What You Need to Know About New York City Custody Cases

No matter where you live, child custody is a critical issue in your divorce. All of the issues and concerns present in a custody case are magnified in New York City high net worth families. In addition to this, there are unique and important issues that arise for the high net worth population in the city.

Spheres of Influence

New York State law has a strong preference for joint physical and legal custody, with parents sharing as close to equal time as possible in most situations. In most cases, parenting plans provide that one or both parents will have legal custody, which is the ability to make decisions about a child's health, education, religion, and so on. 

With a joint legal custody decision, both parents are expected to make decisions together, and if they cannot reach an agreement, they have to go back to court. In a sole legal custody situation, one parent makes all of these decisions. 

Another option that is common in New York City is a determination of spheres of influence when it comes to legal custody. Generally, these spheres of influence are education, non-emergency medical issues, religion, and extracurricular activities. 

Each parent can be given control over one or more spheres of influence, so one parent might handle education and extracurriculars and the other might handle medical and religion. In these situations, the parent with control in the sphere should discuss the decision with the other parent, but then determine on their own if they cannot agree. 


Education is a prime concern with children in New York City. It takes on a heightened importance. Choice of school can be a primary point of contention. If you have joint legal custody, you are supposed to make decisions together about education. If the parents disagree about which school a child should apply to or attend, conflict can reach challenging levels. 

Special education is another challenging area. If you have a child with emotional challenges or learning disabilities such as ADHD, dyslexia, or expressive receptive issues, the public schools are required to provide an education that meets that child's needs. 

Often these issues cannot be handled appropriately in a public school, and the family has to go through a hearing process with the public school to require them to pay for the appropriate private education. If the hearing determines that a private education is not necessary, the school will not pay for it, and it is up to the parents to fund the necessary education they feel their child needs. 

This sets the field for conflict between the parents. While both love their child, the cost of private schools in New York City can cost $45,000 a year, which can become a matter of contention. Conflict over where the child should go to school is a common issue in custody cases. It's also common to have conflict over whether the child even has special needs. 

If the parents can't agree about education decisions, the court will decide. All educational issues are decided based on what is in the best interest of the child. In this kind of situation, it is necessary to have expert testimony about the child's medical and learning disabilities. Former teachers may also be required to testify. The courts tend to lean towards requiring special education when there is a question about it in a case. 

Moving Out

If you have a lot of resources at your disposal, once there is conflict in the home, and a divorce is on the table, it's very tempting just to leave and stay at another property you own or move to a hotel or rental. Doing so is not a wise choice in most cases because leaving the home and children behind can damage your chances of getting custody. Unless there is a risk of domestic violence, moving out of the house is something to avoid until there's a parenting plan in place. Instead, try moving into a separate room or separate part of the home so that you remain in the same house as your children.


A modern alternative to shuttling the children back and forth between parents is a parenting style called nesting. The children remain in the marital home, and parents rotate in and out, taking turns staying there. One parent is in the home at a time, and the other one stays elsewhere, then they switch. 

This way both parents have adequate time with the children in familiar surroundings, and the children's lives are not disrupted. The children can continue to go to school, see their friends, and go to all of their activities. It's recommended that you and your spouse maintain separate locked bedrooms if at all possible so that you aren't intruding on each other's space. Maintaining some clear household rules and schedules can also be helpful. 

The Nanny

Your primary consideration is getting custody of your children, but there's a good chance you also want to get "custody" of the nanny as well. Children tend to be very attached to their nannies, so maintaining that relationship can help them with their adjustment to the divorce and provide an important level of consistency. 

A crucial part of your parenting arrangement moving forward will be who will pay for the nanny and where the nanny will spend her time. In a perfect world, you could continue to share the nanny, but this could be difficult to achieve if one spouse moves out of the city. Often, one parent is going to keep the nanny, and the other will need to make new arrangements, which can be time-consuming, stressful, and expensive. 

Nannies can be called on to testify in a custody case, so it's imperative to maintain a good relationship with the nanny. The nanny provides a rare insider look at parenting styles and abilities for the court. You will want to showcase your parenting skills for the nanny and also be certain to spend a lot of quality time with your children even when the nanny is present so that this is reported if the nanny testifies. 

International Travel

International travel is a common factor in high net worth families but can often become contentious. Your child likely already has a passport, but if they do not, both parents must sign the application (or the renewal form if they already have a passport). A common way to push buttons is for a parent to refuse to sign the form when the other wants to travel with the children. If this happens, your attorney will file a motion, and the judge will require the other parent to sign. 

It's common for custody orders to include provisions that neither parent can take the child out of the state or out of the country without permission from the other parent. This is generally inserted to avoid parental kidnapping. This type of provision may be impractical for a family that regularly travels internationally. Hence, it's important to discuss your family's travel history with your attorney so that some kind of agreement can be reached or so that a full-bodied argument can be presented to the court.  

The considerations involved in a New York City divorce are unique and complex, so it's essential that you work with an experienced attorney who understands the issues and has years of practical experience solving them. 


Dror Bikel

Dror Bikel co-founded Bikel Rosenthal & Schanfield, New York’s best known firm for high-conflict matrimonial disputes. A New York Superlawyer℠ and twice recognized (2020 and 2021) New York Divorce Trial Lawyer of the Year, Dror’s reputation as a fearsome advocate in difficult custody and divorce disputes has led him to deliver solid outcomes in some of New York’s most complex family law trials. Attorney Bikel is a frequent commentator on high profile divorces for national and international media outlets. His book The 1% Divorce - When Titans Clash was a 5-category Amazon bestseller.

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