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.

As avid readers of this blog know, New Jersey’s recently amended alimony statute has been the inspiration for many blogs posts as cases interpreting same are coming down the pike. Under the amended statute, a party may seek to terminate or modify his or her spousal support obligation based upon an actual or “prospective” retirement. While this was seemingly good news for those seeking to retire, the question many practitioners had was what does “prospective” actually mean?

In the case of Mueller v. Mueller, Judge Lawrence Jones provides some insight as to this very question. The facts in Mueller are simple. The parties were married for twenty (20) years, divorcing in 2006. Under the parties’ Marital Settlement Agreement, the obligor was to pay $300.00 per week in permanent alimony and their agreement did not expressly address retirement or its relationship to the alimony obligation.

The obligor filed a post-judgment motion, under New Jersey’s amended alimony law, seeking a determination that his alimony would end in five (5) years. At the time of the hearing, the obligor was 57 years old. In five years, he would be 62 and entitled to receive his full employment-related pension benefit. The obligor asserted that if his alimony does not end at that time, that he will be unable to retirement at that age.

Judge Jones provides a thorough analysis of the obligor’s claim, specifically discussing the distinction of a pre-September 2014 agreement modification/termination analysis (where the burden is on the obligor to demonstrate why alimony should terminate) vs. a post-September agreement modification/termination analysis (where there is a rebuttable presumption of termination with the burden on the recipient).

He also notes that the amended statute covers the situation where an obligor wishes to retire earlier than “full retirement age” as defined by the receipt of full social security benefits”, which in this particular case would be 66 years and 8 months for the obligor. The rationale behind this provision is to avoid the proverbial “Catch-22” financial situation.

Specifically, if an obligor is considering the possibility of retirement in the near future, he or she logically benefits from knowing in advance, before making the decision to actually leave the workforce, whether the existing alimony obligation will or will not change following retirement. Otherwise, if the obligor first retires and unilaterally terminates his or her primary significant stream of income before knowing whether the alimony obligation will end or change, then the obligor may find him/herself in a precarious financial position following such voluntary departure from employment if the court does not terminate or significantly reduce the existing alimony obligation.

When applying the new law to the facts of the Mueller case, Judge Jones held:
• The spirit of the statute inherently contemplates that the prospective retirement will take effect within reasonable proximity to the application itself, rather than several years in advance.
o Thus, in this specific case, the request for an order prospectively terminating alimony five (5) years in advance does not lend itself to the Court being able to reasonably analyze and consider all relevant information. The Court warns about how an application too far in advance of prospective retirement could in essence be nothing more than an attempt to summarily change the terms of an alimony settlement agreement.

• An order for prospective termination or modification of alimony based upon reaching a certain retirement age inherently contemplates that the obligor not only reaches retirement age, but actually retires at that point. If the obligor reaches the age, but does not actually retire, the “retirement age” provisions do not trigger until such time as the obligor actually retires or submits an application regarding a prospective retirement in the future.

o Here, the obligor did not provide a specific plan but merely stated a desire to potentially retire in five (5) years, without anything more. While this case does not create a bright-line for when such applications should be brought, Judge Jones notes that a prospective retirement application brought, 12-18 months before prospective retirement, may be more appropriate.

The takeaway from this case is that while the amended alimony statute permits a degree of reasonable prospective adjudication by the court for a prospective rather than actual retirement, an attempt to engage in the necessary statutory analysis several years in advance of such retirement would likely be replete with long-term guesswork. Any such effort would essentially ignore the practical reality that the parties’ economic situations, health and other relevant factors may radically change over such a lengthy period of time, before an actual retirement ever takes place. If you are paying alimony and are within 12-18 months of retirement, you should think about consulting with an experienced professional to discuss your options regarding the termination or modification of your alimony obligation.