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Father Incarcerated for Failure to Pay Child Support

In a support proceeding pursuant to Family Court Act article 4, the appeal is from an order of the Family Court, Suffolk County, which directed that the appellant be imprisoned for 48 days. By decision and order, the court dismissed the appeal as academic.

A New York Family Lawyer said that pursuant to the 1985 judgment entered in the parties’ divorce action, the father was obligated to pay $250 a week in child support for their four children, or $62.50 a week per child. In 1989, the father petitioned for a downward modification based on their oldest daughter’s emancipation and because the father then had custody of the parties’ oldest son. The mother petitioned for an increase in support. Following a hearing which was held over a period of almost one year, the Hearing Examiner issued an order, which obligated the father to pay child support of $400 a week for the two children, who remained in the mother’s custody, retroactive to July 1989. Beginning in January1991, daughter’s 21st birthday, the father was required to pay child support of $300 a week for the son. The Hearing Examiner concluded that the testimony of the father, a self-employed certified public accountant, regarding his finances was not credible and imputed income to him of $150,000 a year. A New York Custody Lawyer said that since the order was made retroactive to the date the petition was filed, substantial arrears had accumulated. In an order, the Family Court, Suffolk County denied the father’s objections to the Hearing Examiner’s order.

The father appealed from the order and that appeal was transferred to the Appellate Division, Fourth Department. Later, while the appeal was pending, the mother moved for an order to hold the father in contempt for his failure to pay support pursuant to the order. A Queens Family Lawyer said the father, by cross petition, sought a downward modification of support. The matter was heard by a different Hearing Examiner than the one who issued the order, who concluded that the father failed to comply with the support order, that his noncompliance was willful, and that his testimony as to his finances was incredible. At that point, the arrears totalled over $46,000. In May 1993, the Family Court confirmed the Hearing Examiner’s finding that the father’s failure to comply with the prior order was willful, found him in contempt, and sentenced him to 48 days in jail unless he purged his contempt by paying $24,000 towards the arrears. The father served the period of incarceration and was released in July 1993.

In December 1993, while the appeal at bar was pending, the Fourth Department modified the order by reducing the father’s child support for the son to $62.50 a week, on the ground that the mother failed to establish an unforeseen or unreasonable change of circumstances or that the child’s needs were not being met.

A Queens Custody Lawyer said the reversal of the order finding the father in contempt is not required even though the order upon which the finding was based was subsequently modified. Since the father failed to obtain a stay of the order pending the appeal, he was required to obey it until it was vacated or reversed. An order of the court must be obeyed even if erroneously made, so long as the court had jurisdiction, and the order was not void on its face. Moreover, since the decision of the Appellate Division, Fourth Department was not based on the father’s financial circumstances, it is not determinative of the father’s claim in the appeal at bar that he was financially unable to comply with the August 27, 1991, order.

The father contends that the contempt proceeding should have been dismissed because he was not provided with the required statutory warnings. The father bases this claim on the mother’s order to show cause, which failed to include the statutory warnings. However, it is readily ascertainable from the court file that the mother’s petition was dismissed, with leave to resubmit the petition. The mother then served a summons, which contained the proper statutory warnings and was returnable. The father appeared in this proceeding and did not object to the alleged improper statutory warnings. Inexplicably, the father continues to argue on appeal that this proceeding should be dismissed because the order to show cause did not contain the proper statutory warnings, even though the Hearing Examiner and the Family Court Judge rejected his claim because the summons, containing the statutory warnings was served.

A finding of a willful violation of a support order must be established by clear and convincing evidence. A finding of willfulness requires proof of both the ability to pay support and the failure to do so. Here the mother established prima facie evidence of a willful violation by demonstrating that the father failed to pay the support required by the order. The burden then shifted to the father to establish his defense that he was financially unable to comply with the order. The father admitted that, after he received the order, he continued to make support payments of only $62.50 a week for the son, although the order required him to pay $300 a week. He maintained, however, that he had no assets and that his income was insufficient to meet his support obligation.

The father had been a certified public accountant for 30 years and was self-employed as a forensic accountant in litigation, including matrimonial actions. He derived his business income from lawyers, accountants, speaking engagements, journal publications, and radio and television programs, and he also worked per diem as an arbitrator for the American Arbitration Association.

At the time of the hearing, the father lived in a house owned solely by his current wife. He testified that, pursuant to lease agreements with his wife, he was obligated to pay her $1,500 a month to rent office space in her home and $1,200 a month to rent a portion of her residence for the use of his sons. Since entering into these agreements in 1990 he owed her $29,200 for office rent and $33,600 for residential rent, and he had executed promissory notes to her for these debts.

The father presented documents regarding his finances, all of which he prepared himself. According to these documents, his 1991 individual adjusted gross income was about $14,000, and his 1992 individual adjusted gross income was about $24,000. He testified that he did not own any real property or a car, although one of the three cars in his household was available for his use. He had no other business interests, no savings account, and the funds in his pension plan were less than $200. Although the surplus funds from the foreclosure sale of the parties’ former marital residence amounted to about $850,000, the father maintained that those funds were used to pay debts, and none of this money remained. The former marital residence was purchased at the foreclosure sale by the father’s current wife, through a corporate entity which was subsequently dissolved and title was transferred to her individually.

The Court find no basis in this record to disturb the Family Court’s conclusion that the father’s testimony and evidence regarding his finances was suspect. Given the father’s lengthy, and to all appearances successful, career as a CPA, his claim of a complete lack of assets, even a savings account, was hardly credible. The court was not required to accept at face value documents which obligated him to pay his current wife $2,700 a month in office and residential rent, when he claimed he had not been able to earn over $38,000 a year in the past five years. While stubbornly maintaining that he could not afford to pay more than $62.50 a week in support for the son, the father paid over $5,000 for his older son’s college expenses in 1991 and over $9,000 for such expenses in 1992. Under the circumstances, the finding of a willful violation of the support order was warranted.

The father’s contention that he was denied a hearing on his cross petition for a downward modification of support is belied by the record. The cross petition, if granted, would only affect child support payments. The Hearing Examiner indicated that he was aware of that cross petition but would proceed first with the hearing on the mother’s violation petition. The father did not object to this procedure, and he made no further reference to his cross petition for a downward modification until after his incarceration, when he moved to restore the cross petition to the calendar. Contrary to the father’s contention, the court’s failure to consider his cross petition for downward modification during the contempt proceeding was not prejudicial, as the court had the authority to modify the support order if it determined that he was presently unable to pay. In any event, the father’s cross petition for downward modification is academic, as the decision and order of the Appellate Division, Fourth Department, restored his child support obligation to $62.50 a week and cancelled those arrears which had accumulated as a result of the August 27, 1991, order.

The issues raised by the father concerning the procedure by which the Family Court reviewed the findings of the Hearing Examiner and issued its determination finding him in contempt are unpreserved for appellate review, as they were not raised in the Family Court.

Our Suffolk County Child Support attorneys here in Stephen Bilkis and Associates make it a point that the rights of the person liable to support others is protected. For more inquiries, write or call our Suffolk County Family lawyers here in Stephen Bilkis and Associates.

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