An interesting decision on the issue of support modifications came down last week from the Appellate Division in the unpublished (not precedential) matter of Schechter v. Shechter. There, the husband in 2004 agreed via settlement to pay child support and 12 years of limited duration alimony. In July 2010, he filed a motion to modify his support obligations on the basis of a substantial and continuing change in circumstances (he had been unemployed since March 2009).
The motion judge denied the parties’ request for oral argument and, in ruling "on the papers," added several paragraphs to the husband’s proposed form of order. As part of the order, the judge, among other forms of relief, temporarily reduced the husband’s child support obligation due to a finding of changed circumstances, but then denied his request to modify his alimony obligation.
The husband appealed, arguing that the trial judge erred by (1) denying his request to modify alimony despite finding that changed circumstances warranted a temporary reduction in child support; (2) denying the parties’ request for oral argument; (3) failing to make requisite findings of fact and conclusions of law; and (4) failing to conduct a plenary hearing.
The Appellate Division reversed and remanded the matter because the motion judge failed to make proper findings of fact and conclusions of law. As a result, the Appellate Division was unable to reconcile why the motion judge modified child support based upon a finding of changed circumstances, while also denying a modification of alimony.
Notably, while the husband was successful on having the matter reversed and remanded, it was a hollow victory because the motion judge had since retired. The matter, as a result, was remanded to an entirely new trial judge for a "fresh look," especially in light of the parties’ "possibly evolving financial circumstances." Thus, while the prior motion judge had made a finding of changed circumstances (at least as it applied to child support), the new motion judge would no longer be bound by such a finding. The husband, by unfortunate result, was essentially left with no choice but to start over. While we have discussed on several occasions the issues raised by denying oral argument and failing to make proper findings of fact and conclusions of law, the result in this matter seemed particularly inequitable to one party under somewhat unique circumstances beyond his control.