gavel A recent decision handed down by the Appellate Division in an estate litigation matter serves as a reminder of the all-too-frequent intersection of family law and trusts and estates law. The fact that this case, In the Matter of the Estate of Douglas Castellano and the Parentage of Gregory Bock, is a published decision only further underscores its importance in matters related to paternity, divorce, adoption and intestacy.

I am particularly fond of cases with fact patterns that read more like an episode of Jerry Springer than something you’d typically find in a legal text.  In this case, a woman, Elisa, ended a two year relationship with her partner, Douglas, and married a man named Gregory two months later.  Seven months after the marriage, Elisa gave birth to a child, Greg, Jr.  The child was named after Greg, Sr., who was listed as the father on the child’s birth certificate, despite the fact that Greg, Sr., knew he was not the father and that Douglas was well aware he was the father.

When Greg, Jr., was barely three years old, Greg, Sr., and Elisa divorced.  Greg, Sr., was granted visitation of the child and paid Elisa $80 per week in support.  Even so, Greg, Sr.’s relationship with Greg, Jr., tapered off and he only saw the child approximately two times per year until Greg, Sr., died when the child was a teenager. The child only learned the identity of his biological father from his mother at the age of 30. Following that reveal, Greg, Jr., and Douglas had a casual relationship, consisting of occasional phone calls and even fewer visits.  The relationship never blossomed further and Douglas was tragically murdered 8 years later in 2016.  Given his unexpected and untimely death, Douglas passed without a will.

Aside from Greg, Jr., Douglas’ only living relatives were his siblings. When they sought letters of administration for Douglas’ estate, Greg, Jr., filed a caveat which prompted their lawsuit. Under the intestacy laws, if Douglas died with no spouse, no children, and no living parents, his estate would pass to his siblings. If, however, Douglas was found to have descendants (in this case, children) the siblings would not be entitled to inherit.

On a motion for summary judgment, the trial court declared that as a matter of law, Greg, Jr. was Douglas’ sole descendant and therefore entitled to inherit from the estate. The siblings appealed, asserting that the trial judge failed to give sufficient weight to a presumption under the New Jersey parentage act, which declares a “man is presumed to be the biological father of a child if… [h]e and the child’s biological mother are or have been married to each other and the child is born during the marriage”.  The Appellate Division rejected this argument and affirmed the ruling below.

In so holding, the court found that the only question was whether Greg, Jr., was Douglas’ descendant.  Because a DNA test conclusively established paternity as such, the case could have been rather simple. However, the siblings raised the novel argument that given the statutory presumption that Greg, Sr., was the child’s father, representations about the child’s paternity during Elisa and Greg, Sr.’s divorce, and principles of equitable adoption, summary judgment was premature and improper.

As far as the statutory presumption of parentage, the court found that it was unequivocally overcome by the DNA test.  Moreover, the parentage act was designed to “facilitate the flow of benefits from the father to the child,” and not sever a biological link.

Under the theory of equitable adoption as argued by the siblings, Greg, Jr., should have been considered “equitably adopted” by Greg Sr., and therefore not the descendant of Douglas, given the the child’s treatment and representation as Greg, Sr.’s child at birth and during the divorce.  The court found this argument unconvincing and concluded that this case lacked the gravitas found in earlier cases which have utilized the remedy of equitable adoption.  Specifically, the court found that while Greg, Jr., took Elisa’s husband’s name, who was listed on the birth certificate, none of that was within Greg, Jr.’s control. Moreover, he was a toddler when Elisa divorced and had no input in the content of her judgment of divorce.  Indeed, the court found that the child’s fleeting relationship with Greg, Sr., after the divorce was insufficient to sever the irrefutable, biological link to Douglas. Moreover, the court opined that principles of equitable adoption have been historically employed to protect and enforce inheritance rights between parent and child, not destroy them.

The court boiled down the siblings’ case to the argument that the principles of intestacy should not apply because they had a stronger relationship with Douglas than Greg, Jr., did.  In a wholesale rejection of this argument, the court made plain that the laws of intestacy do not make such an exception simply because one relative knows the deceased better than the other.  The court concluded its opinion with the oft-cited reminder in estate litigation matters that if the decedent had intended a different result than that which the law provides, he could have (and should have) executed a will to that effect.

This case provides a cautionary tale for anyone who desires to have their estate pass in a manner inconsistent with the default rules laid down by the legislature. This is especially true for individuals who know they have legally unrecognized children who might pose an unwelcome surprise for loved ones in the event of an untimely death. For everyone else, it is a reminder that compelling circumstances are required to apply the principles of equitable adoption and formalizing relationships is the best way to predict how your relatives will be treated in family law and estate matters.

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Katherine A. Nunziata, Associate, Fox Rothschild LLPKatherine A. Nunziata is an associate in the firm’s Family Law practice, based in the Morristown, NJ office. You can reach Katherine at (973-548-3324) or at knunziata@foxrothschild.com.

Last week, I blogged about whether you should settle your retirement alimony case and the ingredients that might go into that decision. To be honest, this “why you should or should not settle” question is only the beginning of what you might be facing when you decide it is time to retire and terminate your alimony obligations. There is, of course, also the “where/when/how” of all of it. And that’s quite a nebulous concept if you’re only now beginning to think about your “whys” and whether or not you should even broach the topic. Below, I’ll give you a run-down of the possible scenarios that will at least address the “wheres” and “whens” of your journey.

In my experience, there are several possible ways in which alimony cases resolve: (1) Immediate settlement; (2) settlement following a motion; and (3) a full Court hearing wherein a judge makes a decision as to your continued alimony obligation. Examining each scenario will allow you to put the concept of “settlement” into the context of your particular situation.

(1)         Immediate Settlement: This is the path of least conflict and resistance if your spouse accepts your offer with an eye toward a termination of support. This will, more often than not, begin with a “feeler” letter to your former spouse. The letter may indicate that you are retiring, the date of your proposed retirement, provide some detail as to your financial circumstances, and ask if a termination of alimony would even be considered. Sometimes, the former spouses may negotiate directly with one another, with guidance from an experienced matrimonial attorney throughout.

If successful, this is the most cost-effective and low conflict resolution. The specifics of any settlement would be memorialized in an Agreement and simply filed with the Court, at which point, it would become an enforceable document.

But don’t be mistaken. This path is not for everyone. If you went through a very high conflict divorce, or know you’re dealing with an unreasonable ex-spouse, you may want to skip this step entirely. In the alternative, you may write a letter and the concept of termination may be rejected immediately.

If settlement at this early stage is not successful for whatever reason, you may decide to pursue litigation. That would bring us to scenarios 2 & 3, described below.

(2)         Filing a Motion: To provide some background, when someone paying alimony experiences a change in circumstances (including retirement, other reduction in income, or they believe their spouse is cohabiting etc.), you file what is known as a “Motion”, which is a formal application to the Court. You would be required to submit your current Case Information Statement, Case Information Statement from the time of your divorce, tax returns and a narrative of events leading up to your motion and describing your circumstances along with the motion.

You further file a legal brief describing the case law, including Lepis v. Lepis, which is the seminal support modification case in the state of New Jersey. Under Lepis, an alimony payor is required to file a Motion and establish what is known as a prima facie change in circumstances. A prima facie showing is simply an initial showing (on its face) that demonstrates that circumstances have permanently and significantly changed such that alimony may ultimately be modified.

Several weeks later, you would proceed to Court. This is a formal court proceeding, with oral argument from counsel, but not testimony of the parties, no formal introduction of evidence, etc. In other words, it is not at the point where the Court would conduct a full trial yet based on what has been submitted.

The Court would then review everything and determine if you meet the burden of a prima facie showing. The Court will then move you past what we call “Lepis 1”, or the initial prima facie showing, and enter an order as to whether you should move to a “Lepis 2” analysis – i.e. whether the change is substantial, continuing and permanent. As part of this analysis, the Court may also consider whether there is sufficient reason to award counsel fees to either party in connection with the motion. Because a supported spouse’s financial circumstances may be more precarious than yours, the Court may be inclined to grant counsel fees to equalize the playing field or to provide her an advance for litigation.

During the discovery phase, you are permitted to do a full examination of the other party’s finances to try and substantiate your claim. This includes written discovery, depositions, subpoenas, etc.

Typically following or during discovery and related proceedings the matter may settle. The parties have exchanged the majority of their discovery and the payee spouse, at some point, realizes alimony will end and that some concessions will need to be made. At that point, the parties will come to the table, make a settlement offer which is negotiated or reach a resolution through mediation (sometimes the Court will order the parties to go to mediation).

(3)         Court Hearing:  The matter can sometimes move toward a more contentious conclusion via a court hearing. In that regard, if all possibilities for settlement are expended and the parties have passed the discovery phase, the matter proceeds to a hearing, and the Court will hear testimony, consider evidence and make a determination based on everything before it. It is akin to a trial.

Keep in mind that neither party is obligated to agree to an out of court settlement. But as you can see, settlement at the early stages of the games provides finality without having to subject yourself to the time and effort of full-blown litigation. You also would avoid the counsel fees that go in to the discovery and litigation phases. Of course, having counsel on your side with experience in retirement alimony case will help you reach a conclusion on your terms.

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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

There has been much ado about the new alimony statute. Obligors believe they are now in the driver’s seat when it comes to disposing of their alimony obligations. After all, the statute sends a message that alimony should at least be modified upon reaching full retirement age. Doesn’t it?

On the other hand, recipients believe that the nuances within the new statute provide them with a leg-up in terms of maintaining their alimony awards “as is”. After all, the statute provides that both parties should have been able to save for retirement in the years since the divorce. Doesn’t it?

The truth is, both the obligor and the recipient are correct. The new statute does not provide any bright line rule as to what a court must do when the obligor retires. It provides the Court, instead, with factors to consider and weigh when an obligor brings a retirement application.

It helps to think of your retirement case as if there is an imaginary chef baking a cake. The ingredients and proportions will inevitably change your end result. Likewise, every case has different ingredients and produces a different result. Of course, the chef, i.e. the judge, will also bring certain ideas into the case, that could change the result one way or another depending on the “ingredients” the litigants bring before the Court.

So that brings me to my question: should you settle your retirement case? In a word, maybe.

When I become involved in a retirement case, I tell obligors and recipients alike to think of their matter as a business transaction. Typically, most of the hurt that lingered post-divorce has dissipated. Maybe, the parties have moved on with their personal lives. Most people are ready to engage in a pure cost-benefit analysis to determine if settlement is right for them.

In order to do that in a retirement case, although a bit fatalistic, it’s important to consider the health and life-span of the obligor and recipient. For example, if a retirement application is brought when both parties are 80, a settlement would look quite different than an application brought at age 65.

It’s also important to consider the parties’ respective assets so that a lump-sum buyout can be considered and discussed.

Sometimes it bears repeating that it’s important to remember that it probably does not make sense to spend more money litigating a case in Court than you would have continuing to pay or receive alimony. Because, at that end of the day, even if you believe that you have the best ingredients and proportions, you don’t want to burn the house to the ground just to see if you can get the perfect cake in the end.

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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

A few months ago, I posted a blog “Mind Your Manners” about how a party’s attitude may play a role in a judicial determination.  This issue arises again in the recent unpublished decision of Sahai v. Sahai, confirming again that credibility is key in litigation.

In Sahai, the appellant/ex-husband appealed a trial court orders sanctioning him $20,000 for his failure to bring the parties’ child to court-ordered parenting time with his ex-wife, as well as to pay her counsel fees on multiple applications adjudicated at the trial court level.  The trial court ordered the parenting time pending a plenary (evidentiary) hearing regarding the application of respondent/ex-wife to vacate the Property Settlement Agreement (divorce agreement) in which she agreed to forego any parenting time with the parties’ severely disabled daughter, claiming that her now ex-husband had coerced her into signing the Agreement.

The court ordered the parenting time session to occur for one  hour at a library with their daughter’s medical assistant present.  The session never occurred, apparently for medical issues even though her medical assistant was to be present.  The parties then agreed in a Consent Order to three separate one-hour sessions at the library.  Appellant never complied with any of those visits.  Ultimately, he was sanctioned and ordered to pay Respondent’s counsel fees in multiple orders for which his reconsideration applications were denied.  During this protracted litigation that occurred  between 2014 and 2016 – approximately two years – Appellant also filed criminal charges against his ex-wife that were administratively dismissed, filed a lawsuit against his former attorney that was dismissed with prejudice, and filed a lawsuit against his ex-wife’s attorney in federal court that was also dismissed.  If that’s not enough, Appellant failed to adequately produce discovery, including about his financial circumstances.

So, what happened?  Not surprisingly, the Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s order for both the sanctions and counsel fees awarded against Appellant.  First, given that he failed to comply with discovery, he was in no position to argue that he could not afford the counsel fees or sanctions.  Second, not only did he defy a court ordered parenting time session, but he then willfully defied a Consent Order in which he agreed to three parenting time sessions.  His ex-wife ostensibly signed the Consent Order based on this representation.  Additionally, the trial court warned him about the ramifications of his actions prior to issuing such orders.

As to counsel fees, the Appellate Division deferred to the trial court, as trial court’s make credibility findings… there’s that word again.  Ultimately, it was Appellant’s “obstructionist litigation” that delayed the plenary hearing for years despite the trial court’s patience. There was no excuse for such actions. He had periods in which he was represented by capable counsel, although he represented himself at times.  The Appellate Division specifically stated:

“Deference should be afforded to the trial court’s factual findings regarding Rooney’s willful non-compliance, his ability to pay, and the reasonableness of counsel fees, all of which are supported by substantial credible evidence in the record. The imposition of sanctions and attorney’s fees was a reasonable exercise of judicial discretion.”

 

Kid counting money

So, here we are again with a willfully non-compliant litigant who refuses to produce adequate discovery and comply with court imposed and agreed upon Orders, now facing judgments of tens of thousands of dollars against him and in favor of his ex-wife.  The decision on the plenary hearing is pending, but it’s possible that Appellant’s behavior at this level may also impact his ex-wife’s claim that he coerced her into signing the Agreement at the time of their divorce and, of course, a counsel fee award.  We have to stay tuned…

With the stress of litigation upon you, please remember that it’s better to be the “bigger person”, follow orders and mind your manners!  That does not mean you have to throw away creative legal arguments to prevail or your right to seek legal remedies when you disagree with an Order – your attorney will guide you down that path.  However, having a good attorney cannot always shield you from your own actions – ultimately you should listen to counsel and, of course, the Court.  Take discovery for example – Is producing discovery fun? No.  Are there sometimes things you do not want to give the other side?  Of course.  But at the end of the day, they will find it or an adverse inference will be drawn against you for your failure to produce it on your own, as in this case where the Appellant lost his ability to argue that he cannot afford the counsel fees or sanctions he was ordered to pay.  Don’t put yourself in that position.


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 lheller@foxrothschild.com.

Lindsay A. Heller, Associate, Fox Rothschild LLP

When can a litigant appeal an arbitration award? In the recent decision of K.V.H. v. W.S.H., the New Jersey Appellate Division clarified the procedures by which a party, dissatisfied by the decisions rendered by an arbitrator, can challenge those awards.

In this matter, the defendant appealed from certain provisions of a series of arbitration awards which were incorporated into a dual final judgment of divorce.  After over two years of contentious divorce litigation, the parties entered into an arbitration agreement and mediation agreement to try to more efficiently resolve the issues in their divorce. The arbitration agreement specifically provided that it was governed by the New Jersey Arbitration Act, N.J.S.A. 2A23B-1 to -32.

The parties selected a retired Superior Court judge to serve in the dual role as mediator/arbitrator.  After resolving certain issues through mediation, the parties executed a binding mediation agreement and proceeded to arbitration. Two arbitration awards, addressing substantive issues and fees as well as a resolution of disposition of personal property, were memorialized in writing by the arbitrator.  One week following the last arbitration award, the parties appeared in Court to obtain a judgment of divorce.

At that appearance, the mediation agreement, both arbitration awards and the resolution of personal property, were all incorporated into the dual final judgment of divorce.  Both parties were questioned about the fairness of the agreements and their decision to proceed with a divorce on that day.

Specifically, the defendant was questioned about whether he freely and voluntarily entered into the arbitration agreement, whether he agreed to incorporate the mediation agreement, arbitration awards and resolution  (collectively referred to as the “agreements” during questioning) into the judgment of divorce, and whether he believed the agreements to be fair and equitable.  The defendant answered in the affirmative to all of those questions.

Further, the defendant was asked to confirm that he understood and was not waiving any rights and remedies under the New Jersey Arbitration Act.  The defendant likewise answered “yes”.

confirm arbitration agreement

The Court ultimately found the parties entered into the arbitration agreement freely and voluntarily, and entered a judgment of divorce incorporating the agreements. Importantly, at no point during this proceeding did either party raise any objection to the arbitration awards or ask the Court to vacate, modify or correct same.

Days later, the plaintiff filed a motion to enforce the fee award.  The defendant then filed his notice of appeal.  Subsequently, the defendant filed a notice of cross motion (to plaintiff’s motion) to vacate the fee award. The trial court refused to rule on the cross-motion because of the pending appeal, and entered an order directing enforcement of the fee award.

The Appellate Division dismissed the appeal for lack of jurisdiction pursuant to the New Jersey Arbitration Act.  Specifically, the Court found that the Act limits judicial review of arbitration awards to three distinct scenarios: confirmation, vacation and modification/correction.  Under the Act, there is no direct right to appeal, but a litigant can appeal the trial court’s order on a summary action to confirm, vacate or modify/correct. Accordingly, the trial court must review the arbitration award in a summary action to confirm, vacate or modify/correct and enter an order before a litigant can file an appeal.

The manner by which the defendant challenged the arbitration award in K.V.H. v. W.S.H. was procedurally deficient in several ways.  First, by incorporating the arbitration awards in an uncontested hearing, the Court took no testimony on the substance of the agreements. There was no summary action to confirm, vacate or modify/correct the agreements.  Though the parties agreed to “confirm” the awards and incorporate same into their judgment of divorce, no such order “confirming” the awards was entered by the Court.

Second, the defendant filed his appeal before filing a motion to vacate the award. Accordingly, at the time he filed his appeal, there was no trial court order from which he could appeal.  In so holding, the Court relied upon the plain language of the Act itself as well as the case of Hogoboom v. Hogoboom, which provides that parties are not “entitled to create an avenue of direct appeal to this court”.  Had he filed his cross-motion to vacate and appealed from a subsequent order, the end result in this matter may have been different.

On appeal, the defendant argued that all parties and the trial court understood he was agreeing to entry of a judgment of divorce with the express intention to immediately appeal the arbitration award.  The Appellate Division’s categorical rejection of this argument, and the lesson therefrom, is quite clear.   Strict construction of the Act is required.  Absent a trial court order which expressly confirms, vacates, modifies or correct an arbitration award, a party to an arbitration award has no direct right to appeal.

Arbitration can be an attractive option for litigants for a number of reasons, including the ability to select an arbitrator of your choosing and greater flexibility in controlling the calendar and timing of your case.  However, litigants who seek arbitration as a means of limiting judicial involvement with their case must accept the other side of the coin, and recognize that limited judicial review is one of the tradeoffs for taking your matter out of the court system. This case serves as a reminder for that concession.  That said, parties can also negotiate appellate arbitration if they want to preserve the right of appeal, albeit not to the Court.

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Katherine A. Nunziata, Associate, Fox Rothschild LLPKatherine A. Nunziata is an associate in the firm’s Family Law practice, based in the Morristown, NJ office. You can reach Katherine at (973-548-3324) or at knunziata@foxrothschild.com.

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.

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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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.

In 2015, I wrote a post on this blog with the same title because seemingly, this issue has been resolved for some time.  All too often, parties would agree to mediate their disputes but would try to reserve a right to appeal, as of right, to the Appellate Division, as if the matter was tried by the family court.  Since the Hogoboom case in 2007, lawyers have should have known that this was a no-no.  In fact, in Hogoboom, the Appellate Division specifically held that:

“…Basically, arbitration awards may be vacated only for fraud, corruption, or similar wrongdoing on the part of the arbitrators. [They] can be corrected or modified only for very specifically defined mistakes as set forth in [N.J.S.A. 2A:24-9]. If the arbitrators decide a matter not even submitted to them, that matter can be excluded from the award. For those who think the parties are entitled to a greater share of justice, and that such justice exists only in the care of the court, I would hold that the parties are free to expand the scope of judicial review by providing for such expansion in their contract; that they may, for example, specifically provide that the arbitrators shall render their decision only in conformance with New Jersey law, and that such awards may be reversed either for mere errors of New Jersey law, substantial errors, or gross errors of New Jersey law and define therein what they mean by that.” … Here, the parties afforded themselves an expanded scope of review, as they were, by contract and by statute, permitted to do. The parties were not, however, entitled to create an avenue of direct appeal to this court. .. It is settled that consent of the parties does not create appellate jurisdiction.  … In our judgment, the parties must seek initial review of these awards in the trial court. The trial court is charged with employing the standard of review the parties contractually agreed upon in determining whether these awards, or either of them, should be vacated or modified. …

That seems clear enough, yet today, there was a reported (precedential) decision in Curran v. Curran that addressed this issue again.  In Curran, the parties agreed to arbitrate and entered into arbitration agreement which contained the very limited right to vacate an arbitration award per the New Jersey Arbitration Act.  However, the wife’s attorney wrote in the following sentence, “The parties reserve their rights to appeal the arbitrator’s award to the appellate division as if the matter was determined by the trial court.”  I guess they forgot about Hogoboom. If that was not bad enough, the parties signed the arbitrator’s retainer acknowledging that they were bound by the decision, except for the limited reasons under the act, and further, that they gave up their right of appeal.

After the arbitration, the husband filed a motion in court to vacate the award.  In refusing to vacate the award, the trial judge found the hand written addition preserving the right to appeal was unenforceable stating:

… that there was no provision under the Act to permit a direct appeal from an arbitrator’s decision to the Appellate Division. In addressing paragraph 3A, the judge stated: “The parties are not permitted to create subject matter jurisdiction by agreement which I think they tried to do here. The authority of a court to hear and determine certain classes of cases rests solely with the Constitution and the Legislature.” He concluded that paragraph 3A was unenforceable.

The trial judge did give a greater analysis of the matter than just permitted under the Act finding that that is what the parties had bargained for, and acted as “an Appellate Division of the arbitrator”  The Husband appealed asserting for the first time that the hand written addition preserving the right to appeal was illegal and voided the entire arbitration agreement and subsequent proceedings.

The Appellate Division disagreed and held that the unenforceable provision could be severed from the agreement.  The court held:

The primary purpose of the agreement was the resolution of the issues incident to the parties’ divorce through binding arbitration pursuant to the Act. This is evident from the contractual language stating: “The Parties having determined

that such issues be referred to binding Arbitration pursuant to the New Jersey Arbitration Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:23B-1 et. seq. . . . The parties shall attend binding Arbitration pursuant to the New Jersey Arbitration Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:23B-1 et. seq.” The parties attached an inclusive list to the agreement of all of the issues they intended the arbitrator to consider and resolve. The purpose of the agreement was for a final resolution of those issues. The arbitration agreement noted in multiple provisions that it was binding and not appealable, other than the limited grounds specified under the Act to modify or vacate an award.

Paragraph 3A did not defeat the parties’ intent to have their matrimonial litigation determined and considered by an arbitrator in an expeditious and comprehensive manner. After reviewing the parties’ submissions, the arbitrator rendered a preliminary award. Oral argument was heard on Robert’s application for reconsideration of the award. The arbitrator subsequently issued comprehensive findings of fact and conclusions of law, and a detailed final award. …

Severance of paragraph 3A does not defeat the primary purpose of the agreement. To the contrary, a revocation of the final award would only serve to frustrate the parties’ intent of reaching a final resolution to their matrimonial litigation and defeat the purpose of the arbitration agreement. The agreement is valid and enforceable.

As I noted in 2015, you can arbitrate and preserve a right of appeal.  Just like you can agree to arbitrate the initial determination of the issues, you can also agree to an appellate arbitration, as well.  I have had matters where our initial arbitration agreement called for the use of a panel of two retired appellate division judges (didn’t have to be – could have been anyone we agreed to be the appellate arbitrators), who would then decide the matter as if they were sitting as a regular appellate panel.  While in that case, you essentially lose the chance to appeal to the Supreme Court, you still have a body to review the matter if you think that the arbitrator got it wrong in the first case. The take away, however, is that your arbitration agreement must clearly spell out the scope of review and who will review the matter – taking into consideration what the court system can and cannot do with regard to an arbitration award.

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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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