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In Re Marriage of Jon and Sarah Trigger Cryer. v. Sarah Trigger Cryer

August 29, 2011


APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County. Amy Pellman, Judge. (Los Angeles County Super. Ct. No. BD405890)

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Boren, P.J.



Jon Cryer and Sarah Trigger Cryer were married and had a son (hereinafter, child). They eventually separated and divorced. Following their separation, Sarah had primary physical custody of child and received substantial child support. After a dependency action was initiated, however, child was placed with Jon. While the dependency action was still in the early procedural stages, Jon sought to modify his child support obligation. The family court modified the child support amount but did not decrease it as much as Jon requested.

On appeal, we find that the family court did not abuse its discretion by declining to order a more severe reduction of child support. The court properly found that special circumstances existed, and its ruling was consistent with the objective of protecting child's best interest. It also did not err by denying a request for an accounting or trust for the child support funds. Finally, we find that the ordered attorney fees awards were proper. Accordingly, we affirm.


Jon and Sarah have both had acting careers, though their career paths diverged widely. As a co-star in the TV show Two and a Half Men, Jon's career soared. In contrast, Sarah's career stalled; it appears her last acting job was in 2005.

Jon and Sarah were married in 2000 and had child in June of that year. The couple separated in April 2004, around the time Jon finished his first season on Two and a Half Men. With Jon's assistance, Sarah bought a condominium in December 2004.

Following divorce proceedings, judgment of dissolution was entered in January 2006. In a stipulated judgment entered into around the same time, Jon agreed to pay Sarah $10,000 per month for child support, and the parties agreed to a custody arrangement giving Sarah a 65 percent "time share" of child and Jon 35 percent. From December 2004 until May 2009, child lived primarily in Sarah's home.

After their divorce, Jon and Sarah both remarried. Sarah had a son in January 2007, with her new husband, David. Sarah and David separated in March 2009 and eventually divorced.

In May 2009, Jon brought an ex parte application in the family court (the trial court) requesting sole physical custody of child. Jon alleged that child had been improperly cared for by Sarah and was left unsupervised. The trial court denied the ex parte application but cautioned Sarah not to leave either of her children unattended.

Later that month, Sarah's younger son suffered an injury while in Sarah's home. That event led to the initiation of a dependency action against Sarah, and both of Sarah's sons were immediately placed by the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) with their respective fathers. Sarah applied to the trial court for an order requiring Jon to pay for her attorneys in the dependency action, but her request was denied.

On August 3, 2009, with the dependency action still pending, Jon filed an order to show cause seeking to have his monthly child support obligations reduced from $10,000 to zero. Jon argued that his previous stipulated judgment with Sarah was predicated on her 65 percent time share for child. Jon contended that because the dependency court placed child with him, and Sarah was allowed only short periods of monitored visitation, none of the money he was paying as child support went to child and the obligation should cease.

Sarah opposed the order to show cause. She argued that the child support obligation of $10,000 per month was not a burden on Jon since it constituted only around 3 percent of his income at the time. She also argued that the custody arrangement ordered by the dependency court was temporary and subject to change, and that if she did not receive the child support she would lose her house and car and be unable to pay other bills, which would in turn harm child.

Prior to the hearing, the parties submitted income and expense declarations. Jon's showed income of approximately $327,000 per month, liquid assets of nearly $7 million, and monthly expenses of approximately $29,000. Sarah's showed negligible average income and liquid assets, and monthly expenses of approximately $10,000, not including attorney fees. In her declaration, Sarah stated her "only significant source of income" was the child support she received from Jon.

The hearing on the order to show cause was held on November 2 and the trial court issued its statement of decision on December 3, 2009. The trial court did not reduce Jon's child support obligation to zero as he was seeking, but did modify the obligation, requiring Jon to continue paying child support at a rate of $10,000 per month through the duration of 2009, and then $8,000 per month beginning in January 2010. The ruling was primarily based on the status of the dependency proceedings. Since the proceedings were still in the pre-adjudication phase, Sarah's custody arrangement could be modified in short order, and DCFS had authority to liberalize visitation at any time. The court found it was in child's best interest to be able to return to the same home that he had shared with his mother prior to the dependency case, and that it was important for Sarah to have regular and consistent contact with him. The court found that Jon was an extraordinarily high earner, and that guideline support (§ 4050 et seq.) of $1,141 per month would be unjust and inappropriate under the circumstances. Jon was also ordered to pay $20,000 to Sarah's attorney for fees. The order stated that Sarah was expected to pursue gainful employment. The court scheduled a review hearing for possible further child support modification.

After the statement of decision was served, Jon filed a motion for reconsideration. Shortly thereafter, he filed a separate order to show cause seeking an accounting of how all child support funds paid to Sarah since June 1, 2009, were used, or, alternatively, an order requiring the support funds to be paid into a trust account. Jon believed that Sarah was circumventing the prior ruling denying her request to have Jon pay her dependency attorney fees by using the child support funds to pay those same fees.

The trial court heard both of these matters in February 2010. The court granted in part the motion for reconsideration and made some technical, though not particularly substantive, changes to its prior statement of decision. As for the order to show cause, the court found that there was no legal authority that would support an accounting or imposition of a trust and denied Jon's motion. A total of $5,000 in attorney fees was awarded to Sarah's counsel.

Jon then filed two "supplemental" memoranda of points and authorities in anticipation of the scheduled review hearing regarding the requested child support modification. Jon stated that Sarah's visitation rights had not been liberalized, even though the dependency action was instituted in May 2009. Further, Sarah had not found a job and had not produced any evidence that she was looking for a job. Jon argued that Sarah was the person benefitting from the child support payments, not child, and requested that the court stay any further child support until Sarah's visitation rights were liberalized. Jon also submitted an income and expense declaration listing average monthly income of $474,861, based on a three-year average cash flow.

Sarah filed responsive papers arguing that Jon misstated his monthly income by averaging the prior three years of cash flow. She claimed that Jon's monthly income as of 2009 was actually $791,666. Sarah's papers also stated that her visitation rights had in fact been liberalized, since child was having home visits with her. Sarah again argued that she would be unable to pay for her home if the child support stopped. She also ...

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