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?

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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.

As we have blogged before, in light of the Constitutional protections given to parents, grandparent visitation is very hard to obtain because the grandparents have to show harm to a child to meet their burden.  What happens, however, if parties agree to grandparent visitation and the parent then either changes their mind or reconsiders decides that the grandparents shouldn’t have visitation anymore?  Must the grandparents then have to prove harm, as if there never was a consent order in the first place because there was no proof that the visitation was necessary to avoid harm to the child.  That is exactly what a trial court, in the case of Slawinski v. Nicholas held.  Note that that basis for the motion to terminate the visitation was a claim that the child was upset by the visits, was not properly cared for during the visits and further, that the grandparent allowed the child’s father to be present at a visit even though his visitation had been suspended by a prior court order.  However, in a reported (precedential) opinion, released on December 6, 2016, the Appellate Division reversed and held that a parent could not unilaterally modify a consent order for grandparent visitation.

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The parent’s attorney argued that she  should not have the burden to demonstrate grounds to terminate visitation inasmuch as the original Consent Order was entered by consent without any judicial findings that the visitation was beneficial. The attorney further contended, “[T]here is no burden that my client has to do anything other than say this is not working out, I tried.” The trial judge agreed and held that since the order was entered by consent, defendant was entitled to terminate visitation unless plaintiff could demonstrate, by a preponderance of the evidence, “that denial of visitation would result in harm to the child.”

In the decision, the Appellate Division provided a concise primer on the state of grandparent visitation, as follows:

We recognize that a parent’s fundamental right to raise a child as he or she sees fit encompasses the authority to determine visitation by third parties, including grandparents. See Moriarty v. Bradt, 177 N.J. 84, 114-15 (2003), cert. denied, 540 U.S. 1177, 124 S. Ct. 1408, 158 L. Ed. 2d 78 (2004). Yet, that autonomy gives way to the need to protect the child from harm. Id. at 115. Thus, “grandparents seeking visitation . . . must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that denial of the visitation they seek would result in harm to the child.” Id. at 88. “If the court agrees that the potential for harm has been shown, the presumption in favor of parental decision making will be deemed overcome.” Id. at 117.

Still, proof of harm involves a greater showing than simply the best interests of the child. Id. at 116 (stating that a dispute between a “fit custodial parent and the child’s grandparent is not a contest between equals[,]” consequently “the best interest standard, which is the tiebreaker between fit parents, is inapplicable”). Substantively, it is a “heavy burden.” Major v. Maguire, 224 N.J. 1, 18 (2016); cf. Fawzy v. Fawzy, 199 N.J. 456, 479 (2009) (“The threat of harm is a significantly higher burden than a best-interests analysis.”). The harm to the grandchild must be “a particular identifiable harm, specific to the child.” Mizrahi v. Cannon, 375 N.J. Super. 221, 234 (App. Div. 2005). It “generally rests on the existence of an unusually close relationship between the grandparent and the child, or on traumatic circumstances such as a parent’s death.” Daniels v. Daniels, 381 N.J. Super. 286, 294 (App. Div. 2005). By contrast, missed opportunities for creating “happy memories” do not suffice. Mizrahi, supra, 375 N.J. Super. at 234. Only after the grandparent vaults the proof-of-harm threshold will the court apply a best-interests analysis to resolve disputes over visitation details. Moriarty, supra, 177 N.J. at 117.

The Appellate Division then discussed the impact of a consent order on the above law, and held:

But nothing about a parent’s right to autonomy warrants allowing a parent to unilaterally modify or terminate a consent order on grandparent visitation. The parent effectively waives that autonomy by entering into the order, just as a parent waives rights when entering into any other consent order governing custody or visitation. Given our respect for the consensual resolution of family-related disputes and the stability such agreements achieve, modification of a consent order governing grandparent visitation must be considered according to the same Lepis changed circumstances framework applicable to other custody and visitation orders.

The Appellate Division then provided the necessary procedure to follow should a parent wish to modify a Consent Order for Grandparent visitation, as follows:

Consistent with this approach, the court should apply the standard governing grandparent visitation if the movant-parent also succeeds in establishing changed circumstances. That is to say, the court must consider whether or not the modification of a grandparent’s visitation will cause harm to the child, as distinct from considering the best interests of the child.3 If the modification will not cause harm, the court must grant the modification even if the grandparent could show doing so was contrary to the child’s best interests.

When the parent is the movant, the parent bears the burden to establish grounds for modification. See Beck v. Beck, 86 N.J. 480, 496 n.8 (1981) (“[W]hen seeking joint custody after an initial custody determination has been made, even a parent enjoying such a relationship must satisfy the same burden of proof as applies to anyone seeking to change a custody decree, namely, a change of circumstances warranting modification.”); Abouzahr, supra, 361 N.J. Super. at 152 (assigning burden to show change of circumstances and child’s best interests to “party seeking a modification”); Sheehan, supra, 51 N.J. Super. at 287 (stating “the party seeking a modification bears the burden of proof”).

Thus, in a grandparent visitation case, the parent seeking modification bears the burden to prove changed circumstances and that the child would not suffer a particular, identifiable, child-specific harm, see Mizrahi, supra, 375 N.J. Super. at 234, if modification were ordered. Given that a grandparent’s burden to prove harm is more onerous than satisfying a best interests test, the parent’s burden to prove the absence of harm is less onerous than the best interests test. See Moriarty, supra, 177 N.J. at 113 (noting that a best interests test can be satisfied although the child suffers no harm) (citing Watkins v. Nelson, 163 N.J. 235, 248 (2000)); cf. Morgan v. Morgan, 205 N.J. 50, 63-65 (2011) (noting that a custodial parent’s burden to prove good faith and lack of harm in order to remove the child is less onerous than a showing of best interests). Once the parent establishes changed circumstances and the absence of harm, the court must grant the parent’s requested modification.

The Appellate Division was clearly wrestling with the long standing public policy favoring the settlement of disputes as juxtaposed against a parent’s constitutional rights as it relates to their children.  That said, one wonders whether a parent would be willing to give up their autonomy, especially in questionable circumstances, if they have will have to expend a lot of time and money to terminate the grandparent visitation in the future.

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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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More and more, when discussing the payment of college education expenses with clients for their children, I am being asked, “What about graduate school?”  The guiding principal behind that question, I suppose, is that, in New Jersey, it is well-settled that absent extenuating circumstances, both parties to a divorce have an obligation to financially provide for their children’s college educations.  By that logic, if a child seeks an advanced degree, don’t both parties have an obligation to financially contribute to those educational costs as well?

The question of whether a graduate degree is the new undergraduate degree is a debatable one, sure.  But in a recent unpublished (not precedential) decision, J.C. v. A.C., the New Jersey Superior Court determined that even though divorced parents have an obligation to contribute to their children’s pursuit of a college degree in ordinary circumstances, this doesn’t mean that there is a continuing obligation to contribute to the child’s pursuit of a graduate degree.

 

The pertinent question here is whether the child is emancipated, i.e., whether the child has the ability to support him or herself.  New Jersey generally deems children to be unemancipated, even if they are over the age of 18, if they are attending college full time.  This is because our courts have established that a child attending college is generally not capable of supporting him or herself yet.  But, as Judge Jones discusses in J.C., the same cannot necessarily be said of a child who has already obtained a college education and has a college degree.  The Court cannot simply look at graduate school as an extension of undergraduate education, because there are clear differences between a college student with only a high school degree, and a graduate student with a college degree:

First, as previously noted, a graduate student has usually and most critically already obtained a bachelor’s degree, evidencing an enhanced ability to start taking independent responsibility for his or her own life.

Second, a graduate student who already has a bachelor’s degree – as compared to an undergraduate student with only a high school diploma – may logically and inherently more marketable [sic] in certain instances, an therefore reasonably expected to utilize the degree and apply for jobs where he or she can earn an independent living, even if such jobs may pay less than certain positions which require a master’s degree or other advanced degrees that the student can obtain on his or her own at a later date. [. . .].

Third, the distinction between an undergraduate student and a graduate student has been implicitly recognized by the Federal government itself.  When an undergraduate student applies for financial aid through FAFSA, the FAFSA application form generally requires applicants to disclose parental income as part of the information necessary to determine eligibility and the amount of financial aid the applicant may receive.  Graduate and professional degree students are generally considered independent students and are not required to supply information regarding parental income on the FAFSA application. [. . .].

Fourth, absent highly unusual circumstances, a graudate student is, from a chronological standpoint, generally older than the undergraduate student, and therefore naturally expected to be more mature and independent in a manner consistent with his or her years and life experience.  With such years are naturally expected to come the ability to be self sufficient, outside the sphere of parental influence. [. . .].

Fifth, from a standpoint of sensibility, one may legitimately question just how far the concept of extending emancipation and child dependency beyond college graduation actually goes. [. . .]. Does a parent have to financially maintain a “child” who is 25 or 30 years old, just because the child chooses to seek further advanced degrees, and the parent happened to have had an unsuccessful marriage and divorced the child’s other parent many years earlier?  Does such a result make practical sense?

The question then, says Judge Jones, must be:  is this college graduate emancipated, or not?  Judge Jones’ analysis above suggests that the Court should, in most circumstances, consider a college grad to be capable of supporting him or herself – even if he or she might want to pursue a higher education degree that would allow him or her to support him/herself, perhaps, on a higher salary – and therefore be emancipated.  The burden of proof, then, should lie with the applicant seeking a parent’s contribution to graduate educational expenses to show that it is “appropriate, necessary, and equitable under the circumstances” to require continued support by way of an order requiring a parent to help pay for grad school.  The pertinent factors in that analysis would be the oft-cited Newburgh v. Arrigo factors:

  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.

These, combined with other equitable factors for consideration – most obviously, the inherent differences between a high school student seeking contribution to undergraduate expenses and a college grad seeking contribution to graduate school expenses – have to be considered when determining whether it is fair for a parent to have to contribute to graduate education expenses.

But wait…what about the new statute?

The J.C. v. A.C. case recognizes that, effective February 1, 2017, there will be major changes in the law of emancipation and termination of a parent’s obligation to pay child and other financial support under N.J.S.A. 2A:17-56.67.  Under that statute – which will apply retroactively as well as prospectively – a parent’s obligation to pay child support will terminate by operation of law when a child reaches the age of 19, unless a court orders an extension of payment which shall not extend beyond the child’s 23rd birthday.  If a child is enrolled full time in college after he or she reaches the age of 19, then child support will not be terminated until that child reaches age 23, by which time the average college student has indeed graduated.

That’s a long-winded way of saying:  If your kid is in college, child support and a parent’s obligation to pay for college will continue until your kid turns 23.  Then, there can be no more child support.

BUT – and this is a big “but” – the amended statute provides that even though “child support” – i.e. payments from one parent to another for the support of the child – terminates, a child over the age of 23 will be able to seek a court order requiring “other forms of financial maintenance” from a parent.  In other words, a child over the age of 23 can still ask the court to require a parent to pay his/her expenses, it just won’t be called “child support.”

I recently moderated a Continuing Legal Education Panel where the panelists and I discussed this impending new statute, and this very issue was raised:  Under the new statute, could a 23 year old (or older!) “child” apply to the Court for another “form of financial maintenance” from a parent in the form of contribution to graduate education expenses?  And could that child be successful?

Judge Jones’ opinion certainly provides guidance on that question and suggests that not every claim by a child seeking a parent’s contribution to graduate school expenses should be granted under the new statute; the test will be whether the child can meet his or her burden of proof to show that an order requiring a parent to contribute to grad school expenses is “appropriate, necessary, and equitable under the circumstances” based upon the Newburgh factors and any other equitable considerations, including most importantly the general distinctions that can be made between a high school student seeking contribution to undergraduate expenses and a college graduate seeking contribution from a parent for grad school expenses.


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.

On December 5, 2016, an extremely interesting reported (precedential) opinion was released by the Appellate Division in the matter of J.S. v. D.S.  The opinion was remarkable for two reasons, one procedural and one substantive.  On the procedural side, what was interesting was that the Appellate Division proceeded to decide the case even though the matter was settled and the parties sought to have the appeal dismissed because the Court determined that “the interests of justice require a disposition of the appeal’s merits.”

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The substantively interesting part of the opinion was the holding that parties cannot consent to the entry of a domestic violence Final Restraining Order (“FRO”).  Rather, because of the far reaching implications of an FRO, a trial court must make the requisite finding that an act of domestic violence has occurred.

In this case, after the entry of a Temporary Restraining Order (“TRO”), at the date of the FRO hearing, the parties reached an agreement which called for defendant’s consent to an FRO in exchange for plaintiff’s consent to defendant’s exclusive possession of the marital home pending further order in the matrimonial proceedings.  Rather than question the plaintiff about the act of domestic violence or the defendant to see if there was agreement that the act had occurred, but rather only asked the usual questions regarding the voluntariness of the agreement.  Satisfied that the agreement was voluntary, an FRO was entered.  The defendant then filed a timely appeal asserting that the FRO was void ab initio (i.e. from the outset) because the judge mistakenly issued the FRO without taking testimony about the allegations, without finding an act of domestic violence occurred, and without determining plaintiff required protection from defendant.

Apparently, while the appeal was pending, the same or similar agreement to continue the FRO was reached again and the parties tried to dismiss the appeal but the Appellate Division would not allow it finding:

… In light of the strong public policies underlying the Act, we choose to exercise our discretion to consider the appeal on its merits. We have an obligation to ensure the FRO was legitimately entered and should not permit its wrongful perpetuation simply because it may have become a useful chip in the settlement of the parties’ matrimonial disputes.

Having rejected the parties’ request that we dismiss the appeal and having resolved to consider the merits of this appeal, we agree with what defendant previously argued: the FRO can no longer stand. A domestic violence final restraining order may not be entered by consent or without a factual foundation. See Franklin v. Sloskey, 385 N.J. Super. 534, 540-41 (App. Div. 2006).  Because the trial judge mistakenly failed to elicit a factual foundation, failed to find domestic violence occurred, and failed to determine whether plaintiff required protection as a result of defendant’s conduct, we vacate the FRO.

The matter was then remanded for an FRO hearing.

Interestingly, in a footnote, the Appellate Division provided a road map, as it were, for parties that want to consent to an FRO, when it stated:

We do not mean to suggest every domestic violence action must be tried to a conclusion or that a defendant may not accede to relief sought by a plaintiff. Nothing prevents a defendant from declining to defend against such an action or from acknowledging under oath the commission of an act of domestic violence. The consequences, however, are too serious to permit entry of an FRO merely by consent. Before entering an FRO, a court must ensure there exists an adequate factual foundation and that the defendant understands the consequences of the decision not to contest the matter. A court must also find that the FRO is necessary “to protect the plaintiff from an immediate danger or to prevent further abuse.” Silver v. Silver, 387 N.J. Super. 112, 127 (App. Div. 2006). (Emphasis added).

The take away from this case is that FROs are serious matters and that care must be taken if they are going to be used as bargaining chips to settle issues on either an interim or final basis.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Of note, Judge Jones held that:

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

More importantly, the Judge held:

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

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

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

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

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

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Johnny Depp a.k.a. Capt. Jack Sparrow is in the news again, this time for his failure to pay Amber Heard a $7 million divorce settlement. Heard had promised that any settlement that she received from Depp would be donated to charity. She has chosen two charities, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles to be the beneficiaries of her largess. Depp hasn’t made the payout yet because he wants to pay directly to the charities rather than to Heard. At issue is the substantial tax benefits that Depp would reap by making the payments directly to charities rather than Heard.

Johnny Depp in Capt. Jack Sparrow costume
By NJM2010 (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
Tax consequences of divorce disbursements is an important consideration when negotiating a settlement. Often times the client will simply lump all assets together and come up with a value of the marital estate not taking into consideration possible tax issues for each individual asset. For instance, the average couple may have a house with $250,000 of equity, a 401(k) with $500,000, and various bank accounts equal to $250,000. The easy math would suggest that one spouse take the 401(k) and the other take the accounts and the house, right? Not so fast. The spouse who would walk away with the house and the bank accounts could liquidate everything and have $500,000 to spend now. The spouse with the 401(k), however, has significantly less available liquidity. Assume, for example, that the spouse that takes the 401(k) has an overall 30% tax bracket for state and federal taxes. To liquidate the 401(k), that spouse would have to pay not only 30% in taxes, but absent extraordinary circumstances, a 10% penalty to liquidate the retirement early. All too quickly that $500,000 becomes $315,000.

This simplistic example demonstrates the necessity of understanding tax consequences to all of the assets in a divorce. This includes stocks and bonds that may have been purchased at a low price that have gone up substantially in value, retirement accounts, real estate investments which in and of themselves may have tax consequences such as available deductions, and carry forward losses on prior tax returns. In the rush to settle the case, litigants sometimes forget the importance of the careful review of their prior tax returns and asset portfolio. A quick call to your accountant may assist your attorney in protecting your future significantly.

 

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 609-895-7612 or jmillner@foxrothschild.com.

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

15956618 - a vector illustration of an angry girl kicking a soda can

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

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

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

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

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

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

38681136 - child with graduation robe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


headshot_diamond_jessicaJessica C. Diamond is an associate in the firm’s Family Law Practice, resident in the Morristown, NJ, office. You can reach Jessica at (973) 994.7517 or jdiamond@foxrothschild.com.

Mark Ashton, a partner in our Exton (Chester County), Pennsylvania office and former editor of our Pennsylvania Family Law Blog wrote an interesting post entitled “Listening to Your Kids During Traumatic Times” .

In this post, Mark, from a child’s perspective, lists 15 things that parents going through this process should consider, as follows:

  1. As your kid, I want to love both of you fairly and equally and not have you think that my love for you diminishes my love for the person you once promised to love “forever.”

  2. Moving from one house to another sucks and it’s made even worse when you get all stressed about my leaving. I will be back, just like the court order says.

  3. You are not responsible for everything that happens to me and I realize that when parents disagree, it gets disagreeable. But please don’t make it worse by making yourself crazy. If you feel trapped, try being in my place with two powerful adults wrangling over me.

  4. Please don’t share with me what you and my other parent are fighting about. And, oh yes, I did tell you each something different about what sport I want to play because I didn’t have the courage to stand up to either of you and feel your disappointment.

  5. Let me figure out whether I like the other parent’s new significant other. I am stressed with conflicting loyalty issues already.

  6. It really, really hurts when you don’t show up for something we have scheduled.

  7. Yes, gifts and trips are great but I can tell when the motivation is “Love me more.”

  8. When I’m with you, I do miss my other parent and that does not diminish my love for you.

  9. I am not staying with you to provide information about what the other parent is doing.

  10. Understand that when you share your animosity for the other parent or the frustration you have with them, I have just about no ability to help you with that. I am just the child which usually means all I can really do is channel your stress together with mine.

  11. You may have “moved on” emotionally and found the man or woman of your dreams. Please don’t ask me to share your dream until I am ready. I also know when your “friend” is a lot more than a friend.

  12. If I score a goal or play Dorothy in the “Wiz” I would like you both there sharing my joy. If I hug the other one first afterward, it is not a judgment.

  13. I don’t need to know your side of what happened. I don’t have the coping abilities of an adult and I have never been an adult. If money (or its absence) means you can’t say yes to me, that is something you can tell me without feeling that you failed me.

  14. If there is bad news, please don’t ask me to be the courier.

  15. Over time, I may judge the other parent harshly either with justification or without. I may be asking you to listen. I do want you to listen but I’m not ready to sign up permanently for the “Hate the Other Parent” team.

I recommend that everyone take a minute to read the entirety of this very thoughtful piece.

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

38413886 - words justice delayed is justice denied

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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