Wednesday, June 12, 2013

CHILD CUSTODY & SUPPORT

I recently read of the decision in Rubin v Della Salla. 2013 NY Slip Op 02681, decided on April 18, 2013, Appellate Division, First Department which is described in part in the following article from Thomson Reuters:

Millionaire parent doesn't have to pay child support: appeals court

In this case, a father who has custody of his child the majority of the year was not obligated to make support payments to the child's mother, despite the vast disparity in their incomes: the father was a millionaire and the mother was unemployed.

The interesting part of the case for me was how the court determined who had primary physical custody - based on number of overnights:

"Courts have uniformly followed Bast, finding that where parents have unequal residential time with a child, the party with the greater amount of time is the custodial parent for CSSA purposes (see Smith v Smith, 97 AD3d 923 [3d Dept 2012]; Matter of VanBuren v Burnett, 58 AD3d 900 [3d Dept 2009]; Rossiter v Rossiter, 56 AD3d 1011 [3d Dept 2008]; Jennifer H.S. v Damien P.C., 50 AD3d 588 [1st Dept 2008], lv denied 12 NY3d 710 [2009]; Matter of Ambrose v Felice, 45 AD3d 581 [2d Dept 2007]; Matter of Minter-Litchmore v Litchmore, 24 AD3d 932 [3d Dept 2005]; Gainey v Gainey, 303 AD2d 628 [2d Dept 2003]; Sluck v Sluck, 266 AD2d 764 [3d Dept 1999]; Borowicz v Mancini, 256 AD2d 713 [3d Dept 1998]).

Here, given the schedule set by the court's custody decision, there is no question that the father has physical custody of the child for a majority of the time and should be considered the custodial parent for child support purposes. Based on the custody order, for the July 2012 to June 2013 time period, the child will spend 206 overnights with the father compared to 159 with the mother. Thus, the child will be with the father for a majority of the time (56%), and with the [*6]mother a minority of the time (44%). The extra 47 days the child spends with the father translates into nearly 30% more than the mother's time. Put another way, the child is with the father approximately 130% of the time he is with the mother. The great disparity in overnights here — 56% to 44% — stands in marked contrast to the cases cited by the mother where the parents have equal, or essentially equal, custodial time (see e.g. Barr v Cannata, 57 AD3d 813 [2d Dept 2008]; Carlino v Carlino, 277 AD2d 897 [4th Dept 2000]; Baraby v Baraby, 250 AD2d at 201).

The court below ignored its own custody schedule when it stated that the parents here share "very nearly equal" physical custody of the child. In an attempt to equalize the custodial time, the court focused on how much "waking, non-school time" the child spends with each parent. In other words, the court suggested that a custodial parent could be identified by calculating the number of waking hours he or she spends with the child. The mother makes a similar argument on appeal, contending that she should be considered the custodial parent because she "sees" the child on a majority of days during the year. For example, she counts a Thursday overnight as two days simply because she saw the child after school on Thursday and again on Friday morning.

This approach was soundly rejected in Somerville v Somerville (5 AD3d 878 [3d Dept 2004]). In that case, the child spent the majority of custodial time each week with his mother, and the father was ordered to pay child support. The father appealed, claiming that he should be considered the custodial parent because he had physical custody of the child during most of her "waking hours." The father argued that more weight should be given to daytime than to nighttime hours because a child needs less parental care during the time the child is sleeping. The court denied the father's objections to the child support order, finding his argument "patently absurd and . . . entitled to no serious consideration" (5 AD3d at 880; see also Joleene D.R. v Robert J.W., 15 Misc 3d 1148A, 2007 NY Slip Op 51201[U] (Fam Ct Oswego Cty 2007] [rejecting claim that the court should give less weight to sleeping time]). We reach the same result here and reject the counting of waking hours as a method of determining who is the custodial parent. Although the Court in Bast did not elaborate on what constitutes a "majority of time," we believe that the number of overnights, not the number of waking hours, is the most practical and workable approach. In Smith v Smith (97 AD3d 923), a case directly on point, the Third Department endorsed the use of overnights. In that case, during the school year, the children were with their father 18 out of every 28 nights, and with their mother the remaining 10 nights. For the summer, school recesses and holidays, the parents shared equal parenting time. Despite the fact that the father had the children for the majority of time, the trial court nevertheless designated him the noncustodial parent by virtue of his greater income, and directed him to pay child support. The Third Department reversed that determination, finding that the trial court's order violated Bast v Rossoff. The court held that "[i]nasmuch as shared' custody is not synonymous with equal' custody and [the father] clearly has physical custody for a majority of the time during the greater part of the year, Supreme Court incorrectly determined that [the father] was the noncustodial parent for child support purposes . . . and erred in directing [the father] to pay child support to [the mother]" (97 AD3d at 924). [*7]

There are sound policy reasons why calculating the waking hours spent with each parent should not be the method used to determine who is the custodial parent. Allowing a parent to receive child support based on the number of daytime hours spent with the child bears no logical relation to the purpose behind child support awards, i.e., to assist a custodial parent in providing the child with shelter, food and clothing (see e.g. Higgins v Higgins, 50 AD3d 852 [2d Dept 2008] [food, clothing and shelter costs are inherent to the basic child support obligation]). Furthermore, because a child's activities are subject to constant change, the number of hours spent with each parent becomes a moving target. Outside of school hours, a child may participate in after-school activities, spend time with a child care giver, be enrolled in tutoring, or attend summer camp. During those times, the child may not be with either parent. The child's activities may vary day to day and will change as the child ages, unnecessarily creating the need to recalculate the parties' parenting time and possibly modify the custodial parent designation. Moreover, the use of this type of counting approach could also lead parents to keep their children out of camp or other activities simply to manipulate their time spent with the child so as to ensure that they are designated the "custodial parent" (see Bast v Rossoff, 91 NY2d at 732 [rejecting proportional offset formula because it has undesirable potential of encouraging parents to keep a stopwatch on visitation]). An hour-by-hour analysis of custodial time is just not workable and would run afoul of the "greater uniformity [and] predictability" the CSSA was designed to promote (Cassano, 85 NY2d at 652).

The dissent misconstrues the reality of the motion court's custody schedule, stating that the child does not spend significantly more time with the father. In fact, as noted above, the father has 56% of time with the child compared to 44% for the mother — an almost 30% difference. Thus, the child spends significantly more time with the father, making the father the custodial parent for child support purposes. The dissent's reliance upon Redder v Redder (17 AD3d 10 [3d Dept 2005]) is misplaced. In Redder, the parties had substantially the same amount of custodial time with the children, which is not the case here.[FN2]

In justifying its departure from the CSSA, the motion court placed undue emphasis on an isolated phrase in Bast v Rossoff. As noted above, Bast explained that "[i]n most instances," the custodial parent can be determined by identifying which parent has physical custody for a majority of time (91 NY2d at 728). The motion court interpreted the phrase "[i]n most instances" as allowing it, in a proper case, to designate a parent who had the minority of time with the child as the custodial parent for child support purposes. There is no support in the case law for this reading of Bast. The more reasonable interpretation is that the Court recognized that [*8]there may be situations where it cannot be determined who has the child the majority of time, such as equal custody cases, or where the child is not residing with either parent for a majority of time because the child is away at college or at a boarding school.

In finding that the father could be considered the noncustodial parent, the motion court improperly focused on the parties' financial circumstances rather than their custodial status. In doing so, the court endorsed an approach where the determination of the custodial parent is based not on whom the child spends the majority of the time with, but instead on which parent has the lesser monetary means. No matter how well-intentioned the court may have been, neither the CSSA, nor Bast v Rossoff, allows for economic disparity to govern the determination of who is the custodial parent where the custodial time is not equal.[FN3] "

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