Justice John P. Colangelo

The Appellate Division, Second Department, has held that a father’s application for sole custody and for supervised visitation for the mother, should not have been denied without a hearing, where the father had alleged that the mother operated a motor vehicle in a impaired state, posing a danger to the children.

In Nusbaum v. Nusbaum, the parties in 2011 had entered a so-ordered stipulation of settlement of their divorce action under which they were to share joint legal custody of their then 14-year-old twins. The father was awarded residential custody, with the mother having unsupervised visitation.

Here, the father had moved to modify the provisions of that stipulation so as to award him sole legal custody of the children and to suspend the mother’s visitation with the children, unless supervised. The father alleged, among other things, that the mother had operated a motor vehicle while impaired, endangering the children. The father also sought an order directing the mother to attend and complete programs in drug and alcohol rehabilitation and anger management.

Pending the determination of the father’s motion, the parties agreed to certain supervised visitation. Moreover, pending his decision on the father’s application, Westchester County Supreme Court Justice John P. Colangelo, in effect, issued a temporary restraining order prohibiting the mother from operating a motor vehicle with the children as passengers.

Ultimately, in an October 23, 2012 order, Justice Colangelo denied the father’s application without holding a hearing.

The father appealed. On December 17, 2012, the Second Department stayed enforcement of the order denying the father’s motion pending the determination of his appeal. The mother’s visitation with the children was limited to visits on two days per week, two hours per day, and the mother was prohibited from operating a motor vehicle with the children as passengers.

Deciding the appeal May 8, 2013 decision, the Second Department held that the father had satisfied his burden to show a subsequent change of circumstances so that modification may be required to protect the best interests of the children. Moreover, the appellate court held, it did not appear that Justice Colangelo possessed adequate relevant information to enable him to make an informed and provident determination as to the children’s best interest so as to render a hearing unnecessary.

Accordingly, the father’s motion should not have been denied without first conducting a full evidentiary hearing to ascertain the children’s best interests. The Second Department sent the case back for such a hearing. Moreover, the Second Department again directed that in the interim, and until further order of the Supreme Court, the mother’s visitation was to be limited to two days per week, two hours per day, with the mother prohibited from operating a motor vehicle with the children as passengers.

Joseph J.A. Tringali, Sr., of counsel to Lawrence G. Nusbaum, Jr., of New Rochelle, represented the father. Donna E. Arams of Harold, Salant, Strassfield & Spielberg, of White Plains, represented the mother.

Focus.jpgUnder a 2004 stipulation of settlement that was incorporated, but survived the entry of the judgment of divorce that ended the parties seven-year marriage, the ex-husband/father was to pay $250,000.00 in annual maintenance and $140,000.00 in annual child support emancipated.

The stipulation further provided that the father would be able to apply for a reduction of his child support and spousal maintenance obligations in the event of an “involuntary, substantial, adverse change” in income. Moreover, if a downward modification were to be granted, the parties’ stipulation would be deemed amended to the extent of any relief afforded. The particular provision provided:

Anything herein to the contrary notwithstanding, in the event of an involuntary, substantial, adverse change in the Husband’s income, including income produced by his assets (such as involuntary loss of employment), he shall have the right to make application to a court of competent jurisdiction, which must include a sworn statement of net worth, for an appropriate modification of child-related support and/or spousal maintenance obligations hereunder, and if granted, the parties’ Agreement shall be deemed amended to the extent of any relief afforded on such application.

The September 10, 2012 decision of Westchester County Supreme Court Justice John P. Colangelo in Mark P. v. Teresa P., resolved such an application to reduce his support obligations. The father based his application on the reduction of his annual income from $3.3 million in 2004, when the stipulation was signed to $651,000.00 in 2011, and an anticipated $251,000.00 in 2012. The father, a securities trader, claimed that the reduction in his income was due to “changes in the securities industry, the economy and a general decline in securities’ sales volume . . . .”

The ex-wife/mother contended that the agreement’s support reduction paragraph should be read only to provide the threshold setting the father’s right to apply for a support reduction, but not necessarily to obtain such a reduction. The mother claimed that the provision did not alter the standards for granting a reduction in child support (a substantial unanticipated an unreasonable change in circumstances) or spousal maintenance (extreme hardship).

Justice Colangelo agreed with the mother, and denied relief to the father. Although the Court acknowledged that the parties had “sought” in their stipulation to provide a “less restrictive standard than that provided by prevailing law,” the Court held that the any easing of the standard was “more circumscribed” than the father argued. Justice Colangelo noted that “conspicuous by its absence is any standard to apply once the threshold to apply for reduction was met.” Thus, the Court would apply “well established principles of whether a reduction in amount is warranted.” The father failed to meet that standard.

Justice Colangelo discussed several decisions which honored agreement provisions that only lowered the threshold to apply for relief, but also held that meeting the threshold did not mandate a reduction.

Only by an explicit agreement . . . may the parties successfully substitute a different standard for support payment reduction from the well-worn standards established by statutory and case law.

Continue Reading Divorce Stipulations That Change Court Standards Must Be Precise