Support Magistrate Aletha V. Fields

Using the state’s Child Support Enforcement Services can have unintended results. Having support payments made through a Support Collection Unit triggers a cost-of-living adjustment procedure that may result in a significant change to the court-ordered support obligations to which parties had agreed.

Consider the September 26, 2018 decision of the Appellate Division, Second Department, in Murray v. Murray. There, the former spouses in their 2001 surviving divorce settlement agreement had agreed to share joint custody of their children, with the mother having physical custody.

The parties had opted out of the basic child support obligations of the Child Support Standards Act (C.S.S.A.), with the father agreeing to pay a certain sum for child support from August 1, 2001, through January 31, 2006. The parties also executed a rider to their stipulation, in which they agreed that beginning on February 1, 2006, until both children were emancipated, the father would pay child support to the mother based on the C.S.S.A., but using the parties’ total combined income for the year 2005.

In an 2009 order, the Family Court, upon the parties’ consent, directed the father to pay $740.56 per week in child support for both children through the Support Collection Unit (the SCU).

In March 2017, the SCU notified the parties of the presumptive cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) to the father’s child support obligation authorized by Family Court Act §413-a. That would increase the father’s weekly child support obligation to $822.00.

The mother filed an objection to the cost of living adjustment pursuant to Family Court Act §413-a(3), requiring that a hearing be held for a redetermination under the C.S.S.A. After that hearing, Suffolk County Support Magistrate Aletha V. Fields, in effect, vacated the COLA increase. At the time, the subject child was 20 years old and entering her third year of college. Upon recalculating the amount of child support, Magistrate Fields fixed the father’s child support obligation at $360.00 per week. The Support Magistrate found that although the parties’ combined parental income was $371,697.08, the mother failed to set forth a basis upon which to apply the statutory child support percentage to any income above the statutory cap of $143,000.00.

The mother filed objections to the Support Magistrate’s order. However, Family Court Judge Anthony S. Senft, Jr., denied the mother’s objections. The mother appealed.

Continue Reading Child Support Payments Through Support Collection Units May Result in Unanticipated Changes

May the non-custodial parent deprived of seeing a child terminate his or her child support obligation? According to two March 16, 2016 decisions of the Appellate Division, Second Department, the result may turn on both who is to blame and how old is the child.

In Brinskelle v. Widman, and in response to his ex-wife’s post-divorce Family Court application for an upward modification of child support, a father asked to be relieved of his obligation to support the parties’ 18-year-old son on the ground that the son was emancipated within the meaning of the parties’ stipulation. The father also sought to terminate his support obligation for his 14-year-old daughter on the ground of constructive emancipation. After a hearing, Suffolk County Support Magistrate Denise Livrieri granted the mother’s petition and denied the father’s petition. Suffolk County Family Court Judge Bernard Cheng denied the father’s objections and the father appealed.

The Second Department affirmed. Under New York law, a parent is required to support a child until the child reaches the age of 21 (see Family Ct Act § 413[1][a]). However, a child may be deemed emancipated if he or she is fully self-supporting and financially independent from his or her parents. Alternatively, the parties may provide in a written agreement for emancipation contingencies. Here, the father failed to meet his burden to prove that the 18-year old son was emancipated as defined by the parties’ divorce stipulation of settlement: that the child had reached the age of 18, and was employed at least 30 hours per week, and was not a full-time student.

The father also argued that the parties’ 14-year old daughter was constructively emancipated. Here, despite the fact that it was not the father’s fault his 14-year old daughter was refusing to see him, she was not old enough to be punished. The father would remain liable to support her.

Under the doctrine of constructive emancipation, where a minor of employable age and in full possession of his or her faculties, voluntarily and without cause, abandons the parent’s home, against the will of the parent and for the purpose of avoiding parental control, he or she forfeits his or her right to demand support. However, “where it is the parent who causes a breakdown in communication with his or her child, or has made no serious effort to contact the child and exercise his or her visitation rights, the child will not be deemed to have abandoned the parent.”

Here, the Second Department held that even accepting the father’s testimony that the parties’ 14-year old daughter had voluntarily and without cause rejected his efforts to maintain a relationship with her in an attempt to avoid his parental control, the daughter was not “of employable age,” and thus, the father, as a matter of law, could not establish the daughter’s constructive emancipation.

Continue Reading Child Support and the Parent Deprived of Visitation