Equitable Distribution

In 2014, I authored a post on this blog entitled Stern Revisited – Using the Shareholder Agreement to Determine Value.  I noted then that it seemed that after the Appellate Division’s decision in Brown v. Brown  which changed the landscape by doing away with discounts and essentially ushered in more of a value to the holder construct, that the consideration of an agreement was dead.  Rather, a myopic view of methodologies focused on income seemed to be the norm – disregarding all else.

This was the case even though there was New Jersey Supreme Court case law  (Stern v. Stern and Bowen v. Bowen to be precise ) that suggests the use of a “trustworthy” buy-sell agreement to establish value, noting that in some instances it may appropriately establish a presumptive value of a party’s interest.  Often the issue is what is a “trustworthy” buy-sell agreement?  What makes an agreement trustworthy?  It is updated frequently and routinely used when people enter and exit a business.  In my 2014 post, I blogged about the use of the buy-sell agreement in deciding the value of a medical practice where there had been 32 purchases or sales of interests in the practice in the recent past.  In the case cited in that blog, the Appellate Division noted “We find no error in the judge’s considered decision that the practice’s regularly updated corporate agreements were a better measure of value than plaintiff’s expert’s projection of cash flows through 2020, discounted by a rate chosen on the basis of U.S. Treasury bonds, augmented by selected risk premiums and reduced by an assumed long-term growth rate.”  Simply put, what the doctor would have received if he left the practice was used as the value.  Unlike many valuation calculations, there was no subjectivity to that number.  But this case was an unreported decision which means that it wasn’t precedential and there haven’t been many, if any, reported decision on the issue in some time.

That is, until August of 2017 when the Slutsky case was decided.  In that case, the husband was a partner at a major New Jersey law firm.  Though his income was substantial, he was not a rainmaker, and thus, worked on business generated by other attorneys at his firm.  In valuing the husband’s interest in the firm, the big issue was whether there was goodwill to be added to the amount that the husband would have been due under the firm’s partnership agreement.  The wife’s expert added goodwill; the husband’s expert did not.  The trial judge sided with the wife’s expert finding it “”incredible” the firm had no goodwill value. ”  The Appellate Division disagreed and reversed.

The Court noted that:

As Dugan instructs, the start of the examination of goodwill considers whether excess earnings exist. Dugan, supra, 92 N.J. at 439-40. This was a highly contested issue on which the experts used slightly different resources and offered greatly disparate opinions. Factual findings regarding this pivotal question were not provided.

Moreover, the court returned to Stern and the husband’s argument in that case regarding  “the propriety of considering his earning capacity as being a separately identified and distinct item of property” and pointed out the passage in Stern that held as follows:

[A] person’s earning capacity, even where its development has been aided and enhanced by the other spouse, as is here the case, should not be recognized as a separate, particular item of property within the meaning of N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23. Potential earning capacity is doubtless a factor to be considered by a trial judge in determining what distribution will be “equitable” and it is even more obviously relevant upon the issue of alimony. But it should not be deemed property as such within the meaning of the statute.

Of note, in this case the Appellate Division framed the real issue as follows:

Here, a nuanced valuation methodology is required because defendant is an equity partner in a large firm, who generally is not responsible for originations, and who is bound by the firm policies and a shareholder agreement.

In this case, the Appellate Division found that the formula in the firm’s agreement actually captured good will.  In addition, the court noted:

We believe the trial judge misunderstood Hoberman’s conclusion, as suggesting goodwill did not exist for the firm. Actually, Hoberman’s opinion asserted the TCA of each equity partner accounted for any goodwill. Further, plaintiff, who was not an originator but a worker in a highly specialized legal area, was actually paid what a similarly skilled lawyer would be paid. Thus, defendant’s compensation matched his earning capacity, nothing more. This view considered whether defendant’s “future earning capacity has been enhanced because reputation leads to probable future patronage from existing and potential clients” and concluded it did not. Accordingly, there was no additional component of goodwill. Id. at 433.

In this matter, any analysis of goodwill must evaluate the firm’s shareholder’s agreement to determine whether it is an appropriate measure of the total firm value, including goodwill. That formula computes an exiting partner’s interest, calculated as a portion of the firm’s excess earnings. See Levy, supra, 164 N.J. Super. at 534. The Court must discern the objectiveness and accuracy of the formula and calculations. When “it is established that the books of the firm are well kept and that the value of partners’ interests are in fact periodically and carefully reviewed, then the presumption to which we have referred should be subject to effective attack only upon the submission of clear and convincing proofs.” Stern, supra, 66 N.J. at 347.

The take away here is that Stern lives now for the same reasons that that it was originally decided.  If a regularly updated and followed agreement was disregarded, the titled spouse would be stuck getting only what the agreement allows, which the other spouse could wind up with a lot more, or less, if valuation methodologies with subjective components are used.  On the other hand, say that there are two similarly situated law firm partners with a similar book of business and making similar money, but one worked at a large firm with a regularly updated and followed shareholders agreement and the other at a smaller firm without a formal agreement, it seems like a safe bet that the values of their practices would be extremely different.  One other question to ponder.  Would the result have been different if the husband here was a major rainmaker?  Perhaps that will be addressed in a future case.

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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 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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What rights do people have to an equitable distribution of assets stemming from a period prior to the marriage itself?  If there is no right to equitable distribution under those circumstances, then what rights exist and what remedies can be implemented to protect those rights?  In Thieme v. Aucoin-Thieme, a post-Judgment dispute involving several interesting issues including the equitable distribution of marital assets, distribution of assets pursuant to equitable principles stemming from a pre-marital cohabitation period, and the remedy of a constructive trust in connection with an ex-husband’s receipt of a bonus, the Supreme Court of New Jersey primarily held that:

  1. said bonus received by the ex-husband (Michael) was subject to equitable distribution to the extent it was earned during the parties’ marriage; and
  2. the matter’s “extraordinary circumstances” merited imposition of a constructive trust to protect the ex-wife’s (Bernice) claim of unjust enrichment and request for a portion of the bonus earned during the parties’ pre-marital cohabitation period.

Before even getting into the details of what happened, what is, perhaps, most interesting about this matter is not the very specific facts and circumstances at issue and how such circumstances led to an understandably fair result but, rather, how this case addresses the sort of equitable claims that may arise in connection with a palimony claim that were kept alive in Maeker v. Ross.  While the 2010 amendment to the statute of frauds requires that all post-amendment palimony agreements be in writing, this case also provides a window to argue around the amendment in certain cases if no writing exists – in other words, even without a written palimony agreement for a post-amendment case, the equitable arguments discussed in Maeker can still be made to procure relief.  The case certainly is not limited to that sort of analysis, and, in because of the unique circumstances at issue it even seems to overcome prior case law suggesting that the rights of cohabitants come to an end once the marriage occurs.  With that being said, let’s take a look into what happened…

Here are the unique facts you should know:

  • Michael and Bernice cohabited for eight years and were then married for a brief time.
  • During the cohabitation period and marriage, Michael was an employee of a company called IBG.  He had no ownership interest in IBG, but the company’s principals made a written commitment to Michael that IBG would compensate him for his contributions to the company if it sold.  A written Statement of Understanding was executed, and Bernice’s knowledge as to same was the subject of dispute at the subject post-Judgment trial.
  • Based on that commitment, Michael and Bernice “made personal and financial decisions” with the expectation of such future compensation including, but not limited to, Michael working and traveling extensively for the company, Bernice foregoing employment to devote her time to the parties’ child, and the parties purchasing a new home.
  • The parties divorced and the resulting settlement agreement distributed their assets.
  • During the divorce negotiations, the parties discussed Michael’s potential receipt of deferred compensation or some form of ownership stake in the company, with Michael representing that it “may never happen,” and that he did not anticipate a “big cash payment.”  He further indicated to Bernice that they could revisit the issue in the future should something transpire with the company.
  • Three months after the divorce concluded, IBG was sold and paid Michael $2.25 million (described as a “closing bonus”) for his contributions to the company.  The bonus was paid in accordance with the earlier Statement of Understanding and was paid “to show our appreciation for [Michael’s] contributions in helping [IBG] grow into the successful organization that it is today.”  During a deposition, a company representative testified that the bonus was based on Michael’s contribution to the company over thirteen years and that Michael did not know about the sale before its completion.
  • Bernice first learned of the bonus payment when Michael deposited the money into a bank account that, unknown to Michael, remained a joint account despite the divorce.  Bernice, without notice to Michael, withdrew the funds from the account.
  • Bernice then filed an application for a share of the closing bonus.
  • The trial held that Bernice was entitled to distribution of the bonus, but only that portion stemming from Michael’s work during the marriage.  The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court.

In affirming in part and reversing in part, the Supreme Court, in a decision authored by Justice Anne Patterson, held as follows:

  • It would contravene New Jersey’s equitable distribution statute to find that the portion of the bonus earned prior to the marriage was a marital asset subject to distribution.  As a result, the Court held that the trial court properly allocated the pre-marital and marital periods in determining what portion of the bonus was subject to equitable distribution.  While arguments can be made that this component of the trial court’s decision should not have been upheld based on how the marital portion of the bonus was calculated, that is not the primary focus of the case or this blog post.
  • As Justice Patterson noted, however, the story was not over.  As for that portion of the bonus earned during the parties’ cohabitation period, the Court addressed whether Bernice had made a claim of unjust enrichment.  Addressing a claim for unjust enrichment and its related remedies, the Court provided:

To prove a claim for unjust enrichment, a party must demonstrate that the opposing party ‘received a benefit and that retention of that benefit without payment would be unjust.’

  • Bernice would also have to show that she “expected remuneration” from Michael at the time she “performed or conferred a benefit” on Michael and that “the failure remuneration” enriched Michael “beyond [his] contractual rights”.
  • In the event of unjust enrichment, a court may impose the remedy of a constructive trust to prevent such enrichment.  Legally speaking, a constructive trust is “the formula through which the conscience of equity finds expression.  When property has been acquired in such circumstances that the holder of the legal title may not in good conscience retain the beneficial interest, equity converts him into a trustee.”  More generally, such a trust is a remedy designed to protect a party harmed by another party’s receipt or retention of property procured through unjust enrichment or some other wrongful means (fraud, mistake, undue influence, and the like).
  • Relying on its prior decision in Carr v. Carr, wherein the trial court equitably imposed a constructive trust awarding a wife a share of the marital assets controlled by the husband’s estate where the husband died during the divorce proceedings, the Court here held:

As the evidence presented at trial made clear, the prospect that [Michael] would be generously compensated was a significant factor in the parties’ personal and financial planning from the early stages of their relationship.  [Michael] and [Bernice] each relied on the expectation of deferred compensation if IBG were sold as they made important decisions for themselves and their family.

The parties’ shared anticipation that [Michael] would be paid deferred compensation was more than wishful thinking.  Given IBG’s written commitment to [Michael], and its owners’ genuine desire to reward their valued employee, both parties had reason to anticipate a significant payment in the event of a sale.

. . .

[I]t is clear that on multiple occasions [Michael] advised [Bernice] about his expectation that any sale of IBG could generate a substantial financial reward for their family.

. . .

[I]BG’s commitment to reward him was an important consideration in the decisions made by the parties throughout their cohabitation and marriage . . . In short, as they planned their finances and personal lives, [Michael] and [Bernice] anticipated that they might someday share in the proceeds of the company’s sale.

During the parties’ eight years of cohabitation, and for most of their brief marriage, [Bernice] undertook significant efforts to support [Michael’s] challenging career.

. . .

Indeed, [Michael] himself recognized that [Bernice’s] contributions to their family should be rewarded.

. . .

Accordingly, the record supports the conclusion that [Bernice’s] decision not to seek further education and employment was made, at least in part, in reliance on [Michael’s] financial commitment to her.

As family law practitioners, Thieme v. Aucoin-Thieme provides guidance as to how to not only bring an equitable claim stemming from a period when parties were not married, but also the sort of appropriate remedy that can be imposed in the event of a viable claim.  In a way, despite its specific factual scenario, it also opens the door to creative lawyering as to when these types of equitable claims could come into play.  Especially in the context of a palimony matter where other related equitable claims are raised, there is, perhaps, more opportunity to overcome an adverse party’s argument that all of the equitable claims are simply palimony claims dressed in different clothes.

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

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They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and in the recently unpublished (not precedential) case of C.S. v. B. S., Judge Jones determined that 25-years’ worth of family pictures destroyed by a scorned ex-wife are also worth $5,000.00.

In C.S. v. B. S., the parties divorced after approximately 25 years of marriage. They had one child, who was emancipated. The parties’ entered into a Matrimonial Settlement Agreement, and agreed, among other things, that the husband would have the right to share in the family photographs and videos that were kept in the in the marital residence, where the wife continued to exclusively reside.

However, shortly after the parties’ divorce, the wife refused to allow plaintiff to have or copy any of the photos or videos of the marriage. The husband sent the wife an email requesting her cooperation to retrieve the photos and videos and she replied that she had disposed of them because he had allegedly been unfaithful during the marriage and no longer wanted to be reminded of him.

24276086 - old letters and antique family photos parents, grandfather; grandmother; children nostalgic vintage pictures from ca 1900

The husband sought enforcement of his rights and damages for the wife’s breach of the marital settlement agreement and the Court scheduled the matter for a hearing. At the hearing, the Court did not accept the wife’s testimony that she returned the husband’s childhood pictures (one torn into pieces), completely skipping over the last 25 years of the husband’s life, due to her interpretation of the parties’ agreement. Further, the wife did not indicate how or when she disposed of the photos, but testified that she believed it was before the divorce. She could not answer why, if she disposed of the photos before the divorce, the settlement agreement provided for plaintiff to share in the photographs and videos. The Court concluded that the wife’s refusal to provide the husband with the photos and videos of the marriage was a violation of the husband’s rights.

So what is the husband’s remedy? Unfortunately, the 25 years of family photographs cannot be replaced, so the Court had the task of fashioning an appropriate remedy.

First, the Court found that, in divorce proceedings, there is an implicit duty of good faith and fair dealing between parties. This means that each party has an obligation to treat the other fairly and respectfully during the divorce process, including honoring each other’s rights to marital property and adhering to terms of settlement agreements and consent orders. Thus, the wife breached the duty of good faith and fair dealing by depriving the husband of the family photos and videos.

The Court came up with three scenarios based on the Wife’s testimony: (1) she disposed of the photos and videos after the entry of the marital settlement agreement; (2) she disposed of the photos and videos before the entry of the marital settlement agreement; and (3) the photos and videos were not destroyed and still exist.

The Court opined that under scenario 1, if the wife disposed of the photos and videos after the entry of the marital settlement agreement, such action is a violation of the husband’s rights under the express terms of the document.

Under scenario 2, if the wife disposed of the photos and videos before the entry of the marital settlement agreement, such action is a violation of the implicit obligation of fair dealing, as the wife could not have possibly honored the agreement regarding the sharing of the photos and videos if they no longer existed. Under this scenario, the wife’s conduct “would constitute more than a mere breach of contract, but an actual misrepresentation”. The court also added that, when parties file divorce pleadings, the property of the marriage is deemed, in custodia legia (i.e. property under control of the court) pending resolution. Thus, the wife’s complete disposal of the marital photos and videos during the divorce process is evidence of a lack of good faith and fair dealing.

Under scenario 3, if the photos and videos were not destroyed and still exist, the wife is committing the tort of conversion (i.e. the intentional exercise of dominion or control over a property which interferes with the legal right of another to possess or control same).

39848897 - old empty photo frame with tape

Regardless as to which scenario was the truth, each entitled the husband to damages from the wife and thus the Court was next tasked with crafting a remedy for the husband. Generally, when a party wrongfully takes another’s property, the aggrieved party is entitled to damages, which are assessed under either a market value analysis or cost replacement analysis. However, in this case, due to the unique nature of the photos and videos neither of these analyses apply, since there is no market value or cost replacement value for personal family photos and videos. Therefore, financial compensation and/or reasonable sanctions are the most logical and available options in the Family Court, even though assigning an amount may prove complicated.

Prior to assessing financial compensation and/or reasonable sanctions in this type of scenario, there must be a foundation of evidence to support that:

(a)        the other party actually did take, damage or destroy the property, in violation of the aggrieved party’s rights;

(b)        the aggrieved party genuinely wanted the items in question; and

(c)        the violating party knew or should have known that the aggrieved party wanted the property and that such property had a particular personal value or significance.

Here, after a consideration of the parties’ testimony and other evidence before the Court, Judge Jones found that the wife, by disposing of or destroying the family photos and videos, met all of these factors and awarded the plaintiff $5,000.00.

Before concluding, Judge Jones reminded us that each case and each issue is fact-sensitive and that damages are to be assessed based on the specific facts of each case.

That being said, revenge comes with a price. Here, it was $5,000.00 and 25 years of lost memories, but let this be a warning: before you act, whether it be out of anger, spite, or revenge, think twice about how much it may cost you for that moment of satisfaction.

Johnny Depp a.k.a. Capt. Jack Sparrow is in the news again, this time for his failure to pay Amber Heard a $7 million divorce settlement. Heard had promised that any settlement that she received from Depp would be donated to charity. She has chosen two charities, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles to be the beneficiaries of her largess. Depp hasn’t made the payout yet because he wants to pay directly to the charities rather than to Heard. At issue is the substantial tax benefits that Depp would reap by making the payments directly to charities rather than Heard.

Johnny Depp in Capt. Jack Sparrow costume
By NJM2010 (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
Tax consequences of divorce disbursements is an important consideration when negotiating a settlement. Often times the client will simply lump all assets together and come up with a value of the marital estate not taking into consideration possible tax issues for each individual asset. For instance, the average couple may have a house with $250,000 of equity, a 401(k) with $500,000, and various bank accounts equal to $250,000. The easy math would suggest that one spouse take the 401(k) and the other take the accounts and the house, right? Not so fast. The spouse who would walk away with the house and the bank accounts could liquidate everything and have $500,000 to spend now. The spouse with the 401(k), however, has significantly less available liquidity. Assume, for example, that the spouse that takes the 401(k) has an overall 30% tax bracket for state and federal taxes. To liquidate the 401(k), that spouse would have to pay not only 30% in taxes, but absent extraordinary circumstances, a 10% penalty to liquidate the retirement early. All too quickly that $500,000 becomes $315,000.

This simplistic example demonstrates the necessity of understanding tax consequences to all of the assets in a divorce. This includes stocks and bonds that may have been purchased at a low price that have gone up substantially in value, retirement accounts, real estate investments which in and of themselves may have tax consequences such as available deductions, and carry forward losses on prior tax returns. In the rush to settle the case, litigants sometimes forget the importance of the careful review of their prior tax returns and asset portfolio. A quick call to your accountant may assist your attorney in protecting your future significantly.

 

MillnerJennifer_twitterJennifer Weisberg Millner is a partner in Fox Rothschild LLP’s Family Law Practice Group. Jennifer is resident in the firm’s Princeton Office, although she practices throughout the state. Jennifer can be reached at 609-895-7612 or jmillner@foxrothschild.com.

Perhaps Kurt Cobain knew when writing the song “All Apologies” that one day his daughter would be embroiled in a nasty divorce battle.  While the lyrics, “Married, Buried, Married, Buried”, may not sound uplifting, they are undeniably classic Nirvana.  Fans of the band would largely agree that the most well known live performance of the song was the acoustic version played during the band’s “Unplugged in New York”, which took place shortly before Cobain’s death.  Now it is the guitar used by Kurt during that performance which lies at the center of Frances Bean Cobain’s divorce from her husband.

nirvana

Specifically, Frances’s husband is in possession of the guitar – thought to be worth several million dollars – and refuses to return it to her while alleging that she gave it to him as a wedding present.  Not surprisingly, Frances denies ever giving it to him at the start of their short-term marriage, and is taking the position that he has no right to any money from her fortune (Kurt’s estate is valued at approximately $450 million).

With that said, and straight from Seattle to the swamps of New Jersey, how would a court here potentially address the issue?

I Think I’m Dumb, or Maybe Just Happy:  Well, for starters, is there a prenup protecting Frances’s rights and interests in Kurt’s estate and, as part of the estate, the subject guitar?  I don’t know the answer, but even if Frances was blinded by her love for her now soon to be ex-husband, she would hopefully be smart enough to have had some sort of agreement drafted and signed protecting her from the claim now being made (unlike Paul McCartney in his divorce from Heather Mills, for example).  Such agreements often have language addressing so-called separate property and whether separate property is exempt from equitable distribution.  Language regarding interspousal gifts is also common and can be crafted in a way to ensure that even if she did gift the guitar to him during the marriage, it could still remain separate property exempt from distribution.

And For This Gift, I Feel Blessed:  At the heart-shaped box of this matter is whether the guitar was an interspousal gift from Frances to husband during the marriage.  This is essentially what husband is claiming.  In New Jersey, an interspousal gift is subject to equitable distribution.  Husband can take the position that even if the guitar was originally a non-marital asset exempt from equitable distribution (for instance, as an inheritance or gift to Frances, or by agreement), it lost that exempt status and became marital property subject to distribution once she gifted it to him.  If proven, Frances loses the right to claim that the guitar is exempt from equitable distribution at the time of the divorce.  With a guitar worth several million dollars, husband may look at his share of the guitar as the proverbial meal ticket in a short-term marriage where his rights are likely otherwise limited.

Hey!  Wait!  I’ve Got a New Complaint:  To rebut husband’s claim and supporting evidence/testimony that Frances gifted him the guitar, Frances would have to establish that there never was any gift.  In other words, there was no intent by Frances to gift him the guitar – a fact that perhaps she could establish by testifying about how she told husband at the time, and/or at other times during the marriage, that it was her/her family’s guitar, rather than husband’s guitar.  Maybe husband simply took it from the home and is now fabricating the entire story.  Credibility and the surrounding factual circumstances will play a large part in the final result.  Also, even if the guitar was ultimately deemed to be an interspousal gift, Frances may be aided in the actual allocation of the asset by New Jersey’s equitable distribution factors, especially that regarding who brought the subject property to the marriage.  Keeping the guitar in the Cobain family would seemingly be an important consideration for a family court judge, and may sway any determination regarding whether Frances could ever have intended it to be a gift.

It will be interesting to see how this matter unfolds and ultimately concludes.  Whether the litigant is Frances or anyone else similarly in her shoes, learning the law regarding gifts and equitable distribution may leave the litigant forever in debt to such priceless advice.

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

Connect with Robert: Twitter_64 Linkedin

*image courtesy of google free images.

I’m not usually one to place a lot of stock in celebrity gossip, but I couldn’t help but take notice of the fact that it has been rumored that Amber Heard’s monthly income is $10,000, yet she spends $44,000 a month on shopping, dining out and vacations. Her ask for spousal support: $50,000 per month, based upon the parties’ marital lifestyle.

45351836 - champagne bottle in ice bucket and two full glasses realistic vector illustration
45351836 – champagne bottle in ice bucket and two full glasses realistic vector illustration

Amber Heard may not be only one spending beyond her means. This phenomenon applies to us common folk as well.

Particularly during the economic downturn, we have seen many cases where parties have splurged during times of plenty and then failed to scale back when the economic downturn hit. As a result, the parties are living on credit or perhaps not paying their bills. It, in effect, creates an artificial lifestyle which neither party really has the ability to maintain.

This puts the Court in a tough spot. On the one hand, the Supreme Court explained in Crews, “the standard of living experienced during the marriage . . . serves as the touchstone for the initial alimony award.” On the other hand, what happens when the marital standard of living is based on nothing more than irresponsible spending?

An unpublished case was just recently decided by the Appellate Division that touched on this issue. Although the crux of the case really focused on the reversal of a judge’s suspension of alimony as a discovery sanction, what peaked my interest was how the judge dealt with what he classified as an “artificial lifestyle,” marked by the parties’ “irresponsible spending and outlandish behavior, whether going on expensive vacations to South America and Europe, or purchasing fancy cars” when awarding alimony.

In Ponzetto v. Barbetti, decided on June 28, 2016, the parties had a nineteen year marriage which ended in a contentious divorce when the parties were in their mid-forties. The parties did not have any children and the only issues in the case were equitable distribution and alimony, both of which were hotly litigated during the course of a lengthy trial.

The husband had started a sound system business when he was a teenager, for which the wife kept the books. At one point, the business was so lucrative, that it generated revenue of $500,000 per year. These were the times of plenty.

Unfortunately, the business suffered during the economic downturn. The parties’ lifestyle, however, did not. They continued to spend lavishly. By the time of the divorce, they had two Ferraris, a Harley Davidson, Pontiac Fiero and two hummers.

While typically a judge would look at the parties’ spending during the last several years of the marriage to determine lifestyle, in this case, the trial judge found that it would not be appropriate to do so in this situation, where the lifestyle was not based on income or need.

As a result, the judge declined to use “the parties’ irresponsible spending from 2006 through 2008 in determining marital lifestyle” and instead determined to “kindly” utilize the marital lifestyle from 1990 through 2006, which the judge determined to be $14,500 per month. Ultimately, the wife was awarded $400 per week in alimony.

This is just one example of how a judge has dealt with this increasingly common situation. However, judges are frequently placed in these precarious situations, where the parties have exceeded a reasonable lifestyle based upon their income as compared to their expenses. In the case of Ponzetto v. Barbetti, the judge crafted a remedy that was equitable given the specific circumstances of the case.
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Eliana Baer, Associate, Fox Rothschild LLPEliana 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.

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.

With summer just beginning, many people have visions of swimming pools, beaches and family vacations. Others in New Jersey have visions of Sallie Mae, tuition bills and book fees.

After four years of what has become obligatory college contribution pursuant to the mandates of Newburgh v. Arrigo, many parents in the state are then faced with the daunting possibility of an additional 3-4 (maybe more?) years of opening their wallets and contribute toward the cost of graduate school; sometimes for their 24, 25, 26 or 27 year old children who are not yet considered emancipated pursuant to our current laws. Many times, child support also continues during that period.

45567922 - graduate figure made out of falling sand from dollar sign flowing through hourglass

Indeed, New Jersey courts have recognized that completion of undergraduate education is not the determinative factor for either declaring emancipation or terminating child support. Many times, the determination as to whether child support would continue, and along with it the parents’ obligation to contribute toward the cost of the child’s education, focused largely on the whether the child, is “beyond the sphere of influence and responsibility exercised by a parent and obtains an independent status of his or her own”.

New Jersey is in fact one of the few states in the country that still requires divorced parents to pay for their children’s college educations. Even fewer require contribution toward graduate school. However, New Jersey remained an outlier in that regard.

For example, in the 1979 case of Ross v. Ross, the Chancery Division declared that the parties’ daughter could not be considered emancipated as she was attending law school after obtaining her undergraduate degree.

As recently as 2010 in Mulcahey v. Melici, the Appellate Division upheld a trial court’s determination that a 23 year old child was not emancipation and was entitled to contribution toward her education costs as well as continued child support. Eric Solotoff previously blogged about this case in his post entitled: I Don’t Have to Pay for My Kid’s Graduate School, Do I?

The New Jersey Emancipation Statute, signed into law on January 19, 2016, is set to take effect on February 1, 2017, and may change the way courts view graduate school contribution.

Whereas previously emancipation was a fact specific inquiry focusing on the level of independence of the child, now, child support “shall not extend beyond the date the child reaches 23 years of age.”

Does this mean that the possible obligation to contribute toward a child’s graduate school education is a thing of the past? If emancipation must occur by the age of 23, and the obligation to contribute hinges on the question of whether the child is emancipated, how could a parent be required to contribute to graduate school?

Another interesting question will be whether an agreement to pay for graduate school at the time of the divorce, pre-statute will be enforced.
Recall also the New Jersey Rutgers University professor who was ordered to pay more than $112,000 for his daughter to attend Cornell Law School in 2014 because he had agreed to contribute in his divorce settlement agreement, but failed to place any cap on tuition.

The enforcement of agreements to contribute toward college is extensively addressed in Robert Epstein’s – Appellate Division Addresses Enforceability of Settlement Agreement as to College in New Published Decision – but it will be interesting to see if the same principles are applied when it comes to graduate school.

We will keep you posted as the case law is decided.
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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

In the recent case O’Hara v. Estate of John B. O’Hara, Jr., the Appellate Division reminded us that even though the death of a party to a marriage ends that marriage, it doesn’t always end the divorce.  In Carr v. Carr, 120 N.J. 330 (1990), our Court examined what happens in the event that a party dies mid-divorce – after the Complaint has been filed, but before the divorce is finalized.  You might think that when this happens, the case simply ends – after all, if one party passes away, what is the point of the divorce?

For better or worse, things aren’t so simple.  If a party passes away mid-divorce, then the intent to divorce and to no longer be married has been expressed.  If one party’s death mid-divorce would lead to unjust enrichment for either the deceased party’s estate or for the surviving spouse, the Court must see the divorce through.  Otherwise, the surviving party might be unjustly enriched; what if he or she were to inherit everything in the deceased spouse’s estate, when the deceased party may not have wanted that?  The converse could also be true.  What if the spouse had specifically been provided for in a will, despite the divorce, but the bequest affords the surviving spouse less than (s)he would have gotten in the divorce case?

That latter is the issue at the center of O’Hara, where, in the midst of the divorce matter, the husband passed away.  While the divorce was pending, but prior to his death, the husband executed a Last Will & Testament.  The Will left the wife without any property interest in the marital assets, but created a trust for her benefit and support.  The problem with this was that, in filing a Complaint for Divorce, the Wife had asserted her right to an equitable share of the marital assets.  The trial judge permitted her to see that through by amending her complaint to include a claim against the husband’s estate.  The Court concluded that  “[w]ithout allowing the matrimonial matter to proceed to determine the value of the parties’ assets and what is available per equitable distribution, it will never be clear whether [the wife] received everything under the trust to which she is entitled, via equitable distribution.”

 

division of property

The Appellate Division affirmed.  Skeptical of the husband, the Appellate Division found that the marital estate had to be valued, and the wife’s equitable interest had to be determined before it could be said that the benefits to the wife under the trust established by the husband did not deprive her of what she would have been entitled to under the divorce.  Therefore, the lower court’s decision to impose a constructive trust – to effectively freeze the estate – was upheld and despite the death of one of the parties, the divorce litigation set to continue.


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.

I recently came across an article, Getting Financially Naked with Your Partner, by Erin Lowry, that got me thinking about a question that is bound to arise more and more in this practice.  Millennials, as a generation, are beset by student loan debt at the highest levels in history.  As they start marrying and, as a corollary, divorcing, a common question they will ask is: what responsibility do I have when it comes to my husband’s / wife’s student loan debt?

 

student loan debt graphic

As with many issues, the answer will be fact specific.  It is well-settled law in New Jersey that any pre-marital assets or debts, and any passive growth of either the asset or the debt, are the separate property of the spouse who acquired the asset or the debt.  For example, Doug Debtor may have acquired $50,000 in student loan debt when he was in college, years before he met his wife.  In principle, if that debt still exists when Doug and his wife get divorced, he is going to be responsible for the entirety of it, including any interest on the debt that accrued while Doug and his wife were married.  Of course, the facts of any individual case may very well blur that bright line rule.  For example, maybe the parties lived together (though were not yet married) when the debt was incurred, and it was used to pay for living expenses.  In that case, an argument could be made that the non-debtor party should share in the debt – after all, s(he) benefited from the loan.

However, both parties will share in responsibility for debt incurred during the marriage – including student loan debt incurred by one of the parties for his or her education.  The idea here is that the parties as a united front made the decision to take on that debt and, hopefully, reap whatever benefits come with the spouse’s education; therefore, they are both responsible for the debt.

The set of facts raised in Lowry’s article present some interesting questions.  While the debt is pre-marital and was incurred apparently before the couple ever knew each other, the “deal” they make is that when they’re married, they will live off of Lowry’s income, and use her boyfriend’s income to pay off his student loan debt.  That is a fairly explicit declaration that, although he will be responsible for paying off the debt, she will be responsible for supporting him.  In New Jersey, such an arrangement in combination with other facts could be used to show that she was the supporting spouse during the marriage and that he is entitled to alimony in the event of their divorce – and what’s more, entitled to alimony in an amount that would allow him to continue devoting his entire income to paying off his student loan debt.

Certainly, it’s important to “get financially naked” with your husband or wife – after all, you need to be transparent with one another so you can financially plan for your future.  But in the event of a divorce, it’s also important to realize that the way you dealt with pre-marital student loan (or other) debt during your marriage may have an impact on the outcome of financial issues attendant to a divorce.


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.