Cassano v. Cassano

CourtNew York Court of Appeals
Citation651 N.E.2d 878,628 N.Y.S.2d 10,85 N.Y.2d 649
Parties, 651 N.E.2d 878 In the Matter of Maryann CASSANO, Respondent, v. Dominick CASSANO, Appellant.
Decision Date09 May 1995

Schapiro & Reich, Lindenhurst (Perry S. Reich, of counsel), for appellant.

Dikman, Dikman & Botter, Jamaica (Michael Dikman and Donna Dubinsky, of counsel), for respondent.

OPINION OF THE COURT

KAYE, Chief Judge.

The focus of this appeal is the Child Support Standards Act (Family Ct.Act § 413; Domestic Relations Law § 240), which includes a numeric formula for calculating the award of child support, prescribing criteria as to combined parental income under $80,000 and criteria as to income above that amount. We are asked to review an award determined by application of the statutory formula to combined parental income exceeding $80,000. We conclude that the award was proper and affirm the Appellate Division order so holding.

The parties here were divorced in 1986, with two children, one of whom is now emancipated. Plaintiff mother was awarded custody of the children and defendant father was ordered to pay $125 per week in child support. In 1989 plaintiff petitioned for an upward modification of the support award for the nonemancipated child pursuant to the newly enacted child support statute, and defendant cross-petitioned for a downward modification.

After taking evidence in a two-day hearing relating to the family's income and expenses, the Hearing Examiner found a substantial increase in the parties' financial circumstances warranting increased child support. On combined parental income of $99,944 (64.4% of it attributable to the father), the Hearing Examiner ordered defendant to pay $218 per week. That amount was determined by multiplying the parents' total income by the statutory percentage (17%) and then allocating 64.4% of that amount to the father. The Hearing Examiner further ordered defendant to pay his pro rata share of the child's private school costs 1 and unreimbursed medical expenses.

Before Family Court, the father contended that the Hearing Examiner erred in applying the statutory percentage to income over $80,000 without setting forth reasons for that particular award. Family Court concluded that the statute permitted that and, absent good cause, refused to interfere with the Hearing Examiner's exercise of discretion to apply the percentage. The Appellate Division agreed with the father that Family Court was required to state reasons for the award of child support on combined parental income over $80,000 but found that requirement satisfied by the Hearing Examiner's in-depth consideration of the parties' circumstances. The Appellate Division additionally affirmed the award of unreimbursed medical expenses. We now affirm.

The Child Support Standards Act, effective September 15, 1989, replaced a needs-based discretionary system with a precisely articulated, three-step method for determining child support. Enactment of this statute after long efforts signalled a new era in calculating child support awards (see generally, Reichler and Lefcourt, The New Child Support Standards Act, N.Y. St BJ 36 [Feb. 1990]; Note, The Child Support Standards Act and the New York Judiciary: Fortifying the 17 Percent Solution, 56 Brook L Rev 1299).

The Act had among its objectives the assurance that both parents would contribute to the support of the children, and that the children would not "unfairly bear the economic burden of parental separation" (Governor's Program Bill Mem, Bill Jacket, L 1989, ch 567, at 1). Emphasis was to shift "from a balancing of the expressed needs of the child and the income available to the parents after expenses to the total income available to the parents and the standard of living that should be shared with the child" (Reichler and Lefcourt, N.Y. St BJ, op. cit., at 44; see also, Governor's Approval Mem, 1989 NY Legis Ann, at 250 ["children will share in the economic status of both their parents"].

Further, the Legislature perceived that the existing system produced inconsistent, unpredictable and often seemingly arbitrary results, which undermined the parties' confidence in the fairness of the process (see, 1989 N.Y. Legis Ann, at 248, citing Rep of NY Commn on Child Support, at 69). Consequently, the new statute sought to create greater uniformity, predictability and equity in fixing child support awards, while at the same time maintaining the degree of judicial discretion necessary to address unique circumstances (Letter of Assembly Sponsor Helene E. Weinstein to Governor Mario Cuomo, June 30, 1989, Bill Jacket, L 1989, ch 567; Governor's Program Bill Mem, Bill Jacket, L 1989, ch 567, at 5).

As the statute directs, step one of the three-step method is the court's calculation of "combined parental income" in accordance with Family Court Act § 413(1)(b)(4)-(5) (see, Domestic Relations Law § 240 for analogous provisions). Second, the court multiplies that figure, up to $80,000, by a specified percentage 2 based upon the number of children in the household--17% for one child--and then allocates that amount between the parents according to their share of the total income (Family Ct.Act § 413[1][b][3]; [c].

Third, where combined parental income exceeds $80,000--the situation at issue in this case--the statute provides that "the court shall determine the amount of child support for the amount of the combined parental income in excess of such dollar amount through consideration of the factors set forth in paragraph (f) of this subdivision and/or the child support percentage" (Family Ct.Act § 413[1][c][3]. The "paragraph (f)" factors include the financial resources of the parents and child, the health of the child and any special needs, the standard of living the child would have had if the marriage had not ended, tax consequences, nonmonetary contributions of the parents toward the child, the educational needs of the parents, the disparity in the parents' incomes, the needs of other nonparty children receiving support from one of the parents, extraordinary expenses incurred in exercising visitation and any other factors the court determines are relevant (Family Ct.Act § 413[1][f].

Whenever the basic child support obligation derived by application of the formula would be "unjust or inappropriate," the court must consider the "paragraph (f)" factors. That is so whether parental income is above or below $80,000 (Family Ct.Act § 413[1][b][1]; [c][2], [3]. If the formula is rejected, the statute directs that the court "set forth, in a written order, the factors it considered"--an unbending requirement that cannot be waived by either party or counsel (Family Ct.Act § 413[1][g].

The question now before us is whether the court must articulate a reason for its award of child support on parental income exceeding $80,000 when it chooses simply to apply the statutory percentage. Defendant urges not only that there must be a stated reason but also that the stated reason must relate to the needs of the child, much as under prior law.

That question has generated uncertainty. Some courts have calculated child support awards simply by applying the statutory percentages to parental income over $80,000 (see, e.g., De Bernardo v. De Bernardo, 180 A.D.2d 500, 502-503, 580 N.Y.S.2d 27; Rosen v. Rosen, NYLJ, Oct. 9, 1990, at 31, col 5; Brown v. Brown, NYLJ, July 16, 1990, at 30, col 2; Steel v. Steel, 152 Misc.2d 880, 884, 579 N.Y.S.2d 531). Others have rejected a "blind application" of the child support percentage to income over $80,000, requiring express findings as to the child's actual needs (Harmon v. Harmon, 173 A.D.2d 98, 111, 578 N.Y.S.2d 897 ["a child is not a partner in the marital relationship, entitled to a 'piece of the action' "]; see also, Chasin v. Chasin, 182 A.D.2d 862, 863, 582 N.Y.S.2d 512; Colley v. Colley, 200 A.D.2d 839, 841, 606 N.Y.S.2d 796; Panossian v. Panossian, 201 A.D.2d 983, 607 N.Y.S.2d 840; Slankard v. Chahinian, 204 A.D.2d 529, 531, 611 N.Y.S.2d 300 [all reversing trial court as to child support]. The case law has even been read to limit the application of the percentages to income below $80,000 (see, Florescue, Relocation of Custodial Parent, NYLJ, June 14, 1993, at 4, col 6).

Obviously, determining what the Child Support Standards Act requires begins with the statute itself.

Where combined parental income is less than $80,000 the statute...

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