Property Settlement Agreements

All Hallow’s Eve is upon us.  All month long, I have watched my favorite Halloween movies (Hocus Pocus, anyone?), visited haunted houses, carved my Jack-O-Lantern, and engaged in all the usual Halloween festivities.  But it occurred to me:  the scariest thing that many of my clients will go through in their lives is their divorce.  And there’s a reason why the ghosts, ghouls, zombies, witches, and hobgoblins of Halloween are trotted out each year to scare us – that feeling of being up against soullessness and inhumanity is terrifying.  And it’s how many of my clients feel about the people they are dealing with through their divorce process, whether it be their ex and/or his/her attorney, a mediator, or even a judge.

Here’s what it can be like:

Zombies Abound:  It can feel like everyone you are dealing with is a soulless zombie – even your spouse.  Suddenly, your spouse may act with no emotion toward you and will forget like the past years of your life together never happened.  For example, according to him or her, you’re not the loving parent to the kids that you know you always were.  His or her attorney will treat you with no emotion at all, acting at the direction of your spouse.

Likewise, the judges, experts, and mediators – whether on your side or not – have a non-emotional role to play.  They won’t necessarily care about the personal issues that are important to you.  They will look at your case in an agnostic, non-emotional way.

Witches Cast Their Spells:  Sometimes, it might feel like there’s a hex upon you and you just can’t win.  Or, it may feel like no matter how untrue or manipulative your spouse’s claims are, the judge or the mediator believe him or her, as if (s)he’s cast a spell over them.  No matter the situation, it may sometimes feel like you have no control or that everything is going your spouse’s way, for no discernible reason.

Vampires Suck Your Blood:  Maybe this is a little too “on the nose.”  While your lawyers aren’t going to be doing unnecessary work, divorces get expensive.  If you are the “monied spouse,” you may be paying for not only your own legal fees, but those of your husband or wife – and not only for attorneys, but perhaps also for various experts, or a mediator/arbitrator.  All while continuing to support the family during the divorce.

Frankenstein Lives:  I often use the term “Frankenstein” when referring to an agreement of any kind that has been drafted, then revised, revised again, and revised some more.  It often becomes a mishmash of different thoughts that each party had at different points in the negotiation, and when taken together, makes little sense as a whole.  This is NOT what you want the ultimate written agreement (or any interim agreements) to be.

So, how do you keep your divorce from becoming a Halloween-style nightmare?  Here are some thoughts:

  • Hire a qualified, conscientious, attorney with a good reputation.
  • Listen  to that attorney.  After all, you hired him/her because (s)he is qualified, conscientious, and has a good reputation.
  • Take control of the story, and change it if you have to.  If you feel like nobody is listening to you, then whatever it is you are saying is not resonating.  For example, if you are claiming that your spouse should have less parenting time because your child has been returned to you from parenting time with bumps, scrapes, or bruises, and the judge is not moved by this information because he or she views them as typical for a child of that age…then maybe you need to try a different argument, if you have one.  Or, if you are arguing that you have tried and tried to find a new job after being fired from your old one, but just haven’t been able to find anything at your prior income level, then maybe you need to stop explaining and start showing the Court exactly what efforts you have made.
  • Keep the written agreement simple, and only make necessary revisions.  While every word in an agreement is important, trust your attorney to ensure that the agreement says what you want it to say.  Don’t over-complicate it just because you insist upon one word being in the agreement that is not there, and don’t give in to the feeling that the attorney on the other side is trying to “trick” you with revisions.  That’s why you hired a lawyer.  In the end, you want an agreement that is easily understood by a third party who knows nothing about your case, because if an issue comes up in the future, you may be assigned a judge who is just that.

 

 

There has been much ado about the new alimony statute. Obligors believe they are now in the driver’s seat when it comes to disposing of their alimony obligations. After all, the statute sends a message that alimony should at least be modified upon reaching full retirement age. Doesn’t it?

On the other hand, recipients believe that the nuances within the new statute provide them with a leg-up in terms of maintaining their alimony awards “as is”. After all, the statute provides that both parties should have been able to save for retirement in the years since the divorce. Doesn’t it?

The truth is, both the obligor and the recipient are correct. The new statute does not provide any bright line rule as to what a court must do when the obligor retires. It provides the Court, instead, with factors to consider and weigh when an obligor brings a retirement application.

It helps to think of your retirement case as if there is an imaginary chef baking a cake. The ingredients and proportions will inevitably change your end result. Likewise, every case has different ingredients and produces a different result. Of course, the chef, i.e. the judge, will also bring certain ideas into the case, that could change the result one way or another depending on the “ingredients” the litigants bring before the Court.

So that brings me to my question: should you settle your retirement case? In a word, maybe.

When I become involved in a retirement case, I tell obligors and recipients alike to think of their matter as a business transaction. Typically, most of the hurt that lingered post-divorce has dissipated. Maybe, the parties have moved on with their personal lives. Most people are ready to engage in a pure cost-benefit analysis to determine if settlement is right for them.

In order to do that in a retirement case, although a bit fatalistic, it’s important to consider the health and life-span of the obligor and recipient. For example, if a retirement application is brought when both parties are 80, a settlement would look quite different than an application brought at age 65.

It’s also important to consider the parties’ respective assets so that a lump-sum buyout can be considered and discussed.

Sometimes it bears repeating that it’s important to remember that it probably does not make sense to spend more money litigating a case in Court than you would have continuing to pay or receive alimony. Because, at that end of the day, even if you believe that you have the best ingredients and proportions, you don’t want to burn the house to the ground just to see if you can get the perfect cake in the end.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Kid counting money

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

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


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

Lindsay A. Heller, Associate, Fox Rothschild LLP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Lindsay A. Heller, Associate, Fox Rothschild LLP

Once a parenting time schedule is established, parents’ next concern is the logistics with pick-up and drop-off.   Even with a parenting time schedule memorialized issues arise: lateness, inconvenient locations, interference with children’s activities, etc.   Most times these issues can be resolved amicably without judicial intervention.  But occasionally an application must be filed with the Court to address these issues.

Recently, in the unpublished appellate decision of Devorak v. Devorak, A-4325-16T2,the Appellate Court reviewed such a case.  The defendant in Devorak had filed a post-judgement motion to change the previously agreed upon driving responsibilities for visitation, amongst other issues.  At the time of divorce, both parties resided in the same town and they agreed that they would share alternate weekends for parenting time with the child and the defendant would pick up their daughter after he was done with work on Friday evening and bring her back on Sunday.  Defendant further agreed that he would “be responsible for all transportation for his parenting time, unless other arrangements [were] mutually agreed upon by the parties.”

Plaintiff later moved to New York City, but on November 22, 2013, the parties entered into a consent order where she agreed to relocate to New Jersey, and defendant agreed to temporarily provide transportation to and from his weekend parenting time until plaintiff moved back to New Jersey.  However, the consent order did not address the parties’ driving responsibilities upon plaintiff’s relocation to New Jersey.  Thereafter, plaintiff moved to Roseland, New Jersey and defendant moved to Ewing, New Jersey.  On September 20, 2016, defendant filed a motion seeking an order compelling “[t]he parties to share equally the driving responsibilities regarding parenting time,” amongst other issues.  Plaintiff cross-moved  for an order compelling defendant to “be required to do all the traveling in connection [with] his visitations with the parties’ child . . . ,” amongst other things, and argued that defendant received the benefit of his bargain in that he did not have to pay alimony and paid “modest” child support in return for doing all of the driving.

Despite Plaintiff’s arguments, the Judge determined that “it [was] fair and equitable [for them] to share in the transportation responsibility[,]” and granted defendant’s motion for the parties to “equally share driving responsibilities for parenting time . . . .”  The judge further ordered the parties to “agree [to] a pickup and drop off location equidistant between their current residences” of Ewing and Roseland.  In rendering his decision, the Judge reviewed the history of the parties’ residences from the time of the final judgment of divorce, as well as earlier orders dealing with parenting time.  On appeal, the Appellate Court stated that it agreed with the trial court’s decision for the reasons cited by the trial court judge, while also dismissing the appeal on procedural grounds.

Here is case where the parties bargained for a driving schedule at the time of their divorce, but due to subsequent decisions by the parties, including moving, the Court determined that the drop off logistics should be altered, despite the parties prior agreement. Whether or not you agree with the Court’s decision on this, the lesson to be learned is that these issues must be addressed with clear provisions at the time of negotiation.  Being amicable with a former spouse is certainly the best way to co-parent, however it is smart to also be prepared for future circumstances to the extent they can be planned for.  Driving responsibilities is one of those such issues.

Demonstrating yet again that cohabitation cases are almost always a creature of their specific facts and circumstances, the Appellate Division in the recently unpublished, Salvatore v. Salvatore, reversed a trial court’s decision denying a payor former husband’s motion to terminate his alimony obligation based on his payee former wife’s cohabitation in a manner defined by the parties’ Marital Settlement Agreement (MSA).

Here are the facts that you need to know:

  • The parties entered into a settlement agreement and were divorced in early 2011.
  • As to alimony, the agreement provided that the payer’s alimony obligation would terminate upon payee’s remarriage, payer’s 66th birthday, or either party’s death.  As to cohabitation, the agreement provided that payee’s “cohabitation with an unrelated adult in a relationship tantamount to marriage [would] be a re-evaluation event”.
  • In an outright rarity in cohabitation matters, which often involve payee spouses concealing the cohabitation from the payor spouse so as to preserve the support obligation, here the payee advised the payor of her planned cohabitation.
  • Even more rare is that the parties then entered into an addendum to the MSA, wherein: (1) they agreed to the cohabitation; (2) recognized they were “without sufficient knowledge to determine whether the cohabitation [would] be temporary or permanent”; (3) reduced monthly alimony payments by $850 “during the period of cohabitation”; and (4) provided that, “[b]ecause the [p]arties cannot determine the permanency of the cohabitation,” alimony would be reinstated “at the full amount in the [MSA] . . . for the remainder of the term” if the cohabitation terminated.
  • Approximately six years later, the payor filed a motion to terminate his alimony based on the payee’s continued cohabitation.  The trial judge denied the motion, finding that the cohabitation was admitted to at the time of the addendum and, as a result, its continued existence – in and of itself – was not a change in circumstances.  Payor appealed.

Reversing the trial court, the Appellate Division held that the trial judge:

  1. “misapprehended that the change of circumstances involved only defendant’s cohabitation, failing to consider the terms of the MSA that provided cohabitation ‘in a relationship tantamount to marriage’ triggered the ‘re-evaluation event.'”
  2. erred in considering the payer’s failure to allege a financial change in circumstance.
  3. held that financial changes were “of no moment” when considering the MSA language at issue.

In so doing, the Appellate Court reiterated seminal pre-2014 statute case law mandating that the “economic needs” of the payee spouse need not be considered so long as the cohabitation provision meriting an alimony modification is fair.

Addressing the subject addendum to the MSA – really the unique feature of this particular cohabitation case – the Appellate Division found that the trial court:

  1. ignored the cohabitation provision of the MSA by finding that the addendum was the very “re-evaluation” called for by the settlement agreement;
  2. in so doing, relegated the addendum as the benchmark event from which a change in circumstance would have to occur to merit further relief for the payor.  In other words, it was in error for the trial court to find that the payee’s ongoing cohabitation was not a change in circumstance simply because the cohabitation was initially acknowledged by the parties six (6) years earlier in the executed addendum to the MSA.  Specifically, “the trial judge ignored the agreement – and the Konzelman Court’s definition – that more than a casual, perhaps temporary, cohabitation was needed to precipitate a review of the plaintiff’s alimony obligations.”
  3. the cohabitation here was neither short-term, nor temporary.
  4. there was no indication in the executed addendum that it in any way superseded the cohabitation provision of the MSA.

As a result, the matter was remanded to the trial court for a period of discovery and ultimate plenary hearing on the payor’s motion to terminate alimony.  While not shedding further light on the 2014 cohabitation statute (since this matter applied pre-statute case law), the unique factual scenario at issue only further highlights how cohabitation matters are often unpredictable, and rise and fall on the case-specific circumstances at issue.

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

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Amicably settling your divorce matter is almost always better than taking your chances at a trial before a trial judge who knows almost nothing about your life. Not only can settling save you substantial time and expense as compared to continued litigation, but also it provides you with the opportunity to end the case on your terms while removing the risk associated with an uncertain trial decision.

Spiderman in Lego formTo that end, settling also means potentially agreeing to terms that are not necessarily what the law may provide. As Uncle Ben once said to a young Peter Parker, “with great power comes great responsibility.”  It is critical that you are not only entering into your agreement voluntarily, but also that you actually know what you are agreeing to.  Sounds simple enough, but litigation oftentimes follows when disputes as to the terms of an agreement arise.  This was the situation in T.L.H. v. M.H., wherein the parties’ definition of cohabitation as an alimony-modification event was more expansive than that provided by law. Specifically, the subject settlement agreement there provided that alimony would terminate:

[U]pon the death of either party, or the marriage or cohabitation of [plaintiff]. The term “cohabitation[,”] in addition to its meaning as construed by New Jersey courts, shall also incorporate the scenario if [plaintiff] should take up residence with any family members (other than the children of the parties) or friends.

Solidifying the parties’ respective understanding as to the terms of the agreement, it also provided therein:

In arriving at this agreement both [plaintiff] and [defendant] had an opportunity to obtain the assistance of separate legal counsel and to be advised regarding the legal and practical effects of this [a]greement. . . . The parties have read this agreement in its entirety and each of them has entered voluntarily into this agreement. They have consented to and assume all of the covenants herein contained, having read the same and having fully understood them. They both acknowledge that it is a fair, just and reasonable agreement and [is] not the result of any fraud, duress, or undue influence exercised by either party upon the other or by any other person and that there have been no representations, warranties, covenants, or undertaking other than those as set forth herein.

Post-divorce, the wife moved in with her sister after she was forced out of the former marital home due to a sheriff’s sale. The husband, as a result, stopped paying alimony, which caused the wife to file a motion to enforce the agreement. In response, the husband moved to terminate alimony based on the wife’s cohabitation as defined by the parties’ agreement.

While not necessarily relevant to addressing the unambiguous language of the agreement, the husband argued that he negotiated the cohabitation provision because he knew the wife would ultimately move out of the former marital home and in with family. The wife argued that she negotiated a higher level of alimony because she knew her expenses would increase after she left the home. At the core of the wife’s argument was her position that living with someone is different than cohabitation. Specifically, she argued her understanding that cohabitation meant someone else was, at least to a significant extent, “supporting” her.

Relying on the language of the parties’ agreement, and both public policy and case law supporting the reaching and enforcement of private agreements, the trial court enforced the cohabitation provision and terminated alimony.

On appeal, the wife argued that: (1) a plenary hearing should have been held to address a genuine issue of fact regarding the parties’ intent in agreeing upon the cohabitation provision; (2) the trial court improperly failed to addressed existing economic circumstances at the time enforcement was sought. In affirming the trial court, the Appellate Division reiterated public policy favoring settlement and the enforcement of unambiguous language, while noting how a court cannot rewrite an agreement to provide for terms better than that bargained for by the parties. The Court also referenced cohabitation jurisprudence wherein the voluntarily agreed upon language of an agreement as to such issue can be subject to enforcement even when differing from that provided by law (as to what cohabitation is, the impact of cohabitation on alimony, and the like).

In so holding, the Court noted as to the facts at hand:

Here, there were no compelling reasons to depart from the clear, unambiguous, and mutually understood terms of the MSA. The agreement was voluntary, knowing and consensual, and the alimony-termination event upon cohabitation was fair under the circumstances of the case. We agree with the court’s finding that, while residing with her sister does not rise to the level of cohabitation under Konzelman, supra, plaintiff understood that residing with her sister was an event that could trigger termination of alimony under the description of cohabitation specified in her MSA. In our view, the explicit terms in the MSA obviated the need for a plenary hearing. Accordingly, we find no error in the court deciding the cross-motion on the papers.

The takeaway from this case is that while a litigant has great power to settle a case as the preferred approach over litigation, with great power comes great responsibility to know and understand that to which you have agreed.

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

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Arbitration – essentially, a private trial in which the parties hire a fact-finder who serves in lieu of a judge – has become an increasingly common means of resolving family law disputes.  Although an arbitration may be conducted with all the formalities of a trial, usually parties can agree to dispense with certain formalities, some of which can be costly for the parties.  Arbitration takes a trial out of the sometimes messy court system, usually guarantees a decision will be made in a timely manner, and ensures that the trial does not become a matter of public record.  In family law matters where the issues can be sensitive and the testimony potentially embarrassing to the parties, this may be preferred by the parties.

Another advantage to arbitration is that the litigants are not beholden to the deadlines of the Court system.  They can move on with their lives and even get divorced, while agreeing to defer certain issues to arbitration on a more relaxed timelines.  But sometimes this can backfire.

In a recent unpublished (non-precedential) decision, Shah v. Shah, the Appellate Division addressed the question:  “What happens to an agreement to arbitrate when nobody arbitrates?”

The answer given by the Appellate Division is an interesting one, especially in light of the facts of the Shah case.  In a nutshell, here they are:

  • The Shahs entered into an agreement resolving at least some of their issues in January 2003.  As to those issues that were not resolved (and there were a whopping seventeen of them), they agreed that they would proceed to arbitration.  They agreed on an arbitrator, paid his retainer, and set a date for arbitration.  However, the arbitration did not go forward and after several years passed, Arbitrator # 1 returned the retainer.
  • In 2008, the parties mutually agreed upon a new arbitrator, Arbitrator # 2.  However, neither of them took any steps to retain him.
  • In 2009, Mr. Shah filed a motion to compel the arbitration, expand the scope of the arbitration beyond the seventeen issues identified in the parties’ agreement, and appoint a new arbitrator.  The Court granted Mr. Shah’s motion and appointed Arbitrator # 3.  The Court also entered a discovery schedule, and entered an order directing the parties as to the manner in which Arbitrator # 3’s retainer would be paid.  Despite Mrs. Shah’s apparent attempts to move forward with Arbitrator # 3, Mr. Shah did nothing.  Eventually, Arbitrator # 3 wrote to the Court to, understandably, advise that he would not arbitrate until his retainer agreement was signed.  Neither party signed it.
  • In 2015 (now twelve years after the parties agreed to arbitrate), Mr. Shah once again asked the Court to compel the arbitration, this time asking that Arbitrator # 2 be appointed.  Mrs. Shah cross-moved.  Among other things, she asked the Court to terminate the parties’ obligation to arbitrate.  The Court granted Mrs. Shah’s request, reasoning that – twelve years later – the parties were in very different financial circumstances and could not be made to arbitrate at this point.  The Court also opined that the parties had waived their rights to arbitrate.
  • Mr. Shah moved for reconsideration of the Court’s Order, which the Court denied.

That brings us to Mr. Shah’s appeal.  In pertinent part, Mr. Shah argued that the decision of the lower court should be reversed because the judge incorrectly concluded that the parties had waived their rights to arbitrate due, essentially, to the passage of time.

The Appellate Division agreed with the judge below and concluded that the parties had waived their rights to arbitrate.  This is an interesting conclusion in light of the definition of a waiver:

Waiver is the voluntary and intentional relinquishment of a known right. The intent to waive need not be stated expressly, provided the circumstances clearly show that the party knew of the right and then abandoned it, either by design or indifference. [internal citations omitted].

Indeed, under the facts of the Shah case, there was no question that the parties had unduly delayed in proceeding to arbitration.  Mr. Shah apparently admitted to the Court that he was unhappy with Arbitrator # 3’s fee and therefore did nothing to move forward with the court-appointed arbitrator he had asked for in the first place.

At the same time, there were efforts over the years to move forward with the arbitration.  The major consideration the Appellate Division seems to have made was the amount of time that had passed, regardless of the fact that the parties had – at various points over that time period – made efforts to move forward with the arbitration.  One can imagine that this could be a closer call under even a slightly different set of facts.  For example, what if the facts were identical, but had occurred over the course of five years instead of twelve?

What is clear is that at some point, if parties do not arbitrate then the right to do so is waived, even if the parties have an agreement in place to proceed to arbitration, and one of them wants to enforce it.


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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

39848897 - old empty photo frame with tape

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a story as old as time in the New Jersey courts. Alimony is set based upon the income of parties to a divorce, but then years later, a spouse loses his or her job and is unable to continue to make the agreed upon or ordered payments. What is a Court to do?

61199328 - the word of alimony on wooden cubes

In the old days, prior to the enactment of the new alimony statute, judges had certain checklists, gathered from all the law that they typically used to assess whether to obligor would gain relief. You can find that checklist I compiled in 2013 here.

However, now that the new statute is in effect, the question becomes, how should judges treat on obligor’s loss of employment?

Mills v. Mills, an opinion by Judge Jones of Ocean County, approved for publication, provides some guidance on the issue.
In the Mills case, the parties divorced in 2013 after a 13-year marriage. At the time of the divorce, the parties agreed that the Husband would pay the Wife alimony in the amount of $330 per week for 8 years, as well as child support in the amount of $200 per week. This award was based upon the Husband’s income as a district sales manager for a company selling residential and commercial flooring services, earning $108,000 per year and the wife’s income as a teacher, earning $59,000 per year.

In January 2015, after 12 years of employment at the flooring company, the Husband lost his job. The job loss was involuntary; it stemmed from his employer’s decision to restructure its business plan and eliminate the Husband’s position.

The Husband began searching for a new job immediately. In April, 2015, he received an offer of employment form another flooring company, but at a significantly lower salary of $70,000, with a $6,000 car allowance.

At this point, the Husband was faced with a difficult decision – does he accept the job at a lower rate, or decline the opportunity and look for another job closer to his prior income? Ultimately, he decided to accept the new job.

Initially after accepting the new job, the Husband continued to pay alimony at the rate of $330 per week. He had received severance pay of $35,000 and was able to temporarily supplement his income from there. However, as the year neared its end, the Husband had depleted all reserves.

The Husband filed a motion on November 24, 2015 for a prospective modification and reduction of his support obligations based upon a substantial change in circumstances. In the meantime, he earned a performance bonus of $6,000, bringing his total compensation t $82,000, which still constituted a $26,000 from his prior income.

The Wife opposed the motion, and questioned the circumstances under which the Husband lost his prior employment, and that even if the loss was involuntary, he had not demonstrated that he could no longer earn at least $108,000. She also stated that the loss of support would create economic difficulties for her.

The parties were unable to resolve their differences and the matter proceeded to a contested hearing. The Husband testified that when he began at the flooring company, he was earning $50,000 and gradually worked his way up to a salary of $108,000. The Court found that he testified credibly that he could not simply walk into a new position at a new company and immediately command the same salary.
Interesting, the Court began its legal analysis by expounding upon a “Catch 22” in which many obligors found themselves under the old statute.

…no matter what decision he or she made in accepting or declining a new position at a lower pay, that decision might subsequently be critiqued, criticized and even legally challenged by an ex-spouse who, in resisting a reduction in alimony, might contend that the supporting spouse made an inappropriate choice and therefore should not receive a reduction in his or her support obligation   … when a supporting spouse lost his or her job and then declined an offer to take a lower paying position…and instead kept searching for a higher paying position while seeking a reduction in support, the supported spouse would often argue that the obligor unreasonably bypassed an opportunity to earn at least some income that could have been used to pay some of the ongoing support obligation…

Reciprocally, if a supporting spouse accepted the offer for new employment at a substantially lower salary and then sought a reduction in support, a supported spouse would often argue that the obligor was underemployed because he or she accepted a position at a significantly decreased level of pay or proven “income potential”…

Judge Jones rejected the suggestion that there is a “one-size-fits-all” legal analysis for approaching and analyzing these types of issues. In that regard, he stated “imputation of income was a discretionary matter not always capable of precise or exact determination”.

After citing the amended alimony statute – N.J.S.A. 2:a:34-23(k) – for guidance as to how to analyze this issue. In doing so, he specifically referenced subsection (2), which expressly references that when an obligor loses his or her employment, a judge may consider the obligor’s documented efforts to obtain replacement employment or pursue an alternative occupation, as well as subsection (3) which provides that a court may consider the obligor’s good faith effort to find remunerative employment at any level in any field.

However, the Judge noted that the amended statute does not expressly establish or provide a specific standard for statutory analysis in situations when an obligor actually obtains new employment at a significantly lower pay, then seeks to reduce his or her support obligation over the supported spouse’s objections.

The Court concluded that as a matter of equity, fairness, as well as the most reasonable, consistent and straightforward analysis would be addressed by the following two-step inquiry:

(1) Was the supporting spouse’s choice in accepting a particular replacement employment opportunity objectively reasonable under the totality of the circumstances?
(2) If so, what if any resulting support adjustment should occur that is fair and reasonable to both parties, given their respective situations?

In applying this two-step inquiry, as well as the statutory mandates, the Court concluded that the loss of income was involuntary and that the Husband made legitimate efforts to obtain new employment in the same industry in good faith.

While the salary in the new position was lower, the Court found that the Husband nonetheless made an objectively reasonable decision in responsibly trying to begin at a new place of employment. In fact, the Court found that the Husband was very fortunate in this economy to find replacement work.

Nor did the Court find any objective evidence that the Husband was deliberately underemployed or unreasonably turned down or avoided other job opportunities at higher income levels.
After considering all the evidence, the Court reduced the Husband’s alimony obligation to $250 per week and his child support obligation to $194 per week.

With this decision, Judge Jones clearly articulated what I have personally heard many obligors say to me when deciding whether to move forward with a first, second or even third motion for a reduction in alimony based upon reduced income. Whatever step an obligor took, the supported spouse had a response; and one that was well supported by case law.

Either way, the supported spouse would argue that the reduction in income constituted underemployment and that the Court should impute income consistent with the obligor’s prior income.

Judge Jones’ decision provides a clearer analysis that Court should undertake in this all-too-familiar situation.
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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.