Bergen County Divorce Attorneys

In the midst of our ongoing quest for guidance as to how and when to apply the 2014 cohabitation statute, comes the Appellate Division’s recent unpublished (not precedential) decision in J.S. v. J.M.  While the decision does not reveal much in the way of noteworthy substance beyond what we have already seen in other post-statute decisions, the Appellate Division did opine on a couple of points that this author found interesting, one of which is addressed herein.

Briefly, the parties were divorced in 2010, with a cohabitation provision contained in the subject settlement agreement providing that alimony would “[t]erminate upon [defendant’s] cohabitation . . . with an unrelated male in lieu of remarriage for a period of [thirty] days or more.”  The payor ex-husband moved to terminate in alimony in September 2015 on the basis that the former wife was cohabiting with the payor’s brother.  While somewhat salacious in and of itself, the payor’s request to terminate support was ultimately denied by way of order and decision following a hearing.  Thereafter, the payor filed a motion for reconsideration of the order and decision, as well as an application to set aside same under Rule 4:50-1, each of which was denied.  The payor then only appealed the trial court’s order denying the motions for reconsideration and for relief under 4:50-1 (and not the original order following trial).

The first interesting point in the Appellate Division’s decision focused on the trial judge’s hypothetical question posed during oral argument: “whether it was necessary for [payor] to have filed his motion to terminate [alimony] during [payee’s] relationship with [the alleged cohabitant].”  In other words, from my interpretation of the trial court’s question that was not the central issue on appeal and, thus, not fully fleshed out in the decision, is whether the payor can procure relief if he files his application after the alleged cohabitation comes to an end, rather than during the relationship.  Briefly referencing the Supreme Court of New Jersey’s 2016 decision in Quinn v. Quinn, the Appellate Division here provided:

In Quinn, 225 N.J. at 39, the court held that if a PSA provided for the termination of alimony upon the dependent spouse’s cohabitation, the court should enforce the terms of the agreement and terminate alimony, rather than suspend it during the period of cohabitation.  Again, even if we assume the judge’s question evidenced a palpably wrong understanding of the issue, and we do not think it did, Quinn has no application to this case because the judge found there was no cohabitation.

Does the Appellate Division’s indication, provided as dicta, renew or revive the argument that, but for an agreement calling for the termination of alimony upon cohabitation, an alimony obligation may be suspended during the period of cohabitation and then restored should the relationship come to an end?  Was this argument dead at all, and was Quinn limited to its facts?  For a reminder, the Supreme Court held in Quinn:

In sum, we reiterate today that an agreement to terminate alimony upon cohabitation entered by fully informed parties, represented by independent counsel, and without any evidence of overreaching, fraud, or coercion is enforceable. It is irrelevant that the cohabitation ceased during trial when that relationship had existed for a considerable period of time. Under those circumstances, when a judge finds that the spouse receiving alimony has cohabited, the obligor spouse is entitled to full enforcement of the parties’ agreement. When a court alters an agreement in the absence of a compelling reason, the court eviscerates the certitude the parties thought they had secured, and in the long run undermines this Court’s preference for settlement of all, including marital, disputes. Here, there were no compelling reasons to depart from the clear, unambiguous, and mutually understood terms of the PSA. We therefore reverse the judgment of the Appellate Division.

While this holding primarily focused on the fact that the subject agreement provided that alimony would terminate upon cohabitation (regardless of when the cohabitation occurred), did the Supreme Court more broadly find inconsequential that the cohabitation period ended in determining whether alimony should be reduced?  In other words, can a payee litigant still argue: (1) alimony should only be impacted, if at all, during the period of cohabitation; and (2) the payor has to file the application during the period of alleged cohabitation in order for it to have any merit?

Family law practitioners recently heard one of our State’s most esteemed (and now retired) Appellate Division judges opine that once cohabitation occurs, a modification/termination of support application should be considered even if the cohabitation came to an end, just as it would not matter if a payee remarried and then divorced the new spouse.  It is uncertain whether Quinn closed the door on this issue, and certain arguments perhaps thought dead may still exist, especially since no court has yet to interpret what the word “suspend” truly means in the confines of the cohabitation statute, and whether a suspension of support should be implemented beyond what may be a suspension, or partial suspension during the cohabitation proceeding itself.

In other words, as we await a more definitive interpretation and application of the cohabitation statute, practitioners will continue to creatively and zealously argue on behalf of litigants embroiled in such disputes.

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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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While we await guidance from the Appellate Division on how to interpret that portion of the amended alimony statute’s cohabitation provision, N.J.S.A. 2A:32-23n, indicating that alimony may be “suspended or terminated” in the event of a payee former spouse’s cohabitation, and whether the pre-statute “economic benefits” test remains alive and well, we are seeing newer cases that address the issue of cohabitation under the statute, rather than under pre-statute case law.

In Gille, Jr. v. Gille, an unpublished decision from the Appellate Division released in January, the Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s Order denying the payor former spouse’s motion to terminate alimony to his former wife based on her cohabitation.  There, wife was receiving $130,000 in base alimony, subject to an upward adjustment based on whether the husband’s annual income exceeded $500,000 annually.

As to cohabitation, the parties settlement agreement provided that cohabitation would be a basis for modification or termination of the alimony obligation, “governed by the existing law at the time the application is made.”

During a 90-day period from February 9, 2015 to April 4, 2015, the husband paid a private detective to observe the wife’s home.  The detective recorded his observations over 29 days.  On 13 of those occasions, the wife’s boyfriend was present overnight.  He was also observed retrieving mail, assisting with snow removal, and entering the home when the wife or children were not present.  Immediately prior to oral argument on the motion, the husband had not obtained an update of the detective’s report immediately prior to filing his motion.

In denying the husband’s motion to terminate alimony, the trial court made the following findings:

Wife and boyfriend had no intertwined finances, did not share living expenses, and although they were dating, they did not even refer to themselves in conversation as “boyfriend and girlfriend.”  Also, the court found that instances of the boyfriend helping around the home were limited instances of “chivalry” – not the performance of household chores on a continuous basis.  It was ultimately deemed a dating relationship, but “nothing more.”

In analyzing the statutory cohabitation factors on appeal, the Appellate Division deferred to the trial court’s findings that the husband’s evidence did not meet the statutory elements required for him to fulfill his initial (prima facie) burden that would entitle him to relief and/or a future hearing to determine what, if anything, should happen to alimony.  In so affirming, the Appellate Division noted how the husband only managed to demonstrate that the boyfriend spent a limited number of nights at the wife’s home.

Since the husband failed to fulfill even his initial burden based on his limited proofs, the court did not need to address “suspend or terminate” language, or the question of whether the economic benefits test still applies.  Notably, the trial judge also made no mention of the fact that the new statute does not require the cohabitant to live full-time with the payee in order for cohabitation to exist.  These cases are always highly fact-sensitive and could depend, in part, on the judge deciding the issue.  To that end, the Appellate Division interestingly noted how the same trial judge had previously presided over post-Judgment litigation where the husband had engaged in misconduct with respect to his income, the disclosure thereof to the wife, and, in connection therewith, any upward adjustment of alimony.

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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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One of the most common questions posed by clients is – how is alimony determined?  Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to that question, and it is often dependent upon the facts and circumstances of a given matter.  The law does not provide for a formula, even in the final version of the amended alimony statute that passed in late 2014, and requires that trial judges consider each of the factors outlined in New Jersey’s alimony statute (N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23(b)) in rendering an award.

As seminal New Jersey case law provides, the standard of living established during the marriage serves as the “touchstone” for alimony, with, whenever possible, the alimony award to be set at an amount that will “enable each party to live a lifestyle ‘reasonably comparable’ to the marital standard of living.”  The amended alimony statute confirms that both parties are entitled to such a lifestyle, which is often determined based on a review of the parties’ Case Information Statements, testimony and supporting financial documentation.  Experts may even be utilized to prepare what is commonly referred to as a “lifestyle analysis” to help provide a more accurate indicator of what the marital lifestyle actually was, and how expenses were divided between the parties and children, if any.

When negotiating an alimony resolution, however, practitioners often employ a so-called “rule of thumb” whereby the ultimate alimony figure is based on a certain percentage of the difference between the parties real/imputed levels of income.  Debate between practitioners in applying this approach remains alive and well, especially in high income cases where utilizing a formula may undermine the notion of ensuring that the marital lifestyle is taken into consideration.  Additionally, the formulaic approach oftentimes utilized in negotiating an alimony resolution takes into consideration the alimony deduction to be received by the payor on his or her tax returns.  With the new tax law eliminating the deduction for alimony agreements/awards reached after December 31, 2018, even this approach will likely undergo significant changes.

To that end, case law confirms that a trial judge cannot employ an income-based formula when determining an initial alimony award or modifying one previously established (even if the initial alimony award was reached in settlement based on a formula).  This principle was recently affirmed in Waldbaum v. Waldbaum, wherein the Appellate Division reversed a trial judge’s use of a formula in determining alimony in a post-divorce proceeding.  Specifically, despite generally describing the lifestyle as one of “high-class”, and analyzing the alimony factors, the trial court employed a formula utilized in the parties’ settlement agreement when alimony was first agreed upon.  In reversing the trial court, the Appellate Division held that “by setting alimony using a formula the alimony became untethered from the marital lifestyle and defendant’s needs.”  The resulting alimony amounts had “no reasonable correlation to the evidence adduced regarding the marital lifestyle or needs.”

Thus, while reaching an alimony resolution provides parties with great flexibility in determining the award, a trial judge must follow the above-detailed requirements to ensure that the lifestyle is not only taken into consideration, but that all statutory factors are considered in rendering a final decision.

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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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With Chanukkah almost behind us and Christmas rapidly approaching, the time for being jolly is unfortunately also a peak time for parental conflict in divorcing and divorced families.  What one would think (hope) would be a relatively simple discussion between adults in an effort to resolve such issues often turns into something far worse.  Court applications often result where judges are called upon to make last minute decisions about where the children should be, who they should be with, and for what amount of time.

With that being said, here are a few things to keep in mind as a parent mired in such a conflict….

“It’s Christmas All Over Again” – Parents should do their best to resolve holiday conflicts amongst themselves, without involving the children.  Unfortunately, all too often the kids are brought into the picture, with one parent telling them how the other parent is a bad person, is at fault for some reason regarding the holidays, and worse.  Parents often believe it is necessary to justify/defend their actions to sway the kids to his or her side, but the impact on them is immeasurable.  Over time, kids who simply want to enjoy what is one of the best times of the year end up dreading its arrival because they know that there will always be some argument between mommy and daddy to tarnish the occasion.

“Wonderful Christmastime” – One way to ensure a merry holiday season is to address parenting time issues well in advance of when the time arrives.  This is not just limited to Chanukkah or Christmas parenting time, but all holiday parenting time.  Oftentimes, these issues are addressed during a divorce matter in a piecemeal or triage fashion, for a variety of reasons that may or may not be within your control.  The result is often less than ideal, and may become yet another dispute to address in the context of an ongoing matter.  Try to reach a resolution in advance, if possible, for the best interests of the kids and, quite frankly, everyone else involved.

“I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” – If you are considering bringing a significant other to the holiday dinner, it goes without saying that it should not be done in a manner that negatively impacts upon the kids.  More importantly (and obviously), do not do so in violation of a court order that imposes restrictions on your ability to introduce or involve a significant other in the kids’ lives.  Such an order oftentimes issues in the midst of a divorce matter.  The situation can often be very delicate, and should be approached with care.  If a child is in therapy, consider whether to discuss with the therapist how to best bring/introduce a new person to such an occasion.

“Happy Xmas (War is Over)”While John Lennon’s famous holiday song carried heavier political overtones, there is always a way to apply it to a family law blog post.  If you are going to file an application with the court to address holiday parenting time issues, please do not wait until the last minute to do so.  Seeking relief for these issues should not be an ambush.  It should not leave in flux for the kids what is going to happen.  It should be done with notice to the other party so that he or she can properly respond.  Judges have more than enough going on and if he or she sees that you could have brought the application several days, if not weeks prior, oftentimes they will be less than pleased with having to address the situation under such circumstances.

With these tips in mind, hopefully you are able to not only avoid or properly address the sort of holiday parenting time conflict that comes our way year in and year out, but also that your kids will be able to enjoy the season with a sense of calm and peace of mind.

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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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Amicably settling your divorce matter is almost always better than taking your chances at a trial before a trial judge who knows almost nothing about your life. Not only can settling save you substantial time and expense as compared to continued litigation, but also it provides you with the opportunity to end the case on your terms while removing the risk associated with an uncertain trial decision.

Spiderman in Lego formTo that end, settling also means potentially agreeing to terms that are not necessarily what the law may provide. As Uncle Ben once said to a young Peter Parker, “with great power comes great responsibility.”  It is critical that you are not only entering into your agreement voluntarily, but also that you actually know what you are agreeing to.  Sounds simple enough, but litigation oftentimes follows when disputes as to the terms of an agreement arise.  This was the situation in T.L.H. v. M.H., wherein the parties’ definition of cohabitation as an alimony-modification event was more expansive than that provided by law. Specifically, the subject settlement agreement there provided that alimony would terminate:

[U]pon the death of either party, or the marriage or cohabitation of [plaintiff]. The term “cohabitation[,”] in addition to its meaning as construed by New Jersey courts, shall also incorporate the scenario if [plaintiff] should take up residence with any family members (other than the children of the parties) or friends.

Solidifying the parties’ respective understanding as to the terms of the agreement, it also provided therein:

In arriving at this agreement both [plaintiff] and [defendant] had an opportunity to obtain the assistance of separate legal counsel and to be advised regarding the legal and practical effects of this [a]greement. . . . The parties have read this agreement in its entirety and each of them has entered voluntarily into this agreement. They have consented to and assume all of the covenants herein contained, having read the same and having fully understood them. They both acknowledge that it is a fair, just and reasonable agreement and [is] not the result of any fraud, duress, or undue influence exercised by either party upon the other or by any other person and that there have been no representations, warranties, covenants, or undertaking other than those as set forth herein.

Post-divorce, the wife moved in with her sister after she was forced out of the former marital home due to a sheriff’s sale. The husband, as a result, stopped paying alimony, which caused the wife to file a motion to enforce the agreement. In response, the husband moved to terminate alimony based on the wife’s cohabitation as defined by the parties’ agreement.

While not necessarily relevant to addressing the unambiguous language of the agreement, the husband argued that he negotiated the cohabitation provision because he knew the wife would ultimately move out of the former marital home and in with family. The wife argued that she negotiated a higher level of alimony because she knew her expenses would increase after she left the home. At the core of the wife’s argument was her position that living with someone is different than cohabitation. Specifically, she argued her understanding that cohabitation meant someone else was, at least to a significant extent, “supporting” her.

Relying on the language of the parties’ agreement, and both public policy and case law supporting the reaching and enforcement of private agreements, the trial court enforced the cohabitation provision and terminated alimony.

On appeal, the wife argued that: (1) a plenary hearing should have been held to address a genuine issue of fact regarding the parties’ intent in agreeing upon the cohabitation provision; (2) the trial court improperly failed to addressed existing economic circumstances at the time enforcement was sought. In affirming the trial court, the Appellate Division reiterated public policy favoring settlement and the enforcement of unambiguous language, while noting how a court cannot rewrite an agreement to provide for terms better than that bargained for by the parties. The Court also referenced cohabitation jurisprudence wherein the voluntarily agreed upon language of an agreement as to such issue can be subject to enforcement even when differing from that provided by law (as to what cohabitation is, the impact of cohabitation on alimony, and the like).

In so holding, the Court noted as to the facts at hand:

Here, there were no compelling reasons to depart from the clear, unambiguous, and mutually understood terms of the MSA. The agreement was voluntary, knowing and consensual, and the alimony-termination event upon cohabitation was fair under the circumstances of the case. We agree with the court’s finding that, while residing with her sister does not rise to the level of cohabitation under Konzelman, supra, plaintiff understood that residing with her sister was an event that could trigger termination of alimony under the description of cohabitation specified in her MSA. In our view, the explicit terms in the MSA obviated the need for a plenary hearing. Accordingly, we find no error in the court deciding the cross-motion on the papers.

The takeaway from this case is that while a litigant has great power to settle a case as the preferred approach over litigation, with great power comes great responsibility to know and understand that to which you have agreed.

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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

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

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

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

Here are the unique facts you should know:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

. . .

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

. . .

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

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

. . .

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

. . .

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

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

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

Connect with Robert: Twitter_64 Linkedin

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.

Connect with Robert: Twitter_64 Linkedin

 

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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