General NJ Family Law News & Updates

At its elemental level, divorce is really all about division. Division of the union, division of the assets and division of the debt. It’s about taking whatever the parties put into the large marital pot and splitting it up between them. Sounds pretty simple – right? Well, not really.

For people with complex finances, the notion of dividing assets and debts, assessing lifestyle and arriving at a reasonable resolution can be a formidable task. While divorce lawyers are well qualified to deal with the division of assets or assessment of support, the question that are to be answered by forensic accountants are: What is that value to be divided? Where did the money go during the marriage? How much is at stake?

The above is true even in relatively amicable divorces; division of assets can prove to be a knotty mission with all sorts of complicating factors that an expert will need to untangle.

The following are the typical examples of when a forensic accountant may be helpful, useful and even necessary:

  1. Corporate Interest, Partnership or Sole Proprietorship: Many times, a divorce will involve a situation where one or both parties are business owners. The non-owner spouse is typically entitled to a portion of that business interest assuming it was acquired during the marriage. In many cases, this can be the largest marital asset to be divided between them and requires special expertise to make the assessment. In that case, a forensic accountant will need to sift through the books of the business to determine the standard of value and premise of value. This is complicated by the fact that the goodwill of the business, as well as other intangible assets, must be valued and divided between the parties. Such analysis required both objective data and subjective scrutiny based on the particulars of the business in question.
  2. Corporate Benefits: A forensic accountant will need to determine the value of vested and unvested portions of stock options, restricted stock units, performance shares, or the benefits from other long-term incentive plans. The forensic accountant will compile the relevant data and calculate the value of these assets using complex mathematical models and projections.
  3. Dissipation Claim: Sometimes, a spouse will make a claim that one party spent money on non-marital ventures. This could be related to an extramarital affair, gambling, etc. In that event, a forensic accountant will need to sift through bank statements to determine the amount that had been dissipated and the proper compensation to the non-dissipating spouse. The accountant will also need to assess the nature of the claim so that the appropriate analysis can be accomplished.
  4. Determination of Income: A tax return may tell only part of the story in terms of what a party’s income was during the marriage and will be moving forward. That is because a business owner experiences significant leeway in terms of deductions and the payment of personal expenses. A forensic accountant will need to examine the relevant financial data to see what should be “added back” to the income so that the parties can arrive at the true cash flow experienced during the marriage. This analysis is important when arriving at the value of a business interest as well as when you are assessing alimony, child support, or another financial obligation.
  5. Lifestyle & Spending: In New Jersey, the assessment of alimony and (sometimes) child support depends on how the parties lived during the marriage and how they spent their money. Such an analysis may require a thorough accounting of all expenditures during the marriage by each party over a period of several years. At the end, spreadsheets are generated with an analysis of spending and lifestyle that the parties use in arriving at the appropriate level of support.
  6. Tax Analysis: Tax issues arise in almost every divorce, big and small. If a property settlement or support award is not structured wisely, tax implications can arise for either or both parties. That is why it is crucial to seek the advice of an accountant, particularly with the new tax laws coming into effect in the near term.

As you can see, having a forensic accountant on your team may be invaluable as you navigate the complicated and, sometimes, adversarial, world of divorce. Only you and your attorney can decide how, when and why an expert forensic accountant may be necessary.

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Eliana T. Baer is a contributor to the New Jersey Family Legal Blog and a member of the Family Law Practice Group of Fox Rothschild LLP. Eliana practices in Fox Rothschild’s Princeton, New Jersey office and focuses her state-wide practice on representing clients on issues relating to divorce, equitable distribution, support, custody, adoption, domestic violence, premarital agreements and Appellate Practice. You can reach Eliana at (609) 895-3344, or etbaer@foxrothschild.com

Nobody wants to go to Court. In fact, you’ve probably spent your whole life doing everything not to go to Court. But you’re getting divorced. And now, it’s unavoidable. Hopefully, you’re working toward settling your case so that you only have to see the judge when he or she stamps your Final Judgment of Divorce. Hopefully, in a dispute that arises after the divorce, you can speak with your former spouse and reach a resolution.

But, that’s not always possible. Either one side is unreasonable or there is a complex legal or factual issue in your case that both parties see completely differently. Either way, the differences are irreconcilable and you end up before the trial court.

Now, you’re not unique. All family law matters are initially determined at the trial court level. A trial court judge will make a ruling based upon the litany of issues that are presented during your case.

If you feel that the judge “got it wrong” there are two higher courts in New Jersey that a party may seek an appeal from a final trial court order. There is an appeal as a matter of legal right to the New Jersey Appellate Division. A party dissatisfied with a decision of the Appellate Division may seek the appeal to be Certified and heard by the New Jersey Supreme Court. Certification is rare and reserved for only novel legal issues and other very specific circumstances.

While it may sound odd, cases are oftentimes tried with an eye toward the appellate division. That means, even if you’re not thinking of the possibility of appeal at the trial level, be sure that your lawyer is. The possibility of an erroneous legal decision or incorrect application of the law to the facts is always swirling around in our minds. We prepare for and try cases with the notion that we need to “make a record” just in case.

That’s because you have no chance of a successful appeal if you don’t check off all requirements at the trial court level. This requires your lawyer’s attention to a number of different issues, all while trying for a successful adjudication of your trial court issues as well.

For example, while you’re worried about the testimony you’re going to give, or what a witness will recount, your lawyer is thinking about more big picture procedural issues that could ultimately determine the success or failure of your appeal:

  1. Preserving issues: If you don’t raise it at the trial level, you waive it at the appellate level. Only in a limited number of circumstances will the appellate division hear a new issue that was not raised before the trial court.
  2. Objections: Your lawyer will need to make sure he/she putting everything you believe that the opposing party and the judge are doing incorrectly. You need to ensure that you have a record of the proceedings. Remember, if you don’t raise it, you waive it. This will also require the lawyer to be a bit pushy about getting rulings from the judge on the record.
  3. Appropriate motions: If you ultimately appeal on an evidentiary issue or other legal issue, your lawyer needs to have filed the appropriate motions in advance. For example, if you have a problematic expert report, you can’t go through the whole trial without ever having filed a motion in limine to exclude it. Or maybe there are documents you could have requested in advance that could have changed the trial court’s mind. The appellate division may question your lawyer as to why these things were not done and it may ultimately ruin your chances of a successful appeal.
  4. Presentation of a clear story: Your lawyer will need to have a theme of your case, to tell a complete story of exactly what happened during the trial court proceedings. Because there is no new evidence or facts presented on appeal, and the appellate division will never hear from the litigant through testimony or otherwise, your lawyer will need to synthesize all the details to humanize your issues.

So, if it feels like your lawyer is being over inclusive, he/she probably is, but you’ll be grateful later on that someone had the foresight to preserve your rights.

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Eliana T. Baer is a contributor to the New Jersey Family Legal Blog and a member of the Family Law Practice Group of Fox Rothschild LLP. Eliana practices in Fox Rothschild’s Princeton, New Jersey office and focuses her state-wide practice on representing clients on issues relating to divorce, equitable distribution, support, custody, adoption, domestic violence, premarital agreements and Appellate Practice. You can reach Eliana at (609) 895-3344, or etbaer@foxrothschild.com

When a trial court’s decision is published, we know it’s time to listen.   T.M. v. R.M.W. is a good reminder that definitions modernize with our modernizing society, even when dealing with terms and concepts that we use in our daily practice. In this case, the court opined about two integral parts of a domestic violence matter:

  1. Underlying relationship to qualify for a restraining order; specifically, the definition of “dating relationship”.
  2. Defending against the underlying act alleged in support of the restraining order; specifically, the affirmative defense of consent against assault and harassment allegations.

In T.M., the parties sporadically engaged in consensual “rough sex” over the course of eight years, with a three years hiatus.  Their encounters included hair pulling, slapping and choking. The parties did not have any ground rules, either verbally or in writing.

The plaintiff obtained a Temporary Restraining Order (“TRO”) two days after the defendant punched her with a closed fist during a consensual sexual encounter.  The parties continued having intercourse after the incident – for approximately 20 minutes as the plaintiff acknowledged.  What happened next is where their respective sides of the story begin to change.  In the initial complaint, the plaintiff claimed that when she told the defendant not to punch her again, he laughed it off and then punched her again during this encounter.  During testimony, the defendant claimed that they only had the discussion after the intercourse and he agreed to never punch her again before leaving her house, and he anticipated that they would continue with their relationship going forward.

Dating Relationship

Neither party defined their relationship as dating in the traditional sense during their testimony.  Additionally, the parties did not hold themselves out to the public as having a relationship. In fact, the defendant hid these encounters from his girlfriend and the only time that the defendant appeared at the plaintiff’s home uninvited was after the plaintiff told his girlfriend that the defendant cheated on her.

Utilizing the dating relationship factors defined in Andrews v. Rutherford, 363 N.J. Super. 252, 260 (Ch. Div. 2003), which we often take for granted when checking off that box on a restraining order, the court allocated the most weight to the length of their relationship, the intimacy involved and the catchall factor as to the uniqueness of their relationship.  Notably the court found:

For the courts to deny this plaintiff victim status could potentially been seen as morally judging a plaintiff who chooses not to engage in a relationship with ‘traditional’ and ‘observable’ indicia of dating.

Additionally, the court opined that a plaintiff enduring abuse in a secret relationship may be even more vulnerable than in a traditional dating relationship.  Thus, the plaintiff prevails on this prong.

Consent

This aspect of the case turned primarily on credibility to determine whether the plaintiff consented to the alleged punch, especially after both parties acknowledged consent for the slapping, hair pulling and choking that would have otherwise qualified as harassment by offensive touching and assault. Although the parties’ testimony differed about the conversation regarding the punch at the end of their encounter, they both acknowledged that they continued engaging in consensual sexual intercourse thereafter.

The court initially found that the plaintiff was credible, noting her candor about the parties’ relationship. However, the defendant became the more credible party after his testimony successfully disputed the plaintiff’s claims about a prior history of domestic violence, which did not exist,  the parties’ conversation after their sexual encounter that evening, and the second punch alleged in the plaintiff’s initial complaint. The court found the defendant so credible that it even repeated his term for the punch as a “tap on the jaw”, after reviewing the stipulated discharge instructions from the plaintiff’s visit to Urgent Care, pictures of the plaintiff’s face on the day of the incident and two days later, and noting that the plaintiff did not have any visible marks during the trial that occurred ten days after the incident.

Erring on the side of caution, the court determined that the issue of consent was a “close call” and analyzed the second prong of a domestic violence analysis, namely whether a Final Restraining Order is necessary. Again turning to credibility, the court determined that the FRO is not necessary to protect the plaintiff and that an FRO cannot be entered to protect the “general public” despite the plaintiff’s (unsubstantiated) claim that other women should be protected from the defendant.

Take-Away

While the plaintiff did not prevail on obtaining a FRO in this sound decision, she did prevail on making a mark in our legal system that traditional relationships are not the only ones requiring attention and protection.  Perhaps this will lead the way to a victim of domestic violence in a private, non-traditional relationship to come forward with his/her story and seek protection.


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

Going through a divorce is one of life’s greatest disruptions. Whether you are resistant to the divorce and it feels like a tragedy or you are initiating the divorce and it feels like an escape, there is no doubt that divorce creates a massive change in your family life, finances and day-to-day routine.  At its core, divorce is the process of going from “we” to “me” which can be daunting, exhilarating or something in between. Many clients going through a divorce ask: when can I start dating and how will it affect my divorce?  The answer is never black and white, as dating during a divorce can have its pros and cons.

people holding sign pros

  1. Dating is a much needed distraction during divorce

For all parties involved, the process of getting divorced is difficult. Divorce can turn your life upside down, add new stressors to an already hectic life and create a financial burden that wasn’t there before. Your spouse, the court (and yes, sometimes the lawyers) can at times be frustrating. It is perfectly normal to want to forget about your divorce and take a break from it, even if it’s just for an evening. Dating can be a much needed “vacation” from the reality of divorce.

Many divorcing couples do not go from marital bliss to divorce court overnight, and it may have been a while since you’ve had a positive romantic experience. Dressing up for a night on the town with an uncomplicated new partner is sometimes just what the doctor ordered. Spending time with a new, exciting person can be a wonderful distraction from the messy, tortured history of your marriage.  This breath of fresh air can give you the reprieve from the drama that you need to forge ahead in your divorce.

  1. Taking control of your dating life is empowering and can boost self esteem

Divorce can make a person feel unappreciated, undesired and out of control. Whether you did not want the divorce, or you don’t like a decision a judge has made, it can be unnerving to feel like you have a diminished say in what happens in your life. Dating can put you back in the driver’s seat of one area of your life, and provide some semblance of control. The positive benefits of a “clean slate” cannot be understated.  Stepping out with a new partner who finds you desirable and engaging, unburdened by the complications of parenting and finances that can come with a marriage, can work wonders for your mental health and sense of self-worth.  After long periods of battling with your spouse, it can be exceptionally refreshing to spend time with someone who is nice to you! Getting back in the game and feeling pursued and appreciated might be the ego boost you need to power through an unpleasant divorce.

  1. Embracing positivity can set the scene for a rational and amicable divorce

When you are in a bad place mentally, it is difficult not to make emotionally-charged decisions. Strategizing in a divorce based on emotions will position you and your spouse further away from resolution and, in the end, cost you more time and money.  While it may feel good to exact revenge or act out of spite, in the long term, it will likely only make your divorce that much more protracted and painful.

When you are in a good place mentally, you can more easily make decisions based on reason and practicality. You will feel less incentivized to hurt your spouse or be vindictive. In many cases, your approach to the divorce will shape your spouse’s attitudes, after all, no one wants to play the villain, but people are all too happy to take the gloves off when their spouse is already playing dirty. Dating may make you happier, which in turn, will enable you to approach your divorce with a level head and amicable attitude to create a more pleasant experience for all those involved.

holding sign cons

  1. Dating may fan the flames of acrimony between you and your spouse

While dating may make you happier, it might spur feelings of anger, jealousy or resentment in your spouse which will promote an ill-will in your divorce proceedings.  In this regard, you know your spouse best, and can gauge how they will react to you reentering the dating world. If you believe that dating again will cause your spouse to fly off the handle, be warned that it will likely lead to your spouse taking less reasonable positions and being more litigious in your divorce. In this sense, dating can backfire – as you are trying to move on with your life, your spouse may dig his or her heels in further, dragging out the divorce even longer as a result.

  1. Your kids might freak out

If you have children, you should give serious consideration to their thoughts and feelings before you start dating.  Without a doubt, your children’s lives will change drastically as a result of a divorce and they will likely mourn the loss of your family unit.  Do your children hold out hope that you and your spouse will reconcile? Have they (or are they old enough to) express their emotions about the divorce? Do they have the assistance of a family therapist or mental health professional to guide them through this process? All of these things must be considered before you throw another curveball into the family dynamic.

With regards to the legal implications of dating, how involved your new partner becomes with your children may have an effect on a custody battle between you and your spouse.  If custody experts are involved in your case, they will interview collateral contacts (including your new partner) as part of the evaluation and his or her past can affect the outcome of your case! A new partner with a criminal record, substance abuse or certain mental health issues can be a red flag for a custody evaluator (especially if they are around your children a lot) and may impact the custodial issues in your divorce.

  1. (Serious) dating might affect your spousal support

Most people who start dating after a divorce are in no rush for a big commitment, but some find it easier to cope with a divorce by jumping right back into a serious relationship.  You may lose your alimony if you are cohabiting with a partner in a marital-type relationship. Accordingly, you need to remain cognizant of how living with your new partner may affect the amount of alimony you receive in divorce or whether your ex-spouse can make an application to terminate alimony based on your cohabitation after divorce. It is important to note that this is a one-sided consequence. If you are paying alimony, feel free to date to your heart’s content – it won’t affect your obligation to pay your ex-spouse alimony.

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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.

Going through a divorce can be one of the most stressful and emotionally difficult experiences you will ever go through in your life.  Everything that you know is about to change in a dramatic way, and even getting started can be a daunting task.  After having recently blogged about who you can turn to when the divorce is over, here are five things to consider when preparing for the divorce process set (not surprisingly to those who know me) to some of my favorite Pearl Jam song titles and lyrics:

  1. The “Wishlist”:  When setting forth down the path of divorce, know what you are looking to walk away with when it is over.  Maybe you want to retain the marital home so that you can continue living the with the children, or perhaps your primary focus is on the children’s college education.  Maybe you are more generally focused on simply ensuring that you will be able to live some semblance of the lifestyle you once knew without worrying every single day about how you are going to pay your bills while trying to get back on your feet.  Lindsay Heller’s recent blog post about making your custody and parenting time wish list is also great place to start.  Knowing where you want to go and how you are going to get there on all issues will help focus you on what matters most in your divorce matter.
  2. “All that’s sacred comes from youth”:  Do what you can to ensure that the children’s best interests are protected and safeguarded from the outset of the divorce until its conclusion.  If there is no filed divorce action and you are attempting to privately resolve your divorce without an active litigation, consider talking with professionals (therapists, counselors and the like) to learn how best to parent your children during the divorce.  If there is a filed divorce action in the court system, not only should you still consider consulting with such professionals, but also you will be required to undergo New Jersey’s Parent’s Education Program, which, among other goals, is designed to help parents better understand what the children are and will be going through during a difficult time.
  3. Find the right “Fixer”:  The divorce process can be beyond overwhelming for countless reasons.  When searching for a divorce attorney, consider not just looking for someone who is experienced in family law.  Also consider retaining an attorney who you feel comfortable talking to.  Who you can trust.  Who you can confide in and discuss certain aspects of your life and your marriage that you may not ordinarily feel comfortable speaking about with anyone else.  Who is responsive and reliable.  Who can ultimately advocate for you in the way that you believe best serves your interests and those of your children.  Who will listen to you and be mindful of what you are looking to achieve.
  4. “Saw things so much clearer”:  Many financially dependent spouses have no idea what assets or liabilities make up the marital estate.  Perhaps the financially superior spouse always paid the household bills.  Perhaps all assets and accounts are only in that same spouse’s name.  All of a sudden you, as the dependent spouse, are tasked with figuring everything out so that you can simply determine what you may or may not be entitled to in the divorce.  Determining as early on in the process as possible what incomes, assets and liabilities exist will provide you and your divorce attorney with a clearer understanding of the picture that is your marital estate and how it should be distributed.  In so doing, it is best (if possible) to get together the financial documents underlying the incomes, assets and liabilities, such as income tax returns, account statements, bills and the like.
  5. “The waiting drove me mad”:  As I have previously blogged, patience in a divorce proceeding can be a tremendous virtue.  There are so many factors beyond your control that can delay the matter’s conclusion that you can easily and understandably become frustrated and more willing to surrender to an inequitable settlement.  As a result, it is best to concern yourself with what you can control.  As indicated above, get your information and documentation together for your divorce attorney.  Timely comply with court deadlines.  Present reasonable settlement positions and if settlement cannot happen, do what is necessary to prepare for trial.

Commencing the divorce process, let alone going through the process to conclusion, may feel like you are at the foot of a mountain without the equipment necessary to even begin scaling its face.  The process and all of the emotions that go along with it, however, will hopefully be made easier when taking the above detailed steps into consideration.

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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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*Photo by Lugnuts (talk) – I (Lugnuts (talk)) created this work entirely by myself. Photo from Pearl Jam show dated 17th August 2009., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24027300

33625628 – a couple of lawyers arguing a case in front of the judge

When you have to be in court, it can be a nerve-wracking experience.  As a lawyer, I frequently visit courthouses and judges statewide. But that’s me and not you! Here are some things to keep in mind for your appearance…

  1. Dress appropriately. Suiting is not required for litigants, but please do not show up in shorts and a golf shirt. Your attire shows respect to the formality and solemnity of the process.  Think business casual.
  2. Be on time! Except for the uncontrollable emergency or traffic delay, you should be there on time. Judges do not like to be kept waiting.
  3. Check your emotions at the door. This is not the time nor the place to let out that tirade you have been saving up.  Keeping your cool, if that means keeping your distance, is of the utmost importance.  Practice your poker face, deep breathing, and happy place – whatever will get you through.
  4. Do not bring an entourage. In some situations, one companion is acceptable.  Generally speaking, you need to face this on your own. Please, please, please do not bring a new significant other or the one person in your family that your spouse hates. This only exacerbates an already stressful situation.
  5. Do not bring your children. A courthouse is no place for children.  Especially when the visit has to do with their parents’ divorce.  Again, there are limited exceptions to this but unless you are told specifically by your attorney that you fall into one of those exceptions, do not do it.  If you have childcare issues, let your attorney know so they can coordinate.
  6. Pay attention. Everyone deals with stress differently.  Some people check out in stressful situations.  Try not to do this.  Listening to what the judge and attorneys have to say about your case is important.
  7. Ask questions. If you feel like you are missing something, do not be afraid to speak up.  A good attorney wants their client to understand and meaningfully partake in the process.
  8. Expect to be there all day. Unlike television, court is rarely a quick and neat visit.  In every county in New Jersey, judges, staff and court administration handle thousands of files.  Emergencies happen at the courthouse.  Things take longer than anticipated.  Interruptions happen.  You or your attorney cannot control these circumstances.  Plan for the worse and hope for the best!
  9. You might be left waiting alone. It is not uncommom for a judge to ask to speak to the attorneys alone in chambers.  There is no secret plotting happening behind closed doors.  Judges often use these meetings to help get a better feel for a case or to express some concern they have so that issues can be addressed efficiently and with sensitivity.  It can be a good thing for your counsel to have this opportunity to speak freely to the judge handling your case.
  10. You’ll likely have to come back. It is rare that you only have one court appearance in a family law matter.  There are several mandatory appearances in a litigated case.  Be prepared for these.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Kid counting money

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

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


Lindsay A. Heller is an associate in the firm’s Family Law practice, based in its Morristown, NJ office. You can reach Lindsay at 973.548.3318 or lheller@foxrothschild.com.

Lindsay A. Heller, Associate, Fox Rothschild LLP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Eric S. Solotoff, Partner, Fox Rothschild LLPEric Solotoff is the editor of the New Jersey Family Legal Blog and the Co-Chair of the Family Law Practice Group of Fox Rothschild LLP. Certified by the Supreme Court of New Jersey as a Matrimonial Lawyer and a Fellow of the American Academy of Matrimonial Attorneys, Eric is resident in Fox Rothschild’s Morristown, New Jersey office though he practices throughout New Jersey. You can reach Eric at (973) 994-7501, or esolotoff@foxrothschild.com.

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Clients often, if not always ask at the start of my representation how long the divorce process is going to take, and my answer is almost always the same – it depends.  No one wants to or enjoys going through a divorce, especially one that may last for months, if not longer than a year.  Having information as to when the divorce process will end or what may prolong its conclusion can be helpful to you in not only planning for the future (from both financial and child-related perspectives), but also in mentally preparing you for when you may be able to move on and move forward.

With that being said, here are four things that may impact upon the length (and cost) of your divorce proceeding:

  1. The Other Party:  If you and your spouse are on the same page in trying to move towards an expedient, fair and cost effective conclusion, then work together in achieving that goal.  Consider suggesting a settlement conference, mediation or even offering a settlement process early on in the process.  While the matter may not immediately settle, it may crystallize what issues are really in dispute, and what can be quickly resolved.  If, however, your spouse does not want to get divorced, or is, perhaps, having a difficult time in moving forward (or allowing you to do so), then the process may take far longer.  In addition, if your spouse engages in some form of misconduct during the divorce, motions may have to be filed, emotions often escalate and the process will often take longer than previously thought.
  2. The Other Attorney:  Who is the other lawyer?  Is he or she known for being reasonable and settlement minded, or aggressive at every turn?  Are there going to be genuine efforts to resolve the matter early on, or are you going to be litigating about every issue imaginable?  Unfortunately you cannot control who your spouse hires to act on his or her behalf, but the potential impact of who the other lawyer is on your case is oftentimes known and predictable at the outset of your matter.  At the very least, knowing who the other lawyer is and how he or she practices often allows you to set your expectations for how the entire matter may unfold.
  3. The Issues:  The duration of your divorce proceeding will also be impacted by the issues in dispute.  If you have a straightforward matter, with easily understandable and resolvable custody and financial issues, the matter should resolve sooner rather than later (depending, of course, on the other party, the other lawyer, and the county where your case is held).  A more complicated case, however, may take longer simply so that certain issues can necessarily be examined in more detail.  Perhaps there is a business to value, or a custody dispute requiring experts.  Engaging in what may be necessary expert work will take time, but oftentimes has to be done.
  4. The County:  Certain counties in New Jersey have more cases than others – it is as simple as that.  With a huge volume of matters and only so many judges working tirelessly to get through them, your case may not move as fast through the court system as you would like.  While the court system will ensure that you are moving forward and, at the very least, engaging in settlement efforts through mandated custody/parenting time mediation, the Early Settlement Panel, economic mediation and intensive settlement conferences, oftentimes the length of your proceeding can be impacted simply based on the volume of the court’s calendar.

The above considerations are all the more reason to consider alternative dispute resolution methods in an effort to get your matter resolved.  Settlement conferences, mediation, and even arbitration may expedite the conclusion of your matter in a more cost effective fashion.  Moving on and moving forward may take time, but knowing what may stand in your way is important to providing you with some sense of when it is going to end and, perhaps, some peace of mind.

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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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A judge’s favorite line when custody is an issue is some variation of the following: No one is better equipped to make decisions about your children than their two parents, and certainly not the judge who does not know your family from the next family in line.  They are not wrong, and they will do whatever they can to have parents even in the most acrimonious of cases resolve custody issues to avoid tens of thousands of dollars, and months upon months, on custody evaluations and a custody trial.  Of course this is not always possible, but the requirements for alternative dispute resolution start almost at day one after filing the divorce complaint.

Whether you are married and commencing the divorce process (dissolution docket), share a child in common but have never been married, or are simply seeking to enter a custody arrangement but not get divorced (non-dissolution docket), the Court Rules require that parents attend Custody and Parenting Time Mediation at the outset of litigation.  This is a free session held at the courthouse, without attorneys present, during which a courthouse mediator assists parents in reaching an agreed upon custody arrangement and parenting time schedule.  If successful, the mediator will draft an order for review.  Even when the court is not involved, counsel will often attempt to resolve custody and parenting time issues prior to finances. This prioritization is designed to ensure that your children are not stuck wondering which parent they will be with at what time, and the parents are not incentivized to get a child on his/her side.  The schedule also helps the parents understand what free time they have and/or how they may be able to manage their work schedule.

The agreement, order or judgment fixing custody and parenting time is generally the most important document entered in your matter – it provides guidelines to live by for years until the emancipation of your children, absent any substantial change in circumstances along the way.  Given its importance, the agreement, order or judgment should hit all the points that are essential to you… this can save you future head and heartaches for having to return to court or other forms of dispute resolution over aspects that may be missed.   They say that when an agreement is reached, each party will be a little happy and a little sad – that’s the nature of compromise – but the feeling you want to avoid is “oops… forgot about that” (especially when you do not have a co-parent who will readily amend the agreement)!

When our clients are preparing to resolve custody, whether in private or court ordered mediation, we prepare them with a Custody and Parenting Time Plan – essentially their wish lists.  This plan is designed to remind clients what they want to address, rather than have a cookie cutter agreement or order prepared.  Some courts require the submission of this plan prior to the mandatory mediation session, but not all do.

Whether you are attempting to resolve these issues in the above-described mediation session, or simply with your co-parent via discussion, with attorneys, in private mediation, etc., or even as part of a global divorce resolution, here is a checklist that we recommend you review before creating your wish list:

  • Legal custody with time periods for joint decisions. Legal custody is decision making authority about your child(ren)’s education, health, safety and general welfare.  In most cases, this is a joint decision making authority.  Consider including the requirement to discuss such issues with each other and even a time period by which the parents have to advise each other of new developments, and when responses are due for certain requests, i.e.: making a medical appointment or enrollment in a desired activity.  The sharing of such expenses are generally dealt with in the final divorce agreement or judgment.  Always consider adding into the agreement requirements for mutual respect, cooperation with facilitating the schedule and the child(ren)’s love for the other parent, and restraints on involving your child(ren) in the litigation.
  • Commencement date for the parenting time schedule selected. Here, consider being clear as to the commencement date depending on the case.  If the schedule is, for example, alternating weekends and then each parent has two days during the week, consider not just adding the date of the first weekend.  This can lead to confusion as to when the weekdays start if the agreement is reached mid-week.  If you are silent on when the schedule commences, then the default will be the date of the agreement.
  • Location for pick up and drop off. This will also help define who does the driving – an important issue in recent a blog post by Sandra C. Fava, Esq., just last week.  More and more we are seeing and creating schedules with pick up and drop off at the child’s school, camp and/or extracurricular activity.  This will not always be the case as some alternating weekend schedules end on Sunday instead of Monday, some parents do not have any weeknight overnights, etc.  This leads to the next point…
  • …Alternate location when the initial location is not available. For example, if pick up is at school, camp and/or extracurricular activity, build in the location for when such events are not in session.
  • Time for pick up and drop off… In some cases, consider being specific on what time the other parent is expected to arrive and/or drop off your child(ren). You can even build in a provision about being late if you are dealing with a co-parent who often is, such as a required text message when either parent is going to be more than X minutes late.
  • You guessed it – add in the alternate time if the event is not in session (i.e.: pick up after school or 3 p.m. when school is not in session). Seems simple but the alternates are easy to forget and can lead to stressful situations!
  • Driving to activities and appointments. Consider including a provision indicating that the parent exercising parenting time is required to drive the child(ren) to/from any and all activities and appointments held during such time.  It doesn’t hurt to consider including that each parent can attend such appointments and activities regardless of the parenting time schedule.  This may differ in certain circumstances and acrimony level.  You can even build in who sits on home/away bleachers.
  • Right of first refusal, meaning when the parent scheduled to exercise parenting time is not available for a defined period (i.e.: certain number of hours or overnight), then the other parent has the “first right” to have that time with their child. A third party cannot be contacted to “babysit” unless the other parent does not elect to use such right to the time.  Here, consider building in time periods required for the parent to offer this right, and the other parent to respond.
  • Holiday schedule. Sometimes this schedule will be an addendum added at a later date if you cannot agree at the time that you agree upon the regular schedule.  However, if you can make the first agreement all-inclusive, you will not have to revisit the issue.  You want to include the location and times for pick up and drop off here, as well.
  • Defined amount of vacation parenting time. The amount of time usually depends upon the child(ren)’s age(s), but also consider including whether the weeks can be consecutive.  Other options include adding a time period under which you have to provide notice to the other parent of your desired weeks for vacation time, priority on who selects the time first each year, language regarding taking the children out of the state or country, passport-related cooperation, and even whether vacation has to even include one parent traveling for it to actually be considered vacation parenting time.
  • Alternate arrangements when the schedule results in one parent having three consecutive weekends. Typically, holiday and vacation parenting time will trump regular parenting time, but it is something to discuss if it is what you want.  If it’s on your wish list, include a provision indicating that neither parent shall have three consecutive weekends and, if the holiday/vacation time would result in such a schedule, then the first or last weekend of the block will be switched so that each parent has two weekends in a row.  This avoids having to “re-alternate” weekends thereafter.
  • Amount of contact that each parent has with the child(ren) when the other parent is exercising parenting time (i.e.: telephone, Skype, FaceTime, etc.). Depending upon your child(ren)’s age, this may just be reasonable time as desired.   However, if you are concerned about having your time usurped by the other parent continually contacting your child(ren) during your time, you may want to include a once or twice per day allotment.  If your child is too young to use the device alone and you need to coordinate the contact, then you should consider building in a time, such as morning and evening if that works for everyone’s schedule… Again, build in what happens when the agreed upon time is unavailable on a given day.
  • Radius clause. This can be a tricky one. Custody and parenting time in New Jersey is always modifiable because it is based upon the best interests of your children and that may differ over time with a substantial change in circumstances.   Often, these schedules are reached when everyone is still local to each other or even under the same roof, but that may not always be the case.  It’s important to consider how moving a certain distance away from the other parent may impact your child(ren)’s best interests. In other words, how far is too far?  That’s a personal question, considering many factors, including the age of the child(ren) and frequency of parenting time transfers.  For example, if you share equal parenting time with pick up and drop off at school, then what is the maximum commute your child(ren) should have on a school day?  How will this impact activities after school or even a job?

In the recent unpublished decision of B.G. v. E.G., the Appellate Division vacated a provision within the trial court’s Order requiring the parents to live within fifteen miles of each other.  The case was unique case in that one parent was designated as the parent of primary residence (“PPR”) for two children and the other parent was designated as PPR for their third child.

The radius clause was entered following a divorce trial during which a custody expert testified that the parties should live within thirty minutes of each other because “it would be ‘optimal if the children did not change their friends, their locations, their habits.’”  Pursuant to the decision, the court also considered their children’s testimony,  daily exposure to both parents and extensive time the parents spent with their children.  In vacating the radius clause, the Appellate Division opined that the geographic location was not supported by substantial credible evidence.  Specifically, it was based only on the expert’s subjective opinion – no testimony was offered about geographic location, there was no finding that such limitation was in the children’s best interests, and other methods of maintaining contact were not explored.  Notably, the Appellate Division specifically opined that a radius clause did not restrict the objecting parent’s “right to travel” by way of a constitutional law argument.  Given that the objecting parent did not present other constitutional arguments, the Appellate Division did not further delve into the constitutionality of the radius clause.

Thus, the decision infers that although the radius clause here was not supported by enough evidence presented at trial, a radius clause in another matter can be upheld as constitutionally valid if the constitutional argument presented is a restriction on the right to travel.  However, perhaps another constitutional argument may prevail.  I would not be surprised if this issue arises again with more and more shared parenting time arrangements that require a closer geographic proximity… keep an eye out!

So, what is the takeaway?  Keep this checklist for your wish list… from decision making authority to the location that works best for the schedule, there is a lot to think about.  It is natural to forget a few things when you are in a mediation session, having a conversation or even preparing for litigation.  Make your wish list.  Save your wish list.  Craft your wish list to fit your family if the cookie cutter case is not for you.  After all, you are creating this guideline to save yourself time, money and stress in the future… why not ask for what you want?


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