Dec 9, 2019

Top Ten Family Law Flash Points of 2019

1.         Illinois Supreme Court reverses Appellate Court and upholds trial court’s ruling to allow relocation.  The Appellate Court reversed a trial court’s order permitting father to relocate with the children to Virginia.  Father appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court which reversed the Appellate Court’s decision and affirmed the trial court’s decision.  The trial court entered a 13-page single-spaced order detailing both its factual findings and its application of those finding to each of the relevant statutory factors and also conducted an in camera interview with both children who were the subject of the relocation. The trial court’s decision was reasonable based on the record and there was no reason to dispense with the strong and compelling presumption in favor of the result reached by the trial court. In re Marriage of Fatkin, 2019 IL 123602 (2019).

2.         Petition to modify child support denied under income shares statute.  Father sought to reduce his child support on two grounds: (1) because mother was now working and had employment income and (2) because his income had decreased. The language of the parties’ MSA contemplated that mother may return to work one day, and therefore when she did, the parties did not intend for her income to trigger a downward modification of support.  Further, mother’s new income was so small compared to father’s that it was not a substantial change of circumstances.  In re Marriage of Salvatore, 2019 IL App (2d) 180425.

3.         Bifurcation order reversed after litigant’s death.  The trial court entered a bifurcated judgment in the middle of trial due to allegations made on the record that husband’s health was dire.  Husband did not appear for a day of trial and the record provided that his counsel advised the court he was in the hospital and was in line for a liver transplant.  The court found sua sponte that there were appropriate conditions to warrant a bifurcated judgment and husband died after the bifurcation order was entered.  Wife opposed the ruling because under a premarital agreement she had waived off on any of husband’s retirement benefits.  In light of a confession of error filed by husband’s counsel, the Court reversed the bifurcated judgment, which ultimately allowed wife to receive the survivor benefit of husband’s pension. While the Court limited the holding to the facts of the case, this holding emphasizes the importance of having a written motion for bifurcation on file as well as supporting evidence in the record to support the bifurcation.  Claxton v. Reeves, 2019 IL App (5th) 170200.

4.         Plenary order of protection reversed due to children’s hearsay statements.  The Fourth District held that admissibility of out-of-court statements made by minor children against a parent who is an alleged abuser in an order of protection hearing are governed by Section 8-2601 of the Code of Civil Procedure (735 ILC 5/8-2601).  The Section requires the child to either testify at the proceeding, or be unavailable as a witness so long as there is corroborative evidence of the act which is the subject of the statement.  The Fourth District declined to follow the Third District case of Daria W. v. Bradley W., 317 Ill.App.3d 194 (2000) which concluded the IMDMA controlled the admission of the child’s hearsay statement and instead relied on Section 8-2601 of the Code of Civil Procedure.  Arika M. v. Christopher M., 2019 IL App (4th) 190125.

5.         Fourth District holds that pre-2016 Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act (IMDMA) did not apply to child support proceedings where motions were filed as early as 2014.  The Fourth District held that the trial court did not err in applying the 2016 version of the IMDMA when it determined that no substantial change of circumstances warranted a modification of child support.  Section 801(c) of the IMDMA did not apply because judgment had yet been entered on the petition for modification of child support which was pending at the time the amendments went into effect.  In doing so, the Fourth District declined to follow the Second District case of In re the Marriage of Benink, 2018 IL App (2d) 170175. Under Benink’s analysis of Section 801(c), because the judgment had already been entered on child support in the parties’ judgment for dissolution of marriage, the modification proceeding would only be subject to the amended Act if it had been filed after the effective date of the amended Act.  There is now a split in authority with respect to what version of the IMDMA applies to post-judgment support modification proceedings if the petition was filed prior to January 1, 2016.  In re the Marriage of Elliott, 2019 IL App (4th) 180628.

6.         Northern District of Illinois Bankruptcy Court clarifies application of automatic bankruptcy stay.  The ex-wife of a chapter 13 debtor sought to lift the automatic stay in bankruptcy court so she could seek a contribution to college expenses by her ex-husband.  The bankruptcy court denied the motion as unnecessary.  Section 362(b) of the bankruptcy code provides a list of exceptions to the automatic stay, which include, among many items, a modification of an order for domestic support obligations, which includes a debt in the nature of alimony, maintenance or support of such spouse, former spouse, or child of the debtor.  There are only two important types of domestic relations proceedings which are barred by the automatic stay: (1) the division of marital property that is property of the estate; and (2) proceedings to collect on a domestic support obligation from property of the estate. View Judge Doyle's opinion here

7.         Trial court reversed for reducing child support due to involuntary termination which led to payor’s retirement.  Father petitioned for a reduction in child support after he was terminated from his executive position at the age of 64.  The trial court reduced his support payment from $3403 per month to $1700 which was an upward deviation from guidelines due to father’s wealth.  Mother appealed arguing that there was no substantial change of circumstances and that the trial court erred by not including $83,000 in deferred compensation and $400,000 as a retirement withdrawal as income.  The Appellate Court reversed holding that while retirement generally equals reduced economic means, father’s $2.585 million in investments, three homes, and a $60,000 per year travel budget, demonstrated that his retirement did not substantially change his ability to pay child support for his minor child.  In re Marriage of Verhines and Hickey, 2018 Il (2d) 171034.

8.         Trial court entitled to review maintenance award even though original unallocated support period had passed. In a post-judgment action, wife filed a petition for review of maintenance weeks after the 60 month term for husband to pay unallocated support passed.  The language in the MSA provided that the unallocated support was reviewable.  Husband filed a motion to dismiss arguing that wife was not entitled to additional maintenance because she did not file her petition for review with the 60 months.  The trial court denied the motion to dismiss and ordered permanent maintenance retroactive to the date of filing.  The Appellate Court affirmed.  The language of the MSA clearly provided the support was reviewable and nothing in the Agreement prohibited wife from seeking the trial court from considering the extension of the maintenance payments.  In re Marriage of Wojcki, 2018 IL App (1st) 170625.

9.         Premarital agreement found to be valid and enforceable based on limited hearing focused solely on issue of voluntary waiver of further disclosure provision of Premarital Agreement Act.  Husband contested the validity of a premarital agreement.  He thought that the purpose of the document was to earmark wife’s family business assets as her non-marital property, but wife took the position that the agreement resolved all classification issues of the estate.  The trial court limited the issues both for discovery and hearing to whether husband voluntarily signed the document and whether he voluntarily waived further disclosure.  Such a limitation was within in its discretion.  A waiver can be voluntary even where the other party has disclosed no assets at all.  The Court noted that the waiver language in the agreement tracked the statutory language in the Premarital Agreement Act and therefore upheld the agreement.  In re Marriage of Solano, 2019 IL App (2d) 180011.

10.       Trial court reversed on issue of allocation of SSDI benefit received by minor child.  The trial court ordered it was inappropriate for either party to pay child support to the other based upon a 50/50 parenting schedule, the parties’ respective net incomes, and maintenance payable from wife to husband.  The court did not include the monthly SSDI dependent benefits husband received on behalf of the minor child in husband’s gross income when reaching such a conclusion. Instead, the benefit was deposited in a joint account for the payment of certain child-related expenses.  Husband appealed and sought to retain the total SSDI benefit, subject to a 50% obligation toward the additional child’s expenses. The Third District reversed.  Because the SSDI dependent benefit is generated through the labor and earnings of the husband and is intended for the current maintenance of the child, the benefit was required to be included in the father’s gross income for purposes of calculating child support.  There is no statutory authority which allows a trial court to order the benefit to be placed into a separate account for the payment of expenses.  In re Marriage of Benyon, 2019 IL App (3d) 180364.

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