In the recent unpublished (non-precedential) decision of Mathurin v. Matrhurin, the Appellate Division again confirmed that (1) agreements reached in mediation are not binding unless the terms are reduced to a  writing signed by the parties and, ostensibly, their attorneys if present, and (2) absent such a writing, the court cannot consider discussions, unsigned agreements or memoranda from mediation or other settlement negotiations because such writings/discussions are confidential by virtue of the Rules of Evidence that provide privilege to settlement negotiations.  It therefore follows that such confidential writings and/or oral communications cannot be relied upon to convince a court that an agreement was reached in mediation.

The post-divorce litigation in Mathurin arose when Plaintiff/ex-husband filed a motion to enforce the Marital Settlement Agreement (“MSA”) in order to compel Defendant/ex-wife to accept the offer for sale of the marital residence.  The parties agreed to sell the home within the MSA, but after they received this offer, Defendant proposed to buyout Plaintiff’s interest in the home for the same amount.  Plaintiff did not accept this alternative resolution.  Two other enforcement applications followed – one dismissed for procedural issues and the other denied without prejudice (meaning it can be refiled) pending the parties attending mediation because the MSA had a mediation clause that requires the parties to seek such intervention before filing an application with the Court.  The mediation session that followed gave rise to this appeal.

The mediator prepared and signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) listing the terms reached in mediation and further stating the parties’ agreement that the MOU reflects an enforceable settlement reached between the parties.  Plaintiff reneged on the terms in the MOU because of credits sought by Defendant that he found objectionable, and he refused to sign a formal agreement that his attorney prepared incorporating the terms of the MOU.  Plaintiff fired his attorney and filed another motion to enforce the MSA.  Defendant filed a cross application to enforce the MOU to which she attached the MOU and signed certifications from herself and both parties’ counsel wherein those parties disclosed the contents of mediation. Ultimately, the trial court found that it cannot consider the MOU and/or the certifications because they are confidential settlement documents, and that the MOU was not binding.  The Appellate Division affirmed, finding that the MOU and certifications represent confidential settlement material and that the MOU is not binding because it was not signed by the parties or counsel.

The Appellate Division cited to a New Jersey Supreme Court case, Willingboro Mall, Ltd. v. 240/242 Franklin Ave., LLC, 215 N.J. 242, 245 (2013), confirming that the all agreements reached in mediation must be reduced to a signed written agreement and that mediation discussions cannot be relied upon to prove an agreement was reached unless the parties waive the mediation privilege.  The Appellate Division differentiated this case from a 2017 decision, GMAC Mortg., LLC v. Willoughby, 230 N.J. 172 (2017), because in that case the writing was signed by the parties’ attorneys.  Although those cases are not family law matters, the same principals apply to all settlement discussions.

This issue here is one that attorneys and litigants face in mediation all to often – was an agreement reached just because there seemed to have been a meeting of the minds?  The simple answer is no.  Although we do not suggest, nor would we propose, rushing into signing an agreement, if a party in mediation wishes to make sure that the agreement reached in the session is binding, then the terms must be in writing and signed by both parties, as well as counsel if present.  This does not have to be formal – a piece of paper with handwritten terms will suffice – but there is no question that written terms and signatures are required.  At minimum, terms can be memorialized in an MOU but as we all now know, the MOU is not binding.  What may result then is a Harrington hearing, which you can read about in this post: https://njfamilylaw.foxrothschild.com/2014/03/articles/mediation-arbitration/harrington-is-still-alive/

Oftentimes in mediation, the mediator explains at the outset that nothing reached in their session will represent a final agreement unless the terms are reduced to writing and signed by those present (i.e.: parties/parties and counsel).  This is a common instruction, presumably in an effort to avoid a future Harrington situation, and one that I find beneficial so that everyone in the room is starting out on the same proverbial page.

The takeaway – it’s not over until it’s signed, sealed and delivered!


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

In a new, published (precedential) decision, J.G. v. J.H.Judge Koblitz, of the Appellate Division confirmed and explicitly held what we all should have known before:  No matter what type of case, the same rules apply with respect to discovery and investigation, and the trial court judge is under the same obligation to apply the legal standard resulting in a decision that is in the best interests of the child.

FD Docket versus FM Docket

It sounds obvious:  the welfare of all children should be determined using the same standards and practices.  Child custody and parenting time determinations are made under either one of two case or “docket” types.  The FM docket type refers to divorce cases; obviously, oftentimes a child custody decision is made incident to a divorce.

When a child custody or parenting time issue arises between unmarried parents (or, more uncommonly, married parents who have not yet filed for divorce), these are handled under the FD or “Non-Dissolution” (i.e. a marriage is not being “dissolved”) docket.  These types of cases are known as “summary proceedings,” meaning that they are to be handled much more quickly than divorce cases.  While divorce cases are automatically assigned timeframes for exchanging information and appointing experts if needed, this is not automatically done in FD cases and if you want discovery or experts, you have to request it.

As a result, in practice, many judges are tasked with and face the pressure to move FD cases along quickly.  Unfortunately, in the J.G. v. J.H. case, and perhaps in many others like it, this led to a very important decision about a child’s custody and welfare being made quickly without taking the proper steps to investigate the best interests of the child that would have occurred in due course in a divorce case.  In this important decision, the Appellate Division reminds us that bona fide disputes in child custody cases must not be treated differently just because they may arise in different case types.

The Facts of J.H. v. J.G.

In J.H. v. J.G., although there was no court order establishing same, the parties essentially shared joint legal custody of the minor child, with the mother designated the parent of primary residence and the father the parent of alternate residence with liberal parenting time.  When the mother began dating someone else, the father alleged that this new romantic partner posted a threat to the safety of the child, and came to court requesting sole custody.  The Court temporarily awarded the father sole custody.  When the mother challenged this, the Court entered a permanent change in the parenting schedule, making the father the parent of primary residence and significantly reducing the mother’s parenting time.  The judge made each of these decisions without investigation, and gave the parties no opportunity to resolve their differences amicably.  The judge did not allow for discovery (even though the mother’s attorney requested it), did not allow the mother’s attorney to meaningfully participate in the proceedings; nor did the judge conduct a hearing despite the the fact that the parties’ claims were completely contradictory.

Requirements for ALL Custody Disputes

Thus, the Appellate Division affirmed that the following requirements must be adhered to in ALL custody disputes, no matter the docket type:

Pre-Hearing Requirements

  • Pursuant to Rules 1:40-5 and 5:8-1, parties must attend Custody and Parenting Time Mediation prior to a trial.
  • If parties are unable to resolve the issues in mediation, they must submit a Custody and Parenting Time Plan to the Court, pursuant to Rule 5:8-5(a) and the case Luedtke v. Shobert (Luedtke), 342 N.J. Super. 202, 218 (App. Div. 2001).
  • Where there is “conflicting information regarding which parent can serve the long term best interest of the child,” but there is no issue as to the psychological fitness of either parent, the Luedtke case requires that a Social Investigation Report should be completed.
  • In FD cases, if a party requests that the matter be placed on the “complex” case management track, the court can in its discretion grant this request under Major v. Maguire, 224 N.J. 1, 24 (2016), a case on which I have written in the past.  Absent a clear reason to deny such a request, it should be granted.
  • Pursuant to Rule 5:8-1, an investigative report should have been prepared by court staff before any custody determination is made.

Required Plenary Hearing

In all contested custody matters, a thorough plenary hearing is required where parents make materially conflicting representations of fact, pursuant to K.A.F. v. D.L.M., 437 N.J. Super. 123, 137-38 (App. Div. 2014) and many other cases.  The plenary hearing must afford both parties the opportunity to present witnesses and to cross-examine the other party’s witnesses, and parties and counsel must have a meaningful opportunity to participate.

Requisite Fact-Findings and Reasons for Award

Judges must explicitly make findings of fact and apply those facts to the custody factors set forth in N.J.S.A. 9:2-4(c), which are:

  • the parents’ ability to agree, communicate and cooperate in matters relating to the child;
  • the parents’ willingness to accept custody and any history of unwillingness to allow parenting time not based on substantiated abuse;
  • the interaction and relationship of the child with its parents and siblings;
  • the history of domestic violence, if any;
  • the safety of the child and the safety of either parent from physical abuse by the other parent;
  • the preference of the child when of sufficient age and capacity to reason so as to form an intelligent decision;
  • the needs of the child;
  • the stability of the home environment offered;
  • the quality and continuity of the child’s education;
  • the fitness of the parents;
  • the geographical proximity of the parents’ homes;
  • the extent and quality of the time spent with the child prior to or subsequent to the separation;
  • the parents’ employment responsibilities;
  • the age and number of the children; and
  • a parent shall not be deemed unfit unless the parents’ conduct has a substantial adverse effect on the child.

Without specifically addressing each and every one of the above factors after listening to the facts presented by both parties and assessing credibility, a court cannot make a determination as to what is in the child’s best interests.

Of course, ALL children and parents deserve this type of extensive inquiry into their welfare and the parent-child relationship – but thankfully this case makes it official and provides additional precedent for overruling or remanding trial court decisions made in haste, without the requisite inquiry.


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.

For many divorce attorneys, the busy season starts after the first of the year. For the last several years, I have posted on the phenomenon of the New Year’s Resolution Divorce. For whatever reason, this post has struck a chord and has been both well received and cited by other bloggers. As such, given that the new year is near, I thought I would share that piece again, updated slightly for the new year.

Over the years, I have noted that the number of new clients spikes a few times of the year, but most significantly right after the new year. Before writing this article for the first time, out of curiosity, I typed “New Years Resolution Divorce” into Google and got 540,000 results in .29 seconds. There are even more results when you do the same search now. While not all of the search results are on point, many were extremely interesting. It turns out that my intuition about this topic was right and that there are several reasons for it.

One article on Salon.com put divorce up there with weight loss on New Years resolution lists. Also cited in this article was that affairs are often discovered around the holidays. Another article linked above attributed it to “new year, new life”. Another article claimed that the holidays create a lot of pressures at the end of the year that combine to put stress on people in unhappy or weak relationships. Family, financial woes, etc. associated with the holidays add to the stress. Turning over a new leaf to start over and improve ones life was another reason given. This seems to be a logical explanation for a clearly difficult and perhaps heart wrenching decision.

In my experience, people with children often want to wait until after the holidays for the sake of the children. There is also the hope, perhaps overly optimistic, that the divorce will be completed by the beginning of the next school year. These people tend to be in the “improving ones life” camp.

So as divorce lawyers, we hope to avoid or at least resolve in advance the holiday visitation disputes that inevitably crop up, then relax and enjoy the holiday as we await the busy season to begin.

In the last several years, the phenomena started early for us and many other attorneys. We were contacted by more people in December in the last few years than in any years in recent memory. In some recent years, the calls started in November at a pace more robust than in prior years. Moreover, we have heard of more people telling their spouse it “is over” before the holidays this year. I suspect that in some, it was the discovery/disclosure of a new significant other or perhaps pressure being exerted by that person that was the cause. In other cases, the person just didn’t want to wait until the new year to advise their spouse.

For those who divorce in 2019, they will be the first to test the new tax laws eliminating the deductibility of alimony.  They may also be facing a slowing economy.  Bad economies historically mean more divorces, either because of the stress it creates or because one or both parties is being opportunistic.

Whatever the reason, we await those who see 2019 as a chance for happiness or a fresh start. Happy New Year?!?!


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.

With the costs of college ballooning out of control, determining which of the divorced parents will pay for what percentage of a child or the children’s college has evolved into high stakes litigation that is on par with questions such as equitable distribution and alimony.   With the federal tax law changes regarding deductability and taxability of alimony and the year end rush to finalize agreements,  I experienced settlement discussions abruptly end last week because of this very issue.  This question has been addressed many times but New Jersey’s judiciary and was most recently considered in the unpublished appellate decision of Landre v. Landre, A- 5080-16T1.

The defendant-wife in Landre had filed a post-judgement motion to enforce a Matrimonial Settlement Agreement (MSA) that required the plaintiff-husband to contribute to their oldest child’s college expenses based on a pro-rata calculation of the parties’ income percentage for contributing.  The trial court granted the motion, and plaintiff appealed.

The parties had two children and were divorced in 2002. The MSA, incorporated into the judgment of divorce, addressed college expenses for the children. The MSA contemplated both parents would be involved in the college selection process and established the parties’ contribution to college expenses would be calculated on a pro rata basis.  The MSA established the following regarding the payment of college expenses:

“The parties recognize their obligation to contribute to the cost of their children’s post-high school education should the child demonstrate an aptitude for and an interest in same. The parties shall consult in advance with regard to post-high school education for their children. During the child’s senior year in high school, the parties shall communicate, in writing, concerning the child’s choices for post-high school education. In the event that either party does not approve of any institution to which the child seeks to make application, such disapproval shall be given in writing, with the reasons set forth, 30 days prior to the application deadline. If such disapproval is not set forth in writing, with the accompanying specific reasons for such disapproval, then there shall be a presumption that both parents agree to contribute to the cost of any and all institutions to which the child applies and is accepted, according to the terms of this Agreement. In no event, however, shall either party act in such an unreasonable manner as to prohibit the child from applying to any such institution.

The parties shall contribute to the cost of the child’s post high school education on a pro rata basis, in accordance with their respective earned and unearned incomes at the time the child is accepted into the institution. The parties’ obligation to contribute to the cost of post high school education shall apply only after exhausting all loans, grants, scholarships, the value of the UGTMA accounts that then exist for the benefit of the children, and any other sources of financial aid to which a child might be entitled.”

In opposition to defendant’s motion to enforce the MSA regarding the oldest child’s college expenses, plaintiff argued that defendant (1) did not include him in the child’s college selection process; and that (2) he should receive a credit for scholarships and financial aid that the child had declined from other universities that were not offered by the school that was eventually chosen.

The trial judge held he was “not making a decision about which school the child should attend,” and limited his decision to the percentage contribution of each parent for college expenses.  The judge determined it was undisputed that each party anticipated contribution toward the expense, and hence, the court was not undertaking a determination of whether contribution was warranted in the first instance.  Therefore, a decision based on the factors in Newburgh v. Arrigo, 88 N.J. 529 (1982) was not necessary (see below).  The trial judge further ruled that a court may take certain principles in Newburgh into consideration in making a determination, but the question of whether a parent should be compelled to contribute requiring application of the factors were not before the court.

Unfortunately for the trial court judge, the Appellate Division disagreed and ruled that the Newburgh factors should have been applied, even in cases where the property settlement agreement, or judgment of divorce, or MSA, as in this case addressed college contributions. See Gotlib v. Gotlib, 399 N.J. Super. 295, 310-11 (App. Div. 2008).

Newburgh states that a parent’s obligation for the cost of postsecondary education depends upon the expectations and relevant abilities of the child and the parents considering all relevant factors, including:

(1)       whether the parent, if still living with the child, would have contributed toward the costs of the requested higher education;

(2)       the effect of the background, values and goals of the parent on the reasonableness of the expectation of the child for higher education;

(3)       the amount of the contribution sought by the child for the cost of higher education;

(4)       the ability of the parent to pay that cost;

(5)       the relationship of the requested contribution to the kind of school or course

of study sought by the child;

(6)       the financial resources of both parents;

(7)       the commitment to and aptitude of the child for the requested education;

(8)       the financial resources of the child, including assets owned individually or held in custodianship or trust;

(9)       the ability of the child to earn income during the school year or on vacation; (10) the availability of financial aid in the form of college grants and loans;

(11)     the child’s relationship to the paying parent, including mutual affection and shared goals as well as responsiveness to parental advice and guidance; and

(12)     the relationship of the education requested to any prior training and to

the overall long-range goals of the child.

[Id. at 545.]

The Appellate Division stated that “when making a decision regarding the obligation of a parent to contribute to college expenses, the judge has “an obligation under Newburgh and N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23(a) to consider all the enumerated factors” and should not base its decision on any single factor. Gotlib, 399 N.J. Super. at 309 (quoting Raynor v. Raynor, 319 N.J. Super. 591, 617 (App. Div. 1999)).

Because the trial judge did not apply the Newburgh factors in the trial decision, the Appellate Court remanded to the trial court.

The Appellate Court also ruled that the “plaintiff’s interpretation of the MSA [was] flawed.”  The MSA did not require scholarships or financial aid from other schools be considered in determining plaintiff’s contribution to college expenses. The MSA required that the child accept all “loans, grants, scholarships,” and “any other sources of financial aid” at the school he or she decides to attend.  The Appellate Court determined that the financial aid offered by the two unselected schools should be considered on remand as a factor in determining plaintiff’s contribution toward the oldest child’s college expenses.

The Appellate Court further ruled that in addition to the Newburgh factors in determining contribution toward college costs, there are additional equitable considerations that may be taken into account.  The Appellate Court identified one such consideration as whether there are younger siblings of relatively close age who are likely to attend college at the same time as the older sibling. In such circumstance, the family court may consider a reasonable financial plan, which fairly allocates present and future funding resources among all of the children, rather than exhausting all resources on the oldest child who happens to attend college first. Black, 436 N.J. Super. at 134. On remand, the Appellate Court stated that in analyzing the resources of the parents and the amount they can pay toward the oldest child’s education, it is appropriate for the judge to consider the parties will likely need funds available in the immediate future to pay college expenses for both children simultaneously.

As demonstrated in Landre, who pays for college when parents are divorced is not an easy question and will likely be different in each case based on facts and circumstances.


Sandra C. Fava, Partner, Fox Rothschild LLPSandra C. Fava is a partner in the firm’s Family Law Practice, resident in its Morristown, NJ office. You can reach Sandra at 973.994.7564 or sfava@foxrothschild.com.

In the wake of the September 10, 2014 amendments to N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23, the legislature clarified the circumstances under which an alimony payor’s obligation can be modified or terminated due to the obligor’s intended or actual retirement.  Under the statute as amended, when faced with an obligor’s application to modify or terminate alimony due to good faith retirement, the Court must consider the question of the alimony recipient’s ability to save for his or her own retirement.  As discussed In the new unpublished (non-precedential) Appellate Division decision Stansbury v. Stansbury, this question is given much greater weight in pre-Amendment cases (i.e. in cases that were decided or agreements that were entered into prior to September 10, 2014).

For post-Amendment cases, there is a rebuttable presumption that if a payor retires at “good faith retirement age” (defined as the age at which (s)he would be entitled to receive full Social Security Retirement benefits), then alimony shall terminate unless the recipient can show by a preponderance of the evidence and for good cause shown that alimony should continue (either in full or in a reduced amount).  In making that determination, the court must consider eleven (11) factors, one of which is the ability of the recipient to have saved adequately for retirement.  See N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23(j)(1).  This factor is listed along with the ten other factors, in no order of importance, with no emphasis whatsoever.

But for pre-Amendment alimony awards (like the Stansburys’), the statute does not just list the obligee’s ability to save for retirement as one of many on a list of factors to be balanced and considered.  Instead, it absolutely mandates and even elevates this criteria first and foremost among the others:

When a retirement application is filed in cases in which there is an existing final alimony order or enforceable written agreement established prior to the effective date of this act, the obligor’s reaching full retirement age as defined in this section shall be deemed a good faith retirement age.  Upon application by the obligor to terminate or modify alimony, both the obligor’s application to the court and the obligee’s response to the application shall be accompanied by current Case Information Statements or other relevant documents as required by the Rules of Court, as well as the Case Information Statements or other documents from the date of entry of the original alimony award and from the date of any subsequent modification.  In making its decision, the court shall consider the ability of the obligee to have saved adequately for retirement as well as the following factors in order to determine whether the obligor, by a preponderance of the evidence, has demonstrated that modification or termination of alimony is appropriate:

(a)  The age and health of the parties at the time of the application;

(b)  The obligor’s field of employment and the generally accepted age of retirement for those in that field;

(c)  The age at which the obligor becomes eligible for retirement at the obligor’s place of employment, including mandatory retirement dates or the dates upon which continued employment would no longer increase retirement benefits;

(d)  The obligor’s motives in retiring, including any pressures to retire applied by the obligor’s employer or incentive plans offered by the obligor’s employer;

(e)  The reasonable expectations of the parties regarding retirement during the marriage or civil union and at the time of the divorce or dissolution;

(f)  The ability of the obligor to maintain support payments following retirement, including whether the obligor will continue to be employed part time or work reduced hours;

(g)  The obligee’s level of financial independence and the financial impact of the obligor’s retirement upon the obligee; and

(f)  Any other relevant factors affecting the parties’ respective financial positions.

N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23(j)(3) (emphasis added).

In Stansbury, the Defendant had a permanent alimony obligation but, at the age of 72 (well past good faith retirement age), he was looking to retire and made the appropriate application, which the Plaintiff opposed.  Eliciting certain facts from the parties’ respective certifications that accompanied their motions (and, reasonably, hoping to avoid the time and expense of a trial for two litigants with modest means and of a senior age), the judge addressed each of the factors listed above, including the question of the Plaintiff’s ability to save for retirement.  She found that – based on what the Plaintiff certified about a recent health issue and about her income and budget set forth on her Case Information Statement – it was “unlikely” that the Plaintiff had been able to save for retirement.  Based on this assumption and on the remaining factors, the trial judge declined to terminate the Defendant’s obligation and instead reduced it.

The Defendant appealed, arguing that – having failed to conduct a hearing – the trial judge did not have sufficient evidence to make the assumption that the Plaintiff did not have the ability to save for retirement.  In fact, on the question of what had happened to the Plaintiff’s share of Defendant’s pension awarded to her in equitable distribution, the trial judge had essentially taken a guess that the Plaintiff had liquidated her share of that marital asset and spent it while she was not working due to her recent illness, or else re-invested it.  There was no testimony in the record from the Plaintiff herself as to what she had done with this money.  The Appellate Division found that the trial judge’s failure to make findings after a hearing as to the issue of the Plaintiff’s ability to save for retirement was an error, and remanded the matter to the trial court, instructing that:

The hearing should require plaintiff to come forward with evidence that she saved for retirement to the extent she was able to do so, and how plaintiff disposed of her share of defendant’s pension.

The case makes clear that for pre-Amendment alimony awards in particular, trial judges not only have to consider this factor, but must give it great weight.   Therefore, litigants opposing retirement applications in pre-Amendment cases should be prepared to address this in great detail.   Additionally, the Appellate Division’s instruction to the trial court quoted above in the Stansbury case certainly suggests that whether an obligee has actually saved for retirement is not the important thing that courts must consider in these applications, but rather whether the recipient COULD HAVE saved for retirement based on his/her income, assets inclusive of equitable distribution, and the alimony received.  In other words, fiscal irresponsibility on the part of the obligee shouldn’t bar the obligor from making a successful application.


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.

We have all seen cases where one of the parties is unreasonable if not out of control.  I am not talking about taking a hard of aggressive legal position.  I am not talking about taking an aggressive if not unreasonable settlement position – at least to start.  I am talking about a client that refuses to abide by an agreement or an Order.  I am talking about a client that intentionally misinterprets an agreement or an Order because on this occasion, the clear interpretation does not favor her – only to take the exact opposite interpretation the next time when it would be to her favor.  I am talking about someone with oppositional defiance disorder and/or someone who automatically rejects something, even if it is to his or her benefit, simply because it was suggested by the other party or opposing counsel.  I am talking about someone who could either tell the truth or lie, with no greater advantage in lying, but lies anyway.  I am talking about someone that cannot help to put their kids in the middle to hurt their spouse, knowing that they are probably hurting their kids in the process.  There are many other examples I can give based upon my many years as a divorce attorney.

In a perfect world, when this happens, assuming that it is not opposing counsel that is actually causing the problem in the first place, you would hope to be able to tell your client that cooler heads will prevail. Surely you would like to be able to tell your client that opposing counsel will get control of the situation and put the matter back on track, right?  Too often, the answer is no.  Why is this the case?  Sometimes, especially early on, counsel will take their client at face value, without seeking proof or verification.  That is to be expected to some degree though a better practice might be to get more information before going off half-cocked.  But more often than not, that is not the reason at all.  In fact, sadly there are too many practitioners out there willing to do anything that the client wants, without consideration for how it impacts their client in the long run, or their personal reputation.  Don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting that an attorney should not zealously advocate for their client’s position.  They have to – that is their ethical obligations.  But before furthering the crazy and/or throwing gasoline on the fire, is it not better practice to try and get a situation under control.  Does it really make sense to unprofessionally echo a client’s unfounded attacks to deflect a provable, documented factual account of that client’s misbehavior?  Does it really make sense to let a client take an action or file a certification that will hurt them in the long run?  Though, on the other hand, when a client asks why the other lawyer is doing something in furtherance or defense of the bad behavior or why they haven’t stopped it, I have to remind them that we have no idea what advice the other party was actually given.  Sometimes, it is as simple is that as long as the client is paying them, they will do anything that the client says, no matter if it is good for the client or not.

Again, don’t get me wrong.  There are bona fide disputes.  There are reasons that motions have to be filed.  There are reasons that things need to be litigated.  But there are things that have no business not being brought under control.  When the lawyer absurdly enflames things further and/or defends the indefensible, they become part of the problem instead of being part of the solution.  That is unfortunate for the parties, their children and the system.  More and more, it seems that there are too many practitioners that are all too willing to give credence to the unreasonable or out of control, as opposed to trying to put a case on the right track towards resolution.  That is unfortunate.

_________________________________________________________

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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There has been a lot of talk about the lack of preparedness for last week’s snow storm that left many people stranded in traffic for hours trying to get home.  While many have argued, perhaps rightly, that the storm turned out being much worse the forecast, at the end of the day, as with many other things in life, people focus on the end results.  In fact, my bet is that most of the people who were complaining when schools called an early dismissal the night before, when the forecast was for much less snow than actually fell, were the same people complaining about the ultimate outcome.

Divorce is very much the same way.  While you may not know exactly when the process may start, few people are really, deep down, surprised that it is actually happening because the warning signs are there, whether it is adultery, lack of intimacy, constant fighting, lack of communication, bad communication, lack of agreement regarding parenting, etc.  This reminds me of a story that a client told me many many years ago.  He and his wife were in marriage counseling for years and he ultimately decided to tell his wife that he intended on pursuing a divorce during a counseling session.  The wife responded with epic histrionics suggesting that she was shocked.  The therapist ultimately told her that she could express any number of emotions but surprise wasn’t one of them.

The point again is that divorce is seldom a surprise.  Moreover, you don’t really know how bad the storm is going to be until it happens.  Most people want an “amicable” divorce but seldom agree on what that actually means at the beginning.  Very often, emotion takes over and derails what should be an “easy”, legally speaking, divorce.  On the other hand, some matters that appear like they can be very complex resolve easily because one or both of the parties are sufficiently motivated to get a deal done.

And because the ultimate divorce is seldom a surprise, if you think that divorce is possibility, you can do two things.  One is to put your head in the sand and then be overwhelmed by the storm when it comes.  The other is to prepare for the storm, just in case.  What are the things you can do to prepare?  Here are some things you can do:

  1. Familiarize yourself with your finances – income, assets, liabilities, budget.  Perhaps prepare a balance sheet of your assets and liabilities and start putting together a budget of your historical spending.
  2. Familiarize yourself with your spouse’s income?  How are they paid?  Do they receive a base and a bonus? Is the bonus guaranteed?  Is there a target bonus? Is there deferred compensation – stock options, restricted stock, RSUs, REUs, and/or any of the other of the alphabet soup of other earned income?  Finding out if there what is vested or not, if there is a vesting scheduling, when are these things usually paid, where have they been historically deposited, do they automatically convert to cash or stock when they vest, etc.
  3. Familiarize yourself with your spouse’s benefits and perquisites, including health insurance, other insurances, retirement plans, and the like?  Is there are vehicle that the employer or your spouse’s business (if they are a business owner)?  And if they are a business owner, is there a business credit card?  What things does the business pay for?  If there is a business, is their cash?
  4. While you are doing all of the above, start assembling historical financial documents.  Five years of tax, income, bank, brokerage, retirement and credit card information is a good start but if there are other seemingly important documents in the house, on computer hard drives or online, secure copies of those, as well.  And after you go about doing that, don’t leave the documents lying around the house or in the trunk of your car where your spouse can take them.  Make copies and secure them off site.
  5. If you have assets that are premarital, received via a third party gift and/or inherited, it is your burden to prove to a court that those assets are exempt.  If you can prove exemption, then they are not divided in equitable distribution typically.  It should be of no surprise that when a divorce occurs, these documents disappear, as well.  Accordingly, if divorce is a possibility, secure these documents as well.
  6. If there are valuable items that may “disappear”, you may want to secure them – eg. putting jewelry in a safe deposit box.  You would not believe how many times a wife’s engagement ring (which is legally exempt in most cases), disappears on the occurrence of a divorce.
  7. If custody and/or parenting time could be an issue, familiarize yourself with your children’s teachers, doctors, friends, etc. both at present and in the past.  Think about who may be witnesses regarding your involvement with the children.
  8. Research potential therapists for both yourself and your children.  Even if they are not needed at the moment, once the storm comes, they may be a resource that you want to avail yourself of.
  9. Identify a solid support system.  I am not suggesting that you tell the world that your marriage may be coming to an end.  Rather, identify for yourself the people that you believe you can rely on when the storm comes.
  10. Have a consultation with a divorce lawyer – even if you are not ready to proceed.  For one, you will get some education about your rights and responsibilities.  Fear of the unknown often paralyzes people.  Moreover, based upon your specific facts and circumstances, the above list to help you get prepared in case of the storm may expand.

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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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It’s the Thursday before Thanksgiving and you’re getting divorced… tough as it may sound,  it’s important to put down your pad and pen, eat some Turkey (tofurkey works, too) and remember what you have to be thankful for.  Here’s a Top 5 for a little chuckle:

  1. You will get divorced…  For some that day may be soon and for others not soon at all, but whenever the day is, it will come!
  2. For those with children (four-legged count also), regardless of how you feel about your soon to be ex, your relationship gave you the wonderful kids that you may be doing this for!  For those without children, be thankful that once you are divorced, your connection to your ex will be minimal, if any!
  3. New traditions (and some may add no more Thanksgivings with your in-laws)!
  4. Prenuptial Agreements (whether this time around or next)…
  5. … And the capable counsel you have guiding you along this journey (who can even make you laugh once in a while)!

In all seriousness, the holidays are a good time to reflect and remember that you can take a step away, take a deep breath and just enjoy your time without focusing on your divorce… even the Courts are closed next week!

In our ever-changing society that is becoming more transient as we modernize, it’s important to remember time requirements for a state to establish jurisdiction over a child should you find yourself in need of a custody determination after residing across state lines. 

In the reported decision of P.H. v. L.W., the parties met in Chicago while P.H. lived in New York and L.W. lived in South Dakota, had twins born in South Dakota and, eventually after a sorted history, they resided together in New Jersey from July 18, 2015 to January 13, 2016 when L.W. packed all of her and the twins’ belongings and made her way back to South Dakota where she arrived on January 15, 2016. P.H. then returned to New York in early 2016.  The facts are explored below but it’s primarily important to look at the takeaways here based on those bare bones.

First, the Appellate Division reversed the trial court’s findings that New Jersey was the “home state” of the parties’ twins because they resided here for five (5) days short of the six (6) month requirement of N.J.S.A. 2A:34-54. The initial orders finding New Jersey as the home state were entered based upon the P.H.’s misrepresentation that the twins begin residing in New Jersey three (3) days earlier than L.W. and the twins actually moved in with him in Dumont (July 15, 2015 as compared to July 18, 2015).  That earlier date is when he signed the lease for the Dumont apartment, without L.W. on the lease, as opposed to the day that they actually moved in with him.

Additionally, the Appellate Division further found that the twins’ absence from New Jersey for the few days short of the six (6) month requirement was not “temporary”. If, for example, the twins were on vacation for those days, then the days would have counted toward the required time period.  Here, however, their absence was the result of L.W. moving permanently from New Jersey back to South Dakota where she hails from.

Although the trial court’s jurisdiction finding was based solely on the “home state” argument, the Appellate Division did not stop there to hammer home the point that New Jersey lacked jurisdiction.  Rather, it explored the alternatives that New Jersey could have used to find jurisdiction of the parties’ twins.

Citing to N.J.S.A. 2A:34-65(a)(2), New Jersey may still have custody over a child who resides here for less than six (6) months if:

  1. No other state has jurisdiction or
  2. A court with home-state jurisdiction declines to exercise it and
    • the child and at least one parent or person acting as the parent have a significant connection with New Jersey other than mere physical presence and
    • substantial evidence is available in New Jersey concerning the child’s care, protection, training and personal relationships.

Neither of the above requirements existed in the case at hand, in part due to the time that passed between the father arguing that New Jersey is the home state (and leaving out the above alternatives) and the present appeal.  P.H. initially filed his New Jersey custody application on January 28, 2016 when the twins had been outside of the state for about two (2) weeks.  The trial court could have found jurisdiction based on the “significant connection” and “substantial evidence”.  However, with the passage of time, this totally changed.  The Order being revisited was entered in June 2017 denying L.W.’s April 2017 request to dismiss the New Jersey custody orders based on a lack of jurisdiction.  At the time it was filed, both parties had resided outside of New Jersey for almost a year and a half.  Thus, jurisdiction would not have been warranted by either the significant connection” or “substantial evidence” tests, above.

Taking it a step further to really confirm that New Jersey does not have jurisdiction, citing to N.J.S.A. 2A:34-71, the Appellate Division opined that South Dakota is a more convenient forum as compared to New Jersey.  Here, it is important to note that even if the above standards had been met (either the home state, significant connection or substantial evidence tests), New Jersey courts have the authority to decline jurisdiction if:

  1.  New Jersey is an inconvenient forum under the circumstances and
  2. Another state is a more appropriate forum.

There is no question that South Dakota was more convenient as L.W. and twins had lived there for about a year and a half when the appeal was filed.

Although the above may seem straight forward, family law cases are extremely fact sensitive and the facts here are nothing short of interesting:

Timeline of Residence in New Jersey

  • L.W. is from South Dakota and lived there when the parties met in Chicago in 2012.
  • P.H. resided in New York when the parties met.
  • L.W. became pregnant and gave birth in South Dakota in June 2013.
  • P.H. returned to New York City following the birth.
  • L.W. and the twins lived in South Dakota until 2015 with period visits from P.H. that she claims included domestic violence acts committed against her.
  • In June 2015, L.W. and the twins went to live with P.H. in New York – both in an RV on a campground and in P.H.’s apartment.
  • On July 15, 2015,  P.H. signed a lease for a house in Dumont.
  • L.W. and the twins moved into the house on July 18, 2015.
  • L.W. obtained possession of the home upon entry of a Temporary Restraining Order (“TRO”) in New Jersey on December 14, 2015, which also provided that she have custody of the twins.
  • P.H. obtained his own TRO against Defendant on January 11, 2016, also filed in New Jersey.
  • On January 13, 2016, L.W. packed her belongings for a permanent move back to South Dakota, and she provided evidence by way of her mover’s inventory that she took all of her belongings and the move was permanent.
  • On January 15, 2016, L.W. arrived in South Dakota where she continues to reside with the twins.  There was evidence that she was in Chicago on January 14, 2016 and, thus, had started her journey back to South Dakota.
  • P.H. then returned to New York shortly thereafter.
  • On January 28, 2016, the New Jersey court dismissed L.W.’s TRO against P.H. when she failed to appear for the final hearing.

Timeline of Custody Determinations in Both South Dakota and New Jersey

  • On January 28, 2016, the same date of the above TRO dismissal, P.H. filed a complaint seeking determination of paternity and custody.  P.H. failed to successfully serve L.W. at the address he sent the motion, namely her father’s home, as L.W. was living at an undisclosed residence because she did not want P.H. to know her whereabouts in light of her alleged domestic violence history.  L.W.’s father did not send her this mail until October or November 2016.  This unopposed application was the catalyst for New Jersey being declared the twins’ home state.  Of course the lack of service was not yet known to the court.
  • During the time in which P.H. filed his case in New Jersey (without L.W.’s knowledge), L.W. obtained a temporary order of protection in South Dakota on January 27, 2016 and then the final Order on March 8, 2016, which awarded her custody of the twins.
  • On March 17, 2016, the New Jersey court entered an order requiring L.W. to submit the twins to genetic testing for paternity purposes following the unopposed application.
  • On September 1, 2016, the New Jersey court ordered L.W. to bring the children to New Jersey, finding that she improperly removed the twins who had resided in New Jersey for six months.
  • On October 25, 2016, the New Jersey court again found that New Jersey was the twins’ home state because they lived here for six (6) months and ordered a bench warrant for L.W.’s arrest, as well as modified custody to grant P.H. sole legal custody of the twins to have them brought back to New Jersey to address paternity and custody issues.
  • P.H. used that New Jersey Order as support for his request that South Dakota modify its March 2016 Order granting L.W. custody of the twins.  L.W. opposed the application.  The judges of each state conferred and then South Dakota vacated the custody portion of the protective Order and ordered that L.W. comply with the New Jersey genetic testing Order, which she did.
  • On March 31, 2017, the South Dakota Court relinquished its limited jurisdiction to New Jersey.
  • In April and May 2017, L.W. unsuccessfully challenged the Orders entered in both states as to New Jersey’s jurisdiction – with New Jersey finding that jurisdiction had been decided and the family would be left without a “place to go” because South Dakota relinquished jurisdiction.  The trial court never addressed L.W.’s argument that New Jersey is an “inconvenient forum”.

With all that said, try to ensure that your children reside in the state where you want to be heard for at least six (6) months before you file for a custody determination.  That can be easier said than done.  Whether your timing is a bit off or you meet the six (6) months, do not box yourself into a corner by basing your case on only one argument in your favor – use them all.  That holds true for issues well beyond custody jurisdiction.  Happy home hunting!


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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