Divorces involving a spouse in the military generally involve unique issues.  In the recently published decision of Fattore v. Fattore, the Appellate Division held that the trial court cannot replace, “dollar for dollar”, an ex-spouse’s benefit from a military pension that was lost after the military spouse elected to receive disability benefits.  Doing so is against Congress’ intent to omit such disability benefits from veteran retirement pay that is otherwise subject to equitable distribution.  However, the trial court may treat the lost pension benefits as a change in circumstances warranting alimony and/or an alimony modification for the spouse who lost his/her share of their ex-spouses military pension.  This is true even when there is an alimony waiver as part of the parties’ divorce, which is what the parties had in Fattore.  After all, the family court is a court of equity and so we should expect, and hope for, some sort of an equitable result.

Okay, that was a mouthful!  It’s not often that our New Jersey family law cases explore military law, Congressional intent and/or United States Supreme Court cases.  In order to better understand the complexities here, and delve into that Federal law, let’s break this down with the relevant facts:

  • When the parties divorced in 1997, they both agreed to waive alimony from the other.  They distributed the equity in the marital home.  They also divided their pensions in equitable distribution, with each party being entitled to 50% of the marital portion of each other’s pension.  Plaintiff/ex-wife had a pension through her employment as an operating nurse and Defendant/ex-husband had a pension through his service in the Army National Guard. Defendant was still serving in the Army National Guard at the time of their divorce.
  • The parties obtained a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (“QDRO”) following their divorce, which is the Order that allows for distribution of a retirement account in the event of a divorce without taxes and penalties typically associated with retirement account withdrawals.
  • In 2002, Defendant became disabled and, accordingly, was forced into retirement from the Army. Upon becoming disabled, Defendant was authorized to collect his pension and Social Security benefits.  After collecting his pension for some time, Defendant elected to receive tax-free disability benefits.  Defendant’s receipt of these disability benefits eliminated Plaintiff’s share of the Army pension.
  • In the meantime, Plaintiff was unaware that Defendant’s pension was in pay status, while Defendant believed that Plaintiff was collecting her proper share.  Plaintiff learned that her share of the pension was forfeited after she contacted the Army offices regarding the status of her payments that she never received.
  • In 2016, Plaintiff filed a Motion seeking compensation for her equitably distributed share of Defendant’s pension that she lost by virtue of Defendant collecting disability.  The trial court held that Defendant must pay Plaintiff a tax-free equitable distribution payment of $1,800 per month pending  a pension appraisal that the trial court ordered to determine the value of the Army pension at the time of the parties’ divorce.  Notably, Plaintiff sought alimony in lieu of the pension payment but the trial court denied that request, holding that alimony does not replace equitable distribution.
  • Three months after the trial court’s decision, but before the Appellate Division decision, the United States Supreme Court issued a decision in the matter of Howell v. Howell, based on an Arizona family law case.  To understand Howell, we must first know that Congress had previously enacted USFSPA, which permits state courts to equitably distribute “disposable retired pay” except for such retirement pay that is waived because of disability benefits.  That waived pay is excluded from equitable distribution.  This is the exact issue faced by the parties in Fattore.
  • The Supreme Court in Howell, as cited by Fattore, held that “a military pension, which has been equitably distributed, is not a vested right, but rather, a contingent benefit where the pension is later reduced as a result of a veteran’s disability and”

 [t]he state court did not extinguish (and most likely would not have had the legal power to extinguish) that future contingency. The existence of that contingency meant that the value of [the wife’s] share of military retirement pay was possibly worth less—perhaps less than [the wife] and others thought—at the time of the divorce.

  • The Supreme Court in Howell further found that state courts cannot overcome Congress’ intent to omit disability benefits from disposable retirement pay.  In other words, to give the spouse “dollar for dollar” what he/she lost from the pension due to the military spouse’s disability benefits is contrary to Congress’ intent when enacting USFSPA.

Now that we have the background, let’s talk about the Appellate Division’s holding:

Close up of wooden gavel isolated on white background

  • Following Howell, which the trial court did not have at the time it decided this case, the Appellate Division reversed the decision because the trial court’s order for a pension evaluation and, seemingly, “dollar for dollar” replacement of the amount Plaintiff lost from Defendant’s pension was contrary to USFSPA and Howell.
  • The Appellate Division rejected potential remedies of (1) contractual enforcement/indemnification because the parties did not have such an agreement; (2) offset or reallocation of equitable distribution because of the amount of time that passed and, importantly, “equitable distribution is final and not subject to a change in circumstances”; and (3) res judicata because the Supreme Court had already issued an opinion in the case of Mansell, holding that a veteran’s retirement benefits lost due to collecting disability benefits are not disposable retired pay that is subject to equitable distribution.
  • Ultimately, the Appellate Division held that an alimony award may be the appropriate remedy notwithstanding the parties’ alimony waiver at the time of their divorce.  In order to get around this waiver, the Appellate Division cited prior case law standing for the proposition that Family Part judges have “a broad supervisory role” to determine whether a divorce agreement is fair, and that Family Part judges have “greater discretion when interpreting such agreements”.  The Appellate Division also noted the parties’ duty of fairness to each other, which is separate from the judge’s duty to assure fairness.  The Court did not stop there – it continued by citing to the parties’ income disparity at the time of their divorce (with Defendant earning 34% more than Plaintiff) and the fact that Plaintiff gave “valuable consideration” in exchange for the alimony waiver.  Notably, the Court stated:

[T]he unforeseeable loss of the bargained for pension benefit was a substantial and permanent change in circumstances, which invalidated the waiver.  Upholding the alimony waiver in these circumstances would be wholly unfair.

While there is a lot to digest from this opinion, the security it offers is something special about the Family Part being a Court of Equity.  Of course, the military spouse who thinks he/she has an alimony waiver may not feel so secure.  It therefore follows that this decision provides good practice tips for divorce matters with spouses in the military – Rather than going with the typical division of retirement benefits by way of QDRO, we may want to consider an offset in equitable distribution that avoids having the distribute a military pension and, thus, the potential loss to the non-military spouse.


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

The issue of the division of deferred compensation in divorce – more particularly, unvested deferred compensation, is often one that is hotly disputed.  This is in part because there is not a lot of case law on the issue.  The case law is clear that deferred compensation (eg. stock options, restricted stock, RSUs, REUs, etc.) granted during the marriage, or even shortly after the date of complaint but for efforts that occurred during the marriage are subject to equitable distribution.  The fights arose regarding whether (1) the deferred compensation should be treated as either income and/or an asset; and (2) if an asset, should they be divided 50-50 or in some other percentage.  In fact, I blogged about this in a piece entitled Deferred Compensation – Income, Asset or Both, back in 2013.  at the time, I said:

If the deferred compensation is not vested and requires continued, post-divorce Complaint service in order for vesting to occur, that is where things get more difficult.  I have seen some simplistically argued that anything granted before the Complaint gets equally divided no matter when it vests.  More recently, I have seen a greater use of some type of calculation (coverture fraction) used to recognize the post-complaint service of that spouse.  Many believe this to be the fairer way of equitably dividing deferred compensation.

There hasn’t been much case law on this issue since that time, though a case that I will discuss later, suggests that the language of the documents granting the deferred compensation is key,  That said, late in 2018, we got some more guidance from the Appellate Division.  Specifically, in the reported (precedential) opinion in the case of M.G. v. S.M. decided on December 26, 2018, Judge Mawla gave new guidance with regard to the distribution of deferred compensation, again pointing to the importance of the plan documents.

In M.G., the plaintiff worked as a  principal consultant for a large multi-national corporation. Beginning in August 2003, and every August thereafter until 2010, plaintiff received a stock award from his employer. Plaintiff received 490 shares in 2003 and those years began to vest at a rate of 174 shares per year commencing in 2011. A similar vesting schedule was applied to the other grants.  Note that in my experience, this is an unusual vesting schedule.  That is, it is unusual, in my experience, for their to be  a 7 year gap before deferred compensation vests.  Typically, I have seen deferred compensation serially vest, over three or five years, starting with the year following the grant.  What that means is that if 600 shares of restricted stock were granted in 2018, then they would vest 200 shares each in 2019, 2020 and 2021.  Other times, you see shares cliff vest in 3 or 5 years.  What that means is that if 600 shares were granted in 2018 that vest in 3 years, all 600 shares would vest in 2021.  This is important because the argument you most often heard from the titled spouse is that the because the shares will vest post divorce allegedly based upon post divorce efforts, that they should be distributed in a less than 50-50 percentage.

Back to M.G.  At the date of complaint, only 3 of 8 awards were fully vested.  At trial, plaintiff offered into evidence plan documents that stated:

Stock-based compensation is a key component of our reward program . . . because it provides an ownership stake in the company’s success for employees who contribute over the long term. To preserve this core element of our culture, in July 2003, [we] decided to grant employees stock awards, which represent the future right to receive shares of . . . stock when a vesting requirement is satisfied.

. . . .

At [our company] we believe that employees who become shareholders maintain a long-term, vested interest in sustained individual excellence and the overall success of the company.

. . . .

Each eligible employee’s annual stock award grant is based on his or her impact, level, and country.

In my experience, the plan language for most plans is much more generic than this.  However, in this case, the plan language supported the husband’s position that his continued employment was required for him to receive the value of the options.  Judge Mawla noted:

Plaintiff’s unrefuted testimony was clear that post-complaint efforts were necessary to cause the stock, which had not vested as of the date of complaint, to become payable. The plan documents and literature adduced in evidence at trial, and attached to plaintiff’s post-judgment motion, stated vesting would occur dependent upon plaintiff’s post-complaint performance. We reject defendant’s argument that “performance” in this case required plaintiff merely to continue living and go to work. Nothing in the record supports this assertion. Indeed, all of the objective evidence in the record demonstrates much more was required of plaintiff as a high-level corporate employee in a highly competitive industry.

As we noted, plaintiff’s employer described the stock plan as a “reward program . . . because it provides an ownership stake in the company’s success for employees who contribute over the long term.” Company literature explained the stock grants were to “maintain a long-term, vested interest in sustained individual excellence and the overall success of the company.” This language does not suggest the stock would vest through mere continued employment without consideration of plaintiff’s level of proficiency. Nor does this language suggest the stock awards were for work already performed.

As a result, Judge Mawla held that the trial judge misapplied his discretion because in the absence of any evidence or testimony to the contrary, he concluded the stock was earned for work performed during the marriage.  Judge Mawla rejected both the use of a coverture fraction or applying the concept of “marital momentum” to address the equitable distribution of the unvested stock awards noting, “In instances where an asset has been granted after the date of complaint, these principles are of little help because they presume a marital component attributable to the asset in question.” (emphasis added).

In determining how to divide such assets, Judge Mawla modified a mechanism found in a case out of Massachusetts.  Specifically, the court adopted the following rubric:

(1) Where a stock award has been made during the marriage and vests prior to the date of complaint it is subject to equitable distribution;

(2) Where an award is made during the marriage for work performed during the marriage, but becomes vested after the date of complaint, it too is subject to equitable distribution; and

(3) Where the award is made during the marriage, but vests following the date of complaint, there is a rebuttable presumption the award is subject to equitable distribution unless there is a material dispute of fact regarding whether the stock, either in whole or in part, is for future performance. The party seeking to exclude such assets from equitable distribution on such grounds bears the burden to prove the stock award was made for services performed outside of the marriage. That party must adduce objective evidence to prove the employer intended the stock to vest for future services and not as a form of deferred compensation attributable to the award date. Such objective evidence should include, but is not limited to, the following: testimony from the employed spouse; testimony of the employer’s representative; the stock plan; any employer correspondence to the employed spouse regarding the award; and the employed spouse’s stock plan statements from commencement of the award and nearest the date of complaint, along with the vesting schedule.

In this case, the court noted that the unvested stock was either in whole or in part unattributed to the marriage based upon the plan documents and testimony at trial.

But before people go too wild about this decision, and simply say that all non-vested deferred compensation is the property of the titled spouse, they should really go back to square one and look at the grant documents, because many, if not most, are not like those in M.G.  In fact, in an reported case last year entitled K.C. v. D.C., a review of the plan documents lead to an entirely different result.

Rejecting the husband’s argument about his post-complaint efforts being necessary to receive the deferred compensation, the court held that the RSUs awarded were “subject to equitable distribution and shall be equally divided,” observing defendant provided no evidence to support his theory that the award was for future performance.  Like in M.G., the generic purpose of the plan was:

to aid the Company . . . in recruiting, retaining and rewarding key employees . . . of outstanding ability and to motivate such employees . . . to exert their best efforts . . . by providing incentives through the granting of Awards. The Company expects that it will benefit from the added interest which such key employees . . . will have in the welfare of the Company as a result of their proprietary interest in the Company.

Different from M.G., however, is the fact that the employee would still get the deferred compensation if they died, became disabled, or were terminated through no fault of their own.  Put another way, no post-complaint efforts were specifically required.  Accordingly, the Court held:

Aside from the generalized aspiration that “key employees” who are granted RSUs will have an enhanced interest in the welfare of Accenture, there is no requirement that the employee meet any performance goals before a batch of RSUs will vest pursuant to the schedule. The only condition for vesting is “continued employment.” Moreover, in the event the employee is no longer employed due to death or disability, all of the RSUs granted, whether vested or not, are transferred to the employee or his estate. Obviously, the transfer of RSUs following death or disability would not be based on future performance.

In sum, all the documentary evidence in the record1 states that such promotional grants are awarded based on performance ratings at the time of the award, in recognition of employees’ efforts, and no document provided to the court states defendant must meet any given performance goal to trigger the vesting of RSUs that are part of the grant. Contrary to defendant’s argument, the record was clear, and fully supported the trial court’s determination that the RSUs were subject to equitable distribution.

So what is the takeaway here.  You need more than just a party’s self serving testimony.  You need the plan documents and the documents seemingly must really require post-divorce exemplary efforts more than just staying employed, in order to exempt the deferred compensation granted but not vested during the marriage.  M.G. does not address the necessary corollary which would be that if the deferred compensation is exempted from equitable distribution, should it not then be considered as income available to pay alimony when it vests?  Seems so but we shall see.


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

 

 

 

Today was a good day.  For me and for my client.  It fills me with hope that tomorrow will also be a good day.  Why you ask?  After 36 years of wondering, guessing, dreaming, frustrating, I brought my client one step closer to knowing, for certain, who she is.

You see, this client found me about 3 months ago.  After speaking to several attorneys, all of whom told her she had no case because of her age, she found me.  We had a lengthy phone call where she shared her life story with me.  What brought her to the point of seeking legal recourse was simple – she was facing a variety of medical issues, the causes of and exact diagnosis difficult to know without having a full medical history, including that of her natural birth parents.  And here her problem lied.

My client, a 36 year old woman residing outside the state of New Jersey had no way to provide that information to her doctors.  Her mother was deceased.  And she had no confirmation of exactly who her biological father was.  She did have a solid suspicion based on information and stories she was told growing up, but her birth certificate was devoid of this.

We talked about her medical challenges in great detail.  We mulled over the options.  Ultimately, we decided to file a Complaint to Establish Paternity, despite the fact that we were 13 years pass the statute of limitations (technically) to bring such a claim.  But as with many areas of the law, there is gray and our facts fit squarely into the gray.

To give some perspective, the New Jersey Parentage Act, N.J.S.A. 9:17-38 et seq., provides the legislative mechanism by which parties may seek to establish paternity for a child in the state of New Jersey.  The Act establishes a twenty-three (23) year statute of limitations on bringing actions to establish parentage thereunder, as no action shall be brought more than five (5) years after the child reaches the age of majority, which is eighteen (18) years of age.   The Act permits the child to bring the action on his or her own behalf.  In reality, any interested party has until the child reaches the age of twenty-three (23) to bring the action.

However, in certain circumstances, the twenty-three year statute of limitations may be equitably tolled.  The seminal case on this issue is the New Jersey Supreme Court opinion in R.A.C. v. P.J.S., Jr., 192 N.J. 81 (2007).  In that case, the child’s mother’s husband (who believed he was the child’s father) brought a reimbursement action against the alleged biological father.  The action was brought past the statute of limitations, when the child was over thirty (30) years old.  The trial court in R.A.C. decided that the “[s]tatute of Limitations should not frustrate [the son’s] right to know his own potential genetic make-up,” particularly in light of the “serious medical condition” he may have inherited from his biological father.  The appellate court affirmed, finding that the “application of the doctrine of equitable tolling in this case [did] not undermine the purposes of the Parentage Act” because allowing the claim to proceed would not “disrupt fragile familial relationships,” thus “leav[ing] a young child bereft of required paternal guidance,” but rather lead to “a reconciliation of obligations.”  The appellate court went on to note that although statutes of limitations generally protect a party from having to defend against stale claims, when that party induces or tricks a putative plaintiff into letting the deadline pass, equitable tolling may apply. In R.A.C., the appellate court determined that the mother and biological father engaged in a pattern of deception, concealing from plaintiff his son’s true parentage and did not time-bar the claim.

The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed this decision, finding that the plain language of the Parentage Act and the legislative intent barred such actions beyond the twenty-three (23) year time limit.  The Supreme Court noted that the tendency in New Jersey has been to reject the discovery rule for statutes of limitations that run from a fixed, specified event.  The Court found that: “the question here is whether equitable tolling can ever apply to a repose statute…we believe that it can.  However, in light of the purpose of a repose statute, which is to set a fixed end to the limitations period regardless of when the cause of action accrues, we expect that equitable tolling will arise only in extraordinary circumstances consistent with legislative intent.” (emphasis added).

Noting the scant legislative history, the Court found that:

The twenty-three-year timeframe for filing a paternity action coincides with the recognized period when a child is in need of financial support and a parent legally bears a financial obligation to provide that support. See Wingate, supra, 149 N.J. at 239, 693 A.2d 457. In most cases, a parent will no longer be bound to support a child who reaches the age of majority. Newburgh v. Arrigo, 88 N.J. 529, 543, 443 A.2d 1031 (1982). Therefore, the “major concern” of the Parentage Act, the financial support of children, is no longer an issue after children have reached the age of twenty-three and presumably are capable of supporting themselves….By setting a fixed time period, the Legislature evidently understood that there would be cases, perhaps many cases, in which paternity would not be established within the twenty-three-year timeframe and that a biological father who bore the responsibility of raising and supporting a child would be relieved of his obligation. The Legislature did not create a scheme providing for an indefinite liability period,  but instead created one that allowed persons to reasonably expect that the slate would one day be “wiped clean.” The Legislature evidently knew what has been known since time immemorial that children would be born of adulterous relationships and that the true identity of the father might not be known for more than twenty-three years. The repose statute does not contain any carve out for such situations.

I must point out that the Court was addressing an action for support (or more specifically, reimbursement for support).  The prayers for relief in R.A.C. were financial in nature.  In a footnote, the Court stated that:

In light of the muscular dystrophy gene that afflicted Patrick’s family, we do not doubt that Darren’s need to know his biological background for health and family planning purposes might have been an “extraordinary” circumstance warranting the tolling of the statute to allow for DNA testing to establish paternity. See generally Fazilat, supra, 180 N.J. at 88, 848 A.2d 761 (commenting that “confirmation of one’s lineage may also provide `medical benefits’ by allowing the child to learn of the potential diseases and abnormalities he or she may inherit from parents and their forbears”). In this case, Darren was not a named plaintiff, and therefore this lawsuit is not about Darren’s right to know his genetic make-up. Id. (emphasis added).

Close up of wooden gavel isolated on white background

This footnote became highly relevant to my client’s argument and helped to establish the “extraordinary circumstances” we believed the court intended.

She will now, by virtue of court Order get paternity and genetic testing.  If the information she was provided her entire life regarding the identity of her biological father was correct, she will have confirmation and peace of mind.  Even now she feels legitimized and well on her way to finding the missing piece of her puzzle.  After all, should we not all have that?

I love the practice of law.  My specialty area gives me opportunities to impact people’s lives in a way that other attorneys may never experience in their career.  Today some lost idealism was returned to me and for that, it was a good day.

 

In the recent unpublished (non-precedential) decision of Mathurin v. Matrhurin, the Appellate Division again confirmed that (1) agreements reached in mediation are not binding unless the terms are reduced to a  writing signed by the parties and, ostensibly, their attorneys if present, and (2) absent such a writing, the court cannot consider discussions, unsigned agreements or memoranda from mediation or other settlement negotiations because such writings/discussions are confidential by virtue of the Rules of Evidence that provide privilege to settlement negotiations.  It therefore follows that such confidential writings and/or oral communications cannot be relied upon to convince a court that an agreement was reached in mediation.

The post-divorce litigation in Mathurin arose when Plaintiff/ex-husband filed a motion to enforce the Marital Settlement Agreement (“MSA”) in order to compel Defendant/ex-wife to accept the offer for sale of the marital residence.  The parties agreed to sell the home within the MSA, but after they received this offer, Defendant proposed to buyout Plaintiff’s interest in the home for the same amount.  Plaintiff did not accept this alternative resolution.  Two other enforcement applications followed – one dismissed for procedural issues and the other denied without prejudice (meaning it can be refiled) pending the parties attending mediation because the MSA had a mediation clause that requires the parties to seek such intervention before filing an application with the Court.  The mediation session that followed gave rise to this appeal.

The mediator prepared and signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) listing the terms reached in mediation and further stating the parties’ agreement that the MOU reflects an enforceable settlement reached between the parties.  Plaintiff reneged on the terms in the MOU because of credits sought by Defendant that he found objectionable, and he refused to sign a formal agreement that his attorney prepared incorporating the terms of the MOU.  Plaintiff fired his attorney and filed another motion to enforce the MSA.  Defendant filed a cross application to enforce the MOU to which she attached the MOU and signed certifications from herself and both parties’ counsel wherein those parties disclosed the contents of mediation. Ultimately, the trial court found that it cannot consider the MOU and/or the certifications because they are confidential settlement documents, and that the MOU was not binding.  The Appellate Division affirmed, finding that the MOU and certifications represent confidential settlement material and that the MOU is not binding because it was not signed by the parties or counsel.

The Appellate Division cited to a New Jersey Supreme Court case, Willingboro Mall, Ltd. v. 240/242 Franklin Ave., LLC, 215 N.J. 242, 245 (2013), confirming that the all agreements reached in mediation must be reduced to a signed written agreement and that mediation discussions cannot be relied upon to prove an agreement was reached unless the parties waive the mediation privilege.  The Appellate Division differentiated this case from a 2017 decision, GMAC Mortg., LLC v. Willoughby, 230 N.J. 172 (2017), because in that case the writing was signed by the parties’ attorneys.  Although those cases are not family law matters, the same principals apply to all settlement discussions.

This issue here is one that attorneys and litigants face in mediation all to often – was an agreement reached just because there seemed to have been a meeting of the minds?  The simple answer is no.  Although we do not suggest, nor would we propose, rushing into signing an agreement, if a party in mediation wishes to make sure that the agreement reached in the session is binding, then the terms must be in writing and signed by both parties, as well as counsel if present.  This does not have to be formal – a piece of paper with handwritten terms will suffice – but there is no question that written terms and signatures are required.  At minimum, terms can be memorialized in an MOU but as we all now know, the MOU is not binding.  What may result then is a Harrington hearing, which you can read about in this post: https://njfamilylaw.foxrothschild.com/2014/03/articles/mediation-arbitration/harrington-is-still-alive/

Oftentimes in mediation, the mediator explains at the outset that nothing reached in their session will represent a final agreement unless the terms are reduced to writing and signed by those present (i.e.: parties/parties and counsel).  This is a common instruction, presumably in an effort to avoid a future Harrington situation, and one that I find beneficial so that everyone in the room is starting out on the same proverbial page.

The takeaway – it’s not over until it’s signed, sealed and delivered!


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

In a new, published (precedential) decision, J.G. v. J.H.Judge Koblitz, of the Appellate Division confirmed and explicitly held what we all should have known before:  No matter what type of case, the same rules apply with respect to discovery and investigation, and the trial court judge is under the same obligation to apply the legal standard resulting in a decision that is in the best interests of the child.

FD Docket versus FM Docket

It sounds obvious:  the welfare of all children should be determined using the same standards and practices.  Child custody and parenting time determinations are made under either one of two case or “docket” types.  The FM docket type refers to divorce cases; obviously, oftentimes a child custody decision is made incident to a divorce.

When a child custody or parenting time issue arises between unmarried parents (or, more uncommonly, married parents who have not yet filed for divorce), these are handled under the FD or “Non-Dissolution” (i.e. a marriage is not being “dissolved”) docket.  These types of cases are known as “summary proceedings,” meaning that they are to be handled much more quickly than divorce cases.  While divorce cases are automatically assigned timeframes for exchanging information and appointing experts if needed, this is not automatically done in FD cases and if you want discovery or experts, you have to request it.

As a result, in practice, many judges are tasked with and face the pressure to move FD cases along quickly.  Unfortunately, in the J.G. v. J.H. case, and perhaps in many others like it, this led to a very important decision about a child’s custody and welfare being made quickly without taking the proper steps to investigate the best interests of the child that would have occurred in due course in a divorce case.  In this important decision, the Appellate Division reminds us that bona fide disputes in child custody cases must not be treated differently just because they may arise in different case types.

The Facts of J.H. v. J.G.

In J.H. v. J.G., although there was no court order establishing same, the parties essentially shared joint legal custody of the minor child, with the mother designated the parent of primary residence and the father the parent of alternate residence with liberal parenting time.  When the mother began dating someone else, the father alleged that this new romantic partner posted a threat to the safety of the child, and came to court requesting sole custody.  The Court temporarily awarded the father sole custody.  When the mother challenged this, the Court entered a permanent change in the parenting schedule, making the father the parent of primary residence and significantly reducing the mother’s parenting time.  The judge made each of these decisions without investigation, and gave the parties no opportunity to resolve their differences amicably.  The judge did not allow for discovery (even though the mother’s attorney requested it), did not allow the mother’s attorney to meaningfully participate in the proceedings; nor did the judge conduct a hearing despite the the fact that the parties’ claims were completely contradictory.

Requirements for ALL Custody Disputes

Thus, the Appellate Division affirmed that the following requirements must be adhered to in ALL custody disputes, no matter the docket type:

Pre-Hearing Requirements

  • Pursuant to Rules 1:40-5 and 5:8-1, parties must attend Custody and Parenting Time Mediation prior to a trial.
  • If parties are unable to resolve the issues in mediation, they must submit a Custody and Parenting Time Plan to the Court, pursuant to Rule 5:8-5(a) and the case Luedtke v. Shobert (Luedtke), 342 N.J. Super. 202, 218 (App. Div. 2001).
  • Where there is “conflicting information regarding which parent can serve the long term best interest of the child,” but there is no issue as to the psychological fitness of either parent, the Luedtke case requires that a Social Investigation Report should be completed.
  • In FD cases, if a party requests that the matter be placed on the “complex” case management track, the court can in its discretion grant this request under Major v. Maguire, 224 N.J. 1, 24 (2016), a case on which I have written in the past.  Absent a clear reason to deny such a request, it should be granted.
  • Pursuant to Rule 5:8-1, an investigative report should have been prepared by court staff before any custody determination is made.

Required Plenary Hearing

In all contested custody matters, a thorough plenary hearing is required where parents make materially conflicting representations of fact, pursuant to K.A.F. v. D.L.M., 437 N.J. Super. 123, 137-38 (App. Div. 2014) and many other cases.  The plenary hearing must afford both parties the opportunity to present witnesses and to cross-examine the other party’s witnesses, and parties and counsel must have a meaningful opportunity to participate.

Requisite Fact-Findings and Reasons for Award

Judges must explicitly make findings of fact and apply those facts to the custody factors set forth in N.J.S.A. 9:2-4(c), which are:

  • the parents’ ability to agree, communicate and cooperate in matters relating to the child;
  • the parents’ willingness to accept custody and any history of unwillingness to allow parenting time not based on substantiated abuse;
  • the interaction and relationship of the child with its parents and siblings;
  • the history of domestic violence, if any;
  • the safety of the child and the safety of either parent from physical abuse by the other parent;
  • the preference of the child when of sufficient age and capacity to reason so as to form an intelligent decision;
  • the needs of the child;
  • the stability of the home environment offered;
  • the quality and continuity of the child’s education;
  • the fitness of the parents;
  • the geographical proximity of the parents’ homes;
  • the extent and quality of the time spent with the child prior to or subsequent to the separation;
  • the parents’ employment responsibilities;
  • the age and number of the children; and
  • a parent shall not be deemed unfit unless the parents’ conduct has a substantial adverse effect on the child.

Without specifically addressing each and every one of the above factors after listening to the facts presented by both parties and assessing credibility, a court cannot make a determination as to what is in the child’s best interests.

Of course, ALL children and parents deserve this type of extensive inquiry into their welfare and the parent-child relationship – but thankfully this case makes it official and provides additional precedent for overruling or remanding trial court decisions made in haste, without the requisite inquiry.


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.

For many divorce attorneys, the busy season starts after the first of the year. For the last several years, I have posted on the phenomenon of the New Year’s Resolution Divorce. For whatever reason, this post has struck a chord and has been both well received and cited by other bloggers. As such, given that the new year is near, I thought I would share that piece again, updated slightly for the new year.

Over the years, I have noted that the number of new clients spikes a few times of the year, but most significantly right after the new year. Before writing this article for the first time, out of curiosity, I typed “New Years Resolution Divorce” into Google and got 540,000 results in .29 seconds. There are even more results when you do the same search now. While not all of the search results are on point, many were extremely interesting. It turns out that my intuition about this topic was right and that there are several reasons for it.

One article on Salon.com put divorce up there with weight loss on New Years resolution lists. Also cited in this article was that affairs are often discovered around the holidays. Another article linked above attributed it to “new year, new life”. Another article claimed that the holidays create a lot of pressures at the end of the year that combine to put stress on people in unhappy or weak relationships. Family, financial woes, etc. associated with the holidays add to the stress. Turning over a new leaf to start over and improve ones life was another reason given. This seems to be a logical explanation for a clearly difficult and perhaps heart wrenching decision.

In my experience, people with children often want to wait until after the holidays for the sake of the children. There is also the hope, perhaps overly optimistic, that the divorce will be completed by the beginning of the next school year. These people tend to be in the “improving ones life” camp.

So as divorce lawyers, we hope to avoid or at least resolve in advance the holiday visitation disputes that inevitably crop up, then relax and enjoy the holiday as we await the busy season to begin.

In the last several years, the phenomena started early for us and many other attorneys. We were contacted by more people in December in the last few years than in any years in recent memory. In some recent years, the calls started in November at a pace more robust than in prior years. Moreover, we have heard of more people telling their spouse it “is over” before the holidays this year. I suspect that in some, it was the discovery/disclosure of a new significant other or perhaps pressure being exerted by that person that was the cause. In other cases, the person just didn’t want to wait until the new year to advise their spouse.

For those who divorce in 2019, they will be the first to test the new tax laws eliminating the deductibility of alimony.  They may also be facing a slowing economy.  Bad economies historically mean more divorces, either because of the stress it creates or because one or both parties is being opportunistic.

Whatever the reason, we await those who see 2019 as a chance for happiness or a fresh start. Happy New Year?!?!


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

With the costs of college ballooning out of control, determining which of the divorced parents will pay for what percentage of a child or the children’s college has evolved into high stakes litigation that is on par with questions such as equitable distribution and alimony.   With the federal tax law changes regarding deductability and taxability of alimony and the year end rush to finalize agreements,  I experienced settlement discussions abruptly end last week because of this very issue.  This question has been addressed many times but New Jersey’s judiciary and was most recently considered in the unpublished appellate decision of Landre v. Landre, A- 5080-16T1.

The defendant-wife in Landre had filed a post-judgement motion to enforce a Matrimonial Settlement Agreement (MSA) that required the plaintiff-husband to contribute to their oldest child’s college expenses based on a pro-rata calculation of the parties’ income percentage for contributing.  The trial court granted the motion, and plaintiff appealed.

The parties had two children and were divorced in 2002. The MSA, incorporated into the judgment of divorce, addressed college expenses for the children. The MSA contemplated both parents would be involved in the college selection process and established the parties’ contribution to college expenses would be calculated on a pro rata basis.  The MSA established the following regarding the payment of college expenses:

“The parties recognize their obligation to contribute to the cost of their children’s post-high school education should the child demonstrate an aptitude for and an interest in same. The parties shall consult in advance with regard to post-high school education for their children. During the child’s senior year in high school, the parties shall communicate, in writing, concerning the child’s choices for post-high school education. In the event that either party does not approve of any institution to which the child seeks to make application, such disapproval shall be given in writing, with the reasons set forth, 30 days prior to the application deadline. If such disapproval is not set forth in writing, with the accompanying specific reasons for such disapproval, then there shall be a presumption that both parents agree to contribute to the cost of any and all institutions to which the child applies and is accepted, according to the terms of this Agreement. In no event, however, shall either party act in such an unreasonable manner as to prohibit the child from applying to any such institution.

The parties shall contribute to the cost of the child’s post high school education on a pro rata basis, in accordance with their respective earned and unearned incomes at the time the child is accepted into the institution. The parties’ obligation to contribute to the cost of post high school education shall apply only after exhausting all loans, grants, scholarships, the value of the UGTMA accounts that then exist for the benefit of the children, and any other sources of financial aid to which a child might be entitled.”

In opposition to defendant’s motion to enforce the MSA regarding the oldest child’s college expenses, plaintiff argued that defendant (1) did not include him in the child’s college selection process; and that (2) he should receive a credit for scholarships and financial aid that the child had declined from other universities that were not offered by the school that was eventually chosen.

The trial judge held he was “not making a decision about which school the child should attend,” and limited his decision to the percentage contribution of each parent for college expenses.  The judge determined it was undisputed that each party anticipated contribution toward the expense, and hence, the court was not undertaking a determination of whether contribution was warranted in the first instance.  Therefore, a decision based on the factors in Newburgh v. Arrigo, 88 N.J. 529 (1982) was not necessary (see below).  The trial judge further ruled that a court may take certain principles in Newburgh into consideration in making a determination, but the question of whether a parent should be compelled to contribute requiring application of the factors were not before the court.

Unfortunately for the trial court judge, the Appellate Division disagreed and ruled that the Newburgh factors should have been applied, even in cases where the property settlement agreement, or judgment of divorce, or MSA, as in this case addressed college contributions. See Gotlib v. Gotlib, 399 N.J. Super. 295, 310-11 (App. Div. 2008).

Newburgh states that a parent’s obligation for the cost of postsecondary education depends upon the expectations and relevant abilities of the child and the parents considering all relevant factors, including:

(1)       whether the parent, if still living with the child, would have contributed toward the costs of the requested higher education;

(2)       the effect of the background, values and goals of the parent on the reasonableness of the expectation of the child for higher education;

(3)       the amount of the contribution sought by the child for the cost of higher education;

(4)       the ability of the parent to pay that cost;

(5)       the relationship of the requested contribution to the kind of school or course

of study sought by the child;

(6)       the financial resources of both parents;

(7)       the commitment to and aptitude of the child for the requested education;

(8)       the financial resources of the child, including assets owned individually or held in custodianship or trust;

(9)       the ability of the child to earn income during the school year or on vacation; (10) the availability of financial aid in the form of college grants and loans;

(11)     the child’s relationship to the paying parent, including mutual affection and shared goals as well as responsiveness to parental advice and guidance; and

(12)     the relationship of the education requested to any prior training and to

the overall long-range goals of the child.

[Id. at 545.]

The Appellate Division stated that “when making a decision regarding the obligation of a parent to contribute to college expenses, the judge has “an obligation under Newburgh and N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23(a) to consider all the enumerated factors” and should not base its decision on any single factor. Gotlib, 399 N.J. Super. at 309 (quoting Raynor v. Raynor, 319 N.J. Super. 591, 617 (App. Div. 1999)).

Because the trial judge did not apply the Newburgh factors in the trial decision, the Appellate Court remanded to the trial court.

The Appellate Court also ruled that the “plaintiff’s interpretation of the MSA [was] flawed.”  The MSA did not require scholarships or financial aid from other schools be considered in determining plaintiff’s contribution to college expenses. The MSA required that the child accept all “loans, grants, scholarships,” and “any other sources of financial aid” at the school he or she decides to attend.  The Appellate Court determined that the financial aid offered by the two unselected schools should be considered on remand as a factor in determining plaintiff’s contribution toward the oldest child’s college expenses.

The Appellate Court further ruled that in addition to the Newburgh factors in determining contribution toward college costs, there are additional equitable considerations that may be taken into account.  The Appellate Court identified one such consideration as whether there are younger siblings of relatively close age who are likely to attend college at the same time as the older sibling. In such circumstance, the family court may consider a reasonable financial plan, which fairly allocates present and future funding resources among all of the children, rather than exhausting all resources on the oldest child who happens to attend college first. Black, 436 N.J. Super. at 134. On remand, the Appellate Court stated that in analyzing the resources of the parents and the amount they can pay toward the oldest child’s education, it is appropriate for the judge to consider the parties will likely need funds available in the immediate future to pay college expenses for both children simultaneously.

As demonstrated in Landre, who pays for college when parents are divorced is not an easy question and will likely be different in each case based on facts and circumstances.


Sandra C. Fava, Partner, Fox Rothschild LLPSandra C. Fava is a partner in the firm’s Family Law Practice, resident in its Morristown, NJ office. You can reach Sandra at 973.994.7564 or sfava@foxrothschild.com.

In a recent decision approved for publication, the New Jersey Appellate Division reversed a trial court’s findings that the Sexual Assault Survivor Protection Act, N.J.S.A. 2C:14-13 to -21 (SASPA), could afford protection to victims of sexual assault whose attacks took place prior to the effective date of the Act in 2015.  In so holding, the court reversed the entry of a final protection order to a victim of sexual violence, who was assaulted in 2005, ten years prior to the enactment of SASPA.

The case of R.L.U. v. J.P. illustrates this principle.  In this case, the defendant pled guilty to endangering the plaintiff in 2005, when she was eleven years old.  He was sentenced to three years of jail time and parole for life.  In 2017, he interacted with the plaintiff at the convenience store where she worked and verbally threatened her.  A few days later, he appeared at the glass window of the plaintiff’s job and stared at her for five seconds before walking away.  The plaintiff applied for a temporary order of protection pursuant to SASPA.  A final protective order was then entered, after a hearing at which the trial court heard credible testimony that the defendant had intercourse with the plaintiff in 2005.  Relying upon that assault as the predicate act, the trial court entered a final order of protection pursuant to SASPA.

The Appellate Division reversed, albeit unwillingly, finding it was “constrained” to hold that SASPA was not intended to be applied retroactively.  Explaining the history and purpose of SASPA, the Court identified its purpose to extend protection from domestic violence to those individuals who do not meet the requirements of the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act (PDVA), but are victims of sexual violence.  The PDVA is the primary avenue by which an individual can obtain a protective (otherwise known as restraining) order in New Jersey.  However, to qualify as a “victim” under the PDVA, one must be a spouse, former spouse, co-parent, or person with whom the defendant had a dating relationship.  Accordingly the PDVA does not protect persons subject to sexual violence in a random encounter or in less than dating relationship.

To bridge this gap, SASPA provides that any person alleging to be a victim of nonconsensual sexual contact, sexual penetration or lewdness (or an attempt thereof) who is not a protected victim under the PDVA, may apply for a protective order under SASPA.  However, the entry of a final protective order under SASPA requires a finding of nonconsensual sexual contact, penetration or lewdness and the possibility of future risk to the safety or well-being of the victim.  Importantly, words, threats or harassment is not enough.

Here, the trial court relied upon the predicate act of intercourse with the plaintiff in 2005.  The appellate court reversed, finding that this act could not constitute the predicate act as it occurred prior to SASPA’s enactment in 2015.  The court relied upon the absence of any legislative intent that SASPA was designed to apply retroactively and the fact that the PDVA is similarly applied prospectively.

It is important to understand the different laws which protect victims of domestic violence and know that SASPA is a fairly new law which broadens the category of victim who may seek protection from such acts of abuse.  However, victims whose offenders are more akin to a stranger must be cognizant of the durational limits imposed by SASPA.  That being said, any new acts of sexual violence may give rise to a basis for a protective order under the Act and anyone who is unfortunately a victim of such violence should be aware of the legal rights and protections to which they are entitled.

__________________________________________________________________

 

Katherine A. Nunziata, Associate, Fox Rothschild LLPKatherine A. Nunziata is an associate in the firm’s Family Law practice, based in the Morristown, NJ office. You can reach Katherine at (973-548-3324) or at knunziata@foxrothschild.com.

A new domestic violence decision, M.D.C. v. J.A.C., not only confirms that defendants in a domestic violence proceeding are entitled to due process, but also goes a step further by asking the Supreme Court’s Family Practice Committee to determine whether the should require judiciary staff and law enforcement to inform and review with defendants the allegations against him/her, as well as what to expect at a Final Restraining Order (“FRO”) hearing.  In the manual’s present form, such explanations are only required for the plaintiff.  This suggested update confirms that each party is entitled to reciprocal due process and to be informed of their rights to present evidence, testimony and witnesses, as well as to seek adjournments if additional time is needed to prepare his/her case.

In M.D.C., the trial court treated the defendant in a particularly egregious manner during an FRO hearing in which it entered an FRO against the defendant.  Although the plaintiff had the opportunity to present her witness, the trial court did not offer the defendant an adjournment when her only witness (her mother) was unavailable on the trial date, nor did the court advise the defendant of his right to seek such adjournment when she explained her witness’ unavailability.  Additionally, while the plaintiff was given the time to present her testimony and even “prompted”by the court to testify about prior acts of domestic violence outside of the four corners of the complaint, the trial court repeatedly disrupted the defendant’s cross-examination of the plaintiff and required the defendant to limit her questions to the domestic violence complaint.  Ultimately, the defendant ended her cross-examination out of frustration.  This is especially material because the FRO was entered in part on credibility determinations that the defendant was precluded from exploring without justification.  Finally, although it seems the plaintiff was able to present her case in the manner desired with assistance from the trial court, the trial court precluded the defendant from introducing photographic and video evidence, which the defendant claimed refuted the plaintiff’s testimony, without making any findings on the record to support this preclusion.

The Appellate Division reviewed the long-standing history of a defendant’s due process rights in New Jersey domestic violence cases and, in part, general litigation, including, without limitation,  (1) a defendant’s due process are violated when he/she is denied the right to cross-examine, which is the “most effective device known to our trial procedure for seeking the truth”; (2) courts should advise pro se litigants of their right to seek an adjournment to call necessary witnesses and the failure to offer and/or grant the adjournment violates due process; (3) the failure to consider evidence without any reason for doing so is also a due process violation; and, (4) while plaintiffs seeking an FRO may amplify their allegations of prior domestic violence history, they must amend the complaint in order to place defendants on notice of such allegations and afford them an opportunity to prepare a defense.

Person with finger on the scales of justice, illustrating concept of divorce

In light of all due process violations in this case, it should come as no surprise that the defendant here is using his soapbox to enhance the rights for all defendants in due process cases.  From a practice standpoint, having interned in the domestic violence courts of Essex County while in law school and then observing such hearings as a law clerk in Union County, and now appearing often in such courts throughout northern New Jersey, it is undeniable that a significant amount of these hearings occur between pro se litigants on one or both sides.   If the plaintiffs are the only party who are advised in advance of their rights and how to conduct themselves at an FRO Hearing, a defendant can argue that the plaintiffs are automatically receiving the upper hand at trial.  Although the domestic violence defendant is not facing a criminal conviction (at least at the FRO Hearing), the defendant’s rights are severely impacted by having an FRO entered, including having their name on a national registry that can impact future employment, support obligations, custody and parenting time determinations, prohibitions from carrying/owning weapons that were legally procured, which can also impact employment, etc.  Criminal defendants are required to be advised of their rights and, perhaps, so too should a domestic violence defendant.

It will be interesting to see if the Manual is in fact updated.  Stay tuned…  Either way, if you are representing yourself, whether you are the plaintiff or the defendant, make sure to inform the court of any true impediments you may have to begin trial on a date provided, such as calling a witness or procuring evidence, prepare a thorough cross-examination of the other party’s witnesses and insist on your right to explore credibility and all issues raised by that witness on direct, and have your evidence pre-marked and a proffer ready to explain to the court why it should be entered.  This does not guarantee success, but it will help with a fair chance.


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

In the wake of the September 10, 2014 amendments to N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23, the legislature clarified the circumstances under which an alimony payor’s obligation can be modified or terminated due to the obligor’s intended or actual retirement.  Under the statute as amended, when faced with an obligor’s application to modify or terminate alimony due to good faith retirement, the Court must consider the question of the alimony recipient’s ability to save for his or her own retirement.  As discussed In the new unpublished (non-precedential) Appellate Division decision Stansbury v. Stansbury, this question is given much greater weight in pre-Amendment cases (i.e. in cases that were decided or agreements that were entered into prior to September 10, 2014).

For post-Amendment cases, there is a rebuttable presumption that if a payor retires at “good faith retirement age” (defined as the age at which (s)he would be entitled to receive full Social Security Retirement benefits), then alimony shall terminate unless the recipient can show by a preponderance of the evidence and for good cause shown that alimony should continue (either in full or in a reduced amount).  In making that determination, the court must consider eleven (11) factors, one of which is the ability of the recipient to have saved adequately for retirement.  See N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23(j)(1).  This factor is listed along with the ten other factors, in no order of importance, with no emphasis whatsoever.

But for pre-Amendment alimony awards (like the Stansburys’), the statute does not just list the obligee’s ability to save for retirement as one of many on a list of factors to be balanced and considered.  Instead, it absolutely mandates and even elevates this criteria first and foremost among the others:

When a retirement application is filed in cases in which there is an existing final alimony order or enforceable written agreement established prior to the effective date of this act, the obligor’s reaching full retirement age as defined in this section shall be deemed a good faith retirement age.  Upon application by the obligor to terminate or modify alimony, both the obligor’s application to the court and the obligee’s response to the application shall be accompanied by current Case Information Statements or other relevant documents as required by the Rules of Court, as well as the Case Information Statements or other documents from the date of entry of the original alimony award and from the date of any subsequent modification.  In making its decision, the court shall consider the ability of the obligee to have saved adequately for retirement as well as the following factors in order to determine whether the obligor, by a preponderance of the evidence, has demonstrated that modification or termination of alimony is appropriate:

(a)  The age and health of the parties at the time of the application;

(b)  The obligor’s field of employment and the generally accepted age of retirement for those in that field;

(c)  The age at which the obligor becomes eligible for retirement at the obligor’s place of employment, including mandatory retirement dates or the dates upon which continued employment would no longer increase retirement benefits;

(d)  The obligor’s motives in retiring, including any pressures to retire applied by the obligor’s employer or incentive plans offered by the obligor’s employer;

(e)  The reasonable expectations of the parties regarding retirement during the marriage or civil union and at the time of the divorce or dissolution;

(f)  The ability of the obligor to maintain support payments following retirement, including whether the obligor will continue to be employed part time or work reduced hours;

(g)  The obligee’s level of financial independence and the financial impact of the obligor’s retirement upon the obligee; and

(f)  Any other relevant factors affecting the parties’ respective financial positions.

N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23(j)(3) (emphasis added).

In Stansbury, the Defendant had a permanent alimony obligation but, at the age of 72 (well past good faith retirement age), he was looking to retire and made the appropriate application, which the Plaintiff opposed.  Eliciting certain facts from the parties’ respective certifications that accompanied their motions (and, reasonably, hoping to avoid the time and expense of a trial for two litigants with modest means and of a senior age), the judge addressed each of the factors listed above, including the question of the Plaintiff’s ability to save for retirement.  She found that – based on what the Plaintiff certified about a recent health issue and about her income and budget set forth on her Case Information Statement – it was “unlikely” that the Plaintiff had been able to save for retirement.  Based on this assumption and on the remaining factors, the trial judge declined to terminate the Defendant’s obligation and instead reduced it.

The Defendant appealed, arguing that – having failed to conduct a hearing – the trial judge did not have sufficient evidence to make the assumption that the Plaintiff did not have the ability to save for retirement.  In fact, on the question of what had happened to the Plaintiff’s share of Defendant’s pension awarded to her in equitable distribution, the trial judge had essentially taken a guess that the Plaintiff had liquidated her share of that marital asset and spent it while she was not working due to her recent illness, or else re-invested it.  There was no testimony in the record from the Plaintiff herself as to what she had done with this money.  The Appellate Division found that the trial judge’s failure to make findings after a hearing as to the issue of the Plaintiff’s ability to save for retirement was an error, and remanded the matter to the trial court, instructing that:

The hearing should require plaintiff to come forward with evidence that she saved for retirement to the extent she was able to do so, and how plaintiff disposed of her share of defendant’s pension.

The case makes clear that for pre-Amendment alimony awards in particular, trial judges not only have to consider this factor, but must give it great weight.   Therefore, litigants opposing retirement applications in pre-Amendment cases should be prepared to address this in great detail.   Additionally, the Appellate Division’s instruction to the trial court quoted above in the Stansbury case certainly suggests that whether an obligee has actually saved for retirement is not the important thing that courts must consider in these applications, but rather whether the recipient COULD HAVE saved for retirement based on his/her income, assets inclusive of equitable distribution, and the alimony received.  In other words, fiscal irresponsibility on the part of the obligee shouldn’t bar the obligor from making a successful application.


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.