Civil Unions and Domestic Partnerships

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

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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Last year I blogged on tri-parenting, or the concept whereby three parents agree to raise a child or children together as a family, with regard to the published New Jersey trial court decision of D.G. and S.H. v. K.S. My previous blog post can be found here.

In that matter, D.G. and his husband, S.H., along with their friend K.S. embarked on a journey of conceiving and raising a child together. The parties agreed to use D.G.’s sperm and K.S.’s egg, as they had known each other longer, and they would give the child S.H.’s surname. All three parties parented the child and were effectively able to do so for most of the child’s early life, until K.S. announced that she had fallen in love with A.A., who she intended to marry, and that she wanted to relocate with the child to California where A.A. resided. When the parties’ could not agree on a “tri-parenting plan”, D.G. and S.H. filed a Complaint seeking legal and physical custody of the child, parenting time, and that S.H. (who did not have any biological ties to the child), was the child’s legal and psychological parent.

After 19 days of trial, the Court found that S.H. was in fact the child’s psychological parent (although K.S. also stipulated to this on the eve of trial), and concluded that D.G., S.H. and K.S. should have equal legal and residential custody of the child, and the court established a 50/50 parenting time schedule. However, the court denied S.H.’s request for legal parentage as a matter of law on the basis that the court does not have jurisdiction to create a new recognition of legal parentage other than what already exists—genetic contribution, adoption, or gestational primacy. Further, although the best interest of the child standard is used for various family law determinations, it is not a factor in defining parenthood under the Parentage Act. (N.J.S.A. 9:17:38 through 9:17-59).

I concluded my prior post by stating that

With the evolution of today’s family, “tri-parenting” and other, similar custody and parenting time situations will emerge, creating a new, unique set of issues for families who are dissolving/separating. As the role of “parent” expands, it will be interesting to see how the courts will progress to handle these delicate issues.

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On March 8, 2017, The New York Supreme Court of Suffolk County also granted tri-legal custody and visitation, in the matter Dawn M. v. Michael M.

In that matter, Dawn and Michael, a married couple, began a polyamorous relationship with Dawn’s friend, Audria. All three parties considered themselves a family and decided to have a child together. Since Dawn was unable to have a child, the parties decided that Michael and Audria would try to conceive. The credible evidence presented to the Court established that all three parties agreed, prior to a child being conceived, that they would raise the child together as tri-parents.

Audria became pregnant and gave birth to a boy, J.M.; however shortly thereafter the relationship between the parties became strained and Dawn and Audria moved out together with J.M. Michael commenced a divorce action against Dawn, and asserted he no longer considered Dawn to be J.M.’s parent.

The court found credible the testimony of Audria and Dawn that J.M. was raised with two mothers and that he continues to the present day to call both “mommy.” The court further found that in all respects, during the first eighteen months of J.M.’s life when Dawn, Michael and Audria all lived together, and thereafter after their separation, Dawn acted as a joint mother with Audria and that they all taught the child that he has two mothers. The Court also conducted an in camera interview with J.M., which left no doubt in the Court’s mind that he considered both Dawn and Audria to be equal “mommies” and that he would be devastated if he were not able to see Dawn.

Although not a biological parent or an adoptive parent, Dawn argued that she has been allowed to act as J.M.’s mother by both Audria and Michael, that she has always lived with J.M., J.M. has known her as his mom since his birth and that the best interest of J.M. dictates that she be given shared legal custody and visitation with him. Audria, J.M.’s biological mother, strongly agrees. Dawn further argued, along with the child’s attorney, that Michael should be estopped from opposing this application because he has created and fostered this situation by voluntarily agreeing, before the child was conceived, to raise him with three parents, and that Michael has acted consistent with this agreement by allowing the child to understand that he has two mothers.

The Court found that the best interests of J.M. would be served by granted Dawn shared legal custody, stating that “J.M. needs a continuing relationship with the [Dawn] as his mother and that relationship cannot be left to depend on the consent or whim of either his biological mother or father. Anything less will promote great hardship and suffering for J.M.”, and established a tri-custodial arrangement, as Michael and Audria already shared joint legal custody.”

The Court concluded that Dawn, Michael and Audria

created this unconventional family dynamic by agreeing to have a child together and by raising J.M. with two mothers. The Court therefore finds that J.M.’s best interests cry out for an assurance that he will be allowed a continued relationship with [Dawn]. No one told these three people to create this unique relationship. Nor did anyone tell [Michael] to conceive a child with his wife’s best friend or to raise that child knowing two women as his mother. [Michael]’s assertion that [Dawn] should not have legal visitation with J.M. is unconscionable given J.M.’s bond with [Dawn] and [Michael]’s role in creating this bond. A person simply is responsible for the natural and foreseeable consequences of his or her actions especially when the best interest of a child is involved. Reason and justice dictate that [Michael] should be estopped from arguing that this woman, whom he has fostered and orchestrated to be his child’s mother, be denied legal visitation and custody…To order anything other than joint custody could potentially facilitate [Dawn]’s removal from J.M.’s life and that would have a devastating consequence to this child.”

Although the issue of legal parentage was not discussed in the New York Court opinion, it appears that the New York Court is as progressive as the New Jersey Court in moving  towards alternative custody arrangements in light of the evolution of today’s families.

I am not generally one to make resolutions at the New Year.  Most of them would involve eating, and I have a sweet tooth, so I am destined to fail. That being said, I do try to make some improvements to my work life each January and in addition to cleaning my desk, they include giving my clients some resolutions they should think about.

Copyright: underverse / 123RF Stock Photo
Copyright: underverse / 123RF Stock Photo

Number 1.  Don’t be a jerk.  Your dissolution/custody/post-judgment matter has enough difficult substantive issues involved without having to deal with unreasonableness for the sake of making things difficult.  It is so often tempting to lash out at someone who has acted in a childish, mean spirited manner against you.  However, while it might make you feel better for a hot minute, the longer effects of your actions may be that they come back to bite you in the derriere.  In today’s day and age, almost all of our actions are captured in some form of technology, whether it be a post on Instagram, a comment by someone other than you on social media, or a response by the recipient of your actions in an email.  Trust me- a judge will not be amused.

Talk to me first before you act against your ex.  Let’s discuss what was done to you and what is an appropriate response.  Remember, we judge ourselves by our intent, but we judge others by their actions.  This oftentimes necessitates taking the high road.  Let’s make sure we know how you will be judged by others (most notably a judge or expert).

Number 2.  Don’t ask me to be a jerk for you. I am a professional.  And I am courteous.  Add the two together, and I will practice professional courtesy.  Which means I will respond to a fellow attorney in a timely manner; I will pick up the phone, and yes, if I am asked to consent to an adjournment I will do so unless it will hurt my client’s interests. Trust me, I am doing this for you.  Why?  Because the fact of the matter is, you are going to need something later in the case, and chances are if I am a jerk, the other attorney will be a jerk right back at me.  More importantly, if I get a reputation of being a jerk, I am never going to get a break from the judge on your case. When you have a school play scheduled for 3:00 in the afternoon the day of a settlement conference, don’t hand the judge a reason to deny our request to move it.

Number 3. Understand my occasional scheduling issues.  You are important to me.  I promise. And it has nothing to do with the amount of money you have, the complexity of your case, or whether you are male or female.  I strive to do the very best I can for each one of my clients.  However, stuff happens.  It happens to you, and it happens to others.  And when one of my other clients has an emergency, I can only be at one place at one time. I am fortunate to have amazing colleagues who work with me, so it is rare that attention cannot be given to you.  I once was almost fired by a client when I had to reschedule an appointment to review documents when another client had been physically assaulted  by a spouse and I had to rush to the courthouse to get an order of protection.

Number 4 (and more important than number 3).  Understand that I have no power over the Court’s scheduling issues.  Trust me, I am just as frustrated at the fact that we have waited for over a month for an order from the Court.  I do understand that it is having a detrimental effect on you and your children.  However, the fact of the matter is that judges in NJ have approximately 400-450 cases, and there is only so much that can be done in a day or week.   Don’t ask me to call the court every day or write a scathing letter.  Trust me, this is not the way to endear you to the judge.

Number 5. Take a deep breath.  Your case is like a Bell Curve.  You are at the apex and it stinks.  I will help you get to the bottom, but it will not happen immediately.  Your matter will be over, and you will be able to move on with your life.

 

MillnerJennifer_twitterJennifer Weisberg Millner is a partner in Fox Rothschild LLP’s Family Law Practice Group. Jennifer is resident in the firm’s Princeton Office, although she practices throughout the state. Jennifer can be reached at 609-895-6712 or jmillner@foxrothschild.com.

In the recently published 67-page trial court decision of D.G. and S.H. v. K.S., the trial court dealt with the novel issue of custody and parenting time in a “tri-parenting” relationship. In that matter, D.G. and his husband, S.H., along with their friend K.S. embarked on a journey of conceiving and raising a child together. The parties agreed to use D.G.’s sperm and K.S.’s egg, as they had known each other longer, and they would give the child S.H.’s surname. During K.S.’s pregnancy, the parties had two baby showers, one at D.G. and S.H.’s Manhattan apartment, and one at K.S.’s home in Point Pleasant, New Jersey. All three parties attended parenting classes and began preparing both of their homes for the child’s arrival, purchasing everything in duplicate.

After the child, O.S.H., was born in 2009, D.G. and S.H. moved into K.S’s home in Point Pleasant and all three parties co-parented the child. D.G. operated a business at the Jersey Shore and, shortly after giving birth, K.S. returned to her job at her family’s restaurant. S.H., a high-school teacher, undertook the significant portion of the parenting responsibilities as he was on summer recess.

At the end of the summer, D.G. and S.H. rented a home in Point Pleasant to be near K.S. Thereafter, parenting time fluctuated, but was successful. In the summers, D.G. and S.H. undertook the significant portion of parenting time responsibilities due to K.S’s job responsibilities, and in the winters, K.S. undertook the significant portion of parenting time responsibilities, including taking the child to Costa Rica, where she owned a home, for varying amounts of time. In 2012, Superstorm Sandy destroyed D.G. and S.H.’s rental home, so they began enjoying weekend parenting time in New York City.

The parties were able to effectively and efficiently co-parent with one another for most of the child’s early life; however, things broke down when K.S. announced that she had fallen in love with her neighbor in Costa Rica, A.A., who she intended to marry, and that she wanted to relocate with the child to California where A.A. resided. A.A. could not relocate to New Jersey due to parenting obligations to children he had from a prior marriage.

D.G. and S.H. requested that K.S. prepare parenting time proposal for them so they could determine if the relocation would work together with their idea of “tri-parenting”. K.S. prepared a parenting time proposal and after considerable discussion, D.G. and S.H. rejected it. D.G. and S.H. then filed a Complaint seeking to establish 1.) legal and physical custody of O.S.H.; 2.) parenting time; and 3.) that S.H. was the child’s psychological and legal parent. K.S. filed a counterclaim and answer seeking 1.) to establish a legal custodial relationship between the parties, with physical custody vested in K.S.; 2.) to establish a parenting time arrangement; 3.) child support and medical coverage; and 4.) permission to relocate with the child to California.

A plenary hearing was scheduled and took place over 19 days.paper dolls

Psychological Parentage of S.H.

S.H. sought an order declaring him to be the psychological parent of the O.S.H., which was supported by D.G. K.S. stipulated that S.H. was the child’s psychological parent on the eve of trial and the court found that the undisputed facts of this matter supported such a conclusion.

In order for a person to be considered a child’s psychological parent, there must be a finding of “exceptional circumstances” (See V.C. v. M.J.B., 163 N.J. 200, 219 cert. denied. 531 U.S. 926, (2000)). To find that “exceptional circumstances” exists, the Court must find the existence of four elements:

(1) that the biological or adoptive parent consent to, and fostered, the petitioner’s formation and establishment of a parent-like relationship with the child; the legal parent must have fostered the formation of the parental relationship between the third party and the child;

(2) that the petitioner and the child lived together in the same household’

(3) that the petitioner assumed the obligations of parenthood by taking significant responsibility for the child’s care, education and development, including contributing toward the child’s support without expectation of financial compensation [a petitioner’s contribution to a child’s support need not be monetary]; and

(4) that the petitioner has been in a parental role for a length of time sufficient to have established with the child a bonded, dependent relationship parental in nature. (See V.C. v. M.J.B. at 223).

The court detailed at great length, all of the actions undertaken by S.H. and concluded that he is appropriately the child’s psychological parent. Among some of the court’s considerations were the fact that D.G. and K.S. consented to and fostered a parent-like relationship between S.H. and the child,  the idea that all three of the parties would be the child’s parents was formed before the child was even conceived or born, the parties chose to give the child S.H.’s surname, and since the child was born, and over the course of the past six years, S.H. contributed towards the child’s support, both monetarily and otherwise, and established a bond with the child.

Residential and Legal Custody

Once the court has established the existence of a psychological parent, the best interest of the child must be considered when determining custody. The court found that since there was never a written agreement or prior court order regarding custody, the court must determine the custodial relationship that serves the best interests of the child, and evaluate the factors set forth in N.J.S.A. 9:2-4(c). Both Plaintiffs and Defendant hired custody experts, who evaluated each of the parties and the child. The court conducted a detailed, lengthy analysis of the factors set forth in N.J.S.A. 9:2-4(c), and upon doing so, ultimately concluded that D.G., S.H. and K.S. should have equal legal and residential custody of the child, and the court established a 50/50 parenting time schedule. Although rare, joint residential custody is a suitable alternative to sole custody in family law actions, when “joint custody is likely to foster the best interests of the child in the proper case.” See Beck v. Beck, 86 N.J. 480, 488 (1981). The analysis of the factors set forth in N.J.S.A. 9:2-4(c) is quite expansive and delves deep into the loving and caring relationship the parties share with the child.

Relocation and Removal Application by Defendant

The Court reviewed K.S.’s application to relocate with the child to California under the O’Connor standard for relocation, which applies in this situation as the Court determined that all of the parties shall share joint legal and residential custody. “If, the parents truly share both legal and physical custody, an application by one parent to relocate and remove the residence of the child to an out-of-state location must be analyzed as an application for a change of custody, where the partying seeking the change in the joint custodial relationship must demonstrate that the best interests of the child would be better served by residential custody being primarily vested with the relocating parent. O’Connor v. O’Connor, 349 N.J. Super. 381, 385 (App. Div. 2002).

The court opined that K.S.’s reasons for the move to California are at best tentative and speculative, including a major change in her living situation with A.A. (originally K.S. was going to live with A.A. and now is not), her employment and educational plans (K.S. intends to find part-time work and go to school part-time), her availability to care for the child and her lack of family support to help with the child’s care, among other things. Additionally, the child would be uprooted from her long and stable living arrangement with the parties and the distance between California and New Jersey would diminish the child’s ability to maintain her bond with D.G. and S.H., exclude them from her daily life activities and abrogate frequent parenting time. Thus, the court denied K.S.’s application to relocate with the child to California.

Legal Parentage

S.H. also sought to be established as the legal parent of O.S.H., not just the psychological parent. However, this was denied as a matter of law on the basis that the court does not have jurisdiction to create a new recognition of legal parentage other than what already exists—genetic contribution, adoption, or gestational primacy. Further, although the best interest of the child standard is used for various family law determinations, it is not a factor in defining parenthood under the Parentage Act. (N.J.S.A. 9:17:38 through 9:17-59).

While the court was sympathetic to S.H.’s request to establish legal parentage, same is not supported by statute or case law. Since such a determination would likely have far-reaching implications, the court determined that this issue is best addressed by other branches of government, specifically the Legislature.

In a world where the nuclear family has evolved into many different shapes and sizes, the law (and the courts) quite simply cannot keep up. With the evolution of today’s family, “tri-parenting” and other, similar custody and parenting time situations will emerge, creating a new, unique set of issues for families who are dissolving/separating. As the role of “parent” expands, it will be interesting to see how the courts will progress to handle these delicate issues.

Romeo and Juliet, Sir Lancelot and Guinevere, Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark – for some of these star-crossed lovers, their journeys ended with hemlock, in exile, or…well…no spoilers.  For Easton and Mercer, their romance ended with an annulment on the grounds of equitable fraud in a lengthy decision delivered by Judge Jones in Ocean County New Jersey in Easton v. Mercer.

The union between Easton and Mercer began like many others.  The parties met in 2008 as young twenty-somethings, and began a dating relationship that lasted 2 years.  At the time, each were still living in their parents’ homes.

In 2010, Easton proposed to Mercer and she initially accepted.  Her parents, however, objected, disapproving of Easton as a “suitable husband” for their daughter.

Even so, over the elder Mercers’ objections, their marriage plans went full steam ahead and the parties planned a small ceremony to take place in 3 months’ time.

In October, 2010, the parties formally applied for a marriage license and the next month they went ahead with their small ceremony, which took place in the home of Easton’s parents.  Mercer’s parents were not invited.

While Easton and Mercer had planned to begin their lives together under the same roof, those plans never came to fruition.  Mercer advised Easton that she intended to remain residing with her parents until she could “break the news of the marriage to her mother and father after the fact.”

Well, the “after the fact” news was not taken well.  Mercer’s parents insisted that she renounce the marriage and remain living with them.  While Easton tried to convince Mercer to resume their relationship, his efforts were unsuccessful, and Mercer remained at her parents’ home, “never returning to [Easton] again.”

Yet, for the next 4 years, the parties stayed married and never took any steps to formally dissolve their marriage.  Finally, in 2014, Easton filed for an annulment of the marriage on the grounds of fraud as to the essentials of the marriage “by bowing to parental pressure and abandoning both him and her marital vows.”

Many people are unfamiliar with the particulars of annulments.  That is for the simple reason that they are not often applied for in our courts, namely because of the limited circumstances that it covers.  Instead, divorce is a far more common cause of action for the dissolution of a marriage.

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Copyright: pockygallery / 123RF Stock Photo

The major difference between an annulment and a divorce is that in an annulment, the facts giving rise to grounds for the dissolution of the marriage typically precede the marriage itself, whereas the causes for divorce arise during the marriage.  Annulment also differs radically from divorce in that an annulment legally declares a prior marriage retroactively null and void, as if having never happened in the first place.

The grounds for annulment have historically been very limited; among them are:

(a) Already existing, concurrent marriage of one of the parties

(b) Prohibited degrees of relation

(c) Impotence

(d) Incapacity to Consent, Duress or Fraud

(e) One of the parties was underage at the time of the marriage

In a case of an allegation of fraud, as was the allegation in the Easton case, New Jersey courts have held that there needed to have been some intention to deceive the other party.

For example, marriages have been annulled where there was premarital fraudulent representation of intent to have children; insistence of having children where the party previously indicated they did not wish to have children; belief that other party would practice Orthodox Judaism but really have no intention of doing so; a history of undisclosed hereditary chronic tuberculosis; and, concealment of a severe heroin addiction.

The common thread among all of the above example is that there was clear intent by one party to deceive the other.  However, in the Easton case, such intent could not be found – “on its surface, the evidence does not reasonably support a finding that defendant knowingly intended to deceive plaintiff before the marriage by purposely supplying him with false information.”

But, on the other hand, the Court found that even without this previously required intent to deceive, there was never any real marriage of substance between the parties; the marriage both started and ended with the ceremony itself.

After setting forth the history of equitable fraud as a cause of action, Judge Jones ruled that the marriage could be annulled on the grounds of equitable fraud, even where there is no evidence to suggest that Mercer purposefully sought to lie to or deceive Easton.

He reasoned: “In the present matter, while defendant may not have actually intended to deceive plaintiff, an objectively reasonable analysis of the facts and evidence in this case reflects the undeniable reality that deep down, defendant never truly had a genuine commitment to a marital relationship with plaintiff in the first place.”

While Judge Jones went on to hypothesize at length as to the reasons Mercer could have chosen not to pursue the marriage, he concluded that Easton was deserving of the annulment – “‘I do’ does not mean ‘I do’ after I go home for a few weeks and talk with my parents some more.'”

While this case was one of first impression, Judge Jones reasoned his decision using existing case law and equitable doctrine. This couple never lived together, they were not financially dependent on one another and they never held themselves out as husband and wife. It is important to remember that had these parties undertaken any of the privileges or duties of marriage, the result likely would have been different. However, the facts of the case certainly justified an annulment on equitable grounds.

Judge Jones has been known for his lengthy and well-reasoned decisions, often pioneering areas of family law, and frankly, saying what others are too afraid to put into words, let alone in 20-30 page decisions. In fact, I blogged on 2 such decision in the past: one on college contribution for families with multiple children and another on overseas travel. Easton v. Mercer is yet another decision that may be often cited by practitioners when similar issues arise. It will be interesting to see what Judge Jones has in store next.

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head_BaerEliana 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.

The recent news concerning social media is all about the service of a divorce complaint via Facebook.  A New York judge recently granted permission to a woman to serve a divorce complaint via her husband’s page on the social media giant. This marks a perhaps first, but not surprising new step in the use of social media. First, the misconception- many people believe that this means that a divorce can be filed via social media.  It doesn’t.  What it means is that after the divorce complaint has been filed, it can be served online.  This method is a natural extension of what is known as substituted service, and in fact may be a more reliable method to getting actual notice to a defendant of an impending divorce.

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Once a plaintiff has filed a complaint for divorce, it must be served on the defendant. Typically, this is done by a process server or Sheriff’s officer. Sometimes, the defendant or the defendants attorney will accept service voluntarily. But when the defendant cannot be located, the court can grant permission for something known as ” substituted service.” This typically means publishing a notice in the legal notices section of a newspaper in the geographical area of which the defendant is presumed to be. The likelihood of an absent defendant actually reading the legal notices section of the newspaper can be slim to none.

In the New York matter, the plaintiff wife had no idea where her estranged husband was residing and all efforts to locate him had failed. He did however have a Facebook page and communicated on it regularly. The plaintiff wife successfully argued to the judge that the most likely way to provide notice to her husband of the divorce was to post onto his Facebook wall a notice that the matter was pending. The judge agreed.

Whether we like it or not, social media is here to stay. In this case, it was effectively used to overcome the procedural roadblock which could have prevented or at a minimum delayed a plaintiff’s right to the dissolution of her marriage.  One might expect, however, that people dodging service may start paying more attention to privacy settings.

Following its landmark 2013 decision striking down part of the Defense of Marriage Act as unconstitutional, the Supreme Court earlier today decided to take on what will likely be the definitive ruling on the issue of same-sex marriage.  By addressing the state-by-state divide on same-sex marriage, the Court will determine whether a state-imposed ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional.

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Specifically, the Court will be reviewing a Sixth Circuit decision upholding same-sex marriage bans from several states, which conflicts with four other circuit court rulings.  Arguments are expected to be heard in late April and a decision by the end of June.

Check back on our blog for more updates as they unfold.

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Robert A. EpsteinRobert Epstein is a partner in Fox Rothschild LLP’s Family Law Practice Group. Robert practices throughout New Jersey and is based in the firm’s Roseland, New Jersey office.  He can be reached at (973) 994-7526, or repstein@foxrothschild.com.

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Last week, I blogged about the Information Asymmetry and how important it is for you to educate yourself going in to the divorce process so that you can meaningfully assist your attorney with your case.  But what about your attorney? And what about your Judge?  Isn’t it important for them to also be as informed as possible during the course of your case?

That is where experts come in.

ID-10095105 (Photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net.)

In divorce cases, there are oftentimes issues that arise that require the input of an expert.  For example, perhaps there is a dispute as to how much money your spouse is able to earn, how much his or her business is worth, or which one of you would be better to assume custody of the children.

Experts can assist your attorney present your case, and it can greatly assist the Court in deciding the case in your favor.  In fact, so important may an expert be in your situation that a Court may take it upon itself to appoint one on your behalf.

Below are the most common types of experts that you should consider when moving forward with your divorce, if appropriate given the facts and circumstances of your case:

1.         Vocational Expert:  This will tell the Court whether one spouse is underemployed and whether he or she is capable of making more money.  This expert will be important for the issue of support, which in New Jersey, is awarded in accordance with your earning capacity rather than your current income.  Also, if you or your spouse has been absent from the workforce for a period of time, a vocational expert will assist the Court in determining how realistic it will be to obtain employment consistent with prior earnings.

2.         Real Estate Appraiser:  If there is a dispute as to the value the marital home – which is typically the largest marital asset – or other property, such as a vacation home, second home, timeshare, etc., a real estate appraiser will be key.  This expert will assign a value to the property so that the equity can be appropriately divided.  He or she will also provide a detailed report outlining comparable sales prices for similar properties in your neighborhood, any improvements to your home which increase its value and make it unique, and an explanation of how the value of the property was decided. If this issue is not too hotly contested, it is typical to use a joint appraiser – that is, the parties will share the expert and the cost, subject, of course, to each party’s right to obtain a second opinion.

3.         Forensic Accountant:  A forensic accountant will take that mess of documents – bank statements, credit card bills, canceled checks – from your filing cabinet and turn it into a report that will tell your attorney and the Court about your marital income, assets, liabilities and expenses.  In short, this is the key document that will elucidate what your marital lifestyle was.  This will be important for the issue of alimony – which, in New Jersey, is awarded based in large part upon the lifestyle of the marriage – and equitable distribution.

4.         Business Valuator:  If one spouse has an interest in a business, it will be important to understand its value for equitable distribution purposes.  This does not only apply to commercial businesses.  It also applies to doctors’ practices, law firms and accounting firms.

5.         Custody Evaluator:  If custody is contested in a divorce, a custody evaluator will almost always be necessary.  The custody evaluator will make a recommendation, usually contained in a lengthy report, as to which parent is better suited to assume custody of the children following a divorce.  We often see cases with three custody experts: a joint or court appointed expert, the father’s expert and the mother’s expert – all with differing opinions.  It is therefore important to choose an expert that is highly qualified, well-respected in his or her field, and will command the attention of the Court.

Experts are not only helpful if your case goes to trial.  They are also helpful in settling your case.  For instance, if one party receives a favorable report, it may be used as a tool to obtain a advantageous settlement.  The opposite is also true.  If a party receives a report that is not as favorable, he or she may be more apt to settle the case rather than proceed to a hearing.

In sum, it is important not to underestimate the importance of experts when it comes to divorce.  They can be a great tool in settlement and a great asset on the stand.

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Eliana T. Baer is a frequent 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.