It’s ok if you missed my New Jersey Law Journal article “Helicopter vs. Free Range Parenting: Endorsement of Parenting Style in the Law” published July 13, 2018. It’s been a busy summer. Now that you’re back in the swing of things, take the time to read this. I hope you’ll agree it provides an interesting perspective of the current state of the law in NJ and where we may be headed….

 

Once a parenting time schedule is established, parents’ next concern is the logistics with pick-up and drop-off.   Even with a parenting time schedule memorialized issues arise: lateness, inconvenient locations, interference with children’s activities, etc.   Most times these issues can be resolved amicably without judicial intervention.  But occasionally an application must be filed with the Court to address these issues.

Recently, in the unpublished appellate decision of Devorak v. Devorak, A-4325-16T2,the Appellate Court reviewed such a case.  The defendant in Devorak had filed a post-judgement motion to change the previously agreed upon driving responsibilities for visitation, amongst other issues.  At the time of divorce, both parties resided in the same town and they agreed that they would share alternate weekends for parenting time with the child and the defendant would pick up their daughter after he was done with work on Friday evening and bring her back on Sunday.  Defendant further agreed that he would “be responsible for all transportation for his parenting time, unless other arrangements [were] mutually agreed upon by the parties.”

Plaintiff later moved to New York City, but on November 22, 2013, the parties entered into a consent order where she agreed to relocate to New Jersey, and defendant agreed to temporarily provide transportation to and from his weekend parenting time until plaintiff moved back to New Jersey.  However, the consent order did not address the parties’ driving responsibilities upon plaintiff’s relocation to New Jersey.  Thereafter, plaintiff moved to Roseland, New Jersey and defendant moved to Ewing, New Jersey.  On September 20, 2016, defendant filed a motion seeking an order compelling “[t]he parties to share equally the driving responsibilities regarding parenting time,” amongst other issues.  Plaintiff cross-moved  for an order compelling defendant to “be required to do all the traveling in connection [with] his visitations with the parties’ child . . . ,” amongst other things, and argued that defendant received the benefit of his bargain in that he did not have to pay alimony and paid “modest” child support in return for doing all of the driving.

Despite Plaintiff’s arguments, the Judge determined that “it [was] fair and equitable [for them] to share in the transportation responsibility[,]” and granted defendant’s motion for the parties to “equally share driving responsibilities for parenting time . . . .”  The judge further ordered the parties to “agree [to] a pickup and drop off location equidistant between their current residences” of Ewing and Roseland.  In rendering his decision, the Judge reviewed the history of the parties’ residences from the time of the final judgment of divorce, as well as earlier orders dealing with parenting time.  On appeal, the Appellate Court stated that it agreed with the trial court’s decision for the reasons cited by the trial court judge, while also dismissing the appeal on procedural grounds.

Here is case where the parties bargained for a driving schedule at the time of their divorce, but due to subsequent decisions by the parties, including moving, the Court determined that the drop off logistics should be altered, despite the parties prior agreement. Whether or not you agree with the Court’s decision on this, the lesson to be learned is that these issues must be addressed with clear provisions at the time of negotiation.  Being amicable with a former spouse is certainly the best way to co-parent, however it is smart to also be prepared for future circumstances to the extent they can be planned for.  Driving responsibilities is one of those such issues.

As the line from one of my favorite White Stripes songs goes, “Fall is Here, Hear the Yell, Back to School, Ring the Bell…” I know when the new school year has arrived in my house because the boys are getting the last of their summer homework done, enjoying their last days of summer freedom and we are frantically shopping for new school supplies to stuff into their backpacks for their first day.

It is a crazy time of year to be a parent.  For divorced parents, however, the level of stress can be even greater and, as a result, increase the need for better planning and time management.  Grab a pen and a fresh notebook because here are a few tips for the divorced parent to start the new school year.

Become Calendar Masters:  Parenting time, classes, activities, child care, doctor and therapy appointments, sports, birthday parties and more.  The possible scheduling coordination and resulting issues are endless, and, as a result, it is very important to be on top of your game when it comes to knowing what is going on and when.  Using a web-based calendar with your ex can be invaluable to ensuring everything runs as smoothly as possible, and can even be a central hub for communications when emails and texts are not working well.  Consider Our Family Wizard and Google Calendar as two often used calendar options.

Talk to School Administrators, Counselors, Teachers, Coaches and More:  Getting these key figures up to speed on what is happening at home can greatly help them determine how best to care for and communicate with your child.  Have these conversations in-person, when possible, with the other parent and ensure that the both of you are copied on written communications so that no one is left out of the loop.  When appropriate, ensure that you and the other parent are both listed as primary contacts at school, and with sports teams, other activity groups, and doctors.

Attend Conferences, Events and Activities:  Know how your child is doing in school academically, socially, and athletically.  Try to keep everything as positive and normal as possible by attending sporting events, school concerts and plays, and classroom activities.  Try not to let these opportunities pass by without taking advantage, of course, understanding that work often takes precedent.  Your child may appreciate and remember such efforts more than you will ever know.

Keep an Eye on the Kids:  Growing up is hard enough without having to deal with family conflicts at home.  If you see your child having a hard time adjusting to the new school year, consider school counseling or private therapy to work through the situation.  School administrators and counselors may have private therapist recommendations tailored to your child’s needs.

Starting the new school year is always a daunting task for the entire household, but hopefully these tips will help you pass the test with flying colors.

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Robert A. EpsteinRobert Epstein is a partner in Fox Rothschild LLP’s Family Law Practice Group and practices throughout New Jersey.  He can be reached at (973) 994-7526, or repstein@foxrothschild.com.

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I know, I know. Summer is coming to an end and despite how much torrential rain we have had, it is still sad to see it fade off into the sunset as the days get shorter and colder. Having just returned from a shore trip with my family, it is incredible to reflect on hours and hours of planning that go into even a small vacation.

For divorced parents, the level of detail and coordinating necessary to schedule vacations often increases ten-fold, as you not only have to worry about when the kids potentially get home from sleepaway camp, when school starts, when school sports/activities start (mid to late August sounds just about right so that going on vacation is ever that much harder), but also when the other parent is going on vacation, how the children will react to separate vacations, scheduling calls with the other parent during the vacation, and so much more.

With that in mind, here are five tips for scheduling vacations:

  1. Give as much notice to the other parent as possible. The more notice you provide to the other parent of when and where you plan on taking a vacation with the kids, the better. Many of our settlement agreements include language containing deadlines as to when vacation plans must be made known, who has the first choice each year, and the like, so provide as much notice as possible to help ensure there are minimal conflicts.
  2. Provide all contact information, itinerary details, and international travel approvals to the other parent. It should go without question that you need to provide details about vacation starts, where you are going, how you can be reached (other than cell phone) and any other pertinent details. You should also note that international travel may require an additional level of approval, cooperation and consent from the non-traveling parent.
  3. If you are going away together, be on your best behavior. While somewhat rare, some divorced parents will continue to vacation together with the children. While avoiding conflict is not always easy for either married or divorced parents, do your best to provide a positive experience for the children, present a united front to the extent possible, and convey a sense of normalcy.
  4. Be sure that the kids stay in touch with the other parent while away. Communicating with the non-vacationing parent oftentimes takes on a greater level of significance during vacation, especially with potentially packed travel schedules and distractions. Try to set aside a specific time when the children can speak to/video conference with the other parent every day so that they keep in touch as best as possible under the circumstances.
  5. Try to keep the conflict at a minimum. Vacations are supposed to be fun and relaxing. In the days leading up to the vacation’s commencement, consider being flexible with the other parent’s parenting time or communication requests. Keep the acrimony to a minimum, especially if camp/sleepaway camp for the children just ended and time is short before the vacation starts.

While every divorced family has its own set of wrinkles and hurdles to overcome in planning the best possible vacation time with the kids, hopefully these tips will help ensure that you are more worried about getting in as much sun as possible than anything else.

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Robert A. EpsteinRobert Epstein is a partner in Fox Rothschild LLP’s Family Law Practice Group and practices throughout New Jersey.  He can be reached at (973) 994-7526, or repstein@foxrothschild.com.

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*photo attributed to jmesquitaau

Every day I represent people who believe that they are never going to move on from their divorce. These incredibly strong people have a difficult time understanding that there is, in fact, a light at the end of the tunnel because the divorce has understandably become the primary focus of their everyday existence. One of the hardest parts of the divorce process is oftentimes not getting to the end, but, rather, coming to a question of what to do next?  As you go through the divorce process, there are a few people who can help you make your way once the divorce is finalized and can help you find that light at the end of the tunnel.

The therapist – For you, for the kids, or perhaps for the entire family, a licensed and well-trained therapist with whom you are comfortable can be critical to helping you/your kids move beyond the divorce. A therapist can also help you work through what happened during the marriage, the divorce, and how to adapt to a brand new future.

The divorce coach – Different from a therapist in many ways, a divorce coach is trained to help you get through the divorce process and move forward with your life from a more practical perspective. A good divorce coach can assist you in developing a positive, forward-looking and goal-oriented strategy either early on in the divorce process, in the midst of its occurrence, or even after its completion.

The parenting coordinator – No one said co-parenting after a divorce is easy, and a parenting coordinator can help transition parents into more workable co-parenting roles or, in cases where high acrimony exists render recommendations on anything from where the parenting time exchanges should occur to when there should be make-up parenting time, and so much more.  For those parents who have seen their parenting role minimized by the other parent, the parenting coordinator’s existence and recommendations on these types of issues can help preserve your ability to have a say, and ideally protect your relationship with the children.

The accountant and the financial advisor – After years of the other spouse handling the household finances and making financial decisions, you are now faced with having to tackle these issues on your own.  The situation may be even more complicated if you were not involved in the financial decisions and do not have an understanding of your monthly expenses, assets and any debts you were left with. A sharp accountant and financial advisor can help put your mind at ease as you try to figure out where to go from here.

The personal support system – Ultimately, your family and friends will be your strongest support system both during the divorce process and after its conclusion.  Never hesitate to turn to those with whom you feel comfortable to help get you through what may be a very difficult, but finite time in your life.

Everyone has their own way of moving on once the divorce is over.  How you get to where you want to be at the end of that tunnel, however, is ultimately up to you.

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Robert A. EpsteinRobert Epstein is a partner in Fox Rothschild LLP’s Family Law Practice Group and practices throughout New Jersey.  He can be reached at (973) 994-7526, or repstein@foxrothschild.com.

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It is not unusual for parties to address their children’s college education in their Marital Settlement Agreements.  If children are college age or close, parties may actually specifically determine the percentages that they will pay for college costs (including pre-college costs such as SAT/ACT preparation, application fees, etc.)  If the children are younger, parties often acknowledge their responsibilities and define the types of things will be covered, but defer the determination of their actual percentage shares until the children are in their senior year of high school.  Very often, the agreement will provide that the children are required to apply for all available financial aid, grants and loans.  Since student loans may be easy to obtain to fund the vast majority of college, at times, parties may limit the loans that they are going to force their children to take to subsidized student loans (e.g. Stafford, Perkins) which are limited vs. private loans where they could borrow vast sums.  But if college is a part of support of children in New Jersey, at least children of divorced parents or never married parents (vs. children of intact families that don’t seem to have the same rights), can they be forced to take loans to pay for an obligation that is supposed to be their parents’ obligation?

The issue of student loans was one of the issues addressed in the unreported (non-precedential) Appellate Division opinion in the case of M.F.W. v. G.O. decided today.  In this case, the parties divorced in 2003 when their daughter was 5 years old.  Their settlement included an agreement to pay for college and also had the typical language requiring that the child, “… “shall apply for all loans, grants, aid and scholarships available to her, the proceeds of which shall be first applied to college costs.”  When it became time for the child to go to college, in this case Georgetown, at a cost of more than $66,000 per year, the mother sought the father’s contribution for both college and pre-college costs.  When the issue wasn’t resolved, an enforcement motion was filed.  One of the father’s defenses was that the daughter should have been required to obtain loans.  It should be noted that the father’s net yearly income increased from approximately $80,000 per year at the time of the divorce to approximately $217,000 at the time of the motion.

The trial judge rejected the father’s request to enforce the agreement and require the daughter to seek student loans, finding it to be “repugnant.”  As noted by the Appellate Division:

The court found it was “unfair and unjust” to require Jane to apply for “all loans, grants, aid and scholarships available to her” and to apply them first to the college costs because Jane “should not be bound to a contract which she is not a party to” and because the parents “have a legal obligation to support” her “and cannot compromise that obligation even if they both agree.” The court found this provision of the PSA is “repugnant and will not be enforced.”

That is an interesting holding because I have seen these clauses enforced all of the time.  Seemingly, this is because the court found that “the parties have the financial wherewithal to meet all of their daughter’s financial needs for college.”  But many times I have seen this provision in agreements where the parties seemingly have the financial wherewithal though sometimes I shake my head because unless parties have saved substantially for college, most people can’t afford to pay for college out of income, even at the income levels in this case.  Moreover, some people of means include these clauses because one or both believes that the children need to have “skin in the game”, or because their parents didn’t pay for their education, or for any other reason.  As noted above, if parents of means in an intact family make their child take out loans for college, that is their prerogative and the children probably have no recourse.

Back to M.F.W., the father appealed arguing, among other things not germane to this post, that the trial court should have enforced the parties’ agreement regarding loans and the Appellate Division affirmed the decision.  With regard to the student loan issue, the Appellate Division noted that agreements are usually enforced and should not be disturbed, unless there is a change of circumstances.  You get the sense that the court was inferring that this is what the trial judge meant in his decision, assuming it was not specifically stated as such.  The change of circumstances was the parties increased income.  Accordingly, they held that

The court found “unfair and unjust” the provision that required Jane to apply for loans and financial aid because it was the parents’ obligation to pay for college and they had the ability to do so. Defendant acknowledged that “[t]he parties both have significant financial resources and can afford to send their daughter to Georgetown University.”  The court did not err by not enforcing this provision.

We cannot say, given the parties’ incomes, that the court erred by not requiring Jane to obtain loans or other financial aid where she would be financially obligated to repay the funds in the future. Her parents had agreed to pay for her college expenses under the PSA. This would include any loans to pay those expenses.

There appears to be a contradiction here.  Was the loan requirement eviscerated because of the parties’ increased income or because the parties agreed to pay for college and that this would include loans?  The latter suggests that it was intended that the agreement to pay for college included the agreement to pay for the loans that the child was going to be required to pay.  That certainly is not the standard practice.  Moreover, if the court is interpreting the agreement in that way, then there would not be a change of circumstances because they are interpreting the agreement to pay for college to also be an agreement to pay loans too.

Left unsettled by this case is (1) whether you can make your kids take out loans and if so (2) whether that agreement means that you have to pay for the loans your children take out if you agree to pay for college.   If nothing else, though not precedential, this case provides ammunition to parents seeking to compel the other parent to pay for college, whether or not their Agreement requires that the children take out loans.

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Eric S. Solotoff, Partner, Fox Rothschild LLPEric Solotoff is the editor of the New Jersey Family Legal Blog and the Co-Chair of the Family Law Practice Group of Fox Rothschild LLP. Certified by the Supreme Court of New Jersey as a Matrimonial Lawyer and a Fellow of the American Academy of Matrimonial Attorneys, Eric is resident in Fox Rothschild’s Morristown, New Jersey office though he practices throughout New Jersey. You can reach Eric at (973) 994-7501, or esolotoff@foxrothschild.com.

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On a daily basis, I’ll go online and search for the latest in divorce news to see what people are talking about. Two recent stories were of particular note not for the facts involved but, rather, for the newsworthy legal outcomes. Each story is a reminder that in New Jersey almost every case proceeds on a no-fault basis, even though, on occasion, a spouse may want to proceed on a claim of adultery, extreme cruelty, or another fault-based ground depending on the situation.

U.K. Wife Denied Divorce after Forty Years of Marriage

In the first story out of the United Kingdom, the Supreme Court dismissed an appeal from a woman seeking to divorce her husband after almost 40 years of marriage when they separated in 2015. The husband contested the petition (which apparently does not occur often) on the basis that the marriage was a success and that they still had a “few years” to enjoy together.

The wife’s application was denied because U.K. law provides that a quick divorce cannot be granted unless the party seeking the divorce claims adultery, desertion or “unreasonable behavior” by the other spouse. Otherwise, a divorce can only occur in the U.K. if the parties have lived apart for two years and the parties consent to the divorce, or, if one spouse objects, after five years of separation. In other words, since the husband was contesting the divorce the wife has no choice but to remain separated from him until 2020 for the divorce to occur.

North Carolina Man Ordered To Pay $9 Million to Man with Whose Wife He Had an Affair

The next story involves a boyfriend who was ordered to pay a husband approximately $9 million for having an affair with the husband’s wife. The award was comprised mostly of punitive damages designed to punish the boyfriend, and approximately $2 million in compensatory damages. The husband commenced a lawsuit with claims of criminal conversation, alienation of affection, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and assault and battery. He specifically claimed that after learning of the affair his business lost both revenue and an employee (the wife).

Wondering how this type of lawsuit can be possible? Well, in North Carolina a person can sue a someone with whom his or her spouse has engaged with outside of the marriage for alienation of affection, and for criminal conversation, which involves extramarital sexual acts. Interestingly, this type of law still remains on the books of five other states. Incredibly, the claims held because there was no proof that the parties’ marriage was failing prior to commencement of the extramarital relationship, and third person being sued need not even have meant to harm the marriage to be found liable.

What Happens in New Jersey?

Had these situations occurred in New Jersey, the results would have been very different. As I mentioned before, most divorces in New Jersey proceed on the no-fault grounds of irreconcilable differences where, after six months of such differences, it is no longer reasonable for the spouses to remain married. As a result, the wife in the first story would have been able to divorce her husband without issue and without having to wait out the five-year separation period. As for the North Carolina man wondering how he is going to pay $9 million to the jilted husband, such claims could not have been brought against him in New Jersey with any sort of legitimacy.

Ultimately, while fault can – on very rare occasions – come into play in a New Jersey divorce, it is almost always an irrelevant factor to the outcome other oftentimes playing a significant role in the spouses’ emotions. New Jersey, like most other states, is more focused on allowing people to move on with their lives without pointing fingers, and without the time and expense involved in having to address these types of issues.

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Robert Epstein is a partner in Fox Rothschild LLP’s Family Law Practice Group and practices throughout New Jersey.  He can be reached at (973) 994-7526, or repstein@foxrothschild.com.

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Credibility is key when it comes to matrimonial litigation – from your initial filing through the last day of trial. In our practice, we can often make educated guesses of the range for equitable distribution and alimony from the initial consultation based upon the many statutory factors that a court has to consider and some rules of thumb in settlement negotiations. However, there are those cases that do not result in such a typical manner and the reasoning often comes down to presentation.

For a trial that I conducted in February 2016, the Appellate Division recently upheld the court’s decision awarding the plaintiff/wife 100% of the equity in one of the parties’ businesses with a value of $133,000 (where she primarily worked) and 40% of defendant/husband’s $214,000 interest in the other business (where he primarily worked), as well as determining that each party retain his/her individual retirement accounts following a long-term marriage of over 30 years.  Wife’s retirement accounts exceeded those which husband disclosed – being the key word. In addition to this equitable distribution award, the Appellate Division upheld the trial court’s 40% counsel and expert fee award for the wife, totaling $31,388.10.

Why did the wife prevail in this way? It’s pretty simple based upon a reading of the decision – her husband just could not help himself as a litigant or a witness.

As a litigant, he “stonewalled” discovery, failed to pay the support obligation order during the pre-trial phase of the litigation (a.k.a pendente lite support) that was initially agreed upon, and failed to file a complete Case Information Statement (the bible in family law cases that lists income, budget, assets and debts).

As a witness, he would not even give a straight answer for his address. While he may have thought he was being cute when he responded that the wife could have the value one of the companies, and do “whatever she wants to do with it”, the trial court and the Appellate Division used the husband’s own words against him to find that he abdicated any interest in the company.

The husband’s lack of credibility resulted in a unique comment of the Appellate Division when it stated that the trial court’s counsel fee opinion was upheld even though the trial court did not specify the factors considered under the applicable Court Rule, R. 5:3-5(c). The Appellate Division opined that “…the discussion throughout the opinion made clear he had those factors very factors in mind”. The Appellate Division again cited to the husband’s bad faith (without utilizing the term) by citing to the trial court’s findings that the requested fees were “’fair and reasonable’ and that much work was required due to the ‘recalcitrance of [the husband]’”, as well as that the wife “faced substantial difficulties” to enforce court orders and agreements, and ultimately prepare for trial.

So, what’s the takeaway? What you say and how you act at each stage of the case is important… someone is always watching and, oftentimes, that someone is your spouse’s attorney who will jump at the opportunity to show the court how you have oppressed your spouse. Having handled this trial and appeal, I can confirm that cross examining the husband and finally having the opportunity to point out all of the misbehavior was fun, but not for him. You don’t want to end up in that seat! Mind your manners even in the heat of the moment and, as painstaking as it may be, always remember that it’s better to be the “bigger person” – the games will catch up to the other!


Lindsay A. Heller, Associate, Fox Rothschild LLPLindsay A. Heller is an associate in the firm’s Family Law practice, based in its Morristown, NJ office. You can reach Lindsay at 973.548.3318 or lheller@foxrothschild.com.

Demonstrating yet again that cohabitation cases are almost always a creature of their specific facts and circumstances, the Appellate Division in the recently unpublished, Salvatore v. Salvatore, reversed a trial court’s decision denying a payor former husband’s motion to terminate his alimony obligation based on his payee former wife’s cohabitation in a manner defined by the parties’ Marital Settlement Agreement (MSA).

Here are the facts that you need to know:

  • The parties entered into a settlement agreement and were divorced in early 2011.
  • As to alimony, the agreement provided that the payer’s alimony obligation would terminate upon payee’s remarriage, payer’s 66th birthday, or either party’s death.  As to cohabitation, the agreement provided that payee’s “cohabitation with an unrelated adult in a relationship tantamount to marriage [would] be a re-evaluation event”.
  • In an outright rarity in cohabitation matters, which often involve payee spouses concealing the cohabitation from the payor spouse so as to preserve the support obligation, here the payee advised the payor of her planned cohabitation.
  • Even more rare is that the parties then entered into an addendum to the MSA, wherein: (1) they agreed to the cohabitation; (2) recognized they were “without sufficient knowledge to determine whether the cohabitation [would] be temporary or permanent”; (3) reduced monthly alimony payments by $850 “during the period of cohabitation”; and (4) provided that, “[b]ecause the [p]arties cannot determine the permanency of the cohabitation,” alimony would be reinstated “at the full amount in the [MSA] . . . for the remainder of the term” if the cohabitation terminated.
  • Approximately six years later, the payor filed a motion to terminate his alimony based on the payee’s continued cohabitation.  The trial judge denied the motion, finding that the cohabitation was admitted to at the time of the addendum and, as a result, its continued existence – in and of itself – was not a change in circumstances.  Payor appealed.

Reversing the trial court, the Appellate Division held that the trial judge:

  1. “misapprehended that the change of circumstances involved only defendant’s cohabitation, failing to consider the terms of the MSA that provided cohabitation ‘in a relationship tantamount to marriage’ triggered the ‘re-evaluation event.'”
  2. erred in considering the payer’s failure to allege a financial change in circumstance.
  3. held that financial changes were “of no moment” when considering the MSA language at issue.

In so doing, the Appellate Court reiterated seminal pre-2014 statute case law mandating that the “economic needs” of the payee spouse need not be considered so long as the cohabitation provision meriting an alimony modification is fair.

Addressing the subject addendum to the MSA – really the unique feature of this particular cohabitation case – the Appellate Division found that the trial court:

  1. ignored the cohabitation provision of the MSA by finding that the addendum was the very “re-evaluation” called for by the settlement agreement;
  2. in so doing, relegated the addendum as the benchmark event from which a change in circumstance would have to occur to merit further relief for the payor.  In other words, it was in error for the trial court to find that the payee’s ongoing cohabitation was not a change in circumstance simply because the cohabitation was initially acknowledged by the parties six (6) years earlier in the executed addendum to the MSA.  Specifically, “the trial judge ignored the agreement – and the Konzelman Court’s definition – that more than a casual, perhaps temporary, cohabitation was needed to precipitate a review of the plaintiff’s alimony obligations.”
  3. the cohabitation here was neither short-term, nor temporary.
  4. there was no indication in the executed addendum that it in any way superseded the cohabitation provision of the MSA.

As a result, the matter was remanded to the trial court for a period of discovery and ultimate plenary hearing on the payor’s motion to terminate alimony.  While not shedding further light on the 2014 cohabitation statute (since this matter applied pre-statute case law), the unique factual scenario at issue only further highlights how cohabitation matters are often unpredictable, and rise and fall on the case-specific circumstances at issue.

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Robert Epstein is a partner in Fox Rothschild LLP’s Family Law Practice Group and practices throughout New Jersey and Manhattan.  He can be reached at (973) 994-7526, or repstein@foxrothschild.com.

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Remanding a 2017 trial court decision in a renowned same-sex custody matter, the New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division, held yesterday in the Matter of K.G. v. C.H., that while a non-biological, non-adoptive party to an adopted child did not have standing as a “parent” under New York Domestic Relations Law Sec. 70 to pursue custody and visitation based solely on a preadoption agreement reached during the parties’ relationship to adopt and raise a child together, the trial record was incomplete as to whether such standing could be achieved based on an equitable estoppel theory.

A brief history of the extensive fact-pattern is worth noting here, since the Appellate Division’s affirmance of the trial court’s conclusion that K.G. lacked standing as a parent based on the preadoption agreement was essentially limited to the facts of this case.

The parties were in a romantic relationship that concluded in December, 2009.  In 2007, they agreed to internationally adopt and raise a child together.  The parties’ planned for C.H. to complete the adoption, the child would arrive in the United States, and K.G. would second adopt the child to become a legal parent.

  • When the parties’ relationship ended, no child for adoption had yet been identified by the adoption agency.  C.H. argued that when the parties’ relationship ended, so too did the preadoption agreement.  K.G. disagreed and argued that the agreement, once made, conferred standing upon her as a parent to file a petition for custody and visitation.
  • Extensive testimony was taken at trial regarding the nature of the agreement, the parties’ relationship, and the parties’ respective intentions regarding whether such agreement survived the relationship’s conclusion in 2009.
  • In March, 2011, the adoption agency identified and offered a child to C.H. for adoption.  C.H. adopted the child and K.G., despite the relationship’s demise, developed a loving and affectionate relationship with the child.

Based on the above general facts and underlying details developed at trial, the trial court held that the “parties’ mutual intention to raise an adopted child together did not survive the end of their romantic relationship.”  As a result, the trial court, as affirmed by the Appellate Division, rejected K.G.’s argument that the mere creation of the preadoption agreement conveyed standing upon K.G. to seek custody and visitation with the child.  In so affirming, the Appellate Division noted that the trial court’s decision did not mean that – in every case – the mere end of a romantic relationship does not, in and of itself, terminate the plan to adopt and raise a child together.  Rather, said plan terminated under the specific facts and circumstances at issue.

The Appellate Division also held that the trial court’s ruling on this component of its decision was consistent with the 2016 Court of Appeals seminal decision in Matter of Brooke, which expansively defined who is a “parent” under New York’s Domestic Relations Law to include non-biological, non-adoptive parents and, as a result, who has standing to seek custody and visitation of a child.  The Appellate Court provided:

Contrary to K.G.’s arguments, this legal analysis does not eviscerate Brooke.  If the parties have a plan in place when a particular child is identified, then they become parents under Domestic Relations Law Sec. 70 at that time, with standing thereafter to seek custody/visitation in the event of a change in the household.

As noted above, however, the Appellate Court remanded so that the trial court could more fully develop the record and consider K.G.’s position that she has standing as a “parent” under an equitable estoppel theory designed to ensure fulfillment of the child’s best interests  stemming from a recognized parent-child relationship.  Specifically, “under Domestic Relations Law Sec. 70, equitable estoppel concerns whether a child has a bonded and de facto parental relationship with a non-biological, non-adoptive adult” with the emphasis placed on the child’s point of view.  the key is whether the relationship between the subject adult and child “rises to the level of parenthood.”

As a result of the incomplete record, the Appellate Court could not rule on what factors a court should consider to establish “parent” status under the estoppel concept.  In so holding, the Court found that C.H. had a right to be heard in opposition to the estoppel theory, and the child’s voice was not heard (K.G.’s requests during the trial court matter for the appointment of an attorney for the child, a forensic evaluation and/or a Lincoln hearing where the child undergoes questioning by the judge in private).

Developments in this newsworthy case will continue to unfold as the trial court conducts further proceedings in a manner consistent with the Appellate Court’s ruling.

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Robert Epstein is a partner in Fox Rothschild LLP’s Family Law Practice Group and practices throughout New Jersey and Manhattan.  He can be reached at (973) 994-7526, or repstein@foxrothschild.com.

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