New York Is a Melting Pot: Know the Culture You’re Working With - Part 2 by Cheryl Stein

“Home is where the heart is” is a lovely, flowery, figurative expression that surely makes sense and resonates. However, on a very fundamental level, home is made of bricks and mortar. It is the basic foundation of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, where we can cohabitate and be physically protected from the external elements.   

Nearly all emphasize strong family connections, and many exhibit multi-generational homes with pooled resources and shared responsibilities, spanning two to three living generations under one roof or within close proximity.    

Such living arrangements cast a widespread shadow over a couple’s marriage and divorce. 

There is the meddlesome in-laws scenario, where a couple cannot evolve into their own matured, intimate, and trusting entity, because there is the incessant, intrusive third wheel of one or both of their parents sticking their noses in. Such parental behavior is often enabled by the adult child, who has great difficulty cutting the umbilical cord; it debilitates grown, married children and prevents them from being able to think for themselves and make their own decisions, together with their spouse, without constantly conferring with their parents and getting their parents’ approval.  

A client from a tight-knit Russian-Jewish background dreaded and delayed going home every night, because he did not want to be coming home to his mother-in-law’s constant badgering. He could not get his wife to divorce her mother, so he finally ended up divorcing his wife, whom he liked. 

Another culturally embedded younger couple was on the verge of divorce, largely due to the wife’s mother’s intrusiveness. With the help of a skilled family therapist, the couple moved to a different area, an approximate 1.5 to 2-hour drive from the maternal grandmother, and they were able to develop as their own marital entity and work things out. 

An additional influencing factor is the way larger family structures share and pool resources. Monies and resources received by an adult child can then be imputed to that adult child or otherwise accounted for to compute their basic child support obligation and statutory add-on expenses:

•As for basic child support, if a divorcing parent is living rent-free at their parent’s house and receiving many other paid benefits from their parents, a judge may decide to impute some/all of the monetary value of those resources to the divorcing parent for child support calculations; it is within judicial discretion, and there is supporting case law for this position.

•If funds for the children’s religious private schools are paid for by a set of grandparents year after year, a judge may impute that money to the divorcing parent and take it for granted that those funds will be forthcoming and accessible to them moving forward. 

•Childcare is an add-on that is allocated pro rata, pursuant to Domestic Relations Law Section 240 and the Family Court Act section 413–the applicable statutes. In the subject homes, a grandparent or aunt living under the same roof as the divorcing parent or nearby is often the built-in babysitter, negating the need for childcare. A parent can then say, rather than paying their pro rata share towards add-ons, they will use their mother as their babysitter/nanny. This is a sound and sensible position a party may take.     

The sale of the house/marital residence is typically zoomed into full focus at the time of divorce, and much attention needs to be paid to the details. Most commonly, when divorcing parties jointly own a marital residence, they agree that the primary residential parent (still, traditionally, the mother) shall be able to reside in the residence, together with the children, until the youngest child is 18 years old, at which time the residence may be sold and the net proceeds of the sale appropriately allocated between the then divorced parties (this may be many years post-divorce). 

Muslim clients have relayed that this simply does not work for them; that their (often ivy-league educated, high-income-earning professional and well able to support themselves) adult children live with them until they are married, often well into adulthood. They are not willing to sell the house when the youngest child turns 18. This is not exclusive to Muslims; other religious and traditional groups have similar protocols. 

Critical details such as these permeate and interlace themselves throughout the divorce negotiations. The right balance must be struck for the specific clients at the table; not some generic notion of what the “Apple-Pie” American family looks like. The parties’ culture may put limitations on their options when negotiating a divorce settlement. 

These clients do a balancing act and straddle the world of their immediate nuclear religion and culture and American culture. When servicing them, attorneys and mediators should be flexible enough to dance their dance and maintain proper footing and balance, while always using the law as a backbone and basic foundation.

Feel free to contact me with any questions.

Cheryl Stein, Esq.
The Law and Mediation Offices of Cheryl Stein
Offices in Manhattan and Brooklyn
Phone: (646) 884-2324