In a May 8, 2013 decision in Mejia v. Mejia, the Appellate Division, Second Department, modified a divorce judgment’s provisions concerning the cap on combined parental income, the disposition of the marital residence, college expenses for three children ages 14, 10 and 6, and judgment inconsistencies with the underlying decision and judgment  formalities.

After the parties separated, they each petitioned the Family Court for custody of the children. The parties consented that they share joint legal custody, and that the father have primary physical custody.

After a non-jury trial on certain financial issues, the Family Court considered the first $200,000 of combined parental income in determining child support, based upon, among other things, “the economic reality of life in Rockland County,” and a determination that the gross income of the mother was substantially less than that of the father. The mother’s pro rata share of the basic child support obligation was 37% of 29% of the first $200,00 of combined parent income was fixed at $1,789 per month in the 2011 Family Court order.

The marital residence, titled in the parties’ joint names, was awarded to the father and the children, based upon the father’s claim that there was no equity in the house. The court further concluded in its decision that the father should maintain health insurance for the children, and that the mother should pay 37% of the college expenses of the children.

The Second Department lowered to $150,000 the applied cap on combined parental income, “considering the substantial difference between the parties’ income, the fact that the [mother] has less income than the [father], and the amount of parenting time awarded to the [mother].” Calculated on that basis, the mother’s pro rata share of the child support obligation was $1,341 per month.


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College Fund 3.jpgIt is not uncommon for divorce settlement agreements to limit a parent’s contribution to a child’s college education to a portion of the expense to attend a campus within the State University of New York system. This is known as the “SUNY cap.”

A scholarly October, 2011 decision of New York County Supreme Court Justice Matthew F. Cooper tackled head-on the assumption that a court would not impose on a parent a share of the expenses of a private college education.

Pamela T. v. Marc B., involved the parents of 16- and 18-year old sons. The older boy, a child with “moderate emotional difficulty,” was a freshman at Syracuse University intending to study computer engineering and computer graphics. He was a graduate of a selective public Manhattan high school. The decision resolved the father’s objection to paying more than his share of a SUNY education.

A SUNY education would cost approximately $18,000 per year. Syracuse University, on the other hand, costs three times that amount, some $53,000 per year.

Both parents were lawyers, with private college and law school backgrounds. Each parent earned just over $100,000 per year. The mother had some $1,230,000 in savings and retirement accounts; the father $580,000.

Justice Cooper directed the father to bear 40% of the costs of that Syracuse University education. There is no SUNY cap mandated by New York law. The thrust of Justice Cooper’s decision was that:

the SUNY cap–to the extent that it stands for the proposition that before a parent can be compelled to contribute towards the cost of a private college there must be a showing that a child cannot receive an adequate education at a state college–is a doctrine that in many cases is harmful to the children of divorced parents, acts to discriminate against them, and is largely unworkable.


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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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