We have blogged before on the increasing trend by trial courts to deny litigant’s an opportunity to engage in oral argument in motion practice. Rule 5:5-4 of the New Jersey Rules of Court provides that "the court shall ordinarily grant requests for oral argument on substantive and non-routine discovery motions . . . ." Considering the highly overburdened court calendars currently plaguing the family court system in New Jersey, a trial court’s reluctance to hear oral argument is understandable if it believes such argument is unnecessary based on the underlying papers before it. However, oral argument is generally required where such substantive issues are raised and oral argument is requested so that a litigant has a full opportunity to present his or her case.
That brings us to the Appellate Division’s recently unpublished (not precedential) decision in Rains v. Rains. There, the former husband filed a motion to terminate or modify his alimony and life insurance obligations based on the former wife’s inheritance received post-divorce. The husband’s application and wife’s opposition each included a Case Information Statement presenting disparate pictures of the marital lifestyle for reference by the trial court in analyzing husband’s claims for relief (not surprisingly, husband’s presented marital lifestyle was far lower than that portrayed by wife).
Each party also submitted detailed proposals on the rate of return wife would receive on her inheritance. Again, not surprisingly, husband proposed a rate of return higher than that posited by the wife based on a slightly more aggressive approach.
Both parties requested oral argument, but the trial judge denied such requests and entered an Order with an accompanying statement of reasons that, in part, terminated the alimony obligation. In the statement of reasons the trial court justified its basis for denying oral argument, but then proceeded to impute a reasonable rate of return on wife’s inheritance based on a methodology proposed by neither party in their respective applications. Since oral argument was denied, the parties were also denied the ability to contest the methodology unilaterally chosen by the court. Notably, the statement of reasons also did not include a determination as to the parties’ marital lifestyle, concluding that such a finding was unnecessary because the parties voluntarily entered into a settlement agreement without making a lifestyle determination.
Reversing the trial court’s decision, the Appellate Division found that the rate of return methodology employed by the trial court should have been the subject of oral argument by the parties, especially since the case law from which such methodology was derived was not applicable in all cases. The Appellate Division found that the trial court should have considered the fact specific circumstances before it to determine a reasonable rate of return. On remand, the trial court was to, among other things, make a finding as to the marital lifestyle.
Most importantly, though, was that the parties would be able to more fully present their arguments as to a reasonable rate of return on wife’s inheritance as it related to husband’s modification/termination applicaiton.