Q & A With New York State’s Deputy Chief Support Magistrate John J. Aman
Q: What are the responsibilities of a support magistrate?
A: A support magistrate has jurisdiction in family court over child support and child-support related issues. We hear cases and make decisions, not recommendations. Our jurisdiction consists of the actual dollar amount paid to the custodial parent by the noncustodial parent and the provision of health insurance for the children — a very important issue. We address the allocation of the payment of uninsured and unreimbursed health-related expenses; child-care expenses necessary for the custodial parent’s schooling or employment; and the children’s extraordinary or special education expenses. We can order a noncustodial parent to provide life insurance for the children. And, we determine paternity if that hasn’t previously been addressed.
We also have authority to order spousal support. This might happen if the parties are married and don’t wish to legally separate or divorce. While our responsibilities at first blush may appear to be somewhat focused, they are, in perspective, very extensive.
Q: Do you only establish child support obligations?
A: We establish child support obligations if one has never been established. However, we do much more than that. For instance, we handle applications to modify previously established obligations, and we have jurisdiction to enforce our orders and orders of other courts and other states.
Q: What are some of your enforcement powers?
A: Support magistrates can enter income executions, grant money judgments, order license suspensions (professional, recreational and drivers’ licenses), sequester property, and award attorney’s fees on enforcement and violation applications. We can also find a willful nonpayment of support and recommend incarceration by a family court judge.
Q: How long have you been a support magistrate?
A: I have been doing this since 1993, but have worked in family law virtually my entire legal career. I’ve been Deputy Chief Support Magistrate to Chief Magistrate Peter Passidomo for two years. I spend half my time in court running a calendar (in Erie County), and half in my statewide administrative capacity.
Q: How many support magistrates are there and what is the term of appointment?
A: There are approximately 120 support magistrates statewide. We are appointed initially for three-year terms and reappointed to five-year terms thereafter. Many support magistrates spend their entire legal careers doing this work.
Q: How many cases do you typically hear in a week?
A: Support magistrates can carry an extensive caseload. It’s not uncommon to calendar 100 cases or more in a week.
Q: Are support magistrates trained on the job?
A: We have a special training program for new magistrates, and we have extensive training once a year for “veterans.” Many men and women who seek out this job already have a family law interest and background. I’m seeing more and more young people coming out of law school who want to work in this area. We try to hire someone with a good family law legal background, an interest in children, the requisite personality and demeanor, and an impeccable reputation as a lawyer and in the community.
Q: Support magistrates must see emotional and perhaps volatile situations. How do you deal with these?
A: We see people in emotionally-charged situations and under great stress. Money is very important to people. It’s amazing to me that many times litigants will settle custody and visitation issues, but not the support issues. These cases have an emotional aspect and the potential to be volatile, which is why we have security in the courtroom. Not only do support magistrates have to learn the law and its application, but we need to be masters in dealing with people. I might estimate that 75 percent of our litigants are self-represented. It’s sometimes difficult for litigants to stay on track and not become involved in side disputes. They want to tell their life stories. We must make sure that litigants are focused and talk about the child support issues, but still feel they’ve had the opportunity to be heard. It is important for people to walk out and say: “I had my shot at this; someone listened to me, and I’ll accept the outcome.”
Also, this may be the only time that people interact with the courts. It’s really important for us to be cognizant of this and demonstrate the proper demeanor. It is important that individuals leave their encounters with the court system with a positive feeling,
at least as much as we can control that.
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