Morris 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quest for guidance as to how and when to apply the 2014 cohabitation statute, comes the Appellate Division’s recent unpublished (not precedential) decision in J.S. v. J.M.  While the decision does not reveal much in the way of noteworthy substance beyond what we have already seen in other post-statute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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As New Jersey law on cohabitation continues to evolve after passage of the 2014 amendment to the alimony statute, a review of cases released since that time provides insight as to several components of the cohabitation discussion.

My new article on this topic in the New Jersey Lawyer’s Family Law issue can be found by clicking on the link below.

http://www.foxrothschild.com/robert-a-epstein/publications/a-review-of-cohabitation-law-in-a-post-amendment-landscape/

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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

 

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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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.

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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

 

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

44694685 - domestic violence abuse or aggression within marriage against partner wife or children

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

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

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

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

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

The matter was then remanded for an FRO hearing.

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

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

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

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

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

38413886 - words justice delayed is justice denied

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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
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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.

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