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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After much debate and, ultimately, a change in the governor’s mansion, New Jersey last week became only the second state (Delaware was the first) to ban – without exception – marriages involving individuals under 18 years of age.  Four other states ban the practice, but allow for a path to such marriage under certain exceptions, while similar legislation is under consideration in Ohio and Pennsylvania.  19 states still do not have a minimum marriage age, and 7 states allow for marriages involving children of 14 or 15 years of age.

The law, which, from a general perspective, is designed to protect minors (especially women) from being forced into arranged marriages, changes New Jersey’s prior law that allowed 16 and 17 year olds to procure marriage licenses with parental consent (16 year olds also required judicial approval).

*Photo courtesy of Alpha Stock Images – link to – http://alphastockimages.com/

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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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As I wrote in December, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act enacted at the end of last year, changed the taxability of alimony starting in 2019.   Specifically, while alimony is currently income to the recipient and deductible from the income of the payor, for agreements and judgments entered after December 31, 2018, that will no longer be the case.  Put another way, the ability to shift income so that it is taxed at the rate of the tax payer at the lower tax bracket will no longer be available.  As I noted, this will likely mean less after tax cash flow available to both parties under the new law (not to mention, the possibly unintended reduction on child support that may be caused since child support is calculated based upon the combined after tax incomes of the parties, i.e. the lower the net income, the lower the child support.)

Now we all know that there is no official “formula” or guidelines to calculate alimony in New Jersey.  That said, we have blogged many times before on the so called “rule of thumb” that many use to get a ballpark figure for alimony, and many more use to actually settle the issue, despite that fact that it often ignores the statutory factors and economic reality.  The way that this formula works is essentially this:  you subtract the actual or imputed income (if unemployed or underemployed) of the recipient from the payer’s income and then take a third of the difference and call it alimony.  I have heard it called the one-third rule – a third for the husband, a third for the wife and a third for the government – however the math really doesn’t work and typically the payor has more after tax income before child support is calculated.  Even after child support is calculated, it was unusual to see the alimony and the kids with more than half of the net after tax income, which meant that the payor lived on half of the net income for himself and the recipient and children lived on the other half, or less.  The fairness of this result can be debated on another day.

That said, because the “formula” contemplated taxes in it’s “theory”, seemingly, that formula will not be able to be used once the tax change really goes into effect.  My guess is that people will look for some new formula that has the same result but there are several problems with that.  With less dollars to go around, a formulaic approach that ignores actual marital lifestyle is likely to be very unfair to the recipient.  Moreover, given the complexities (and quite frankly, the unknowns) of the new tax code and the fact that different business types will be taxed in different ways, to the extent that a one-size fits all formula ever worked, it cannot work now.  I was at a recent seminar where a slide was shown of a doctor and a plumber with the same gross income, but a very different net income, given the difference in how their businesses are treated under the new code (not even including the perks.)  And speaking of perks, things that might have been written off as business expenses but added back to income for support purposes may in many cases, no longer be deductible business expenses which could similarly reduce net cash flow available for support.

In reality, more consideration is going to be have to given to the true after tax cash flows of both parties so that fair alimony and child support results are reached.  We have software that creates those calculations but I expect in the future, we will have to input many more variables to see the true after tax cash flow.  I would also expect that there will be more use of forensic and tax accountants to help with these calculations so that the most fair result is arrived at.

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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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There is an old adage in litigation “know your judge.”  Essentially what that means is that you should find out as much as you can about the judge you are appearing in front of both so you can try to understand what the outcome might be but more importantly, so that you can may a presentation to the judge that she/he will respond positively to.  Some judges will let you go on an one.  Some judges have little patience and you have to get to the point.  With some judges, it seems like the last person to speak wins so you want to make sure you get the last word in.  Others sit there stone faced and say nothing at all.  Some are very interactive with settlement and others are not.  Some have substantial family law experience and others do not.  Some do little to settle and push cases to be tried and others don’t really want or believe that any cases should be tried.  To the extent possible, knowing your judge is an arrow in a lawyer’s quiver that helps them best represent their client.

Does the same thing apply to mediators?  The answer is yes and more importantly, in most cases, unlike the judge who gets assigned to a case, it is the lawyers that have to select and agree upon a mediator.  Of course, you want to select a mediator who you think will most favorably view your case, all things considered.  We had a recent matter where opposing counsel rejected upwards of 20 mediators that we suggested, many retired judges, and would only agree to one or two people that she suggested.  Our guess is that the lawyer perceived that all of the mediators who she had issues with also had issues with her.  That happens.

But aside from selecting a mediator that you think would be substantively/legally helpful, serious thought should go into selecting a mediator whose style and personality would be appealing to your client as well as the other party, to assist the parties to move toward settlement.  I recently had a situation where we selected a second mediator after the matter made little to no progress with the first mediator.  The first mediator was grandfatherly, soft spoken, knowledgeable, impeccably credentialed and had substantial gravitas.  The soft touch was appealing to one of the parties but totally ineffective with the other.  The second mediator had similar if not greater credentials and gravitas in some ways (but not in others), but was much more direct and blunt – and jumped right into the deep water as opposed to letting the process go on hours or multiple sessions.  The party that gelled with the soft spoken mediator was totally turned off by the direct approach and the other party more receptive.  Perhaps with these too, given their very different personalities, there would be no one mediator who checked all of the boxes and could reach both of them.

The point is that you have to know your client and know your mediator and try to agree on one that will be helpful substantively and also be able to develop a relationship of trust with both parties so as to be able to facilitate resolution, if one is possible.

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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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In the midst of our ongoing quest for guidance as to how and when to apply the 2014 cohabitation statute, comes the Appellate Division’s recent unpublished (not precedential) decision in J.S. v. J.M.  While the decision does not reveal much in the way of noteworthy substance beyond what we have already seen in other post-statute decisions, the Appellate Division did opine on a couple of points that this author found interesting, one of which is addressed herein.

Briefly, the parties were divorced in 2010, with a cohabitation provision contained in the subject settlement agreement providing that alimony would “[t]erminate upon [defendant’s] cohabitation . . . with an unrelated male in lieu of remarriage for a period of [thirty] days or more.”  The payor ex-husband moved to terminate in alimony in September 2015 on the basis that the former wife was cohabiting with the payor’s brother.  While somewhat salacious in and of itself, the payor’s request to terminate support was ultimately denied by way of order and decision following a hearing.  Thereafter, the payor filed a motion for reconsideration of the order and decision, as well as an application to set aside same under Rule 4:50-1, each of which was denied.  The payor then only appealed the trial court’s order denying the motions for reconsideration and for relief under 4:50-1 (and not the original order following trial).

The first interesting point in the Appellate Division’s decision focused on the trial judge’s hypothetical question posed during oral argument: “whether it was necessary for [payor] to have filed his motion to terminate [alimony] during [payee’s] relationship with [the alleged cohabitant].”  In other words, from my interpretation of the trial court’s question that was not the central issue on appeal and, thus, not fully fleshed out in the decision, is whether the payor can procure relief if he files his application after the alleged cohabitation comes to an end, rather than during the relationship.  Briefly referencing the Supreme Court of New Jersey’s 2016 decision in Quinn v. Quinn, the Appellate Division here provided:

In Quinn, 225 N.J. at 39, the court held that if a PSA provided for the termination of alimony upon the dependent spouse’s cohabitation, the court should enforce the terms of the agreement and terminate alimony, rather than suspend it during the period of cohabitation.  Again, even if we assume the judge’s question evidenced a palpably wrong understanding of the issue, and we do not think it did, Quinn has no application to this case because the judge found there was no cohabitation.

Does the Appellate Division’s indication, provided as dicta, renew or revive the argument that, but for an agreement calling for the termination of alimony upon cohabitation, an alimony obligation may be suspended during the period of cohabitation and then restored should the relationship come to an end?  Was this argument dead at all, and was Quinn limited to its facts?  For a reminder, the Supreme Court held in Quinn:

In sum, we reiterate today that an agreement to terminate alimony upon cohabitation entered by fully informed parties, represented by independent counsel, and without any evidence of overreaching, fraud, or coercion is enforceable. It is irrelevant that the cohabitation ceased during trial when that relationship had existed for a considerable period of time. Under those circumstances, when a judge finds that the spouse receiving alimony has cohabited, the obligor spouse is entitled to full enforcement of the parties’ agreement. When a court alters an agreement in the absence of a compelling reason, the court eviscerates the certitude the parties thought they had secured, and in the long run undermines this Court’s preference for settlement of all, including marital, disputes. Here, there were no compelling reasons to depart from the clear, unambiguous, and mutually understood terms of the PSA. We therefore reverse the judgment of the Appellate Division.

While this holding primarily focused on the fact that the subject agreement provided that alimony would terminate upon cohabitation (regardless of when the cohabitation occurred), did the Supreme Court more broadly find inconsequential that the cohabitation period ended in determining whether alimony should be reduced?  In other words, can a payee litigant still argue: (1) alimony should only be impacted, if at all, during the period of cohabitation; and (2) the payor has to file the application during the period of alleged cohabitation in order for it to have any merit?

Family law practitioners recently heard one of our State’s most esteemed (and now retired) Appellate Division judges opine that once cohabitation occurs, a modification/termination of support application should be considered even if the cohabitation came to an end, just as it would not matter if a payee remarried and then divorced the new spouse.  It is uncertain whether Quinn closed the door on this issue, and certain arguments perhaps thought dead may still exist, especially since no court has yet to interpret what the word “suspend” truly means in the confines of the cohabitation statute, and whether a suspension of support should be implemented beyond what may be a suspension, or partial suspension during the cohabitation proceeding itself.

In other words, as we await a more definitive interpretation and application of the cohabitation statute, practitioners will continue to creatively and zealously argue on behalf of litigants embroiled in such disputes.

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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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Although the typical matrimonial practitioner may not undertake Division of Child Protection and Permanency (“Division”) on a regular basis, we oftentimes face situations wherein a trial court, in a related matrimonial proceedings, determines Division investigations to be relevant to determinations of custody and parenting time before it. The recent case of DCP&P v. R.R., — N.J. Super. — (Mar. 19, 2018)(slip. Op. at 13), is an interesting new opinion that offers some guidance as to whether these types of investigations may be rendered reliable and when they may be challenged.

There, the subject father appealed from a finding of the Division following an investigation initiated at the request of a Family Part judge in a related matrimonial proceeding, that allegations he abused or neglected his daughter, E.R., were “not established.” In assessing whether to accord deference to such finding, the Appellate Division noted several omissions in the Division’s screening summary, including that the court’s concerns were inaccurately conveyed to the Division; the screening summary inaccurately identified the child involved; and, inaccurate details were recorded.

The Appellate Division ultimately concluded that the Division’s finding was “arbitrary and unreasonable, because the Division failed to consider essential documents and relevant facts,” including failing to obtain and review submissions in the matrimonial matter; or,  any testimony presented at the hearing on the return date. In so finding, the Court stated:

Although the record does not include these documents, it was incumbent upon the Division in this case to consider them as part of a reliable investigation…We recognize that the Division’s regulation governing “requirements for an investigation,” N.J.A.C. 3A:10-3.1, does not require review of relevant court documents. See also N.J.A.C. 3A:10-2.4 (evidence needed to support a finding). However, we cannot have confidence in an investigation – nor are we obliged to defer to the resulting finding – where the Division overlooked such relevant information under the circumstances of this case. Cf. In re Proposed Quest Acad. Charter Sch. of Montclair Founders Grp., 216 N.J. 370, 386 (2013) (“failure to consider all evidence in a record would perforce lead to arbitrary decision making” and a “decision based on a complete misperception of the facts . . . would render the agency’s conclusion unreasonable”); see also Bailey v. Bd. of Review, 339 N.J. Super. 29, 33 (App. Div. 2001) (stating that an appellate court’s deference to an agency decision “is premised on our confidence that there has been a careful consideration of the facts in issue”).

Where to use this type of case: If a trial court determines a Division investigation to be of import to its underlying findings as to custody and parenting time without examining the quality of the investigation done, particularly where the Division’s finding lacks fair support in the investigatory record that the Division compiled.

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Eliana T. Baer is a contributor to the New Jersey Family Legal Blog and a member of the Family Law Practice Group of Fox Rothschild LLP. Eliana practices in Fox Rothschild’s Princeton, New Jersey office and focuses her state-wide practice on representing clients on issues relating to divorce, equitable distribution, support, custody, adoption, domestic violence, premarital agreements and Appellate Practice. You can reach Eliana at (609) 895-3344, or etbaer@foxrothschild.com.

Technology is making it easier and easier to satisfy our curiosity about just what the heck the people in our lives are up to.  Are you curious about your husband’s whereabouts?  You could plant a GPS device on his car.  Do you want to know what your wife is saying to the kids?  There are many ways to go about recording those conversations.  Are you dying to know what your spouse is doing on that laptop, tablet, or smartphone of his/hers?  You could install spyware or other programs (I’ve even heard of some of them referred to as “spouseware”) to secretly find out.  Learning about your spouse’s or ex’s comings and goings, who they are living with, or what they are talking to the kids about can all be valuable information when there are custody issues, questions about whether your ex is cohabiting with someone else for purposes of termination or suspension of alimony, and many other legal issues.  It’s certainly tempting…

BUT DON’T DO IT.  At least not without talking to an attorney.  Because even though technology gives you the ability to do this, it doesn’t make it right and it doesn’t make it legal.

I am seeing these issues come up more and more in my practice, and while much is unclear about where the boundaries can and should be drawn because of the fact sensitive nature of the use of technology in family law cases, a few things appear clear to me.  Using technology to track your spouse or significant other leaves you open to a claim of stalking under the New Jersey Prevention of Domestic Violence Act.  When you use technology to record parties to a conversation without their consent, you may also be subject to criminal and civil liability under Federal and State wiretapping laws – in New Jersey, this is known as the New Jersey Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:156A.  This is not to mention other civil claims such as invasion of privacy.

This is why it is critical that, before you take any step to use technology to surveil your spouse, you speak with an attorney to ensure that you are not doing anything that may subject you to civil or criminal liability, or to discuss alternative options that will allow you to surveil your spouse or family member without taking this risk.  When you are dealing with a criminal charge of stalking, the “But the private investigator I consulted with said it was okay” defense is no defense at all.  While private investigators know all about technology that can be used to surveil your spouse or other family member, they are not always thinking about or even aware of the legal ramifications of their advice.

And, importantly, once the proverbial cat is out of the bag and your spouse or other family member learns that they were being spied on, you cannot try to cover your tracks by destroying the evidence – this is known as “spoliation” of evidence and if you do it, you will likely be subject to sanctions and/or adverse inferences drawn by the Court.  In other words, the Court will punish you for destroying evidence, and may assume that you did engage in the illegal use of technology by virtue of the fact that you felt the need to destroy the evidence of your conduct.  Just ask the Plaintiff in the recent case out of New York State, Crocker C. v. Anne R., in which the Plaintiff installed spyware on his wife’s electronic devices to monitor all of her communications and listen in on her conversations with third parties including privileged communications with her attorneys and her psychiatrist.  When the Defendant discovered this, the Plaintiff immediately “wiped” all trace of the spyware from these devices so that it was not possible to determine the extent to which he intercepted her communications.  He was sanctioned and found in contempt.

And if you find yourself on the receiving end of being spied on by your spouse or family member, it is critical to obtain the immediate services of a forensic expert who can examine any device being used to record or surveil you and can take steps to preserve any such device for evidence purposes.

Remember:  In many ways, the legal uses of technology – especially in the context of family law issues – is a bit like the Wild West.  We are still trying to figure out the rules and the exceptions to those rules when it comes to the legal issues that arise in family law disputes, and it is always best to consult with an attorney before taking action.


headshot_diamond_jessicaJessica C. Diamond is an associate in the firm’s Family Law Practice, resident in the Morristown, NJ, office. You can reach Jessica at (973) 994.7517 or jdiamond@foxrothschild.com.

You never know when or where the next video camera or recording device  is going to show up. And when you’re in the middle of a contested divorce, particularly if there are custody issues, caution is key. I was reminded of this recently when a local news channel reported on complaints against Amazon delivery drivers who had thrown packages at  customers’ doors. The drivers had been caught because the homeowners had set up video cameras to monitor anyone coming up to the front door.

Camera lens/blue eye illustration isolated on white background.A 2 minute Internet search provides countless options for a shopper who is looking to set up some type of surveillance on practically anyone. Hidden cameras (and not so hidden cameras), GPS devices  and sound recorders have come a long way. The reality is that any litigant has to assume that the person on the other side of a matter is going to use any and all available methods to win their case.

Some real time examples:  a case in which a recovering alcoholic looking to regain custody of her son was video photographed in a bar with a glass of wine; a father looking for shared custody certified in court documents that his live-in girlfriend was not a smoker just to have his soon-to-be ex-wife provide the court with pictures of his girlfriend is smoking (which had been taken from his Facebook page). In another example, a client receiving alimony was captured with a live-in boyfriend based upon a small camera that had been placed on the telephone pole across the street from her house. A “friend” of a woman seeking alimony taped a phone call in which the woman admitted she had a secret stash of thousands of dollars.  All of these images or recordings were admissible in court proceedings and were used against the litigants.

When involved in litigation, particularly in family type situations, the sad reality is that people have to assume that they are being photographed or recorded practically at all times. This is time to be the best version of yourself and as hard as it may be, refrain from doing and saying things that can hurt your position.  Even if you are you are speaking or with a confidant.

That being said, the reality is that people do and say things that in retrospect they wish they hadn’t. When this happens, immediately advise your attorneys so damage control can commence.  Better you have control of the situation, no matter how bad.

 

 

MillnerJennifer_twitterJennifer Weisberg Millner is a partner in Fox Rothschild LLP’s Family Law Practice Group. Jennifer is resident in the firm’s Princeton Office, although she practices throughout the state. Jennifer can be reached at 609-895-7612 or jmillner@foxrothschild.com.