege against self-incrimination during the contempt hearing.

Continue Reading Court Clarifies Civil Contempt and the Fifth Amendment Privilege

No retroactive fine or suspension of maintenance is to be  imposed against a wife who violated her so-ordered stipulation not to allow her paramour into the marital residence. Instead, suspension of maintenance and a fine would only be imposed prospectively and only until the wife complied with that stipulation. Civil contempt fines are not intended to punish the wrongdoer, but to secure future compliance with court orders.

Such was the holding of the Appellate Decision, Second Department, in its May 22, 2013 affirmance of Nassau County Supreme Court Justice Daniel Palmieri‘s order in Ruesch v. Ruesch.

For the pendency of this divorce action, the wife had been awarded exclusive possession of the marital home, temporary custody of the parties’ children, maintenance and child support.

At some point, the wife had permitted her alleged paramour to move into the marital home. In a so-ordered stipulation, the wife agreed that her paramour would be barred from entering the marital home absent further order of the court. A month later, the husband moved to hold the wife in contempt of that so-ordered stipulation because the paramour was continuing to reside in the marital residence.

Upon the wife’s admission that she permitted her paramour to continue to reside in the marital residence, Justice Palmieri held the wife in contempt pursuant to Judiciary Law §753. Justice Palmieri prospectively and temporarily suspended maintenance payments and imposed a fine of $250 for each day the wife remained in violation until the wife purged her contempt by demonstrating compliance with the so-ordered stipulation. Justice Palmieri denied the husband’s request for a counsel fee.

On appeal, the husband  contended that Justice Palmieri should have suspended maintenance payments and imposed a fine retroactive to the first day the wife violated the so-ordered stipulation.

The Second Department affirmed. Justice Palmieri had properly recognized that civil contempt fines are remedial in nature and not punitive. In the absence of a monetary loss for the husband, the contempt fine would be designed only to secure future compliance  with the so-ordered stipulation.

The appellate court held that unlike fines for criminal contempt where deterrence is the aim and the State is the aggrieved party entitled to the award, civil contempt fines must be remedial in nature and effect. The fine for a civil contempt should be formulated not to punish an offender, but solely to compensate or indemnify private complainants. Thus, a fine is considered civil and remedial if it either coerces the recalcitrant party into compliance with a court order, or compensates the claimant for some loss. The violator must be given the opportunity to comply, and thereby purge the violation.

Here, where the [husband] failed to prove an actual loss, any penalty that punished the [wife] for her past acts of disobedience would have been within the rubric of a criminal contempt and thus improper within this civil contempt adjudication. Accordingly, the Supreme Court did not err in suspending maintenance payments and imposing a fine only prospectively.

The Second Department also held there was no merit to the husband’s appeal of the denial of his application for an award of counsel fees.

In divorce actions, it is not uncommon for one party to be made the financial obligor, and the other to perform some action. If the power of the court is to be administered even-handedly, its remedies must be balanced.

Should our stipulations themselves state what the remedy will be for a violation? Will a liquidated damages provision be upheld?

If Ms. Ruesch can avoid even a slap on the wrist by finally complying with the order she had violated for four months, is respect for the court’s orders truly being promoted? Indeed, with the denial of even a counsel fee, what is the lesson to be learned here?

The husband was represented on the appeal by Edward K. Blodnick, Thomas R. Fazio, and Steven R. Talan of Blodnick, Fazio & Associates, P.C., of Garden City.

In his February 26, 2013 decision in J.K.C. v T.W.C., Monroe County Supreme Court Justice Richard A. Dollinger held that an attorney could not have a charging lien under Section 475 of the Judiciary Law against the IRA received by his former client (the wife) as her marital share of the husband’s IRA. IRAs, generally, are exempt from creditor’s claims pursuant to CPLR §5205(c)(2).
The attorney had represented the wife in a divorce action. In the retainer agreement, the attorney noted that if fees were due and owing at the time of his discharge, the attorney had the right to seek a charging lien which the agreement described as “a lien upon the property that was awarded to you as a result of equitable distribution in the final order or judgment in the case.” The client also signed a “statement of client’s rights and responsibilities” which stated that a court could give the attorney a charging lien which “entitled your attorney to payment for services already rendered at the end of the case out of the proceeds of the final order or judgment.”

Justice Dollinger recognized several facts as pertinent to his analysis:

  • There was no evidence that the wife ever contested her attorney’s charges until after the judgment of divorce;
  • There was no allegation before the court that the wife ever agreed to pay the attorney’s fees specifically from the IRA account;
  • There was no evidence that the wife possesses any other assets, distributed under the divorce judgment, available to satisfy the charging lien; and
  • There was no allegation that the client, in the divorce judgment, engaged in any collusive or other improper behavior to thwart the attorney’s recovery of his fees.

Holding that a charging lien could not be asserted against an IRA, Justice Dolinger also considered:

  • The federal tax consequences on any withdrawal;
  • The penalty imposed when an unqualified withdrawals is made;
  • The actual ownership of the trust funds by the trustee;
  • The “anti-alienation” provisions of ERISA;
  • The wife’s never having “available cash proceeds” during the trustee-to-trustee transfer of the funds from the husband’s IRA to her own;
  • The broad language protecting IRA roll-overs from the reach of creditors in CPLR §5205;
  • The lack of express direction in Section 475 in the Judiciary Law to permit a charging lien against retirement funds; and
  • The lack of any provisions relating to a charging lien for attorneys fees under New York’s Domestic Relations Law.

Continue Reading Collecting Counsel Fees in Divorce Actions: Charging Lien Against IRA Denied

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)