Custody Neutral Assessments (CNAs), a mostly South Jersey phenomenon, have been described as a supposed alternate dispute resolution program that was available for high conflict cases that were inappropriate for, or are unable to be resolved, through mediation. This program utilizes several mental health practitioners in the community who meet with the parties, discuss contested issues and make clinical recommendations to the court on how to resolve disputed issues.  The way it was supposed to work is that in the counties that use CNAs, after mandatory mediation fails, the Court was to enter an order appointing an evaluator to perform a CNA.  The parties then were to receive notices as to the time and date of their initial meeting. The fee was nominal compared to a full-blown custody evaluation because the parties are paying for approximately 4 hours of the evaluator’s time.  Each of the parties meet with the evaluator and it is up to the evaluator to determine if it would be appropriate for the children, step-parents, etc. to participate.  Unlike a custody evaluation, there is no psychological testing or psychological evaluations.  The evaluator then issues recommendations to the Court which can include custody, a parenting time schedule, anger management, a drug and alcohol evaluation, and recommendations regarding related issues.  Once the Court receives the CNA, the parties are scheduled for a Case Management Conference at which point the Court determines whether to accept, reject or modify the CNA recommendations.  At this hearing, the party that is dissatisfied with the CNA can request a custody evaluation if the CNA involves a change in custody or custody determination.

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However, what was supposed to be a non-binding dispute resolution tool often became some more than that though many practictioners questioned how this could be so.  In fact, when I wrote the Custody chapter in the most recent edition of New Jersey Family Law Practice, published by ICLE, I wrote:

            While this process may be a way to get some level of expert involvement in cases that cannot afford a full-blown evaluation, or a way to ferret out bad-faith, anger driven or other “custody cases” that are not truly bona fide custody disputes, there are certainly causes for concern with the process.  First, given that the CNAs are abbreviated, it seems unlikely, if not impossible that the recommendations being made are based upon a reasonable degree of psychological certainty.  See N.J.R.E. 702, 401 and 402.  See also Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579, 113 S. Ct. 2786, 125 L.Ed. 2d 469 (1993); James v. Chevron U.S.A., Inc., 301 N.J. Super. 512 (App. Div. 1997), aff’d 155 N.J. 279 (1998)(which held that Daubert applied in New Jersey).  See also Kumho Tire Company, Ltd. v. Carmichael, 526 U.S. 137, 119 S.Ct. 1167 (1999).  As such, they would be legally inadmissible at trial and little more than a net opinion.

Further, if this is a method of alternate dispute resolution, one wonders whether it is proper that the court is being provided with these so-called “recommendations” made after limited involvement with the parties and perhaps no involvement with the children.  To the extent that the process is meant to evoke a settlement, does the reporting of the recommendations to the court violate N.J.R.E. 408?  Though it is clearly not mediation, should a confidentiality standard that applies to mediation also apply to a CNA?  See Lehr v. Afflito, 382 N.J. Super. 376 (App. Div. 2006).  If it is an alternate dispute resolution method that may have binding implications, should there not be heightened procedural safeguards as there are now required for arbitration of custody matters?  See Fawzy v. Fawzy, 199 N.J. 456 (2009).

If and when there become more widespread implementation of CNAs, perhaps some of these questions will be answered.

 

Well, it took almost 5 years since I wrote those words, but the question was just answered by Judge Jones in his unpublished decision in the  case of Serrano v. Urbano released on December 1, 2016 when he held that CNAs were not evidential as an expert report, though the preparer could testify about what was told and “his or her professional impressions and concerns regarding such statements or actions which the assessor personally witnessed and/or experienced in his or her contact with either party during such process, if relevant to the best interests of the child at issue.”

Of note, Judge Jones held that:

A C.N.A., however, is not a “mini-evaluation,” or an “express evaluation”, or a “discount evaluation. Most particularly, the C.N.A. generally does not involve any forensic psychological testing of either party. Nor are there generally any bonding evaluations between the parties and child. In fact, the assessor may not even meet the child, and may not include an analysis of the statutory custody factors under N.J.S.A. 9:2-4. Rather, unless otherwise agreed, the assessor generally meets with the litigants for a limited period of time, converses with them separately, and renders a report .

More importantly, the Judge held:

When an expert has not conducted a forensic custody evaluation to serve as the foundation for a recommendation, any “expert forensic opinion” rendered by the professional regarding custody, as rendered in the content of a C.N.A., cannot be admitted into evidence as the results of a full forensic evaluation, because no such evaluation ever took place. An expert forensic opinion on custody without a forensic evaluation is essentially a net opinion. Moreover, the assessor in this case, though a mental health professional, was not a forensic psychologist.

That, however, is not the end of the analysis because the Judge also held that:

Under the doctrine of limited admissibility, however, the testimony and C.N.A. report of the assessor is admissible in part on the issue of the parties’ words, actions and conduct during the C.N.A. process, as well as any impressions and concerns the assessor experienced in witnessing same.

The first part of that essentially renders the preparer of the CNA a fact witness which seems consistent with the Rules of Evidence in terms of admissibility.  However, most fact witnesses are not permitted to testify about their opinion. Since impressions and concerns are essentially opinions, this seems to provide a way to get in through the back door what you can’t get in through the front door.  Since this is both a trial court and unreported decision, it is not precedential on any other trial judge, thus, the argument that the court should not consider the preparer of the CNA’s “impressions” or “concern” remains a viable one to make.

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

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Ah, that unforgettable line uttered by Veruca Salt in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.  As a matrimonial attorney, this is what it feels like we deal with quite often.  But I am not referring to people just being demanding, I am talking about people making unreasonable demands, with no apparent justification in law or in fact.  In fact, I have had enough of “my client just wants”, “that’s not enough” and “I know that a court would never do that but my client insists” over the last several months to last me a career.

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Some examples have been, in no particular order, demands for child support that exceed what the Guidelines would require by 7 to 10 times; demands for combined alimony and child support representing 60% or more of pre-tax income; demands for a buy out on the house for higher than the agreed upon value less the agreed upon mortgage; demands to share in exempt inheritances, trusts or family gifts that were never commingled; demands that one party get most of the marital assets because they were held in her name, though not exempt; demands for more than half of the assets, or 100% of the house free and clear of the substantial mortgage debt “because you caused the divorce.”

It is bad enough when an a litigant, who is uneducated about the law makes these demands.  That is to be expected because of ignorance of the law or raw emotions clouding judgment or both.  It is quite another thing when the client’s lawyer makes the demand, knowing that there is no rational or legal basis for the request.  As a younger lawyer, I remember incredulously asking an adversary, “Is your client really seeking 80% of the assets and 90% of my client’s net income?” to which the answer was yes.  Inevitably, when they are called on it, they sell their client out, saying how unreasonable they are, but they are just doing what they have been instructed to do.  Is that response good enough?  First, you wonder if they ever actually educated their client on the law (or whether they know it themselves).  If they have educated the client, is it proper to make a demand that is unreasonable, if not bad faith?

On the other side of the equation there may be the litigant that is willing to negotiate a reasonable resolution within the expected settlement parameters based upon the facts of the case (though often, water finds is level and where there is one unreasonable party, their spouse may be their mirror image in that regard.)  But what is the reasonable litigant to do?  They are often left with having to make the  “Hobson’s choice” of capitulating to the unreasonable party, or incurring the cost of litigation.  Worse yet, I have seen mediators, early settlement panelists, and even judges, try to pressure the reasonable party to settle because the other party wont budge, or split differences between the reasonable proposal and the unreasonable demand resulting in a slightly less unreasonable proposed resolution.  That said, I have seen these same judges, mediators or panelists use the threat that the unreasonable party may be required to pay the other party’s counsel fees as an effective deterrent.  Unfortunately, usually by that time, a lot of money has already been spent for something that should probably have been nipped in the bud from day one.

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

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Many parents want to believe their children are “gifted,” but do they know that this “giftedness” may increase their child support obligations?

Judge Jones’ new published (precedential) opinion, P.S. v. J.S. highlighted the distinction between a regular old “extra-curricular activity” and the pursuits of a “gifted” child, reaffirming that, where a child is “gifted,” the Court may deviate from the Child Support Guidelines to award supplementary child support in order to foster that child’s talents and providing some guidance on how the Court might assess whether a child is “gifted” in a particular area.

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In many cases, the issue of extra-curricular activities is a big one.  Parents want their children to be able to enjoy sports, dance classes, acting lessons, singing lessons, and so on and so forth.  Most parents agree that such activities are important for a child’s enrichment and development.  However, there is often a question over whether the child support payor should contribute to these activities over and above his or her basic child support payment.

In P.S. v. J.S., the parties acknowledged that their daughter loved to act and that they wanted to support her theatrical endeavors.  The only question was whether the non-custodial parent’s child support payment already covered the cost of the daughter’s acting activity, or whether there should be an additional contribution over and above the child support payment.

In his opinion, Judge Jones began by recognizing that the Child Support Guidelines do, in fact, contemplate that the guidelines-based child support award will cover “entertainment expenses,” defined by law to include:

…fees, memberships and admissions to sports, recreational or social events, lessons or instructions, movie rentals, televisions, mobile devices, sound equipment, pets, hobbies, toys, playground equipment, photographic equipment, film processing, video games, and recreational, exercise or sports equipment.

Thus, “extra-curricular” activities are technically covered by a child support award calculated under the Child Support Guidelines.

But just when you think Judge Jones is going to “zig,” he “zags.”  Judge Jones went on to note that Comment 9(d) of the Child Support Guidelines

…expressly provides that the Court may in fact add supplemental funds to guideline-level support to help defray expenses for the development and special needs of a “gifted” child.  Under the guidelines, if a court deems a child to be “gifted” regarding a particular field or discipline, then it may be financially fair, equitable and appropriate for a court, upon application of a parent, to add a reasonable additional earmarked stipend onto both parents’ basic support obligation to help defray the costs of developing, enhancing and encouraging growth of a the child’s giftedness in a specific area.

The Court further held that the supplemental funds awarded to advance a gifted child’s development  “must be economically reasonable, with significant deference to each parent’s financial situation and actual ability to pay.”  In other words, there must be limits commensurate with the parents’ financial abilities.

The question, then, became whether the child at the center of the case was merely interested in acting as an extra-curricular activity, or whether she is a “gifted” actress.  Judge Jones opined that a child’s giftedness will generally relate “to a child’s aptitude , abilities and/or achievements” in one of four areas:  Academics, Athletics, Technology, or The Arts (though he did not foreclose other areas of “giftedness” outside these general categories).  In the particular case before Judge Jones, he found that the child in question was in fact “gifted” at acting.  As a basis for this ruling, he seemed to primarily rely upon two (2) interviews he had with the child approximately two years apart, and his observation that her dedication to and enthusiasm for acting had only seemed to grow in that time.  His decision did not, however, rest upon any sort of evaluation of her acting skills, as he acknowledged in his opinion that he had not observed her perform.  The decision suggests that a determination of a child’s giftedness may not rest upon his or her actual skill level alone.  In my opinion, the criteria for determining whether a given child is gifted will be tested and refined by further cases addressing this distinction between an extra-curricular activity and a gifted child’s pursuit.  Stay tuned…


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.

“Justice delayed is justice denied.”  I am sure that many have heard this old legal maxim.  Though the original source is unclear, what is not unclear is that it essentially means that when a legal remedy is available, but not provided in a timely fashion, it is like having no remedy, at all.

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When I speak to other attorneys in court, at mediations or at bar events, one of the things discussed most is the delay in getting matters decided.  While the discussion is sometimes about a trial decision, most of the time we are talking about routine motion practice both during active divorce cases and during post judgment cases.  For a trial, especially a long one, it is more understandable.  Very often the attorneys want to review the transcripts and otherwise have a month or more from the close of the evidence to submit written summations.  Moreover, in addition to their jam packed daily dockets, the judge needs time to review the evidence and prepare a thoughtful and comprehensive (hopefully) written or oral decision.  That said, I have been in involved in cases where it has taken more than a year from the end of a trial to get a decision.  I have heard, anecdotally, of people getting trial decisions more than 2 years after the close of the evidence.  In addition, several years ago, we heard that one judge was not permitted to start any more trials due to the number of completed trials that were not decided.  A moment ago I said that “hopefully” you then get a comprehensive decision, but very often, it seems that decisions are either incomplete, or certain findings of fact simply wrong, most likely due to the passage of time between when the testimony heard and evidence presented, and the completion of the opinion.  During this time, peoples lives remain on hold and temporary support orders which might be too high or too low remain in effect.  In the off chance that they are adjusted by the trial decision, that could create a huge arrears or huge credit to a party.  If they are not corrected, then one party had to live with a potentially unfair result for a very long time.

While there are delays in receiving trial decisions, while more understandable, this impacts fewer litigants than delays in receiving motion decisions because a very small percentage of cases are actually tried to conclusion.  On the other hand, motions are heard every Friday or every other Friday depending on the county and the judge.  Now, the rule regarding motions in family part cases, specifically R. 5:4-4(f), clearly states:

(f) Orders on Family Part Motions. Absent good cause to the contrary, a written order shall be entered at the conclusion of each motion hearing.

Unfortunately, all too often, this Court Rule is honored in the breach and the decision on the motion is delayed days, weeks, months or even years.  Yes, I said YEARS.  I have one pre-judgment motion that was filed nearly 2 years ago, in large part regarding the payment of college for the first child.  A second child is now in college and there is still no decision.  The matter, which was supposed to be tried more than a year ago, has basically been shut down for 22 months and counting.  I have another motion that is pending for more than 15 months.  We have others which have been pending for several months, including ones that are seeking either financial restraints or restraints related to children which are being flaunted while no decision is made.  I hear similar stories from many or our colleagues and adversaries.

Note too that these delays are on top of the delays in getting the motion heard in the first place.  It is not unusual for a motion to be delayed based upon an adversaries request for an adjournment.  Since first adjournment requests are almost universally granted, even when there is time of the essence on certain issues, it is most often fruitless to oppose them – though sometimes you have to.  Very often, motions are administratively adjourned because the judge’s motion calendar for the selected day is full or the judge is otherwise unavailable.  When that adjournment is added to the first adjournment request, which at that point possibly shouldn’t be granted but is granted anyway, then the motion is heard about one month after the original return date and about 2 months after it was filed.  Some judges, however, despite demanding that all papers be filed as if the motion is going to be heard, do not schedule oral argument on the motion for weeks or months.  That is then compounded when that same judge doesn’t decide the motion on the day of argument as required by the Court Rules.

What is the outcome of this delay?  For a party who is cut off financially by their spouse, they could go weeks, if not months, with little to no money at all.  When it is an enforcement motion, the violator is often empowered by the lack of a decision and doubles down in his or her violation of court Orders because they feel impervious to sanctions.  When restraints are sought and adjudication is delayed, the risk of a new status quo being improperly created or parties or children harmed because you cannot “put the genie back into the bottle”, or the money is gone, or worse yet, a child is physically or emotionally hurt, are real results of justice delayed.

The other outcome is that the harmed litigant loses faith in the judicial system. They have not been treated fairly by the delay and feel that they will never receive a fair result from the judge that they believe does not care about their case – or worse yet, they feel that the judge is harming their case if not their children and/or their life. Sometimes this results in them losing faith in their lawyers too.  Sometimes it makes cases harder to settle because decisions that could have nipped issues in the bud or shaped a fair resolution of the case do not happen or come too late and then the fight is how to fix the mess created by the delay or counsel fees created by it.  And who do you complain to?  Do you risk a negative result on the pending motion or future appearances before that judge by writing to the Presiding or Assignment Judge?

The only ones who seem to benefit from this delay are mediators or arbitrators, who the parties now have to pay because they cannot get timely relief from the court.  There is something very unfair about that, though this happens every day.  Clients suffer and the system as a whole suffers as a result.

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

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The standard for entry of a Final Restraining Order (FRO) under the NJ Prevention of Domestic Violence has been long established by the Courts (and discussed many times on this blog); under the seminal case Silver v. Silver, in order to obtain an FRO, the plaintiff must have a qualifying relationship with the defendant, and also has the burden to establish that:

  1. The defendant committed one or more of the predicate acts of domestic violence identified in the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act; and
  2. There is a need for the protection of an FRO going forward.

In a recent published (precedential) decision, A.M.C. v. P.B., the Appellate Division addressed the second prong of that test and the misapplication of the facts to the law that led to the trial court denying the plaintiff’s request for a Final Restraining Order.  In this case, the plaintiff filed a temporary restraining order alleging that the defendant had committed the predicate acts of harassment, assault, and terroristic threats.  At trial, the Court made a factual finding that the predicate act of assault had occurred.  More specifically, the Court found that the act of assault that formed the predicate act of violence for the complaint had occurred and that the defendant had assaulted the plaintiff in an attempt to prevent her from fleeing the marital home.  Further, the trial Court found that a prior act of assault had occurred three weeks earlier.

Despite making those factual findings, the trial court denied the Final Restraining Order because it found that – in spite of two acts of assault that had occurred within a three week period – the plaintiff did not need the protection of an FRO to prevent the defendant from committing further acts of domestic violence against her.  The trial court made this finding based chiefly on 1) the fact that the defendant had not contacted the plaintiff in the 10 days between her having filed the TRO and the Final Restraining Order hearing; 2) the parties’ marriage and, indeed, relationship, was short-term; and 3) the parties did not have children together, which was seen by the court as a mitigating factor because, the judge reasoned, there was less of a likelihood of interaction between the parties since they would not have to go on to co-parent together.

The plaintiff appealed.  On appeal, the Appellate Division squarely addressed the question, “Despite finding that a defendant committed one of the predicate acts listed in N.J.S.A.2C:25-19a, when may a court properly refuse to issue restraints?”  Hearkening back to the seminal Silver case itself, the Appellate Division answered that question by holding that when the predicate acts involves a violent offense – such as assault – and the Court has found that it occurred, then “the decision to issue an FRO ‘is most often perfunctory and self-evident.'” (quoting Silver at p. 127).  The Appellate Division reversed; it found that, in determining that the plaintiff did not need the protection of an FRO going forward, the trial court had “no rational basis” for relying on the length of the marriage, the fact that the parties have no children, and the fact that the defendant had not contacted the plaintiff between when she fled the home and the day of the FRO hearing.  And this makes sense:  if it has been found that a given defendant has a propensity for physical violence against the plaintiff, this should be more persuasive than any of the facts that the trial court relied upon when it made its decision.  Just because a relationship is short-term and there are no children, or the defendant didn’t contact the plaintiff during the ten day period between issuance of a TRO and the FRO hearing, doesn’t lessen the likelihood that the defendant will target the plaintiff with physical violence again.

The takeaway?  The Appellate Division has held that, where the court finds that a predicate act of physical violence (for example, assault or sexual assault) has occurred, the fact that the act was violent in nature should be weighted heavily by the trial judge when assessing whether there is a need for the protection of the FRO going forward, and that an FRO should generally be issued in these instances.


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.

You have one household barely scraping by. You have two incomes, but the bills still pile up. From month to month, you pinch pennies, cut coupons and budget.
Now take that household, double the expenses, and cut the income in half.

Good luck.

This situation is something that millions of people face each day. One spouse leaves the residence, seeks a divorce and *surprise* you also need to help support his/her living expenses during the pendency of the matter. But how are you going to do that when your income has just been slashed and your expenses just doubled?

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Judge Jones of Ocean County recently addressed what happens when one spouse requests support of the other during the divorce proceedings, or on a pendente lite basis, under the newly enacted statutory amendments to New Jersey’s alimony statute in the recent case of Malik v. Malik.

Historically, in New Jersey, judges have awarded pendente lite support to preserve the status quo, and maintain the parties in the positions they were in prior to the litigation. This typically involves payment of the marital bills and expenses necessary to maintain the dependent spouse at the standard of living enjoyed during the course of the marriage.

The logic of these awards is clear. As Judge Jones put it in Malik: “…if there is no interim support agreement or order defining the financial rights and obligations of the parties, economic chaos may result…the purpose of a pendente lite support application is to help financially bridge the gap in time between the beginning and end (or other interim point in the divorce litigation), in an orderly fashion…In fact, a pendente lite order is often the only way to provide the means for a supported spouse to survive at the start of an action.”

Here is a general run-down of how pendente lite applications are heard and decided:

• A supported spouse files a pendente lite motion at the start or the early stages of the divorce process, asking the court to make preliminary decisions about interim support. This is typically prior to the close or perhaps even the start of the period of discovery – meaning, that the Court does not yet have complete information as to the parties’ finances.

• The motion is generally heard on the Family Court’s motion calendar.

• In deciding the application, the Court rarely takes direct oral testimony of the parties and instead is authorized to make a determination based upon affidavits of the parties.

• Any pendente lite order is entered without prejudice, meaning that it can be retroactively modified, upward or downward at the trial of trial, in the court’s discretion. The court can also modify the award prior to trial upon a showing of change circumstances.

Prior to the enactment of the new alimony law, N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23, the focus of these applications was typically the marital lifestyle, i.e. the status quo of the marriage, almost to the exclusion of all other factors.

In 2014, however, the legislature enacted amendments to the statue, which now clarify the concept of considering all of the factors in the alimony analysis rather than just marital lifestyle. In fact, 4 separate directives in the statute make that concept more clear:

(1) The amended statute now directs family courts to consider, among other factors, “the practical impact of the parties’ need for separate residences and the attendant increase in living expenses on the ability of both parties to maintain a standard of living reasonably comparable to the standard of living reasonably comparable to the standard of living reasonably comparable to the standard of living in the marriage or civil union to which both parties are entitled.”

(2) The amended statute expressly provides that neither party has “a greater entitlement to that standard of living than the other.”

(3) The amended statute declares that “no factor shall carry more weight than any other factor unless the court finds otherwise.”

(4) The amended statute now states that the nature, amount and length of pendente lite support, if any, paid during the divorce proceeding is to be considered by the court when rendering a final alimony award.

Judge Jones applied these principles to the Malik case where the “blunt economic reality” of separation and divorce rendered it impossible for either party to financially maintain the prior marital lifestyle, or the same standard of living to which they formerly became accustomed during the marriage.

In the Malik case, the husband was a teacher earning $90,000 per year, while the wife was a hairdresser with an imputed income of $20,000 per year. In 2016, each party filed for divorce. They are living separately, and have been sharing joint legal and residential custody of their 2 children.

The wife filed a motion seeking pendente lite alimony which she contended that she needed alimony in order to maintain the marital lifestyle and standard of living, which she had not been able to maintain at the same level as the husband, because he was not paying support. The husband disputed the wife’s need for alimony because she had moved in with her mother.

When Judge Jones examined the evidence in this case, he concluded that the parties’ marital lifestyle budget was $6,100 per month. With the husband remaining in the former marital residence, that of course meant that there was not enough money for both parties to maintain the same lifestyle living apart that they were able to afford while living together. It was simple mathematics, the judge concluded.

Judge Jones went on to state that when neither party can afford to separately maintain the marital lifestyle after separation, both parties should be required to adapt to lifestyles which are financially lower than that which they enjoyed together. A separation constitutes a substantial change in circumstance which requires an appropriate adjustment to the status quo of the marriage. Put another way, no matter what a married couple’s prior married lifestyle and status quo may have been, a separation by married partners into two separate homes is sometimes as substantial a change of economic circumstances as on can possibly imagine.

While the judge certainly took into account both parties’ economic realities, he stated that he would not discount the wife’s need for support based upon her residence with her mother which “appears to be…of financial necessity.” He stated that denying alimony because limited financial circumstances required the wife to move back in with her mother would be “the height of irony.” Even without roof expenses, the wife still had reasonable needs.

Considering all the applicable statutory factors, under the totality of the circumstances, Judge Jones ordered that the husband pay the wife $350 per week in pendente lite alimony, which he noted may be considered “too high” by the husband and “too low” by the wife. But, he noted, it certainly could not be considered inequitable under all the circumstances.
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Eliana Baer, Associate, Fox Rothschild LLPEliana 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.

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.

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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).

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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.