Gerald Roisman has been practicing in Connecticut since 1962. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (former national Vice President), founding member of the International Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers and a diplomate of American College of Family Trial Lawyers. He has made it onto several "best lawyers in America" lists as well as the "super lawyers" lists. See bblawfirm.com for more biographical information on this Connecticut legend.
Roisman handles a roughly 50/50 mix of male and female clients in more than 5,000 cases, of which more than 700 have gone to trial. Roisman explains that he was a general practitioner at the beginning of his career, including handling criminal defense for crimes as serious as murder. He also worked as a prosecutor. "I did personal injury, negligence, real estate closings. I have also been a real estate developer. I did divorce work from the start but as legal world became more complex I stopped doing a number of things. The general experience has been useful in the family law field, however."
As in most other states, child support can no longer be collected in Connecticut after a child turns 18, extendible to 19 if the child has not graduated from high school. Uniquely, however,
Connecticut has a statute regarding "post-minority educational support." Roisman explains that "The Court retains jurisdiction and has authority to deal with a child post-18, but the financial awards available are limited to what it would cost for room, board, and tuition at University of Connecticut." So a child of divorce has superior rights for educational expenses compared to a child of an intact marriage? "Absolutely," said Roisman.
Connecticut has a similar system to neighboring Massachusetts in that the guidelines in theory apply only up to a certain income ($4,000 per week or $208,000 per year) but judges routinely extrapolate the percentage to higher incomes. Child support is not nearly as profitable in Connecticut, however, because the amounts are smaller and the percentages are based on after-tax income rather than pre-tax income. For example, the $208,000 per year after-tax top-of-the-guideline defendant would pay 11.83 percent of "net income" or $473 per week ($24,596 per year). To earn $208,000 per year after taxes in Connecticut, a person would have to earn $365,000 per year pre-tax. In Massachusetts, that would yield $40,000 per year at the top of the guidelines plus 11 percent of the income over $250,000 per year, i.e., another $12,650 per year for a total of $52,650. Combining this with the 23-year period versus the 18-year period, the same child has 2.74X the cash value in Massachusetts compared to Connecticut. Roisman was on the committee that developed the first guidelines, which are today published at https://www.jud.ct.gov/Publications/ChildSupport/CSguidelines.pdf (most recent version from July 2015).
As in Massachusetts, a Connecticut child support recipient need not personally take care of a child in order to profit from child support. Roisman says that judges will separately order a defendant to pay for day care or other commercial child child care expenses.
Despite the penchant for extrapolation, Roisman thought that it would be challenging for a plaintiff to get more than $200,000 per year in child support, no matter how wealthy the defendant.
There is no statutory age at which a child's preferences regarding where to live will be taken into account by a court. Roisman cited the "lollipop syndrome" for why courts are reluctant to listen to children: "Does Dad give the child lollipops? In another case, the mother insisted on the child making bed and putting dishes away. The father was more permissive. That's why it doesn't make sense to listen until a child is 16 or 17 years old."
A "walk-away" prenuptial agreement, in which neither party can profit from property division and alimony via a marriage, is of questionable validity in Connecticut. Roisman says "It could be valid, but it could also be contested successfully with arguments that someone has been taken advantage of, that the agreement is onerous, or that it is against public policy."
Is there a practical right of appeal in Connecticut? "If the court has made a mistake in the law."
The average hourly wage in Connecticut is $25.85 per hour. A person who goes to college at University of Connecticut will spend approximately $98,376 over four years to earn a bachelor's degree. Census 2014 data show that the average income for a 22-36-year-old college-educated woman working full time is $35,000 per year in Connecticut or $37,534 after taxes. For a corresponding man it is $60,000 per year or $43,608 after taxes. Connecticut is the second least-efficient state in the U.S., collecting over 12 percent of state residents' income to run state and local government (compare to less than 8 percent in nearby New Hampshire; source: Tax Foundation).
The average annual cost of child care is $12,844 for an infant and $10,530 for a four-year-old. The total cost of child care from age 0 through 12 is about $68,616 in commercial settings or $55,633 in a family care setting.
For a man who goes to college and then works for 14 years, his total after-tax spending power would be approximately $512,316 (14 years of average earnings minus college outlays). For a woman who goes to college and then works for 14 years, the comparable number is $287,100.
The USDA-estimated actual cost of providing for a child in a single-parent household is between $8,000 and $10,000 per year (average of $9,000 times 18 years of childhood = $162,000). Thus for a man collecting child support for a single child is more profitable than working when child support payments over 18 years exceed $674,136 ($3,121/month) and for a woman it would be $449,100 ($2,079/month). From the point of view of personal spending power, child support for a single child is more profitable than going to college and working when a woman sues a man earning more than about $207,000 per year after taxes. A man who obtains custody of a single child and sues the mother would need to persuade a judge to extrapolate from the top of the guidelines in order to outspend a college/work/no-kids peer.
Collecting child support for two children who have different fathers, however, is more profitable than going to college and working when the aggregate revenue is more than about $2,829 per month. That can be obtained from two defendants, each of whose after-tax income is $107,640 per year. A typical man would need to collect $3,871 from two female defendants in order to outspend his college/work/no-kids peers. He would need to find defendants who earn at least $186,160 per year after tax.
Census 2014 data show that 92 percent of Connecticut residents collecting child support are women.
A 35-year-old female hand surgeon earning $325,000 per year marries a 33-year-old photographer. She sets up her husband with a photo studio and $100,000 of equipment, but he works just a few hours per week. They have a one-year-old child who is cared for by a nanny. The father is often home with the baby and nanny, but he spends most of his at-home time watching TV and surfing the Internet, leaving the child-rearing chores to the nanny. With the mom at work and/or taking care of the baby, the dad begins an affair with a young fashion model. After two years of marriage, the mom sues for divorce, custody, and child support.
Roisman: "The recommendation of custody studies most of the time would be joint legal custody. The father would have access to school and medical records. The mother is the only income producer. She will be the primary caretaker because she be able to pay for medical care, etc. Therefore the award will be primary residence to the mother." Does that make the father "secondary"? "We try to avoid the word 'secondary' and just be silent on father's role."
[Roisman did not explain why the mother being the primary income producer in this scenario naturally led to her being awarded physical custody while in the other scenarios a primary income producing father would inevitably lose physical custody.]
Who does the custody study? "Private agencies and the family services division of the court. They can be very comprehensive, up to 120 pages long. A Guardian ad litem may also be appointed to protect the child's interests. The GAL would have conversations with the parents, pediatricians, school teachers. This duplicates to some extent the work of the custody study. The GAL does not have to be an attorney but usually is."
Is there any kind of statutory formula (like Texas) or convention for the father's parenting time or visitation schedule with the child? "That's subject to negotiation and litigation considering many factors. Certainly there is no formula for when child sees the father. it is a wide open field."
Given that the mother wins custody, will she receive child support from this guy with near-zero income? "Income could be imputed to him, at the very least minimum wage. If he has a college degree then it would be higher based on his education. However, if I represented the mother I might be able to get my client's permission to tell the judge that there is no need for support. We want to encourage the father to go get a job, to give him an incentive to do something for his benefit which would inure to the child."
Given that the guy has no money, who pays the legal fees? "The doctor would be ordered to pay the fees on both sides." How much could they be? "Higher income people could spend $500,000 to $1 million per side if custody is disputed."
A 22-year-old woman marries her 22-year-old college sweetheart. After 14 years of marriage, they have four children, ages 3, 7, 9, 13. Both parents are public school teachers earning approximately $65,000 per year. They have shared child care duties roughly equally over the years. Now they can't stand to be in the same room together. He accuses her of having an affair. She accuses him of being verbally and emotionally abusive to her, but not to the kids. After a stormy argument in the kitchen, he moves in with a friend and she files for divorce, requesting sole custody and child support. The father answers the Complaint by requesting sole custody, but no child support. Both parents agree that the marital assets can be split 50/50. Both parents prefer as little post-divorce contact with the other as possible.
Other than a general preference for mothers in the Connecticut system, Roisman said that it would be hard to predict the custody and parenting time outcome of this scenario. He expected the judge to order the parties into counseling.
How much child support is at stake? $0 at 50/50 parenting time, about $18,000 per year with a standard every-other-weekend schedule, and something in between if the parenting time split came down in between. Note that for the parent who loses custody, pays the $18,000 per year to the other parent, and yet maintains a household of sufficient size to take care of 4 children, that will be happening roughly at the Federal poverty guideline income of $28,000 per year (family of 5). The victorious parent, on the other hand, will have a spending power fairly close to the old family income.
An 18-year-old woman marries a medical resident. She spends the first four years of the marriage as a college undergraduate, earning a bachelor's degree, and then becomes a stay-at-home mother to two children. She files for divorce after 10 years of marriage. The kids are 5 and 2 years old at the time the divorce commences. The plaintiff does not allege any misdeeds on the part of the father, only that they drifted apart in the time that she aged from 18 to 28. The mother has very obviously been the primary caregiver. The father has now completed his medical training and is earning $275,000 per year. The family has home equity of $300,000 and additional savings of $200,000.
Roisman expected the father to lose a bid for joint custody. "Courts have a preference for status quo. The primary test is 'best interests of child' and therefore courts ask 'What would be the reason for changing?'" Roisman would expect the children to see their father on a standard every-other-weekend schedule.
According to the ADP paycheck calculator, the father's $275,000 per year in gross income would yield a net income of about $3,131 per week and thus the plaintiff-mother would receive $554 per week or $28,808 in child support. In addition, Roisman would expect the mother to receive alimony for as long as 16 years (until the 2-year-old is in college). "There is no formula for alimony, but you can't expect that mother to go to work with a two-year-old. The alimony amount would be larger at first and would give the mother an opportunity for advanced education. The court would look at the father's expenses to maintain his apartment, the mother's expenses, etc. There is no limit to the number of years, unlike in Massachusetts."
What about the $500,000 in property? "It would be split 50/50 unless someone can say 'Why would it not be fair to split them 50/50?' The argument is that he has better earning capacity so he can rebuild these assets and therefore she gets more than 50 percent. There is a possibility that she would get a percentage of the value of his medical degree and/or medical practice."
A 25-year-old woman marries a 40-year-old never-married medical doctor earning $275,000 per year. She had been earning $50,000 per year working as a receptionist in a medical office. She has a child after a year of marriage, quitting her job during the 7th month of pregnancy due to fatigue. She files for divorce when the child is 8 months old (after 1.75 years of marriage), alleging that the father did not participate in the infant's care, e.g., he did not change diapers or get up in the middle of the night to soothe the baby. The mother will allege that the father was verbally demanding and abusive, though there won't be any witnesses to corroborate. The father had savings of $2 million that he accumulated prior to the marriage but there was no significant accumulation of assets during the less-than-two-year marriage. The mother seeks a division of assets as well as alimony.
"To get joint physical custody the father would have to show a reason to change past relationship," noted Roisman. "Clearly the best interests of child would be staying home with mom." The mother would then get the same $28,808 per year in child support as in Scenario 3. Can that be supplemented with alimony after a 1.75-year marriage? "Absolutely there would be an alimony order for a short term to get her back to work. She would probably be able to get alimony until the child enters first grade [i.e., 5-6 years]. After that the father may be ordered to pay for nannies while the mother goes back to school."
Can the plaintiff get a share of the $2 million in pre-marital savings? "Everything that either party owns must be disclosed and is subject to the jurisdiction of the court for an equitable division. Most courts would say it was inequitable to divide this 50/50 because the woman didn't have anything to do with creating the $2 million. But there is no guarantee."
Could the plaintiff tap into a portion of the $2 million California-style, i.e., by having the judge impute a 10 percent annual income to the $2 million and then having that fed into the child support formula? "That argument could be made," replied Roisman, "but you'd need an expert witness to testify."
An 18-year-old woman goes to a music festival and meets a 38-year-old medical doctor earning $275,000 per year. Things get a little crazy and a few months later she calls him up to say "I am going to have a baby." The 18-year-old does not go to college, quits her $12/hour job during the pregnancy, and does not wish to return to work.
"I've handled this kind of case from time to time," Roisman notes. "The most important thing to do is verifying paternity. In one case I had a client where the mother was in California. He told me that he'd met her only once. The test showed that he was the father. In a local case, a guy comes in and tells me that his former girlfriend had a baby and he wants me to help make arrangements for reasonable support. I suggested a paternity test. It came back negative."
What custody and parenting time arrangement would a court order? "Very likely it will be primary residence with the mother." Even if the father wanted 50/50 custody? "Yes. But that is really the question. Does the father want a parenting relationship with this product of a one-night encounter?"
How much will the mother collect? "Guideline child support." [about $28,808 per year]
What if the mother gets married at 25 to a man earning $100,000 per year? "That won't change the child support that she collects."
Due to the fact that Connecticut deducts existing child support orders from "gross income" to determine the "net income" on which a second or third child support order is based, the state effectively assigns a higher cash value to the child whose parent is the first to sue, a lower cash value to the child who is the subject of a second lawsuit, and a yet lower value to the child who is the subject of a third lawsuit.
As in other states, Connecticut establishes financial incentives to have children with multiple co-parents. At the top of the guidelines, for example, three children with a single co-parent have a cash value of $35,672 per year ($6642,000 over 18 years) while three children with three different co-parents are worth $73,788 per year ($1.33 million over 18 years), more than twice as much.
As we learned regarding Massachusetts, Roisman says that it is conventional for child support plaintiffs to try to get an edge in litigation with allegations of sexual abuse and requests for restraining orders. He discourages his clients from pursuing this path, however.
How easy is it for a parent to move out of state with a child? "It is determined by case law," says Roisman, "not statute. This is a difficult issue for the Court and lawyers to deal with. The first order of business is finding out what is in the best interest of the child. It could be a financial interest. If the primary parent gets fired and a job offer comes from California and that will inure to the benefit of the child then that has to be looked at. I have had cases go both ways." What happens when there is shared custody? "It is much harder to move if there is 50/50 custody compared to an every-other-weekend situation."
In response to our question about what changes Roisman expected to see, he expressed dismay at the lay citizens who were lobbying the Legislature for changes in the law. "There is a very bad movement of attacking the system as entirely faulty and entirely unethical. The activists are alleging that divorce litigation is a brotherhood/sisterhood system where those who are getting paid take care of each other and the public be damned. The system is in danger because these people are finding an audience." What would be so bad about change? "The design of the system in most states is really good and very sensitive to children," opined Roisman. "Politicians should not be sticking their noses into this."
How had Connecticut's "really good and very sensitive" system worked out for users during Roisman's 50 years of practice? In virtually every case Roisman described, a divorce resulted in the father losing his children, his house, and a substantial portion of his income, oftentimes for the rest of his life, while paying legal fees of up to $2 million and moving into a small apartment. Roisman thought that the fathers should be happy about the result because it was in their children's best interest.
[Note that Roisman's position was consistent with what we heard during our interviews nationwide. Attorneys, judges, and paid experts such as GALs have strong beliefs that their own state's system, i.e., the one that is responsible for their paychecks, is fair, just, and produces ideal results for children. There wouldn't be anything surprising about this except that the systems that are praised as ideal for children are completely different in each state. Attorneys in Alaska and Washington, D.C. would tell you that 50/50 shared parenting is ideal for children; attorneys in New York and Connecticut would tell you that every-other-weekend is an ideal amount of time for a child to see a secondary parent. Attorneys in Nevada would tell you that a $13,000 per year cap on child support discourages grifters and helps children avoid becoming tools of the greedy; attorneys in California would tell you a child that results from a one-night encounter with a celebrity should get the same $200,000 per year in child support as the child of a long-term marriage. Attorneys in Massachusetts would tell you that they are doing God's work by billing clients to argue over a child's schedule; attorneys in Texas would tell you that it doesn't make sense to argue over a child's schedule when the statutory schedule is reasonable.]