A court will not provide for a reduction in child support upon the emancipation of the elder of two children when the parties’ divorce settlement stipulation, itself, does not provide for one. So held the Appellate Division, First Department, in its 3-2 December 29, 2015 decision in Schulman v. Miller.
That settlement stipulation required the husband to pay unallocated periodic child support for the parties’ two children, plus cost of living adjustments, as well as other expenses of each child, including education and college. It did not provide for the reduction or recalculation of the husband’s child support obligation upon the emancipation of the older child. The agreement did not allocate the husband’s child support obligation as between the children, nor provide a formula for a reduction in the event of one child’s emancipation.
Affirming the order of Supreme Court, New York County Justice Lori S. Sattler, the appellate court noted that the settlement stipulation did provide for a termination or reduction of certain of the husband’s financial obligations upon the happening of specified events, including, for example, his obligation to pay maintenance to the wife, his obligation to maintain medical insurance for each child, payments for car service, and the like. Thus, the settlement provision concerning medical insurance explicitly stated that the husband “shall have the right to terminate such coverage for either Child at the time she becomes emancipated.” The parties’ stipulation of settlement was an exhaustive, 62-page document. Both parties were represented by counsel during its negotiation (indeed, the husband himself is an experienced attorney).
The First Department held that the inescapable conclusion was that the parties did not intend to include a similar provision concerning the termination or reduction of child support upon the emancipation of the older child. There was no evidence, other than the husband’s testimony, that the parties had agreed to a reduction in child support on account of such emancipation of the older child.
Moreover, at law, when child support has been ordered for more than one child, the emancipation of the oldest child does not automatically reduce the amount of support.
The appellate court noted that the husband was free to make a motion for a downward modification of the unallocated support obligation upon a proper showing. However, the majority opinion noted that court ought not, however, rewrite the agreement in order that husband might achieve this end.
In a strong dissent, Justice Peter Tom wrote that he disagreed that the parties did not agree to a reduction in child support upon the occurrence of an emancipation event, and that the husband cannot seek recalculation of his support obligation upon such event.
Justice Tom noted that in construing a contract, one of a court’s goals is to avoid an interpretation that would leave contractual clauses meaningless; that courts are obliged to interpret a contract so as to give meaning to all of its terms.
The stipulation of settlement dedicated an entire article to defining emancipation events. While it may have been helpful to provide in the stipulation a formula for reducing the unallocated basic child support obligation upon the emancipation of the older child, contrary to the majority’s view, Justice Tom opined that the fact that the parties did not do so was not indicative of an intent not to have such a reduction. Indeed, it was likely that the cessation of basic child support upon emancipation was such an obvious intention that the parties and their attorneys did not feel it necessary to provide an exact formula for recomputation.
Comment: 20/20 hindsight is easy. It has been a continuing theme of this blog that agreements should show their work;” that examples should be included in agreements; and that without an exhaustive use of checklists and second sets of eyes, even the most obvious issues in agreements may be forgotten. The parties, themselves, must diligently read their agreements, inquiring perhaps annoyingly like a 3-year old, “why?” or “what if . . . ?”
Certainly, in the vast majority of agreements there is a reduction in the periodic child support obligation upon the emancipation of each child. The agreement, here, could just as easily have said there was to be no such reduction if such was intended. The apparent need to dot every “i,” and to look for “i”s that have been left out, is why 62-page agreements may need to be longer, much to the dismay of the parties, their counsel, and the courts.