Bergen County Divorce Attorneys

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.

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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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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.

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.

46606060 - grandparents having great fun with their grandchild

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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Photo credit:  Copyright: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/profile_AnaBGD’>AnaBGD / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

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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Every family uses its money in different ways. Some families spend every cent they have on everything imaginable, others save every last possible cent for the proverbial “rainy day”, and many families fall somewhere in between. Once a marriage comes to an end, however, will both spouses be able to continue spending or saving in the same way they did during the marriage as part of the lifestyle lived?

New Jersey case law has long held that a trial court may consider a savings component as part of an alimony award to protect a dependent spouse from the potential future loss of income by allowing her to accumulate a post-Judgment safety net. One question that has never been answered until now, however, is whether a history of regular savings during the marriage as part of the marital lifestyle should be considered in setting an initial alimony award even when there is no need to protect the dependent spouse.

According to the Appellate Division in the newly published, precedential decision of Lombardi v. Lombardi, the answer is a resounding yes.

Kid counting money
Copyright: sbworld8 / 123RF Stock Photo

FACTS TO KNOW:

During the parties’ marriage, savings was the largest component of the parties’ lifestyle, but the trial judge rejected inclusion of a savings component when awarding alimony because the payee-wife did not need such funds to protect herself from a potential future loss of alimony. The parties jointly decided to live a comfortable lifestyle during which they saved approximately $70,000 per month, and budgeted most of the earned collective income so that the parties would have no worries about finances when paying for college and entering into retirement. In fact, the parties budgeted so efficiently that the payor-husband could retire at age 45 with an accumulation of $5 million in assets that could generate sufficient income to help fulfill the family’s lifestyle.

THE TRIAL COURT’S DECISION:

At trial, the wife indicated that she needed approximately $16,000 per month for herself and the three children to live a standard of living comparable to that lived during the marriage, exclusive of a savings component that she requested in the monthly amount of $30,000. She also sought $5,000 in monthly child support and for the husband to be responsible for all child-related supplemental expenses.

The trial judge acknowledged the existence of savings component during the marriage, but awarded a monthly permanent alimony payment of $7,600 based on a finding that the parties lived an undisputed “modest middle-class lifestyle” with a monthly budget of $14,516 (excluding savings). The $7,600 was calculated as sufficient to cover the shortfall in the wife’s budget after accounting for child support, monthly after-tax income estimated she could generate by investment of her share of equitable distribution (each party was receiving half of the roughly $5.5 million estate), and her after tax net income from part-time work.

Based on each party’s anticipated share of equitable distribution, the trial court found that each party had a significant opportunity to save and invest, even though the husband’s substantial income provided him with a far greater opportunity than the wife. Specifically, the court noted that the parties monthly average savings of approximately $87,000 was a “component of lifestyle” (whether for an early retirement or to enhance the parties’ economic security), but should be included in an alimony award “only [ ] to the extent it was necessary to ensure a dependent spouse’s economic security in the face of a later modification or cessation of support, which were not issues here.”

Even without a higher amount of alimony (inclusive of a savings component) the court noted that the wife could save (albeit at a lesser extent than that seen during the marriage) when considering:

  1. some “overlap” in the presented alimony and child support budgets;
  2. the wife’s right to claim the children as exemptions for tax purposes; and
  3. her “ability to work and retain earnings to use for savings . . . because of the maturation of the children . . . such that she would have more time to spend working if she chose to do so.”

The court also noted the wife would have no obligation to pay for college or any unreimbursed medical expense, the cost of extracurricular activities was covered by the “above guidelines” child support award, and if she wanted to work more she would be “protected against any claim that her alimony should be reduced or that she has lesser need,” and the alimony would likely never be reduced because of the husband’s income and assets. Summarizing its determination to exclude a savings component, the court held:

The [c]ourt finds that a permissible savings component which it elected not to do or not to include was because there are potentials for [plaintiff] to accumulate, earn, and otherwise be protected from a reduction by virtue of, one, reasons having to do with the current budget and the room in the budget to still save, the ability to work more without worry about a reduction in alimony, the investment opportunity that might enhance the return on the over $2 million that she will receive, the life insurance to protect against the death of the defendant, and the likelihood of a continued appreciation and increase in assets and earnings that . . . would protect her against any arbitrary . . . reduction in alimony based upon early retirement or otherwise.

The wife’s appeal followed.

THE APPELLATE DIVISION WEIGHS IN:

On appeal, the Appellate Division agreed with the wife’s position that the subject award allowed only the husband to maintain the standard of living experienced during the marriage, and that required Case Information Statement form, on its face, suggests that a savings component is a “fundamental element of the family lifestyle” because the savings category was specifically added to the budget portion of the form after its initial issuance.

Reviewing seminal New Jersey alimony law, the Court reminded that each party is entitled post-divorce to live a lifestyle reasonably comparable to that lived during the marriage, with neither party having a greater entitlement to do so than the other (as codified in the 2014 statutory amendments to the alimony law). As a result, the alimony award designed for the supported spouse to achieve such lifestyle that is ultimately the “touchstone for the initial alimony award.”

While noting how case law has long recognized that a savings component in an alimony award can protect a dependent spouse against the potential future termination of alimony, or to provide for future events such as retirement, the Court provided:

The most “appropriate case” in which to include a savings component is where the parties’ lifestyle included regular savings. Because it is the manner in which the parties use their income that is determinative when establishing a marital lifestyle, see Weishaus, supra, 180 N.J. at 145, there is no demonstrable difference between one family’s habitual use of its income to fund savings and another family’s use of its income to regularly purchase luxury cars or enjoy extravagant vacations. The use of family income for either purpose over the course of a long-term marriage requires the court to consider how the money is spent in determining the parties’ lifestyle, regardless of whether it was saved or spent on expensive purchases. The fact that the payment of the support ultimately is protected by life insurance or other financial tools, does not make the consideration of the savings component any less appropriate.

Rejecting the husband’s argument that the court appropriately considering savings through its equitable distribution award, the Appellate Division held:

The argument runs afoul of the rule that “equitable distribution determinations are intended to be in addition to, and not as substitutes for, alimony awards,” which are awarded to provide for the maintenance of the marital lifestyle post-dissolution. Steneken, supra, 183 N.J. at 299. Moreover, it is not equitable to require plaintiff to rely solely on the assets she received through equitable distribution to support the standard of living while defendant is not confronted with the same burden. As expressed under the alimony statute’s current version, the court must recognize that “neither party ha[s] a greater entitlement to that standard of living than the other.” N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23(b)(4).

In finding that its holding went beyond what most other jurisdictions provided regarding the savings component issue, the Court concluded:

We therefore hold that the Family Part must in its assessment of a marital lifestyle give due consideration to evidence of regular savings adhered to by the parties during the marriage, even if there is no concern about protecting an alimony award from future modification or cessation upon the death of the supporting spouse.

The issue of how to treat savings as part of the marital lifestyle under the type of circumstances present in Lombardi has long been discussed amongst family law attorneys without definitive judicial guidance.  Now that such guidance is here, this may not be the last we hear from the Lombardi family as perhaps the Supremes will ultimately weigh in.

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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

I previously blogged on economic abuse as a form of domestic violence in a post titled Financial Abuse: The Invisible Wounds of Domestic Violence. Although occurring in approximately 98% of all domestic violence situations according to National Network to End Domestic Violence, economic abuse is not what most people think about when they hear the term “domestic violence”.

Recently, the unpublished decision of C.G. v. E.G. addressed interference with employment as a harassing and coercive form of domestic violence. In this matter, the defendant intentionally attempted to obstruct and interfere with plaintiff’s new employment by calling her place of work without her consent, bothering her employer as well as her employer’s wife, and embarrassing plaintiff by alleging that she and her employer were having an affair.

Judge Jones defined economic harassment as “including purposeful acts which a defendant perpetrates while intending that such acts either (a) impair or obstruct a plaintiff’s actual or prospective job or job-related duties, or (b) threaten to do so with the purpose of controlling [someone], and/or pressuring or intimidating [someone] into submitting to [their] demands or wishes.” Judge Jones went on to describe this behavior as “fear-inducing to a victim of physical abuse” and that “there are arguable few threats more potentially harassing and coercive than threatening one’s livelihood or employment.”

20143619 - illustration depicting a sign with a victim concept

So what encompasses purposefully interfering with another’s employment?

(1)        Directly threatening to contact the victim’s place of employment and attempting to get the victim fired, either by making false allegations, or improperly publicizing private, personal and embarrassing information about the victim;

(2)        Actually contacting the place of employment and following through with actions designed to damage the victim’s status, and stability at his/her job; and

(3)        Repeatedly appearing uninvited at the victim’s place of employment and causing a disturbance, or otherwise acting in a manner which is disrespectful of, and/or embarrassing to, the victim, and disruptive to the victim’s job responsibilities and performance, and/or standard business operations.

The abusers underlying behavior, while an obvious form of harassment, is often times done as a way to corner the victim into either interacting with the aggressor or submitting to certain demands. Often times the victim, in order to avoid embarrassment gives in to the aggressor’s behaviors to their detriment.

Such interference with employment may constitute both harassment and coercion. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence has reported that between 35% and 65% of victims of domestic violence are harassed at work by their abusers.

The New Jersey Supreme Court has recognized the right to be left alone in State v. Hoffmann, 149 N.J. 564, 585-85 (1997). Thus, “a person has a basic right to be left alone by an estranged or former spouse or dating partner at his or her place of employment.”

The Court concluded in C.G. v. E.G. that by phoning “plaintiff’s place of employment against plaintiff’s wishes, with the purpose and tactic of causing her harm as expressed and desired in his text message, and/or otherwise wearing plaintiff down into submission”, defendant “knew or should have known that he was improperly encroaching on Plaintiff’s new employment, while potentially subjecting her to public embarrassment in front of her employer and co-workers” and that these actions constitute harassment.

Additionally, defendant’s actions constitute a new form of domestic violence, coercion. In August 2015, the New Jersey Legislature amended the Domestic Violence Act to include “coercion”.

Coercion is defined as “threats made to unlawfully restrict another’s freedom of action to engage or refrain from engaging in conduct by threatening to:

(1)        Inflict bodily injury on anyone or commit any other offense;

(2)        Accuse anyone of an offense;

(3)        Expose any secret which would tend to subject any person to hatred, contempt or ridicule, or to impair his credit or business repute;

(4)        Take or withhold action as an official, or cause an official to take or withhold action;

(5)        Bring about or continue a strike, boycott or other collective action, except that such a threat shall not be deemed coercive when the restriction compelled is demanded in the course of negotiation for the benefit of the group in whose interest the actor acts;

(6)        Testify or provide information or withhold testimony or information with respect to another’s legal claim or defense; or

(7)        Perform any other act which would not in itself substantially benefit the actor but which is calculated to substantially harm another person with respect to his health, safety, business, calling, career, financial condition, reputation or personal relationships.

Interference with one’s employment can be considered both harassment and coercion, the latter expanding the prior definition of domestic violence to give victims more alternatives for protection against their abusers.

If you or someone you know is a victim of domestic violence, contact your local law enforcement and/or the confidential and anonymous National Coalition Against Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-572-7233.

Perhaps Kurt Cobain knew when writing the song “All Apologies” that one day his daughter would be embroiled in a nasty divorce battle.  While the lyrics, “Married, Buried, Married, Buried”, may not sound uplifting, they are undeniably classic Nirvana.  Fans of the band would largely agree that the most well known live performance of the song was the acoustic version played during the band’s “Unplugged in New York”, which took place shortly before Cobain’s death.  Now it is the guitar used by Kurt during that performance which lies at the center of Frances Bean Cobain’s divorce from her husband.

nirvana

Specifically, Frances’s husband is in possession of the guitar – thought to be worth several million dollars – and refuses to return it to her while alleging that she gave it to him as a wedding present.  Not surprisingly, Frances denies ever giving it to him at the start of their short-term marriage, and is taking the position that he has no right to any money from her fortune (Kurt’s estate is valued at approximately $450 million).

With that said, and straight from Seattle to the swamps of New Jersey, how would a court here potentially address the issue?

I Think I’m Dumb, or Maybe Just Happy:  Well, for starters, is there a prenup protecting Frances’s rights and interests in Kurt’s estate and, as part of the estate, the subject guitar?  I don’t know the answer, but even if Frances was blinded by her love for her now soon to be ex-husband, she would hopefully be smart enough to have had some sort of agreement drafted and signed protecting her from the claim now being made (unlike Paul McCartney in his divorce from Heather Mills, for example).  Such agreements often have language addressing so-called separate property and whether separate property is exempt from equitable distribution.  Language regarding interspousal gifts is also common and can be crafted in a way to ensure that even if she did gift the guitar to him during the marriage, it could still remain separate property exempt from distribution.

And For This Gift, I Feel Blessed:  At the heart-shaped box of this matter is whether the guitar was an interspousal gift from Frances to husband during the marriage.  This is essentially what husband is claiming.  In New Jersey, an interspousal gift is subject to equitable distribution.  Husband can take the position that even if the guitar was originally a non-marital asset exempt from equitable distribution (for instance, as an inheritance or gift to Frances, or by agreement), it lost that exempt status and became marital property subject to distribution once she gifted it to him.  If proven, Frances loses the right to claim that the guitar is exempt from equitable distribution at the time of the divorce.  With a guitar worth several million dollars, husband may look at his share of the guitar as the proverbial meal ticket in a short-term marriage where his rights are likely otherwise limited.

Hey!  Wait!  I’ve Got a New Complaint:  To rebut husband’s claim and supporting evidence/testimony that Frances gifted him the guitar, Frances would have to establish that there never was any gift.  In other words, there was no intent by Frances to gift him the guitar – a fact that perhaps she could establish by testifying about how she told husband at the time, and/or at other times during the marriage, that it was her/her family’s guitar, rather than husband’s guitar.  Maybe husband simply took it from the home and is now fabricating the entire story.  Credibility and the surrounding factual circumstances will play a large part in the final result.  Also, even if the guitar was ultimately deemed to be an interspousal gift, Frances may be aided in the actual allocation of the asset by New Jersey’s equitable distribution factors, especially that regarding who brought the subject property to the marriage.  Keeping the guitar in the Cobain family would seemingly be an important consideration for a family court judge, and may sway any determination regarding whether Frances could ever have intended it to be a gift.

It will be interesting to see how this matter unfolds and ultimately concludes.  Whether the litigant is Frances or anyone else similarly in her shoes, learning the law regarding gifts and equitable distribution may leave the litigant forever in debt to such priceless advice.

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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

*image courtesy of google free images.

While we do not often, if ever, blog about decisions in the area of employment law, the Supreme Court of New Jersey earlier this week in the decision of Smith v. Millville Rescue Squad held that our state’s Law Against Discrimination precludes discrimination and retaliation against an employee based on “marital status.  The meaning of “marital status” was found to include not only being single or married, but also “employees who have declared that they will marry, have separated from their spouse, have initiated divorce proceedings, or have obtained a divorce”.

supreme

The case involved an employee who was terminated from his employment after he told his supervisor that he was having an affair with a co-worker, he was separated from his wife (who was also a co-worker), and was about to commence divorce proceedings.  Notably, the supervisor’s response to learning of such information was that he could not promise it would not have an impact on the employee’s job, and he later indicated his belief that the divorce would be “ugly.”

Written documentation regarding the termination, however, referred only to a corporate restructuring and the employee’s allegedly poor performance.  Notably, the employee testified that during his term of employment he was never subjected to formal discipline, was promoted twice, and received annual raises.

The trial court granted employer’s motion for an involuntary dismissal and, in so doing, found that employee failed to present evidence that he was terminated because of his marital status.  In finding that management properly acted out of concern that the divorce would likely be contentious, the trial judge found that such action did not constitute discrimination pursuant to marital status under the NJ LAD.

The Appellate Division disagreed, finding that “marital status” included being separated and involved in a divorce proceeding.  The Supreme Court agreed.  In so holding, the High Court provided:

The LAD prohibits an employer from imposing conditions of employment that have no relationship to the tasks assigned to and expected of an employee.  It also prohibits an employer from resorting to stereotypes to discipline, block from advancement, or terminate an employee due to a life decision, such as deciding to marry or divorce.  The LAD does not bar an employer from making a legitimate business decision to discipline or terminate an employee whose personal life decisions, such as a marital separation or divorce, have disrupted the workplace or hindered the ability of the employee or others to do their job.  However, an employer may not assume, based on invidious stereotypes, that an employee will be disruptive or ineffective simply because of life decisions such as a marriage or divorce.

The decision makes substantive and practical sense in defining the term “marital status,” which is not defined in the terms of the LAD, itself.  Separately, as noted in a post on this case from our Employment Discrimination Report blog, employers may not rely upon any religious exception for this prohibition.

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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

*image courtesy of google free images.

Family law practitioners know that in this area of practice, perhaps more so than in any other practice, hearsay statements are often an important part of motions brought before the trial court for every kind of relief imaginable.  A hearsay statement is a statement made outside of the court that is offered for the truth of the matter asserted.  Unless one of many exceptions apply, hearsay statements are inadmissible.  For example, if mom in her certification filed with a motion asking the court to address parenting time includes statements from the parties’ daughter that mom is asking the court to consider as truth, the daughter’s statements constitute inadmissible hearsay.  In other words, the court should not consider the daughter’s statements when rendering its decision.

Evidence pic

As we have frequently written, however, oftentimes anything goes in family law.  Hearsay statements are commonly no exception.  I have heard many times from Family Part trial judges that the rules of evidence will often be relaxed, including the hearsay rule, especially when issues of custody and parenting time are before the court to ensure that the best interests of the child are fulfilled.  It is for that reason why practitioners and litigants often put whatever they can before the trial court to convince the judge to rule in his or her favor.

In Arrowood v. DiBenedetto, a recently unpublished (not precedential) Appellate Division decision, the Court addressed the trial court’s rejection of various hearsay statements from the subject child provided by mom in denying mom’s motion to terminate overnight parenting time with dad because he continued to smoke in the child’s presence against doctor’s orders.  Addressing mom’s application, the Court noted:

What we glean from the record provided is defendant’s most recent motion relied on her daughter’s hearsay statements and a certification from [dad], the content of which is not before us. A trial court generally does not abuse its discretion by not relying on hearsay statements, because there is always a question about the exact content of such statements, especially when they are recounted by a party with an interest of the outcome of a decision. The law controlling the presentation of evidence in our courts excludes hearsay in numerous contexts. We certainly cannot conclude from the scant record before us that the trial court here abused its discretion by not imposing the drastic sanction of terminating parenting time based on hearsay.

Notably, however, the Court suggested that there still may not have been an abuse of discretion had the trial court considered the subject hearsay statements, especially since the matter involved the subject child’s health:

That is not to say we are insensitive to either defendant’s arguments or her frustration. Although she has not provided us with the transcripts or the statement of reasons for the court’s previous orders, at least one order appears to have been based on her firsthand observation. Notions of fairness and confidence in our system of justice often dictate that a court enforce its orders. That would appear to be especially so when a child’s health is at issue. But enforcement motions generally present competing versions of events and often require courts to balance profound competing interests. That is particularly so in family matters involving children and parental rights. That is also why Family Part judges are vested with broad discretion, and why we review their discretionary decisions with deference. Here, the record does not establish such an abuse of discretion.

So what is the takeaway here.  Sometimes the Rules of Evidence apply and sometimes they do not, although there is no specific rule indicating that the evidence rules should not always apply.  In practice, it depends on the factual circumstances, the litigants, the trial judge, and the like.  Especially when a child is at the center of the dispute, as opposed to more straightforward financial issues, a court is more likely to stretch its discretionary muscles to protect the child’s best interests above all else.

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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

*image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net