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 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.