On March 27, 2008, the Appellate Division released the decision in Gotlib v. Gotlib. This is a reported decision which means that it is precedential and must be followed by courts in the future.
In this case, the plaintiff/ex-wife filed a motion seeking enforcement as to unreimbursed medical expenses and the payment of college expenses. She also sought to invalidate defendant/ex-husband’s transfer to a third part for his share of the marital residence.
As to the issue of medical expenses, the parties were required per their Judgment of Divorce to equally share in these costs. The plaintiff sought more than $23,000 in medical expense arrears, going back to 1996. These expenses included those that were already awarded to her in 1997 when she was required to file an enforcement motion. Though she was successful in the motion, the defendant never paid. The defendant argued that plaintiff waived her right to enforce the Judgment’s clear provisions requiring each party to pay one-half of the children’s un-reimbursed medical expenses because she did not consult with him before the children visited certain physicians, and did not bill him on a monthly basis, as required by the Judgment.
The Appellate Division disagreed holding that a parent’s obligation to pay un-reimbursed medical expenses should be deemed by a court reviewing a motion to enforce litigant’s rights as an essential benefit to the parties’ children. In this light, the right to receive these payments belong to the children, and is therefore is not subject to waiver by a custodial parent. That said, the non-custodial parent retains the right to question the reasonableness of any individual medical expense.
The Appellate Division made some interesting comments as to how parents should ideally act after a divorce:
"A parent from whom financial contribution is sought nevertheless retains the right to challenge the reasonableness of the medical expenses. Cooperation, discussion and consultation should be the guiding principles in any decision involving the welfare of the parties’ children. In deciding what type of medical treatment is required, the need for the parties to behave and act like parents is paramount. This may require them to subordinate their adversarial interests as litigants in favor of their children’s welfare."
They also set forth factors that should be considered when assessing medical expenses, as follows:
"Some of the relevant questions to be addressed when considering the reasonableness of a reimbursement request are: (1) was the treatment medically necessary; (2) was the medical treatment in response to an unforeseen emergency requiring immediate action; (3) did the treatment involve elective or cosmetic medical services, and if so, was it in the best interest of the child involved to undergo such treatment; and (4) in cases of elective or cosmetic medical treatment, was the decision economically sound, given the parties’ financial resources. This list is by no means an exhaustive recitation of the issues to be considered in every case. These cases are, by necessity, factually sensitive. A proper resolution requires careful attention to the salient facts."
As to the college issue, the Appellate Division reversed the finding that the parties should equally share the costs remanded the matter to the trial court to make factual findings, after conducting a plenary hearing, guided by the factors outlined in Gac v. Gac and Newburgh v. Arrigo. The reason for this was that the Judgment was silent as to how the parties would divide higher education expenses, however, in arriving at his decision, "the motion judge did not address the Newburgh and statutory factors reflected in N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23(a) ,,, The court simply appears to have divided the expenses equally." In addition, the Court was concerned because the plaintiff also did not seek contribution from defendant until long after the expenses had been incurred, "thereby excluding him from the decision making process of whether his son should attend Curry College or whether his daughter should attend Ba’er Miriam Yeshiva, both private schools. (citations omitted). Participation by both parents is an essential factor under Gac, expressly required by the JOD, and should have "weigh[ed] heavily against the grant of a future application. (citations omitted)."
In Gac, a father was not required to pay for college because of similar reasons as in the case above. This seemingly creates a contradiction in how medical expenses and college expenses are treated. Seemingly, reimbursement for medical expenses cannot be waived for lack of prosecution of the arrears. On the other hand, contribution for college costs can seemingly be waived if a parent waits until after college is completed to seek reimbursement. The distinction, at least in this case, is that apparently, at least as to the medical expenses, the defendant was given the explanation of the medical expenses and the proofs near the time they were incurred and/or the defendant had knowledge of them – even if exact compliance with the Judgment was not made by the plaintiff.