Modification-agreements-and-stipulations

Handshake 1.jpgParticularly when it comes to agreements fixing child support obligations, “shaking on it” is simply not enough.

Both the Domestic Relations Law and the Family Court Act authorize parents to enter agreements which establish their child support obligations. DRL §§236B(3) and 240(1-b)(h) and FCA §413(1)(h) set out many requirements for such agreements.

Nothing suggests that

U-haul.jpgWhen a judge works this hard to provide a searching analysis of a difficult question, we should sit up and take notice.

Should an unemployed father be required to prove why he should not have to relocate to seek/obtain employment in his field as a condition to him receiving a downward modification of his child support obligations?

Presenting a scholarly review of decisions in New York and around the country, Monroe County Supreme Court Justice Richard A. Dollinger crafted a test to determine whether a parent with substantial child support obligations, and unique job skills, is required as a matter of law to geographically expand his search for employment.

The essential facts in Szalapski v. Schwartz are not unfamiliar. The former spouses have three children, ranging in ages from 10 to 15. When the parties were divorced in 2005, the father was earning $82,000 annually; the mother approximately $6,000. The father’s child support obligation was $1,826.49 monthly.

Mr. Szaplapski (the “father”) is a “multi-disciplinary physicist,” with a career in academia before serving as a staff engineer. He left academics in 2004, electing to stay in western New York to accommodate his family. He worked in software design for which he had only marginal qualifications. In July, 2010, the father was laid off. After his severance pay ended, he received unemployment insurance benefits of $405 per week.

In the application being decided by Justice Dollinger, the father, now remarried, sought to reduce his child support obligation. He alleged that he was unable to find comparable employment in the geographic area where his children live.  His ex-wife challenged the diligence of his job search, but also argued that because of the father’s unique talents, the court must require him to diligently search for employment in a broader geographic area. That the father failed to do.

Justice Dollinger began with a detailed legal and factual analysis of the father’s search for employment in the Rochester area where the parties lived. This exhaustive analysis, itself, presented a primer on the diligent efforts necessary to withstand a motion to dismiss an application for a downward modification of a child support obligation based upon the loss of employment. Based upon the evidence presented Justice Dollinger found that the father presented “a prima facie case for a hearing.”

Noting that a parent’s child support obligations are “paramount.” Justice Dollinger then turned “to the second question: is the applicant required to demonstrate a reasonable job search outside the local community and, if so, how far does his job search have to extend?”


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scissors contract 2.jpgWhat happens when only one provision of an agreement is invalid because it violates some statute or public policy?  The answer may depend on who the court wants to benefit, instead of consistently-applied rules of contract law.

Take, for example the April 5, 2011 decision of the Second Department in Duggan v. Duggan.  In that case, the parties had resolved their divorce by a surviving February 26, 2009 stipulation of settlement. Under that stipulation, the father, who had gross income of $475,000.00, agreed to pay a base monthly child support obligation of $8,000.00.  That amount deviated from the presumptive amount under the Child Support Standards Act (C.S.S.A.) of $11,929.54. The mother had no income.

Apparently, the stipulation also had a provision which called for the reduction in the father’s monthly obligation in the event his income was reduced.

In 2010, the mother brought a Family Court enforcement proceeding when the father ceased making the payments to which he originally agreed. The father raised the stipulation’s modification provision, arguing that his $8,243.00 annual reduction in income to $466,757.00 entitled him to a $76,800.00 annual reduction in child support (to $1,600.00 per month)!

Finding that the father’s interpretation of the stipulation modification provision was “not plausible,” Nassau County Family Court Judge Julianne S. Eisman denied the father’s objections to the Order of Support Magistrate Tejindar S. Kahlon which granted the mother’s arrears petition. Finding that the language of the Stipulation, as interpreted by the father, would violate the C.S.S.A., and was against the best interests of the children, the modification provision was ignored.

On appeal, the Second Department affirmed, holding that the Family Court had the authority to find that a provision in a stipulation of settlement violated the C.S.S.A. The appellate court found that a provision which called for a reduction in child support to 13% of the presumptive C.S.S.A. amount, merely because the father’s income dropped by 1.7% was “against the best interests of the children.”

It is noteworthy that the appellate court did not quote the startling modification provision. Equally noteworthy is that there was no discussion of any interpretation of the modification provision other than the one the Family Court considered implausible.

In order to have obtained the Judgment of Divorce, it would have been necessary to have made the recitation in the stipulation of settlement that the parties had been made aware of the C.S.S.A. and its presumptive formula in their case. D.R.L. §240(1-b)(h).  The parties would have had to have stated the reasons they agreed to deviate from the C.S.S.A guidelines. Specific Findings of Fact would have been made by the Supreme Court upholding those reasons.

It is understandable that the presumed failure of the Supreme Court to review the specific modification provision might not estop the mother from later attacking that provision when it was sought to be applied. Thus, the form language of a divorce judgment that “the parties are directed to comply with every legally enforceable term and provision” of the agreement incorporated into the judgment, does not mean that every provision is, in fact, legally enforceable.

What then is, or should be the impact of rendering unenforceable only one provision of a settlement agreement?


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Change Buttonl.jpgEffective October 14, 2010, amendments to D.R.L. §236B(9) and F.C.A. §451 go into effect (Laws 2010, chap. 182; Bill #A8952).  They require that language be included in divorce settlement agreements to specifically opt out of a newly-created entitlement to a judicial modification of a child support order. Without such language, even a child