While we do not typically blog on cases outside of the family court, a recent law division case examined the child support lien statute, N.J.S.A. 2A:56.23b and its impact on settling a personal injury case and on settlements in general.  The statute requires that a child support judgment search be performed to determine if a plaintiff in a given lawsuit has an outstanding child support obligation.  If he or she does, then the statute requires that any “net proceeds of a settlement” (i.e. the proceeds left after the payment of attorney’s fees, witnesses’ fees, court costs, and other related costs associated with the lawsuit are deducted from the settlement award) in excess of $2,000 be paid in either full or partial satisfaction of the outstanding child support arrears.  For example, let’s say $10,000 was owed in child support arrears, and a given plaintiff’s litigation costs totaled $10,000.  If the plaintiff took a $20,000 settlement, then $10,000 would go to pay his litigation costs, $8,000 would go to pay off the child support arrears, and the plaintiff would get to keep $2,000 (but would still have $2,000 in child support arrears).

In Smiley v. Thomas, et. al. , the plaintiff sued the defendants for personal injury as a result of a car accident.  He had also entered into a contingent fee agreement with his counsel, meaning that they agreed to take a fixed percentage of whatever the plaintiff was awarded in settlement or after a trial as their fee, rather than charging the plaintiff at their hourly rates.

Eventually, the defendants made a settlement offer of $25,000.  The only problem was, after the child support judgment search was conducted pursuant to the statute, it was discovered that the plaintiff had outstanding child support arrears in the amount of $19,306.04.  After satisfaction of the arrears and payment to his attorneys, the plaintiff would be left with $2,000; in fact, because his counsel fees and litigation costs exceeded the difference between the child support owed and the settlement amount, he would also be left with some unpaid child support arrears because he would have to pay counsel first.  The plaintiff refused to accept the settlement if, at the end of the day, it meant that he would only walk away with $2,000.

"No Deal"
Copyright: pockygallery / 123RF Stock Photo

But, evidently, the plaintiff’s attorney really wanted him to settle his case.  So badly, in fact, that the attorney was willing to reduce his fee.  So, the attorney asked the Court to modify the fee agreement accordingly; but, and here’s the rub, the attorney also asked the Court to call the money that the plaintiff would realize as a result of this reduction something other than “net settlement proceeds” so that they would not be subject to the child support lien by operation of law.

The Court weighed two important competing interests.  On the one hand, Courts love settlements!  Settlements make both parties feel happy (or equally unhappy) with the outcome and therefore (hopefully) curb future or continued litigation.  On the other hand, our case law is replete with decisions affirming over and over again a parent’s obligation to financially support his or her children and there is plenty of case law carving out exceptions, identifying specific needs of the children that should be included in support, and generally providing guidance as to arrival at an appropriate child support arrangement (seriously, there are a lot of these decisions and we’ve blogged on them here, here, here, here, here, and many more times).

Ultimately, the Court determined that a parent’s obligation to financially support his or her children trumps the competing interest in promoting settlement.  The Court found that it had the obligation to call a spade a spade.  It did not, and found that it could not, call the money that the plaintiff would receive as a result of the reduced counsel fee award something other than “net proceeds from settlement” in order to help the plaintiff evade his child support obligation.  To do so would be in direct contravention of the very purpose of the child support judgment lien statute.


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.

In a new published (precedential) decision, Ricci v. Ricci, the Appellate Division addressed an adult child’s (an oxymoron, I know) request for her divorced parents to contribute to her college education expenses. Going  back to basics, the Appellate Division reminded us that – before any determination about a divorced parent’s obligation to contribute to college education expenses can be made – a threshold question must be answered, namely: Is the child emancipated?

The Facts

The pertinent facts are as follows:

  • Maura and Michael Ricci divorced when their daughter, Caitlyn, was four (4) years old.  As Caitlyn grew older, she engaged in some less-than-responsible behavior.  This is not in dispute.  Caitlyn graduated from high school in June 2012, at which time it was determined by Caitlyn’s parents that – due to said irresponsible behavior – Caitlyn wasn’t ready to go away to college and live on her own.  Therefore, Maura and Michael agreed that Michael would pay for the summer and fall semesters of community college; Caitlyn attended as a part-time student while continuing to live with her mother.
  • In Winter 2012, Maura and Michael agreed, as a way of testing the waters as to Caitlyn’s readiness to live on her own, that Caitlyn would  participate in the Disney College Program in Florida.  Within a month of starting the program, Caitlyn was expelled for underage alcohol use.
  • This is where the facts get a bit murky.  Maura and Michael say that, after Caitlyn’s expulsion from the Disney College Program, they wanted her to return to community college on a part time basis to complete her associate’s degree and outlined for Caitlyn a program of school, counseling, and work (i.e. a part time job) in order to instill discipline and a sense of responsibility in her.  Caitlyn viewed these expectations as unreasonable and impossible.  What is undisputed is that at this point, Caitlyn moved out of her mother’s home and in with her grandparents.  In Michael and Maura’s views, this move was intended as a rejection of their parenting and their attempts to help Caitlyn.  In Caitlyn’s view, her parents’ unrealistic demands “pushed her beyond the sphere of parental influence.”
  • In March 2013, after Caitlyn moved out, her parents agreed that Caitlyn was emancipated.  They entered into a consent order accordingly.
  • Months later, Caitlyn, still enrolled in community college, filed a motion to intervene in her parents’ divorce matter and sought continued support from her parents; specifically, their contribution to her community college tuition.  In October 2013, the trial court judge granted her application.  Importantly, the judge deemed Caitlyn “un-emancipated [sic] solely for the purpose of a potential contribution from [her parents] as it relates to college costs.”  He ordered that Maura and Mike pay for Caitlyn’s tuition, fees, and costs for the 2013-2014 school year, after application of Caitlyn’s financial aid award.  This amounted to about $2,000, or what the trial judge viewed as a “de minimis” amount.  The judge did not conduct a plenary hearing prior to making its decision that Caitlyn be deemed “un-emancipated” for this specific purpose.  Nor did he conduct a review of the parents’ finances to determine their abilities to pay for Caitlyn’s college expenses.
  • Caitlyn was accepted to Temple University for the Fall 2014 semester.  She applied for financial aid and received it, but had about $18,000 / year in un-met tuition expenses, which she wanted her parents to pay.  Caitlyn filed a motion seeking to enforce the Court’s prior order, arguing that it required her parents to pay her tuition, fees, and book expenses.  Maura and Michael opposed the application, arguing that the October 2013 Order was limited to tuition, fees, and books for the 2013-2014 year and that the Order did not determine their obligations, if any, for college contribution in subsequent years.  In October 2014, the Court granted Caitlyn’s application and “enforced” the prior Order, ordering Maura to cover 40% of the unmet college costs, and Michael to cover the balance.
  • Michael and Maura filed a motion for reconsideration.  They argued that the order was unfounded because Caitlyn had unilaterally moved out of Maura’s home after refusing to even compromise about the plan they had laid out for her to impose discipline; transferred to an expensive out-of-state school without conferring with them; refused to communicate with her parents; and continued to act independently, without regard to their parental input.  In short, they argued, she was emancipated and their obligation to support her ended with her rejection of their parenting.  The Court denied their motion and Mike and Maura appealed from all three (3) trial court orders.

The Legal Framework

Whew, that was a lot of facts!  Now let’s get to the law.  In her opinion, Judge Lihotz walked us through the legal framework to which the Court should adhere in these cases.  First, the Court needs to answer the threshold question of whether the child at issue is emancipated.  Lots more on that below.

Next, if the child is not emancipated, the court must consider whether the child has the aptitude for college.  The seminal Newburgh case does not require deferred emancipation for children reaching the age of majority in every single instance; if a child is unable to perform adequately for his or her academic program, then it may be appropriate to find that the child is emancipated.

Finally, if a child has the aptitude for college, a review of the parents’ finances and determination of their abilities to pay and to afford college must be undertaken so that the Court can determine what a parent may reasonably contribute to a child’s college education expenses.

Highlighting the Threshold Question of Emancipation

In reviewing the trial court decisions below, Judge Lihotz essentially found that the trial judges had put the proverbial cart before the horse by failing to address the threshold question of whether Caitlyn was emancipated or not.

Simply put, the parent-child relationship imbues parents with certain “rights, privileges, duties, and obligations.”  One such duty  is to provide financial support, a form of which is contribution to a child’s college education expenses.    The Court, in exercising its power to protect children, has authority to impose support obligations, but this power is limited and terminates upon a child’s emancipation.

So when is a child emancipated?  Well, Judge Lihotz wrote, this depends upon the nature of the parent-child relationship as much, if not more so, than the age of the child:

The dependent parent-child relationship indicative of unemancipation is not merely shown by a child’s claimed need for financial support.  Our jurisprudence unmistakably mandates there must be examination of the parent-child relationship itself.  In fact, a better description is the relationship is one of interdependence: the child’s right to support and the parents’ obligation to provide payment are inextricably linked to the child’s acceptance and the parents’ measured exercise of guidance and influence.  Conversely, a finding of emancipation is a recognition of a child’s independence from a parental influence. (internal citations omitted).

In this case, Judge Lihotz observed, the two sides of the story could lead to different results.  Caitlyn’s version of the facts was, essentially, that she couldn’t possibly have accepted her parents’ guidance and influence because they were imposing unreasonable, unbearable restrictions and demands upon her; they had forced her outside of their sphere of influence involuntarily, and why should she be penalized for that?  Maura and Michael’s version of the facts, on the other hand, was that they were parenting Caitlyn; she needed their strict guidance due to her wild and irresponsible behavior, but she had outright rejected it and chosen to live independently of them and their influence.  Given the diametrically opposed accounts of what had happened, Judge Lihotz observed, a plenary hearing and a fact-finding should have taken place in order to make a determination as to whether Caitlyn’s version of events rang true such that she should be deemed unemancipated, or whether it was appropriate for her to remain emancipated because her parents’ version of the story was more accurate.

One thing seems to be certain: it was improper for the judge to deem Caitlyn un-emancipated for the limited purpose of assessing college expenses to her parents.  As Heidi Klum might say, you’re either “in” or you’re “out.”

 

Either you are emancipated and not entitled to support from your parents – including payment for college expenses – or you’re not emancipated, and you are entitled to support.

Let’s Try This Again…

Ultimately, Judge Lihotz ordered a remand (legalese for a “do-over”) to the trial court.  First, the trial judge must hold a plenary hearing to determine whether Caitlyn was emancipated after all.  The judge will have to review the record and make an assessment as to whether Caitlyn voluntarily set out on her own path and rejected her parents’ guidance and influence.  If not, and she was not emancipated, then the Court will have to address the secondary questions of whether Caitlyn had the aptitude for her academic program (which, now that Caitlyn is 23 and may or may not have graduated from college by now, should be self-evident), and will have to review the parties’ finances to determine their fair shares of financial responsibility.  But it all boils down to that first question:  was Caitlyn emancipated when she made her initial 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.

What rights do people have to an equitable distribution of assets stemming from a period prior to the marriage itself?  If there is no right to equitable distribution under those circumstances, then what rights exist and what remedies can be implemented to protect those rights?  In Thieme v. Aucoin-Thieme, a post-Judgment dispute involving several interesting issues including the equitable distribution of marital assets, distribution of assets pursuant to equitable principles stemming from a pre-marital cohabitation period, and the remedy of a constructive trust in connection with an ex-husband’s receipt of a bonus, the Supreme Court of New Jersey primarily held that:

  1. said bonus received by the ex-husband (Michael) was subject to equitable distribution to the extent it was earned during the parties’ marriage; and
  2. the matter’s “extraordinary circumstances” merited imposition of a constructive trust to protect the ex-wife’s (Bernice) claim of unjust enrichment and request for a portion of the bonus earned during the parties’ pre-marital cohabitation period.

Before even getting into the details of what happened, what is, perhaps, most interesting about this matter is not the very specific facts and circumstances at issue and how such circumstances led to an understandably fair result but, rather, how this case addresses the sort of equitable claims that may arise in connection with a palimony claim that were kept alive in Maeker v. Ross.  While the 2010 amendment to the statute of frauds requires that all post-amendment palimony agreements be in writing, this case also provides a window to argue around the amendment in certain cases if no writing exists – in other words, even without a written palimony agreement for a post-amendment case, the equitable arguments discussed in Maeker can still be made to procure relief.  The case certainly is not limited to that sort of analysis, and, in because of the unique circumstances at issue it even seems to overcome prior case law suggesting that the rights of cohabitants come to an end once the marriage occurs.  With that being said, let’s take a look into what happened…

Here are the unique facts you should know:

  • Michael and Bernice cohabited for eight years and were then married for a brief time.
  • During the cohabitation period and marriage, Michael was an employee of a company called IBG.  He had no ownership interest in IBG, but the company’s principals made a written commitment to Michael that IBG would compensate him for his contributions to the company if it sold.  A written Statement of Understanding was executed, and Bernice’s knowledge as to same was the subject of dispute at the subject post-Judgment trial.
  • Based on that commitment, Michael and Bernice “made personal and financial decisions” with the expectation of such future compensation including, but not limited to, Michael working and traveling extensively for the company, Bernice foregoing employment to devote her time to the parties’ child, and the parties purchasing a new home.
  • The parties divorced and the resulting settlement agreement distributed their assets.
  • During the divorce negotiations, the parties discussed Michael’s potential receipt of deferred compensation or some form of ownership stake in the company, with Michael representing that it “may never happen,” and that he did not anticipate a “big cash payment.”  He further indicated to Bernice that they could revisit the issue in the future should something transpire with the company.
  • Three months after the divorce concluded, IBG was sold and paid Michael $2.25 million (described as a “closing bonus”) for his contributions to the company.  The bonus was paid in accordance with the earlier Statement of Understanding and was paid “to show our appreciation for [Michael’s] contributions in helping [IBG] grow into the successful organization that it is today.”  During a deposition, a company representative testified that the bonus was based on Michael’s contribution to the company over thirteen years and that Michael did not know about the sale before its completion.
  • Bernice first learned of the bonus payment when Michael deposited the money into a bank account that, unknown to Michael, remained a joint account despite the divorce.  Bernice, without notice to Michael, withdrew the funds from the account.
  • Bernice then filed an application for a share of the closing bonus.
  • The trial held that Bernice was entitled to distribution of the bonus, but only that portion stemming from Michael’s work during the marriage.  The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court.

In affirming in part and reversing in part, the Supreme Court, in a decision authored by Justice Anne Patterson, held as follows:

  • It would contravene New Jersey’s equitable distribution statute to find that the portion of the bonus earned prior to the marriage was a marital asset subject to distribution.  As a result, the Court held that the trial court properly allocated the pre-marital and marital periods in determining what portion of the bonus was subject to equitable distribution.  While arguments can be made that this component of the trial court’s decision should not have been upheld based on how the marital portion of the bonus was calculated, that is not the primary focus of the case or this blog post.
  • As Justice Patterson noted, however, the story was not over.  As for that portion of the bonus earned during the parties’ cohabitation period, the Court addressed whether Bernice had made a claim of unjust enrichment.  Addressing a claim for unjust enrichment and its related remedies, the Court provided:

To prove a claim for unjust enrichment, a party must demonstrate that the opposing party ‘received a benefit and that retention of that benefit without payment would be unjust.’

  • Bernice would also have to show that she “expected remuneration” from Michael at the time she “performed or conferred a benefit” on Michael and that “the failure remuneration” enriched Michael “beyond [his] contractual rights”.
  • In the event of unjust enrichment, a court may impose the remedy of a constructive trust to prevent such enrichment.  Legally speaking, a constructive trust is “the formula through which the conscience of equity finds expression.  When property has been acquired in such circumstances that the holder of the legal title may not in good conscience retain the beneficial interest, equity converts him into a trustee.”  More generally, such a trust is a remedy designed to protect a party harmed by another party’s receipt or retention of property procured through unjust enrichment or some other wrongful means (fraud, mistake, undue influence, and the like).
  • Relying on its prior decision in Carr v. Carr, wherein the trial court equitably imposed a constructive trust awarding a wife a share of the marital assets controlled by the husband’s estate where the husband died during the divorce proceedings, the Court here held:

As the evidence presented at trial made clear, the prospect that [Michael] would be generously compensated was a significant factor in the parties’ personal and financial planning from the early stages of their relationship.  [Michael] and [Bernice] each relied on the expectation of deferred compensation if IBG were sold as they made important decisions for themselves and their family.

The parties’ shared anticipation that [Michael] would be paid deferred compensation was more than wishful thinking.  Given IBG’s written commitment to [Michael], and its owners’ genuine desire to reward their valued employee, both parties had reason to anticipate a significant payment in the event of a sale.

. . .

[I]t is clear that on multiple occasions [Michael] advised [Bernice] about his expectation that any sale of IBG could generate a substantial financial reward for their family.

. . .

[I]BG’s commitment to reward him was an important consideration in the decisions made by the parties throughout their cohabitation and marriage . . . In short, as they planned their finances and personal lives, [Michael] and [Bernice] anticipated that they might someday share in the proceeds of the company’s sale.

During the parties’ eight years of cohabitation, and for most of their brief marriage, [Bernice] undertook significant efforts to support [Michael’s] challenging career.

. . .

Indeed, [Michael] himself recognized that [Bernice’s] contributions to their family should be rewarded.

. . .

Accordingly, the record supports the conclusion that [Bernice’s] decision not to seek further education and employment was made, at least in part, in reliance on [Michael’s] financial commitment to her.

As family law practitioners, Thieme v. Aucoin-Thieme provides guidance as to how to not only bring an equitable claim stemming from a period when parties were not married, but also the sort of appropriate remedy that can be imposed in the event of a viable claim.  In a way, despite its specific factual scenario, it also opens the door to creative lawyering as to when these types of equitable claims could come into play.  Especially in the context of a palimony matter where other related equitable claims are raised, there is, perhaps, more opportunity to overcome an adverse party’s argument that all of the equitable claims are simply palimony claims dressed in different clothes.

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

Connect with Robert: Twitter_64 Linkedin

Growing up, my siblings and I all played sports. My brother and I were basketball players and my sister was, in no uncertain terms, a track star. Playing sports was a lifestyle in our family, and no one took it more seriously than my father himself, a former basketball player and my toughest coach. My dad was not only an extremely skillful basketball player, but he was a great teacher and I valued all the time he spent with me in the driveway teaching me how to perfect my shot. I like to think this is why he was always my most vocal fan at my games.

No matter how packed the stands were for a Friday night game (my high school had almost 4,000 students), I could tune out every cheer, scream and shout, that is, except of course, my dad’s. He had his share of one liners, “advice” for the referees and positive feedback, but when I wasn’t playing up to his standards (which rival that of Coach K or Jim Boeheim), I was always able to find him in the sea of parents, with two fingers on the bridge of his nose shaking his head in disappointment or somehow hear his “instructions” as to what I could be doing better, over all the noise.

A few distinct memories are as follows: once, when I was about 12, in the middle of a game, my dad, then toting along my much younger sister, came down from the stands over to the bench to tell me that I was playing “so badly” he was going to wait in the car–if that did not instill fear in you to play better, nothing would. It was going to be a long car ride if I didn’t turn that around! Another time a referee told him to start drinking decaffeinated coffee before coming to tournaments. But my favorite was when I missed a few foul shots in a game (which was the equivalent, or worse than, being expelled from school). My dad drilled into my head from a young age the importance of foul shots, so after the game, I was not allowed to come inside the house until I made 25 foul shots, in a row. I still remember that cold December evening, standing outside in the dark on the chalk-drawn foul line he made, taking shot after shot in the glow of the overhead garage light. Once you learn how to make foul shots without feeling your hands, it becomes second nature.

In any event, everything my dad did (except maybe his “advice” towards the referees), taught me how to be a better basketball player, a better team player, work harder and, subsequently/somehow, positively shaped me into the person I am today. And while he was tough, I never once felt discouraged or embarrassed; instead he motivated me to work harder. After all, by high school, I was our team’s technical foul shooter.

But all too often, parents cross the line from teaching their children to be better athletes to acting inappropriately, disparagingly, and disruptive not only towards their own children, but towards their children’s team and coaches.

65898085 - rear view little league baseball team sitting on bench

In the unpublished (non-precedential) matter of D.W. v. M.W., the mother of a 7-year old child filed a motion seeking to prohibit her ex-husband, the child’s father, from attending their son’s coach-pitched Little League baseball games due to what she alleged, was “inappropriate public criticizing and disparaging of the coach’s baseball-related decisions and abilities in an embarrassing and demeaning manner”. According to the mother, the father routinely made negative and demeaning comments at the baseball field, that their 11-year old daughter then began repeating, that other parents witnessed this inappropriate conduct, and that the father even took his commentary from the baseball field to FaceBook. The child’s father denied these allegations.

After recognizing the cultural importance of Little League baseball, Judge Jones took judicial notice “that the results of particular Little League games are not nearly as significant as the underlying goal of developing a child’s ongoing personal character in a positive fashion. In this respect, there is a paramount importance in maintaining the surrounding environment at the Little League field as one which promotes respect, integrity, responsibility, discipline and self-restraint. Ironically, however, a great challenge in meeting these goals often comes not from the participating children, but from parents. While fathers and mothers come to games and practices for the alleged purpose of supporting their sons and daughters, there are times when overly critical, judgmental and interfering parents invariably end up acting in an objectively inappropriate manner, which can be highly embarrassing and emotionally detrimental for their own children, and others as well.”The “social phenomenon of out-of-control sports parents is often informally referred to as ‘Little League Parent Syndrome”.

41648699 - summerlin, nevada - june 4: a summerlin little league girls game on june 4, 2015, in summerlin, nevada. two players warm up at a summerlin little league game in summerlin in nevada.

But when and where does the Court intervene in this matter? A parent’s inappropriate and disruptive conduct, not only at the ball field but in any public venue, may be directly contrary to the best interests of their child, and in cases before the family court, a child’s best interests, rights and needs are greater than that of either parent.

In the case at bar, Judge Jones made it clear that he could have set the matter down for a costly and elongated plenary hearing, but decided to undertake what he referenced as the “fresh start” approach. The “fresh start” approach does not make any finding as to the credibility or accuracy of either party’s viewpoints, but requires that both parents submit to the same “(a) parameters of parental conduct at the ball field; and (b)… act at all times in a manner which is consistent with the children’s best interests as well as the true purpose of organized youth sports in the first place.”

The parties were also directed to follow all league rules concerning parental conduct and additionally, adhere to the following parameters not only at the site of the games and practices, but also on social media:

1) A parent may not publicly harass or demean his or [her] child or any other child;

2) A parent may not publicly harass or demean any coach or official. If a parent has a particular issue which he or she wishes to communicate with a coach or official, then absent a legitimate emergency, the parent may address the issue with the coach or official, privately, either by letter or by any other method deemed acceptable by league officials, including but not limited to, if reasonably necessary, an in-person meeting, outside the presence of children, and consistent with any existing league rules, with all such communication conducted in a mature, diplomatic, and respectful manner;

3) A parent may not publicly harass or demean any other or any parent or other spectator in the stands; including but not limited to that parent’s separated divorced, or otherwise estranged spouse, or such person’s guest(s). A child’s sporting event is a wholly inappropriate place for any public domestic disputes of any kind;

4) A parent who attends a child’s youth sporting event or practice has an affirmative obligation to act in a manner which upholds the dignity of the event. In particular, a parent may not act in a manner which is directly contrary to the core purposes of the event itself, such as teaching children concepts of maturity, respect, and discipline, and good sportsmanship. A parent who cannot or will not accept these parameters, and who acts in a manner which publicly undermines these core goals and values, may undermine the integrity of the event and the rights of all participating children and other adults in attendance;

5) A parent is to fully comply with all other rules of conduct required by the league or organization in question.

The purpose of the “fresh start” approach is much like the lessons learned from youth sports; there is always a second chance to do better. “With parenting, the reality is that parents who allegedly commit errors or fumbles in raising children, and who end up in court over such incidents, may positively and constructively learn from the entire experience” and make positive changes going forward that are in the best interests of their children. While the “fresh start” approach is contingent upon both parties making positive changes, if they are willing and able undertake this approach, I believe it can be successfully extended to other parenting issues as well. In the right instances, as practitioners, we should be mindful of this approach when dealing with similar parenting issues.

As a matrimonial litigant, you never want to feel that your lawyer does not know how best to take you through the divorce or post-divorce process.  After spending substantial sums of money on an advocate to aid you through a difficult and emotional process, let’s just say that “the blind leading the blind” is not the vibe that you want to be left walking away with.

Unfortunately, however, it happens way too often and I cannot tell you how many times I have had consults with potential clients during which I am told about how disappointed he or she was with prior counsel.  I have had several recent cases where I am left baffled and scratching my head at the inability of a matter to move forward to a trial or settlement – not because of difficult parties or issues of complicated substance, but, rather, a lawyer on the other side who simply does not seem to know what he or she is doing.

The experiences to which I allude are all the more reason to heed the following points when selecting your divorce lawyer:

  • Does the lawyer practice exclusively in the area of matrimonial law? You want a lawyer who knows the law, right?  You also want a lawyer who knows how the law has been applied, how it fits to the facts of your case, and how and when it may be changing.  While no lawyer is going to concede to you that he or she does not know the law, or that acting on your behalf will be a new experience, always do your due diligence before meeting with the attorney to see what you are really dealing with.  Aside from discussing with your referral source, perhaps review the attorney’s online profile to see what articles he or she has written, or what presentations he or she has given on family law topics.
  • Is your lawyer familiar with the judges, lawyers, mediators and experts who may be involved in your matter? This point coincides with the first point.  A lawyer who is well versed in or only practices in the area of family law will more likely be familiar with the people you will come across in the course of your matter.  Knowing how your spouse’s lawyer operates, knowing which mediator may be good or bad for your case, and knowing which expert can best address your financial or custodial needs is of great importance in properly presenting and proceeding in your case.
  • Do you feel comfortable in communicating with your advocate about the law and the facts of your case? You are going to get to know your lawyer very well.  You want to be able to confide in that person all of the good and the bad that may have happened during your marriage, as well as anything that may impact upon your divorce proceeding.  Providing your lawyer with such information and allowing him or her to best address such issues is one of the reasons why you retained that lawyer in the first place.
  • Do you strategize with your lawyer in a way that addresses many different potential approaches while also taking litigation costs into consideration? There are many, many…many different types of divorce lawyers.  There are lawyers who prefer the path of least resistance to get you to a resolution, lawyers who are always aggressive, and so many others in between.  The lawyer you retain should fit your goals and motivations of what you want or believe your divorce matter should be.
  • Is your lawyer responsive to your needs? Responsiveness is one of the issues that I hear about most often from clients who have had prior counsel.  You want to ensure that your attorney gets back to you in a reasonable time to address any issues that you may have.

These are just a few of the critical points that you should consider in retaining matrimonial counsel.  Every lawyer is different, as is every client.  Finding the right match for you is not a decision to be taken lightly, and should be based on a consideration of several factors.  Your attorney is someone who you are going to confide in more than most other people in your life, including, on occasion, your family and friends.  Trust and comfort in your lawyer’s ability to advocate on your behalf is a critical, if not the most critical decision that you may make during the entire divorce process.

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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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I am not generally one to make resolutions at the New Year.  Most of them would involve eating, and I have a sweet tooth, so I am destined to fail. That being said, I do try to make some improvements to my work life each January and in addition to cleaning my desk, they include giving my clients some resolutions they should think about.

Copyright: underverse / 123RF Stock Photo
Copyright: underverse / 123RF Stock Photo

Number 1.  Don’t be a jerk.  Your dissolution/custody/post-judgment matter has enough difficult substantive issues involved without having to deal with unreasonableness for the sake of making things difficult.  It is so often tempting to lash out at someone who has acted in a childish, mean spirited manner against you.  However, while it might make you feel better for a hot minute, the longer effects of your actions may be that they come back to bite you in the derriere.  In today’s day and age, almost all of our actions are captured in some form of technology, whether it be a post on Instagram, a comment by someone other than you on social media, or a response by the recipient of your actions in an email.  Trust me- a judge will not be amused.

Talk to me first before you act against your ex.  Let’s discuss what was done to you and what is an appropriate response.  Remember, we judge ourselves by our intent, but we judge others by their actions.  This oftentimes necessitates taking the high road.  Let’s make sure we know how you will be judged by others (most notably a judge or expert).

Number 2.  Don’t ask me to be a jerk for you. I am a professional.  And I am courteous.  Add the two together, and I will practice professional courtesy.  Which means I will respond to a fellow attorney in a timely manner; I will pick up the phone, and yes, if I am asked to consent to an adjournment I will do so unless it will hurt my client’s interests. Trust me, I am doing this for you.  Why?  Because the fact of the matter is, you are going to need something later in the case, and chances are if I am a jerk, the other attorney will be a jerk right back at me.  More importantly, if I get a reputation of being a jerk, I am never going to get a break from the judge on your case. When you have a school play scheduled for 3:00 in the afternoon the day of a settlement conference, don’t hand the judge a reason to deny our request to move it.

Number 3. Understand my occasional scheduling issues.  You are important to me.  I promise. And it has nothing to do with the amount of money you have, the complexity of your case, or whether you are male or female.  I strive to do the very best I can for each one of my clients.  However, stuff happens.  It happens to you, and it happens to others.  And when one of my other clients has an emergency, I can only be at one place at one time. I am fortunate to have amazing colleagues who work with me, so it is rare that attention cannot be given to you.  I once was almost fired by a client when I had to reschedule an appointment to review documents when another client had been physically assaulted  by a spouse and I had to rush to the courthouse to get an order of protection.

Number 4 (and more important than number 3).  Understand that I have no power over the Court’s scheduling issues.  Trust me, I am just as frustrated at the fact that we have waited for over a month for an order from the Court.  I do understand that it is having a detrimental effect on you and your children.  However, the fact of the matter is that judges in NJ have approximately 400-450 cases, and there is only so much that can be done in a day or week.   Don’t ask me to call the court every day or write a scathing letter.  Trust me, this is not the way to endear you to the judge.

Number 5. Take a deep breath.  Your case is like a Bell Curve.  You are at the apex and it stinks.  I will help you get to the bottom, but it will not happen immediately.  Your matter will be over, and you will be able to move on with your life.

 

MillnerJennifer_twitterJennifer Weisberg Millner is a partner in Fox Rothschild LLP’s Family Law Practice Group. Jennifer is resident in the firm’s Princeton Office, although she practices throughout the state. Jennifer can be reached at 609-895-6712 or jmillner@foxrothschild.com.

Our partner in our Chester County, Pennsylvania office, Mark Ashton, just wrote an interesting piece on our Pennsylvania Family Law Blog entitled “”Tis the Season”  about how the time between November 1st and the end of the year used to be the quiet time for new matters and how he has found that this year has been different.  We have found that to be the case, as well, as noted below.

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That said, for many divorce attorneys, the busy season starts after the first of the year. For the last few 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. Out of curiosity, I typed “New Years Resolution Divorce” into Google and got 540,000 results in .29 seconds. While not all of the search results were 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. This year, 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.

Whatever the reason, we await those who see 2017 as a chance for happiness or a fresh start. Happy New Year?!?!

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

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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.

In the case of M.C. v. P.C. (unreported, non-precedential), Judge Jones explores the issues surrounding mid-week overnight parenting time during the school year and its effect on the best interests of the children. In many cases, both parents live close by and are routinely exercising parenting time on weekdays in addition to weekends. While frequent and continuing contact with both parents is almost always positive for the child, it does not come without issue in the post-divorce context. We frequently see cases where one parent refuses to complete homework or take the child to soccer practice during their weekday parenting time.

The facts of this case are simple. The parents have two children, ages 8 and 10. As part of their divorce agreement, one parent was the primary residential custodial parent with the other parent having reasonable and liberal parenting time, to include every Thursday evening overnight into Friday mornings.

The primary parent, who works in the children’s school (but is not their teacher) filed an application to modify midweek overnight parenting time asserting that the children often come to school unprepared on Friday mornings and without their homework completed. It was alleged that the primary parent then has to rush around on Friday mornings assisting the children with completing their assignments before school formally begins. The noncustodial parent obviously denies same, however the Court noted that neither party produced any corroborating evidence so the Court was forced to rely upon the parties own testimonial positions.

In its analysis, the Court took “judicial notice” (meaning something is so well known it cannot be reasonably doubted) that education is one of the most important aspects of a young child’s life. The Court noted that children “need to learn from both parents, as early as possible, that tending to homework, test preparation and general scholastic readiness must take an appropriately high priority in a child’s schedule”.

That said, even in the cases where the parents are entirely cooperative, when the children go back and forth between households, this creates another layer of difficulty in trying to implement these fundamental educational values and maintain consistency. The Court opined while it is conceivable that back and forth parenting time could cause a child to incur a significant distribution and a loss of appropriate focus on meeting scholastic responsibilities, it is not per se harmful or contrary to a child’s best interests. As with many issues that arise in a family law matter, it is fact-sensitive and case specific given that each family and child is unique.

The Court goes on to remind that:
“Shared parenting” means more than simply counting the hours and minutes a child stays under a parent’s roof but also involves each parent meeting his or her responsibilities during such a time rather than unilaterally passing it off onto the other parent. Put another way, a parent cannot insist on simply taking the children for parenting time while siphoning out the parenting obligations which naturally continue to exist during such times. If a parent wants midweek overnight parenting time during a school year, that comes with all of the scholastic responsibility and other midweek obligations, in one integrated package.

The Court noted that although the primary parent’s testimony was persuasive there were evidentiary obstacles insofar as how prevalent the deficiencies that were complained of really were. Was this a situation where the child only missed 1 out of 10 assignments or a situation where the child’s backpack was not even opened with nothing done at all? The Court noted that evidence could have been presented by school records, testimony from teachers, lower test scores or any other evidence of the children’s lack of readiness on Fridays, as compared with other days when the children are in the care of the primary parent.

In sum, the Court found that there was insufficient evidence to make a specific finding that the homework issue was so prevalent as to require an immediate elimination of midweek overnight parenting time but established a helpful protocol for the parties moving forward as to how to deal with the issue of homework.

What can be taken away from this is case is how important it is to be fully prepared when presenting your application to the Court. Had the primary parent produced more corroborating evidence as to the magnitude of the missed assignments (assuming it was substantial), the outcome may have been different. It is always important to seek the advice of experienced counsel when presenting any application (especially an application to modify an existing arrangement/order) to the Court.

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Lauren K. Beaver is a contributor to the New Jersey Family Law Blog and an attorney in Fox Rothschild LLP’s Family Law Practice Group. Lauren practices out of the firm’s Princeton, New Jersey office representing clients on issues relating to divorce, support, equitable distribution, custody, and parenting time. Lauren also offers mediation services to those looking to procure a more amicable divorce. Lauren can be reached at (609) 844-3027 or lbeaver@foxrothschild.com.

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.