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Signed into law on January 19, 2016, New Jersey’s emancipation law is set to take effect on February 1, 2017 and will apply to all child support orders issued prior to or after its effective date.

37774117 - definition of word emancipation in dictionary

One of the highlights of the new law is that it will dramatically impact when and how child support orders will terminate. Specifically, it provides that unless otherwise indicated in a court order or judgment, the obligation to pay child support shall terminate without order on the date a child marries, dies or enters into military service.

Child support will also terminate automatically when a child reaches 19 years of age unless (a) another age for such termination is specified in a court order, which shall not extend beyond the date the child reaches 23 years of age; (b) a written request seeking the continuation of child support is submitted to the court by a custodial parent prior to the child reaching the age of 19; or (c) the child receiving support is in an out of home placement through the Division of child Protection and Permanency in the Department of Children and Families.

Just ahead of the effective date of the statute, Judge Jones issued an opinion on the effect of one child’s emancipation in Harrington v. Harrington. In Harrington, the parties divorced in 2012. The parties have three children, all of whom were unemancipated at the time of the divorce. As such, the parties’ settlement agreement provided that the father would pay the mother the sum of $240 per week in child support for all three children. In what would become a decisive fact in the case for Judge Jones, he noted that the child support was unallocated, rather than broken down or allocated into specific dollar amounts for each child – either on a one-third per child basis or otherwise.

Following the divorce, the father paid child support as agreed without requesting an modifications, even when their oldest child began college. In September, 2014 the parties mutually agreed to emancipate their two oldest children. Two orders were entered confirming the emancipation, but the amount of child support that the father paid remained the same. Further, neither party submitted or exchanged updated financial information or filed any motion.
In June, 2015, the last remaining unemancipated child graduated high school and decided not to proceed to college. The father continued to pay $240 per week in child support nonetheless, without any objection by either party.

In February, 2016, a year-and-a-half after the first two children were emancipated, the father filed a motion for the retroactive allocation of child support to $80 per child, and downward modification of one-third per emancipated child, effective September, 2104. He also sought to emancipate the youngest child and terminate his obligation. The mother consented to the emancipation of the youngest child, but opposed the retroactive modification that the father sought.
With regard to the issue of retroactive emancipation, the Court initially grappled with which law to apply in this situation: should it apply the anti-retroactivity statute which prohibits the retroactive modification of unallocated child support, or does the case law with regard to retroactive emancipation apply?

In reaching its decision, the Court devised a set of equitable factors that should be examined:

1) How much time has passed between the date of one child’s emancipation and the filing date of the obligor’s present motion for retroactive modification of unallocated child support for the remaining unemancipated child or children?

2) What are the specific reasons for any delay by the obligor in filing a motion to review support based upon emancipation?

3) Did the non-custodial parent continue to pay the same level of child support to the obligee, either by agreement or acquiescence, and of his or her own decision and free will, even after he/she could have filed a motion for emancipation at a prior point in time?

4) Did the custodial parent or child engage in any fraud or misrepresentation that caused the obligor’s delay in filing a motion for emancipation and support modification motion?

5) If the non-custodial parent alleges that the custodial parent failed to communicate facts that would have led to emancipation and modification of support at an earlier date, could the non-custodial parent have nonetheless otherwise easily obtained such information with a reasonable degree of parental diligence and inquiry?

6) If the obligor’s child support obligation was unallocated between multiple unemancipated children of the parties, will a proposed retroactive modification of child support over a lengthy period of time be unduly cumbersome and complicated, so as to call into question the accuracy and reliability of the process and result?

7) Did the custodial parent previously refrain from seeking to enforce or validly increase other financial obligations of the non-custodial parent, such as college contribution for any remaining unemancipated child, because during such time period, the non-custodial parent continued to maintain the same level of unallocated child support without seeking a decrease or other modification?

8) Is the non-custodial parent seeking only a credit against unpaid arrears, or rather an actual return of child support already paid to, and used by, the custodial parent toward the financial expenses of the child living in the custodial parent’s home?

9) If the non-custodial parent seeks an actual return of money previously paid to the custodial parent, what is the estimated dollar amount of child support that the non- custodial parent seeks to receive back from the custodial parent, and will such amount likely cause an inequitable financial hardship to the custodial parent who previously received such funds in good faith?

10) Are there any other factors the court deems relevant to the analysis?

In applying the above factors to the present case, the Court considered the following factors: nearly a year and a half passed between the effective date of the emancipation for the older two children and the filing of the father’s motion; there was no reason provided to explain the delay in filing; during that period, the father continued to pay the same level of child support to the mother; there was no evidence submitted that the mother or the children engaged in any type of fraud; the mother and children communicated facts that would have led to a modification of support; and, a retroactive modification of support to 2014 may be unduly complicated given the fact that no financial information was submitted for the period of time in question – 2014-2016.

The Court noted that a hearing should to be scheduled to examine these factors and weigh the comparative equities to determine whether to exercise its discretion and retroactively modify unallocated child support prior to the motion filing date, based upon a prior emancipation of one or more children. However, the Court was somber in its knowledge that this would not be an easy task – i.e. to recreate what child support *might* have looked like over a two year period of time.
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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.

In law school, lawyers begin to be engrained with the concept of ethical duty of zealous advocacy.  While this concept used to be in the Rules of Professional Conduct, over time, it has been removed.  It has even been largely removed from the ABA’s Model Rules, upon which many State’s rules have been based upon, other than in statements in the Preamble that say, “As advocate, a lawyer zealously asserts the client’s position under the rules of the adversary system” and:

In the nature of law practice, however, conflicting responsibilities are encountered. Virtually all difficult ethical problems arise from conflict between a lawyer’s responsibilities to clients, to the legal system and to the lawyer’s own interest in remaining an ethical person while earning a satisfactory living. The Rules of Professional Conduct often prescribe terms for resolving such conflicts. Within the framework of these Rules, however, many difficult issues of professional discretion can arise. Such issues must be resolved through the exercise of sensitive professional and moral judgment guided by the basic principles underlying the Rules. These principles include the lawyer’s obligation zealously to protect and pursue a client’s legitimate interests, within the bounds of the law, while maintaining a professional, courteous and civil attitude toward all persons involved in the legal system. (Emphasis added).

22610764 - advocacy - business background. golden compass needle on a black field pointing to the word "advocacy". 3d render.

Nevertheless, time and again you hear the refrain, in defense of an aggressive if not improper action, position, etc. that “I was only being a zealous advocate.”  However, assuming for arguments sake, that the duty of zealous advocacy exists in either some express or implied way, there certainly seems to be a difference between zealous advocacy and overzealous advocacy.  While the former may be appropriate, the latter is often not.  Moreover, it can be very costly, both financially and emotionally for the parties.

In a recent matter, I have seen an attorney send subpoena after subpoena seeking records, that if obtained, would add nothing to her client’s case.  In some instances, it is more than a fishing expedition or seeking a needle in a haystack, as even if the records were produced, no matter what they said, they would have no probative value in the case.  Moreover, when the subpoenas were not responded to or not responded to the their liking, threats of contempt followed.  Even the seemingly appropriate subpoenas seem needless given that a third party with much greater resources had already done an investigation.  There is one thing about leaving no stone unturned when there is a possibility that the due diligence will be fruitful, and quite another when it is a clear waste of time and money, if not harassment of third parties, from the start.  In that case, the “my client just wants to be sure” defense may not really cut it.

What about the lawyer that lies to further their client’s interests.  I have previously done a blog entitled The Lawyer The Liar which discussed this improper practice.

How about taking and litigating a position that is either contrary to the law, contrary to the facts, or both, and refusing to give it up notwithstanding.  I have seen lawyers push these issues because their client wanted to, because they figured they could make money and/or they figured they would wear the other side down and force them to capitulate to be done.   There are many other examples that I am sure my colleagues can add about examples of overzealous advocacy.

When the offender is called on these tactics, they hide behind the “zealous advocacy” shield. The question to ponder is what is a court to do when zealous advocacy crosses the line to overzealous advocacy.  Whether or not this rises to an ethical issue, will a court make the other party whole or at least put a stop to it?  If not, are we not rewarding pushing the envelope?


 

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

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Cersei Lannister may seem like she has it all: unbridled brutality, a mountain of a protector, disfavor in the Realm and a growing list of enemies she’s collected along the way. After all, she’s just destroyed her enemies in one fell swoop as she blew up the Great Sept of Baelor. Although Cersei seemed to have finally served her sweet revenge, she comes to discover that bittersweet aftertaste that just won’t quit.

Cersei soon found out that the fleeting rush she got from all the carnage and destruction (just a few of her favorite things) gave way to a mixed bag of emotions; on the one hand she finally got her seat on the Iron Throne, but on the other hand, she had lost all of her children in the process.

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HBO.com

Apparently, Cersei’s conflicted feelings on the subject of revenge are not unique to her.
A recent study in the upcoming edition of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that the emotional consequences of revenge “are a mixed bag, in that we feel both good and bad when we take revenge on another party.”

Take the good: we love revenge because we punish the offending party. Apparently, the brain areas in charge of making crime and punishment judgments overlap with areas that process reward, which explains the pleasure in punishment/ revenge.

But then there’s the bad: it reminds us of the original act. To put that kind of pain it in context, think about the revenge your stomach exacts the morning after you eat an entire pizza. We’ve all been there.

In fact, just ask anyone who has slashed their cheating ex’s tires. Or take the story recounted by Marylin Stowe, one of England’s top divorce lawyers: Lady Graham Moon has gone down in English family law history for acting like a milkman, except that she was delivering to her neighbors the contents of her estranged husband’s valuable wine cellar.

The act of revenge may feel good in the moment, but soon thereafter, people are reminded of how they felt to have evoked the desire for revenge to begin with.

The stakes become even higher when that cheating ex and you share children together. Indeed, the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology study found that feelings of revenge support endless cycles of retribution that may emerge in the context of conflicts between families. And we all know how that can turn out for parents and children alike.

So take a page out of the book of Cersei, the Queen of Family Dysfunction, and now, the Seven Kingdoms. She should have listed to Mark Twain who said: “Therein lies the defect of revenge: it’s all in the anticipation; the thing itself is a pain, not a pleasure; at least the pain is the biggest end of it.”
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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.

Recently, the New Jersey Supreme Court provided some important clarification with regard to the issue of firearm forfeiture in the wake of an arrest and firearm seizure pursuant to the New Jersey Prevention of Domestic Violence Act (NJPDVA), N.J.S.A. 2C:25-17 to 35.  In In the Matter of the Application of New Jersey for the Forfeiture of Personal Weapons and Firearms Identification Card Belonging to F.M., the Supreme Court squarely addressed the following important question:  Under what circumstances can a personal firearm and firearms purchaser identification card seized pursuant to the NJPDVA be forfeited pursuant to the firearms forfeiture statute N.J.S.A. 2C:58-3(c)(5)?

The Facts & Evidence

The firearm owner at the center of this case – “F.M.” – was involved in a Domestic Violence proceeding in March 2010, wherein he was named defendant.  As a result of the domestic violence incident, F.M.’s personal firearm and identification card were confiscated by the police.  In addition to the domestic violence proceedings, F.M. was charged with simple assault.  Notably, F.M. himself worked as a police officer and, therefore, had not only a personal weapon but also a service weapon.  At a hearing to determine whether a Final Restraining Order should be entered against F.M. for the protection of his wife, the Court decided against the entry of same and dismissed the case against F.M.

Although one might think that, upon dismissal of an FRO, any weapons seized in connection with the restraining order are automatically returned to the defendant, this is not always the case.  The State may move to forfeit a personal weapon and identification card under N.J.S.A. 2C:58-3(c)(5) even if the domestic violence case under which the weapons were initially seized is dismissed.  This is precisely what the State did in the instant case.  Reserving on the State’s motion, the trial court judge noted that the court would issue a decision on the final disposition of F.M.’s personal and service weapons after he completed a batterer-intervention program and attended individual counseling.  F.M. did so, and subsequently filed a motion seeking the return of his personal weapon, the weapon at issue in this matter.

The State opposed F.M.’s motion, arguing that the return of F.M.’s personal firearm and identification card would not be in the interest of the public health, safety, or welfare.  To make out its case, the State relied upon the testimony of F.M.’s wife, who testified as to F.M’s history of violence against her, as well as the arresting office who responded to the March 2010 incident and confiscated F.M.’s personal firearm and identification card.  Interestingly, the State also relied upon the testimony of two licensed psychologists who had previously performed Fitness for Duty (FFD) evaluations on F.M., and had interviewed F.M.’s wife in connection with same.  Although their evaluations were directly applicable to the issue of F.M.’s service weapons, their testimony was permitted to address the issue of forfeiture of his personal weapon as well.  One of the psychologists had concluded that F.M. was not fit for full duty and recommended that he be disarmed because he was a “danger [] to himself or others.”  The other psychologist concluded that, although he couldn’t be classified as having a personality disorder, F.M. exhibited elements of various personality disorders that negatively impacted his ability to effectively serve as a police officer; he concluded that F.M. suffered from “a nearly paranoid sense that everyone was out to get him, poor impulse control, poor anger control, and poor judgment.”  He also stated that he believed the public would be endangered if F.M. continued to serve as an armed police officer and that F.M was not fit for duty.

The Path to the N.J. Supreme Court

Largely because there were no findings of clinical mental illness or personality disorder – but rather only elements of same, or what the trial court judge called “subclinical personality styles and tendencies” – the trial judge ordered the return of the personal weapon and identification card.  Interestingly, the Court rejected the psychologists’ conclusions as to the credibility of F.M.’s wife, because the judge him or herself had had more “exposure” to the altercations between F.M. and his wife as the Family Part Judge handling their domestic violence proceedings. The Family Part judge also seems to have concluded that F.M.’s wife had played a part in instigating the dispute that led to the seizure of the weapon, and that there was no prior instance during which F.M. had actually used a gun to harm anyone.  The Appellate Division largely agreed with the Family Part judge’s analysis and findings, noting that deference is accorded to Family Part judges given their intimate involvement with the facts of family part cases.  The State then appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that the Family Part judge had misapplied the law.

The N.J. Supreme Court Decision

The N.J. Supreme Court agreed with the State as to its contention that the Family Part judge had misapplied the law and, in according the Family Part deference, the Appellate Division had erred.  In making its decision, the Court looked to the applicable statute which describes who may obtain a personal firearm and identification card, N.J.S.A. 2C:58-3(c), which states:

No person of good character and good repute in the community in which he lives, and who is not subject to any of the disabilities set forth in this section or other sections of this chapter, shall be denied a permit to purchase a handgun or a firearms purchaser identification card, except as hereinafter set forth.

The statute goes on to list 10 “disqualifiers” for purchase of a personal weapon and issuance of a firearms purchaser identification card, including:

(1)  To any person who has been convicted of any crime, or a disorderly persons offense involving an act of domestic violence as defined in section 3 of P.L. 1991, c.261 (C.2C:25-19), whether or not armed with or possessing a weapon at the time of such offense; [. . .](5) To any person where the issuance would not be in the interest of the public health, safety, or welfare; [. . .].

Relying on prior decisions, the Court noted that, in order to forfeit a weapon under subpart five (5) of the statute, the State only had to prove by a preponderance of the evidence (a lower evidentiary standard equating to “more likely than not”) that an individual’s possession of a firearm would be against the public health, safety, or welfare.  The purpose of the low evidentiary standard is, perhaps obviously, “to prevent firearms from coming into the hands of persons likely to pose a danger to the public.”

Contrary to the holding in the lower courts, the Supreme Court found that the  testimony of F.M.’s wife, the responding officer, and the psychologists – despite their lack of finding a clinical mental illness or personality disorder – suggested that F.M.’s possession of a firearm would indeed more likely than not pose a danger to the public.

Takeaways for the Family Law Practitioner

Those of us who practice family law are well versed in the precedential law that says that the Appellate Division and Supreme Court accord great deference to Family Part Judges.  In this case, however, the Supreme Court reminded us that, although such deference is given to Family Part judges as to the facts of a case, a judge’s legal determinations are of course not immune to review by the higher courts.  A Family Part judge may have a greater “feel” for the case given its familiarity with the parties and issues, but – and perhaps this is stating the obvious – that doesn’t mean their application of the law to the facts must be given deference on appeal.  In this case, the Family Part overlooked the plain language of the statute and appropriate evidentiary standard, and instead made its own justifications for returning the personal weapon and identification card to the defendant.

For those involved in domestic violence matters, this case also serves as a reminder that weapons forfeiture under that statute is black-and-white when an FRO is entered.  If a final restraining order is entered, under subpart (1) of N.J.S.A. 2C:58-3(c), the defendant’s firearm and identification card will be forfeited, something that must be taken into consideration if you are representing a defendant who is a licensed firearm owner.

And yet, if the domestic violence case is dismissed, the issue becomes more gray.  Even if the domestic violence matter that led to the initial confiscation of a firearm and ID card is dismissed against a firearm-owning defendant, the case discussed here makes clear that weapons can still be forfeited if there is credible testimony showing by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant may be a danger to the public.  Notably, the outcome here also shows that, even if a plaintiff’s testimony in his or her domestic violence matter is insufficient to sustain the entry of a restraining order under the NJPDVA, his or her testimony may be used to prove that the defendant’s firearm and identification card should be forfeited on other grounds.

Whether you represent the party pursuing a restraining order or defending against one, this is important knowledge to have when dealing with a firearm-owning client or adverse party in a domestic violence matter.


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’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.

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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.

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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.

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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

Family law practitioners know that in this area of practice, perhaps more so than in any other practice, hearsay statements are often an important part of motions brought before the trial court for every kind of relief imaginable.  A hearsay statement is a statement made outside of the court that is offered for the truth of the matter asserted.  Unless one of many exceptions apply, hearsay statements are inadmissible.  For example, if mom in her certification filed with a motion asking the court to address parenting time includes statements from the parties’ daughter that mom is asking the court to consider as truth, the daughter’s statements constitute inadmissible hearsay.  In other words, the court should not consider the daughter’s statements when rendering its decision.

Evidence pic

As we have frequently written, however, oftentimes anything goes in family law.  Hearsay statements are commonly no exception.  I have heard many times from Family Part trial judges that the rules of evidence will often be relaxed, including the hearsay rule, especially when issues of custody and parenting time are before the court to ensure that the best interests of the child are fulfilled.  It is for that reason why practitioners and litigants often put whatever they can before the trial court to convince the judge to rule in his or her favor.

In Arrowood v. DiBenedetto, a recently unpublished (not precedential) Appellate Division decision, the Court addressed the trial court’s rejection of various hearsay statements from the subject child provided by mom in denying mom’s motion to terminate overnight parenting time with dad because he continued to smoke in the child’s presence against doctor’s orders.  Addressing mom’s application, the Court noted:

What we glean from the record provided is defendant’s most recent motion relied on her daughter’s hearsay statements and a certification from [dad], the content of which is not before us. A trial court generally does not abuse its discretion by not relying on hearsay statements, because there is always a question about the exact content of such statements, especially when they are recounted by a party with an interest of the outcome of a decision. The law controlling the presentation of evidence in our courts excludes hearsay in numerous contexts. We certainly cannot conclude from the scant record before us that the trial court here abused its discretion by not imposing the drastic sanction of terminating parenting time based on hearsay.

Notably, however, the Court suggested that there still may not have been an abuse of discretion had the trial court considered the subject hearsay statements, especially since the matter involved the subject child’s health:

That is not to say we are insensitive to either defendant’s arguments or her frustration. Although she has not provided us with the transcripts or the statement of reasons for the court’s previous orders, at least one order appears to have been based on her firsthand observation. Notions of fairness and confidence in our system of justice often dictate that a court enforce its orders. That would appear to be especially so when a child’s health is at issue. But enforcement motions generally present competing versions of events and often require courts to balance profound competing interests. That is particularly so in family matters involving children and parental rights. That is also why Family Part judges are vested with broad discretion, and why we review their discretionary decisions with deference. Here, the record does not establish such an abuse of discretion.

So what is the takeaway here.  Sometimes the Rules of Evidence apply and sometimes they do not, although there is no specific rule indicating that the evidence rules should not always apply.  In practice, it depends on the factual circumstances, the litigants, the trial judge, and the like.  Especially when a child is at the center of the dispute, as opposed to more straightforward financial issues, a court is more likely to stretch its discretionary muscles to protect the child’s best interests above all else.

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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 freedigitalphotos.net

Too often in family law practice, the discovery process by which one litigant is supposed to procure information from the other litigant becomes a frustrating and costly game where the non-compliant party hopes that the other party will simply give up rather than continue the chase down the rabbit hole of information.  Long-term readers of this blog may, in fact, remember Eric Solotoff’s post about the Discovery Dance, where parties can, in fact, “dance if they want to and leave their friends behind”.  Information is deliberately withheld, or incomplete, or ignored, etc.   As opposed to standard civil litigation, however, it often seems that a non-compliant litigant does not pay the price for such misconduct.  While perhaps this simply goes along with family law’s often mis-characterized “Wild West” reputation, what is one party who simply can’t get information from the other party to do when discovery motions are commonly frowned upon as a waste of the court’s limited resources?

Hide and seek

This is especially true in cases where one party seeks to modify an alimony or child support obligation.  Trying to get the full financial picture, especially from the party seeking the modification, is often the most difficult challenge of litigating such a matter.  It often becomes even more difficult in cases where either party is remarried and the new spouse has assets, income and the like that the remarried litigant does everything he or she can to shield from the court’s consideration.  This becomes a problem when one party is, perhaps, providing the new spouse with money to hold in a separate account, or the house is solely in the new spouse’s name, and the like.  In other words, the financial picture can be manipulated a dozen different ways and roadblocks structured so that the court never has all of the relevant facts and circumstances upon which to render a determination.

In Null v. Null, a recently unpublished (not precedential) decision from the Appellate Division, an ex-husband’s application seeking a termination of his alimony obligation was dismissed – with prejudice – because of his repeated refusals to comply with discovery requests and related court orders.  Here is a brief recitation of the relevant facts:

  • After a lengthy post-judgment procedural history wherein the payor sought to terminate his alimony obligation, the court – in November 2010 – found that he had made an initial showing of “changed circumstances” sufficient to warrant a plenary hearing on his motion to reduce alimony.  Notably, payee claimed that payor had entirely stopped making alimony payments at that point.
  • The judge directed that payor produce certain forms of discovery including, but not limited to, his current wife’s most recent three pay stubs.  Payor objected, moving to bar discovery of his new wife’s assets.  The motion was denied because payor was claiming to be employed by a business owned by new wife, and payee claimed that payor had placed businesses and assets he owned in new wife’s name.
  • Payor subsequently moved again to block discovery of his new wife’s financial information and was denied.  Payor was ordered to pay counsel fees – the first of many consequences to the payor for his misconduct.  New wife was also ordered to sit for her deposition.
  • At her deposition, new wife failed to produce tax returns or pay stubs as previously ordered.  She also failed to produce documents relating to the dry cleaning business payee claimed was owned by her.
  • With scheduled trial dates having come and gone, and payor still having failed to comply with discovery, the trial court denied payor’s motion to depose payee and compel her to undergo an employability evaluation.  In so doing, the judge noted that payor took no issue with violating discovery orders, and “unreasonably delayed” payee’s ability to effectuate litigation.  Counsel fees were again awarded for payee.
  • In October 2013 – three years after the initial changed circumstances burden was fulfilled – a third trial judge entered an order rescheduling the plenary hearing, and appointing an expert to examine businesses allegedly owned by new wife and operated by payor.  Payee was permitted to depose new wife as to whether payor maintained an equitable ownership of the businesses registered to new wife.  Payee was again awarded counsel fees for a third time.  Payor sought reconsideration and a stay of the October 2013 orders.
  • On April 3, 2014, the trial judge dismissed payor’s motions to modify alimony – with prejudice – pursuant to Rule 4:23-2(b) based on payor’s “failure to cooperate with the court’s expert, his failure to file complete Case Information Statements, and his extensive history of failure to timely respond to [payee’s] discovery requests and comply with court orders.”  Payor was also ordered to resume alimony payments at $6,000 per month, and to pay $201,000 in alimony arrears from November 2010 (when the hearing was first scheduled) through March 2014.

While noting that dismissing an action “with prejudice” (a final determination on the merits of the case that precludes further litigation of the matter) because of a party’s failure to comply with discovery is a drastic sanction “generally not to be invoked except in those cases in which the order for discovery goes to the very foundation of the cause of action, or where the refusal to comply is deliberate and contumacious,” the Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s decision to do so in this case.

In so doing, the Court analyzed the differences between Rules 4:23-2 and 4:23-5 of the New Jersey Court Rules because payor argued that the trial court engaged in an abuse of discretion under 4:23-5 by failing to first dismiss the case “without prejudice” (a dismissal without a decision on the merits that leaves the parties able to litigate the matter in a subsequent action) and then only dismissing “with prejudice” if he failed to thereafter comply.  Disagreeing with payor, the Appellate Court found that while 4:23-5 does, in fact, require the initial without prejudice dismissal, 4:23-2 does not.

Here, payor even acknowledged that he had not been compliant with all discovery demands made, and his position that he and his new wife had provided timely and relevant information was unsupported by the record.  After more than five years of continuous litigation, there was still no clear picture of payor’s earnings, and the trial court found that his “willful and deliberate violations of court orders across a period of more than five years justified dismissal.”  Five years of delay.  At least ten court orders directing payor to provide payee with discovery to which she was entitled.  Still no end in sight.

The Appellate Division concluded, in light of such facts:

  • “[T]he trial court reasonably concluded that it was unfair to plaintiff to be interminably delayed in resolving the alimony dispute.”
  • “Because the judge’s decision was prompted by defendant’s blatant and continuous defiance of several court orders, we perceive no abuse of discretion in her decision to dismiss defendant’s claim with prejudice.”

While there will always be litigants who believe that the discovery rules and obligations are not worth more than the paper on which they are written with the belief that playing games will provide the optimal result, the trial court’s implementation of available sanctions shows that, at least in some cases, there is a price to pay for such non-compliance.

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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 Stuart Miles.

A recent unpublished decision, Strunck v. Figueroa, serves as a not-so-gentle reminder that sometimes an enforcement application can be “too little, too late,” and that it is imperative to be proactive to protect your rights under a divorce decree or agreement, especially when your adversary acts in bad faith.  In Strunck, a 2011 divorce decree awarded the plaintiff $23,369, which was to be transferred from the defendant’s retirement account.  Before the plaintiff could act to collect the $23,369, however, the defendant withdrew the money from the retirement account.  In fact, the funds were withdrawn by the defendant before the divorce decree was entered, and the defendant did not disclose this.

Any family law attorneys out there may be thinking that this is an “easy” enforcement motion given there was a clear violation of the decree and an obvious bad faith attempt to shortchange the plaintiff his $23,369.  And that may have been true but for what happened next.

The defendant in Strunck didn’t just keep the money and go on her merry way.  About four months after the entry of the divorce decree, she filed for bankruptcy and, significantly, listed the plaintiff as a creditor with a claim of $23,269 incurred as a result of the August 2011 divorce decree.  The plaintiff was appropriately notified of the bankruptcy petition and the inclusion of the $23,369 as an unsecured claim in that petition.  He sought the counsel of a bankruptcy attorney, and claimed that the bankruptcy attorney told him not to pursue legal action against the defendant.  If the plaintiff is to be believed in this regard, then, incredibly, the bankruptcy attorney failed to advise him that the Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure, Rule 4004(b), allow a creditor to contest the dischargeability of a debt by filing “a complaint . . . objecting to the debtor’s discharge . . . no later than 60 days after the first date set for the meeting of creditors under section 341(a)” or as extended by the Court.  In other words, the plaintiff had the opportunity to contest the discharge of the debt the defendant owed him in the amount of $23,369, but did nothing to prevent the discharge of the debt.  As a result of his failure to contest it, the debt was discharged by the Bankruptcy Court.

Despite doing nothing to contest the bankruptcy petition in December 2011, the plaintiff filed a complaint against the defendant in the Law Division in July 2013.  By this time, over a year had passed after the debt was discharged.  The complaint was dismissed.  Not finding any relief in the Law Division, the plaintiff then filed a motion to enforce the divorce decree in the Family Division.  Apparently ignoring the fact that the debt had already been discharged, the plaintiff argued that the debt COULDN’T be discharged.  He argued that the defendant made a false statement on her bankruptcy petition when she alleged that she was not “holding the property of another.”  The plaintiff contended that, actually, she was holding his property, or the $23,369 that should have been his under the divorce decree…even though the debt to him no longer existed…because it had been discharged…because of his failure to contest the bankruptcy petition.  The plaintiff’s application was denied (actually, it was denied twice; not accepting the Court’s decision, the plaintiff re-filed his application a second time and the Family Court denied it a second time).

As the Appellate Division succinctly put it:  “Plaintiff’s argument rests upon the flawed premise that he could utterly ignore the bankruptcy proceeding and pursue the funds awarded to him in the divorce decree through enforcement proceedings in the family court.”  The Appellate Division reasoned that the plaintiff ignored his recourse to do anything about the bankruptcy proceeding, and he can’t now enforce a debt that was discharged.  It was simply too little, too late.

ID-10094649

In this case, try as the plaintiff might, he could not win given his failure to preserve the debt.  Had the plaintiff contested the bankruptcy petition when he was notified of it, he may not only have been able to get the $23,369 he was owed, but perhaps could have obtained sanctions against the defendant for her bad faith theft of the money.  The lesson here is that it is important to proactively preserve your rights under a divorce decree or agreement; it is not enough to later say that you were owed money or that something should have been done pursuant to the agreement, when you ignored your earlier recourse to preserve your rights.


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.