I recently wrote a blog entitled "Sloppy Drafting of Marital Settlement Agreements Can Cause Great Harm, Usually to Only One of the Parties." I am reminded why I wrote that post because as I read the new cases decided each day, it fortifies my belief that settlements must be clearly reduced to writing and that every effort should be made so that the document can only be interpreted in one possible way. I say this because as I read these cases and see the results based upon interpretations of agreements, I think that this could not be what the parties really intended.
Specifically, two cases decided in the last two days jumped out at me and left me thinking "I see what the agreement says, but that really cannot be what the parties’ meant."
In Schaefer v. Kamery, an unreported (non-precedential) case decided on November 19, 2012, the holding of the trial court, that limited duration alimony continue even after the recipient remarried was upheld. How can that be you ask since there is a statute (N.J.S.A. 2A:34-25) that says alimony terminates on remarriage? How can that be you ask because you know that there is case law that says that rehabilitative alimony many continue after remarriage, because the rehabilitation plan is goal oriented (i.e. to get someone back in the workforce or improve their earning ability), which goal exists irrespective or remarriage.
The reason that alimony did not terminate on remarriage in this case is that the Property Settlement Agreement contained the following language:
Payment of alimony shall cease only upon the first to occur of: (1) the
expiration of the alimony term set forth above; (2) Husband’s death; or (3) Wife’s
death. The parties agree Wife’s involuntary termination from her current employer or
permanent disability preventing her continued employment shall be a changed
circumstance justifying review of Wife’s alimony obligation. No change in Husband’s
circumstances other than death shall constitute a changed circumstance affecting Husband’s right to alimony.
Part of the rationale for denying the motion was the aforementioned language and the fact that there may have been other interrelated financial terms. Not also, the payor previously sought and was denied modification based upon cohabitation. In fact, the current motion was the third motion to modify.
Having the benefit of 50-50 hindsight, unless someone was trying to pull a fast one and was planning on filing the motion because they knew that the support recipient was in a relationship, the better practice might have been to specifically say that remarriage and/or cohabitation would not impact the alimony, especially if there was not a real meeting of the minds on this issue. Doing so may have saved the legal fees for 3 motions and an appeal.