I recently represented a client at mediation during which the parties were able to resolve virtually all of their issues, save for the Wife’s claim that the Husband should make a significant contribution to her counsel fees.

It was the Wife’s position that the Husband had run up her legal fees with multiple order violations, refusal to turn over discovery, and by taking totally unreasonable positions; moreover, since he made more money than her, he had a greater ability to pay her legal fees.

It was the Husband’s position that the Wife had run up his legal fees with her own unreasonable positions.  He also criticized her for choosing lawyers who are more expensive than those he chose to engage, arguing that he shouldn’t be held responsible for her choice to do so.

With this being a major impasse for the parties, it seems inevitable that a judge will decide the issue either in isolation or together with a trial on other unresolved aspects of their divorce.

Because the Family Court is a court of equity, a judge determining whether to award legal fees to one side has to consider the parties’ relative financial positions, including their respective incomes, assets, debts, support obligations, and other relevant financial circumstances.  The Court also must give due consideration to the question of whether one party acted unreasonably, or in bad faith, or violated court orders, or refused to produce discovery and therefore thwarted efficient resolution of the matter.  The Court Rule allows for consideration of legal fees already awarded by the Court, for whatever reason.  Perhaps there was a pendente lite contribution to legal fees for which the moneyed spouse should be credited.  Or, perhaps there is a history of court order violations for which fees were awarded as a form of sanction.  Whatever the reason, prior fee awards must be considered.

Ultimately, the question of whether one side must contribute to the legal fees of the other side is a question of fact, for which the Court must consider the following factors:

  1. The financial circumstances of the parties.  
  2. The abilities of the parties to pay their own fees or contribute to the fees of the other party.  
  3. The reasonableness and good faith of the positions advanced by the parties both during and prior to trial.
  4. The extent of the fees incurred by both parties.
  5. Any fees previously awarded.
  6. The amount of fees previously paid to counsel by each party.
  7. The results obtained.
  8. The degree to which fees were incurred to enforce existing orders or compel discovery.
  9. Any other factor bearing on the fairness of an award.

But here’s the rub.  Just like any other question of fact, the Court must make findings based on evidence.  In other words, there must be a trial or at least a lengthy written submission including evidence produced as exhibits.  As parties, you have to decide:  are you willing to incur the fees to try the issue, or is the amount in controversy going to exceed the fees you would spend to have the judge decide?

And, importantly, what you may view as a clear cut bad faith action or unreasonable position taken by your adversary, the Court may not be so inclined to think is all that bad.  Submitting the issue of counsel fees for a judge to decide is most definitely a gamble, and like any other wager, you should assess the odds, cost-benefit, and the possible outcomes before making the decision to fight the issue to the bitter end.


headshot_diamond_jessicaJessica C. Diamond is an associate in the firm’s Family Law Practice, resident in the Morristown, NJ, office. You can reach Jessica at (973) 994.7517 or jdiamond@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

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

Several years ago I did a post on this blog of the same name and then updated it some time later. The list then, as re-compiled below, are things to do if you really don’t want to settle your case.  As I said before, everybody is entitled to their day in court if they want it, but what if there is nothing that can be gained from it?  What if you can’t win?  What if forcing the matter to trial will create other legal issues? What if trial will cost tens of thousand of dollars or more?  Here is the list:

22. Your new significant other is a lawyer, they know better than your lawyer.  Of course they know better, you have been completely honest with them.  Of course they aren’t telling you what you want to hear – why would they do that?  And when they are speaking to their matrimonial partner about your case, they are giving them all of the facts, context and subtext of the case.

21. Every case is the same, so make sure that you demand the same deal that your hairdresser, or cousin’s friend, heard that that their cousin’s friend got.  While this information, if true, may be food for thought or points of discussion, ignore the potential differences inherent to each matter and demand that you get the same, even if it bears no relation to the appropriate resolution of the case.

20.  Pretend that you are Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, and keep having the same conversation over and over, hoping that the answer will be different.  And don’t just do that with your spouse, do it with your lawyer too.

19.  Hold grudges and let anger blind you from coming to a resolution that lets you move on with your life.  They are your feelings, don’t only embrace them but let them control all.  And don’t get therapy to deal with the real hurt, betrayal, rejection, depression, mourning, etc. that you are feeling.

18.  Allow emotions to impair your judgment on financial issues.  I know that you can’t imagine your spouse living in your home with someone new, but it’s a good idea to take less for the house by selling it rather than allowing your spouse to buy you out.

17.  Create a ruse that an emotional issue is really a financial one.  There will be a lot of nasty letters and everyone will be confused because you are not even arguing about the same thing, but at least one of you and his/her lawyer won’t know it.

16.  Profess a desire to settle but then never compromise on any issue.  Also, don’t let your experts compromise either, even in the face of an error in their report.  And if they do have to concede the error, make sure that they change something else so that their final number never actually changes.

15.  Hire a new lawyer on the eve of mediation or trial, and let that person enter the case like a bull in a china shop, as if the case just started, and there was no prior history.  Ignore the fact that both sides were making concessions and working towards and amicable resolution, and just blow things up and start from scratch, without any basis for doing so.  I am not saying that people cannot and should not change lawyers.  Sometimes it is necessary.  Sometimes the concessions being made are too much, for a variety of reasons.  But in cases where the negotiations and concessions are appropriate on both sides, if you don’t want to settle, pull the rug out from under the negotiations.

14.  Hire a second, then third, then fourth, then fifth attorney every time something doesn’t go your way.

13.  In alternating conversations with your lawyer, tell them that you need to settle immediately, then tell her that you want her to litigate aggressively, then settle, then litigate, and so on.  Follow that up by being angry with your lawyer because they were trying to settle when you were back to aggressively litigating, and vice versa.

12.  Believe your spouse when they are pressuring you to settle for a lot less than your attorney tells you would be a reasonable settlement.  While perhaps this doesn’t belong on this list, because it is a “how not to settle” list, maybe it belongs on a new list regarding regrets people have after taking a bad deal for the wrong reason.

11.  Let your spouse convince you that they you don’t need all of the discovery because “you can trust me”, when all other evidence indicates that you can’t.  Perhaps this belongs with the prior thought.

10.  Ignore your expert’s advice.  What do they really know about the value of your business or how a judge will likely assess your total income/cash flow?  What does an accountant know about taxes, or more importantly, how the IRS may address the creative accounting practices that you or your business have employed?  What does the custody expert really know?

9.  Ignore your lawyer’s advice.  What do they know anyway?  If your lawyer is telling you that you should jump at the deal on the table because it looks like a huge win, disregard it.  If they tell you that you have real exposure on certain issues or may be forced to pay your spouses legal fees, roll the dice. If your attorney tells you that they are willing to try your case, but that you should consider settlement because the cost of the settlement will be less than the cost of the trial plus the absolute minimum you have to pay, don’t believe it.  And what does your lawyer know about the law or the judge anyway?

8.  Ignore the facts of your case.  Trust your ability to spin the facts in a way that doesn’t make sense.  Plus, how can they prove if you’re lying.

7.   Ignore what the neutrals are saying.  What do the Early Settlement Panelists know?  What does the mediator know?  When the judge has a settlement conference and gives directions, what does she/he know?  Assume that the people that have no “horse in the race” are aligned with your spouse or their attorney, have been bought off, or are just plain ignorant.  Really, it has nothing to do with the facts of your case or the reasonableness of your position.

6.  Ignore the law.  It doesn’t apply to you anyway.

5.  Continue to misrepresent things, even when the other side has documents to disprove virtually everything you are saying.  Assume that you will be deemed more credible than the documents.

4.   Believe that the imbalance of power that existed during the marriage will allow you to bully your spouse into an unfair settlement.  Assume that your spouse’s attorney wont try protect her/him.  All lawyers roll over on their clients, right?

3.   Take the position that you would rather pay your lawyer than your spouse. Ignore that fact that this tactic usually ends with your doing both, and maybe your spouse’s lawyer too.

2.  Pretend as if your spouse never spent a second with the kids in the past and has no right to do so in the future.  Make false allegations of neglect or abuse.  Ignore the social science research that says that it is typically in the children’s best interests to spend as much time as possible with each parent.  What do the experts know about your kids anyway?  And while you are at it, bad mouth your spouse to or in front of the kids. Better yet, alienate them.  Then fight attempts to fix the relationship.

1.   Take totally unreasonable positions implementing any or all of above and on top of that, negotiate backwards.  Ignore the maxim “Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered.”  Put deals on the table and then reduce what you are offering.  Negotiate in bad faith.  Negotiate backwards.  Don’t worry that this conduct may set your case back.

The above was and is clearly facetious and tongue in cheek. I do not recommend this behavior.  It is usually self destructive and short sighted.  But, believe it or not, these things happen all of the time.  While I am not saying that no case should ever be tried, because sometimes trials are necessary, if you want to ensure a costly trial that may not go well for you, try the things on this list.  And if it is your day in court that you want, be careful you wish for.

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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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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.

While we do not typically blog on cases outside of the family court, a recent law division case examined the child support lien statute, N.J.S.A. 2A:56.23b and its impact on settling a personal injury case and on settlements in general.  The statute requires that a child support judgment search be performed to determine if a plaintiff in a given lawsuit has an outstanding child support obligation.  If he or she does, then the statute requires that any “net proceeds of a settlement” (i.e. the proceeds left after the payment of attorney’s fees, witnesses’ fees, court costs, and other related costs associated with the lawsuit are deducted from the settlement award) in excess of $2,000 be paid in either full or partial satisfaction of the outstanding child support arrears.  For example, let’s say $10,000 was owed in child support arrears, and a given plaintiff’s litigation costs totaled $10,000.  If the plaintiff took a $20,000 settlement, then $10,000 would go to pay his litigation costs, $8,000 would go to pay off the child support arrears, and the plaintiff would get to keep $2,000 (but would still have $2,000 in child support arrears).

In Smiley v. Thomas, et. al. , the plaintiff sued the defendants for personal injury as a result of a car accident.  He had also entered into a contingent fee agreement with his counsel, meaning that they agreed to take a fixed percentage of whatever the plaintiff was awarded in settlement or after a trial as their fee, rather than charging the plaintiff at their hourly rates.

Eventually, the defendants made a settlement offer of $25,000.  The only problem was, after the child support judgment search was conducted pursuant to the statute, it was discovered that the plaintiff had outstanding child support arrears in the amount of $19,306.04.  After satisfaction of the arrears and payment to his attorneys, the plaintiff would be left with $2,000; in fact, because his counsel fees and litigation costs exceeded the difference between the child support owed and the settlement amount, he would also be left with some unpaid child support arrears because he would have to pay counsel first.  The plaintiff refused to accept the settlement if, at the end of the day, it meant that he would only walk away with $2,000.

"No Deal"
Copyright: pockygallery / 123RF Stock Photo

But, evidently, the plaintiff’s attorney really wanted him to settle his case.  So badly, in fact, that the attorney was willing to reduce his fee.  So, the attorney asked the Court to modify the fee agreement accordingly; but, and here’s the rub, the attorney also asked the Court to call the money that the plaintiff would realize as a result of this reduction something other than “net settlement proceeds” so that they would not be subject to the child support lien by operation of law.

The Court weighed two important competing interests.  On the one hand, Courts love settlements!  Settlements make both parties feel happy (or equally unhappy) with the outcome and therefore (hopefully) curb future or continued litigation.  On the other hand, our case law is replete with decisions affirming over and over again a parent’s obligation to financially support his or her children and there is plenty of case law carving out exceptions, identifying specific needs of the children that should be included in support, and generally providing guidance as to arrival at an appropriate child support arrangement (seriously, there are a lot of these decisions and we’ve blogged on them here, here, here, here, here, and many more times).

Ultimately, the Court determined that a parent’s obligation to financially support his or her children trumps the competing interest in promoting settlement.  The Court found that it had the obligation to call a spade a spade.  It did not, and found that it could not, call the money that the plaintiff would receive as a result of the reduced counsel fee award something other than “net proceeds from settlement” in order to help the plaintiff evade his child support obligation.  To do so would be in direct contravention of the very purpose of the child support judgment lien statute.


headshot_diamond_jessicaJessica C. Diamond is an associate in the firm’s Family Law Practice, resident in the Morristown, NJ, office. You can reach Jessica at (973) 994.7517 or jdiamond@foxrothschild.com.

If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a million times: “why don’t judges enforce their own orders or take hard lines against obstructers?” Many times, litigants feel powerless. Powerless to change anything; powerless to have courts take a firm position in favor of those aggrieved; and, powerless to be heard. Clients and attorneys alike feel this frustration.

This is despite the fact that there are specific rules in New Jersey that apply to non-compliance in the family part. Rule 5:3-7 provides for very specific types of relief in specific actions:

Non-Compliance with Custody or Parenting Time Orders:

(1) compensatory time with the children;
(2) economic sanctions, including but not limited to the award of monetary compensation for the costs resulting from a parents failure to appear for scheduled parenting time or visitation such as child care expenses incurred by the other parent;
(3) modification of transportation arrangements;
(4) pick-up and return of the children in a public place;
(5) counseling for the children or parents or any of them at the expense of the parent in violation of the order;
(6) temporary or permanent modification of the custodial arrangement provided such relief is in the best interest of the children;
(7) participation by the parent in violation of the order in an approved community service program;
(8) incarceration, with or without work release;
(9) issuance of a warrant to be executed upon the further violation of the judgment or order; and
(10) any other appropriate equitable remedy.

Non-Compliance with Alimony or Child Support Orders:

(1) fixing the amount of arrearages and entering a judgment upon which interest accrues;
(2) requiring payment of arrearages on a periodic basis;
(3) suspension of an occupational license or drivers license consistent with law;
(4) economic sanctions;
(5) participation by the party in violation of the order in an approved community service program;
(6) incarceration, with or without work release;
(7) issuance of a warrant to be executed upon the further violation of the judgment or order; and
(8) any other appropriate equitable remedy.

27249354 - symbol of sanctions as a clamps

In other words, with most family part actions, the sky is the limit in terms of what remedies can be utilized to secure compliance. Moreover, in other instances of non-compliance not covered by the family part rules, for instance, filing frivolous motions to harass the other party, or failing to make discovery, other rules apply that should serve to get a litigant to do the right thing.

So why the disconnect?

Well, it appears that some judges are beginning to take a hard stance against people who just feel like marching to the beat of their own drums, people without any regard for Orders of the Court, or resultant victimization to the other party.

For example, in August, a New Jersey couple was hit with a $543,000 sanction by a Manhattan judge for interfering with their son’s divorce. Justice Ellen Gesmer said that the couple “orchestrated the litigation” between their son and his wife, caused extensive delays, and launched a legal battle designed to “intimidate” their daughter in law.

The parties were married in 2005, and had one child in 2007. Tragically, the husband suffered a brain aneurysm in 2008, rendering him disabled. The wife initially cared for the husband, but was ultimately pushed out of the picture by his parents, who actually took him to a facility and hid him from the wife for several months in 2009.

When the divorce was filed in 2010, the grandparents ran the show on behalf of the son, and directed the son’s lawyers to delay the custody hearing for as long as possible so that they could pursue 50% custody of their grandchild, based upon the pretense that it was on their son’s behalf. By the end of the litigation, the wife’s legal bills were in excess of $928,000.

The judge ultimately found that the parents “willfully interfered with (their granddaughter’s) development of a positive and loving relationship with her father…(and) purposefully engaged in frivolous litigation.”

The judge also came down hard on the father’s lawyers, ruling that they engaged “in frivolous conduct by repeatedly making misrepresentations and knowingly false statements and claims to the court.” She ordered the lawyers to contribute $317,480.67 toward the wife’s legal bills.
The in-laws were ordered to pay, in total, a whopping $543,000.

Back on the other side of the river, in a recent Somerset County case, two opposing litigants were both ordered to perform community service for what the judge found was their willful non-compliance with their marital settlement agreement. The judge also warned them that they were to comply or face the possibility of sanctions.

It appears that judges are “getting real” about compliance. Whether it means the imposition of counsel fees against an overly litigious party or community service, a more clear message is being sent by these judges that non-compliance will not be tolerated.
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Eliana Baer, Associate, Fox Rothschild LLP 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.

Often, cases are given nicknames, sometimes by judges and law clerks, and sometimes by the attorneys.  Sometimes the nicknames come from who the people are – for instance, a case we had several years ago where both parties were models became the “model case” at the courthouse.  Sometimes, the names come from something that one or both parties did – a case where a spouse tried building a brick wall inside his house to divide the house before the divorce might have been the “brick wall case.” Right now, we have a case called “the money tree case.”

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We call this case the money tree case because, despite the husband’s ever present cries of poverty, money keeps materializing from out of nowhere for lavish spending.  Turn over the entire paycheck for support – sure – yet he lives like a king with no apparent income.  $40,000 is needed for a particular expense, it is wired in a day without disclosing where it came from.  Oldest child needs a car – no used car for her, she gets a new Mercedes.  In opposing a motion for counsel fees, his lawyer laments that he hasn’t been paid in a year and as soon as the motion is decided, he gets paid in full from sources unknown.

While at the same time of crying the blues that there is no money, expensive new watches appear which was a “gift.”  One if not two residences are being paid for though who knows by whom. There are expensive vacations.  Showering the children with presents.  The home equity line gets paid off, from no known source.

Of course, there is no transparency or up front disclosure about anything up front.  It is only after he gets caught, is there a lame excuse of a “gift” or a “loan” – with no proofs as to anything.

I, myself, have mused to the judge that I would like to know where to get a money tree too, because literally money keeps appearing in this case from no known source.

What is the takeaway?  When a litigant is crying poverty, you can’t let it go at that, especially when the lifestyle and known expenditures exceed the known sources of income.  Discovery must be doggedly pursued and the total cash flow (notice I didn’t say income because who knows how this person will characterize this endless cash infusion) must be calculated as best as possible.  That is the only way that support can be fairly decided.  Moreover, this money tree may also indicate an undisclosed asset or assets that is being tapped now, but which should be divided in equitable distribution.  When crying poverty, the wiping of the tears with $100 bills  is always a red flag.

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Eric SolotoffEric 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 Roseland and Morristown, New Jersey offices though he practices throughout New Jersey. You can reach Eric at (973)994-7501, or esolotoff@foxrothschild.com.

Photo credit: Copyright: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/profile_zenstock’>zenstock / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

In the early 20th century, Dr. Duncan MacDougall attempted to quantify the mass lost when the soul departed the body upon death. This study has perpetuated the weight idiosyncratically known as “21 Grams.” Although this theory has largely been dismissed by later studies, the better question is: how much weight does your soul bear going through a divorce?

This emotive calculus is best typified by a phenomenon that I have witnessed during my career, which only perpetuates the Apollo archetype. One does not even need to see the Wolf of Wall Street or Mad Men to appreciate this paradigm; you have lived it in some incarnation or know someone else that has.

I have regularly had women retain me whose husbands have recently self-destructed, both emotionally and financially, desperate to extricate themselves from the wreckage. They often appear in consultations with reams of returns and conspiracy theories of offshore accounts. The problem is that these women were largely in the dark, and sometimes intentionally oblivious, to the financial ruin that their husbands have been perpetuating for the better part of a decade.

Typically, these women are married to men involved in some form of finance or stock trading, often self-employed, that briefly masked their addictive and excessive personalities. In the early stages of the relationship, the husband’s focus was on providing for the family and building their relative fortunes. As a result, his rapid ascension and acquisition of jewelry, cars, and homes while the wife was preoccupied on raising the children, led her to gloss over the looming harbingers.

In time, the children grow, the tennis lessons plateau, and the novelty of the toys wear off. Slowly, the husband’s time out of the house grows more frequent, justified by a purported obligation to entertain clients. This leads to excessive rounds of golf and drinks. The wife begins to long for something more, or to be nostalgic about how they once were.

A Bloody Mary with brunch is replaced by a bottle of wine before dinner. The husband’s focus shifts and he begins to become less diligent about his work obligations. He takes shortcuts in order to support his family and his growing emphasis on travel and entertainment to create the illusion that nothing has changed.

He takes shortcuts because he cannot keep up the facade. He incurs larger risks, whether it be through day trading, gambling or other cavalier investments, to cover the losses-only to get in deeper. He fails to make estimated tax payments, maxes out a credit card, liquidates a retirement account, or refinances the mortgage. All the wife hears is, “Sign here, honey”, unless he just signs her name to keep her from asking.

He begins rationalizing that he will simply make up the shortfall at year’s end, or that he will get that bonus that is not guaranteed. Then he doesn’t get it. The walls begin to close in but he refuses to admit to his family that they cannot keep up with Joneses.

This high wire act to keep everything afloat creates stress that cannot be sustained, manifesting itself with fatigue, migraines or a nagging injury requiring pain medication and prescriptions. They are used in tandem with an abuse of alcohol, and in some cases, recreational drugs. Soon, the husband gets pulled over, into a scuffle at a local bar, admitted into rehab, or commits an act of domestic violence. The losses mount, the children’s college funds are gone, foreclosure notices arrive, collection calls abound and he has no choice to but to file for bankruptcy.

Hubris and excess are a deadly combination, especially when mixed with serotonin. So, inevitably, the husband blames the wife for forcing him to provide for a lifestyle beyond their means. She blames him for destroying the family and for the endless dishonesty. She is now in your office, wants off the Titantic, but does not want her life to change. She files for divorce and soon realizes that while he is broken, he will cling to her like a life raft for as long as the courts allow him to.

I have always said that the length of a divorce is tied to the time that it takes for the defendant to catch up emotionally to the plaintiff to come to terms with the fact that their relationship is over. This delay is magnified in situations such as these because the only source of power that the husband once had, money, has vanished. This leads to a defendant that refuses to participate in the divorce, and an increasingly frustrated plaintiff.

As a result, the divorce process begins to recreate the mythology of Sisyphus, as defendants such as these typically refuse: to get a lawyer; file an Answer and Counterclaim; complete a Case Information Statement; or comply with discovery. Instead, they preach reconciliation and systematically hijack the divorce process but refusing to actively participate in it. The courts in turn simply give the defendant endless opportunities to cure his omissions without consequence and fail to move the matter forward.

The defendant begins to put his proverbial head in the sand known as the Ostrich Effect, and becomes the Albatross or Millstone around the plaintiff’s neck. Animal idioms aside, the question becomes how to divorce someone that refuses to acknowledge that the process is even occurring. I would recommend considering the following ten tips in situations such as these:

1. Rather than chasing a life gone by, debunk your illusions about hidden money especially those offshore. You may end up spending more than you will ever find searching for a treasure trove that does not exist.

2. Prior to filing for divorce, consult with a bankruptcy attorney as the filing of a bankruptcy petition will only put the divorce process on hold down the road. You must come to terms with the fact that filing for bankruptcy may be unavoidable as many of the debts are likely in joint name anyway.

3. Your credit score is important, but less important that your ability to provide for your family today. You must accept the fact that the notion of credit is a luxury that you may have sacrificed by living beyond your means for so long. You can always rehabilitate your credit score in the future, provided that you pay for necessities today.

4. Work around the defendant wherever possible to educate yourself about your assets and liabilities, as you have to assume that he will not do anything voluntarily to make your exit strategy easier. Therefore, always utilize your subpoena power if the defendant refuses to comply with discovery rather than filing motions to compel.

5. Determine whether it make sense to default the defendant if he is not participating, and if so, do not waiver from that decision. It may the only leverage you have over him during the process.

6. If the marital residence is facing foreclosure, determine how long before the house is seized, as the process always takes longer than you would think because you will not locate alternate free housing.

7. If you cannot take the risk of foreclosure or coexist with the defendant in the same house, determine if you can afford to move out.

8. Consider looking for a job, or a better paying one to supplement your income in the short term because you likely cannot count on his timely payment of alimony.

9. If there are only debts to divide and no assets remaining, accept it and move on. Do not insulate yourself from the prospect of starting over with nothing.

10. Above all else, try to be cost effective in your decisions and conserve your counsel fee payments while you are waiting for the defendant to come to the table.

Sun Tzu once wrote that: “Supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.” They key to freeing yourself from a defendant that refuses to participate, is to embrace the process, conserve your remaining assets and to pick your battles wisely.

The emotional and financial cost to you of seeking the instant gratification of being divorced today will be far greater than the onus of patiently waiting to be divorced tomorrow. At the very least, I can assure you that this burden will weigh more than 21 Grams.

In large part, the difference between the world you will inhabit after you are divorced will largely resemble the one before it, especially if you have children with such a defendant. Inevitably, the judge assigned will not permit him any more chances to comply with court orders or grant him anymore adjournments. While you cannot control how long a leash is given to the defendant, you can avoid turning it into a self-inflicted noose.

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Seth Parker is an associate in Fox Rothschild LLP’s Family Law Practice Group. Seth practices in the firm’s Roseland, New Jersey office and can be reached at (973) 994-7538, or srparker@foxrothschild.com.

The golden words in this blog title once spoken by Robert Van Winkle (more famously known by another name) could and should be well heeded by family lawyers and litigants when trying to settle a case.  So why, then, are they so often ignored?  I recently attended a mediation in a case where, as soon as I walked into the mediator’s office, my adversary did not “stop” talking or arguing his client’s position, did not “collaborate” with me, my client, or the mediator to facilitate a settlement, and did not “listen” to anyone other than himself.  Not surprisingly, the case did not settle.  Not surprisingly, the parties left dissatisfied with the outcome.  Not surprisingly, the only progress that was made was when my client made proposals on various issues, since the other party refused to do so.  In fact, it was clear from the moment that we started the mediation that the other party had no intention on settling at all – a sentiment that I made clear in requesting to leave so that my client did not incur more counsel fees than she already had.

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Considering that the point of mediation is to actually settle a case, or to move towards a settlement, it always surprises me when this sort of conduct occurs, even in the wild world of family law.   With that in mind, let’s break down the three components as they relate to settling in mediation:

STOP:  It is no surprise that family law cases can often be quite acrimonious, with attorneys frequently arguing with each other at least as much as the parties.  Such conduct, however, ultimately serves no one.  Worse, one or both parties/attorneys often feel the need to essentially “run” the mediation by only allowing their points to be heard, talking over the other party/attorney, interrupting the other party/attorney while feigning insult should the same happen while he or she is talking, etc.  At the mediation I reference above, the other attorney seemed to believe that if he was the first person to assert his client’s position, it somehow meant more to the mediator.  The same can be said for the amount of time that he spoke – i.e., he believed that the longer he spoke, the more important his client’s position became. In that world, the case simply will not settle, and will only heighten the acrimony.  To that point…

COLLABORATE:  The entire point of mediation is to settle your case.  While you as the litigant may not agree with or like the other party or attorney (also very common), use your best efforts to work together, in a collaborative fashion, to achieve a meeting of the minds on the issues in your case.  Consider the positions being taken by the other party and, if reasonable, work with those positions to reach a compromise.  If you and your spouse are starting in a different “universe”, then there is only so far you can go.  If you are on Mars and she is on Venus, however, then keep the momentum going.  Ultimately, a good settlement is one that neither party is happy with because each side gave in on certain issues.  If one party refuses to budge, the case will continue, which is sometimes what that party wants to force the other party to give in, incur more fees, and the like.  In the mediation I reference above, the other party was completely unwilling to convey his prior settlement position to the mediator because he had obviously taken a step backwards towards a more aggressive approach and did not want to make it seem as if he had previously been in a more reasonable place.  While a litigant is entitled to engage in such conduct, then why mediate at all unless your entire goal through the mediation forum is to send a stern “message” that you will not be denied in what you want.  These tactics are almost always transparent to the other party/attorney, and will only cause the other side to push back, and the litigation will continue.

LISTEN:  Parties in a divorce matter often do not want to listen to each other (worse, the lawyers may love listening to only what they have to say).  Typically, progress can only be made when both parties are willing to listen to each other, understand each other’s position, and…collaborate.  I try to follow the mediator’s lead, and always encourage my client to do so, to get a sense of the other party’s intentions, while also providing the mediator with a level of respect that allows him or her the best opportunity to successfully perform the stated task of settling the case.  I found it interesting that in the mediation I reference above, my adversary outright refused to allow his client to talk, even when his thoughts or suggestions may have been helpful towards reaching a resolution.  Literally, for four hours, the other party sat silent in a room with his attorney, myself, my client and the mediator.  When the client spoke up and offered something useful, his lawyer would chime in that he really should stop speaking.  Again, what is the point of attending a mediation if there is no intention on actually settling, unless the only ploy is to scare the other party or send a message that there will be no compromise.

While no one can force a party to settle, the New Jersey court system certainly mandates parties to try and do so many times before a trial may ultimately occur.  Rather than wasting everyone’s time and money by turning a mediation into a private trial, better serve yourself and your wallet by working towards a resolution in mediation, rather than away from one.

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