North Caldwell Divorce Attorney

The scene is not all that uncommon.  Two people marry and have a child.  The relationship ultimately breaks down and, for one reason or another, one parent leaves the home without the child and tries to establish a new place to live.  If a custody order is entered during that time period, will a court consider the living situation of the parent who left the home in rendering a custody determination?

First and foremost, public policy in New Jersey favors relationships with both parents after separation/divorce, and that both parents share in the responsibilities in raising the child.  In the eyes of the law, both parents are treated as equals.  One aspect of a given situation that the court is to consider is the "stability of the home environment offered."

In Betancourt v. Spratley, the child’s mother left the primary home without the child, leaving him with the father.  The husband filed an application with the court for custody, which was granted because the mother testified that she was essentially homeless at the time.  The court told the mother, however, to file for a custody modification based on a "significant change in circumstances" when her living situation had stabilized.  She ultimately did so one month later, providing as evidence her lease and a description of her roommates, living space and neighborhood.  She also provided evidence that she had resumed employment and that her employer provided for child-care planning.  The court, however, denied her requested relief. 

On appeal, the Appellate Division concluded that the mother should not have had to prove a significant change in circumstances.  Rather, considering the tumultuous circumstances surrounding the first custody order and the close time within which the mother filed to modify the custody arrangement, the Appellate Division found that the first order was really rendered to maintain the status quo for the child.  As a result, the Court ultimately held that the the mother was entitled to a review of the custody situation under the factors listed in New Jersey’s custody statute (N.J.S.A. 9:2-4), and did not have to prove changed circumstances.  Such a review was to include a look at how and when the mother could be in a position to demonstrate that she had achieved stability; she was to have the opportunity to mediate the situation and have her living arrangements investigated; and another proceeding was to be scheduled in the future to determine custody and parenting time issues.

The custody determination has at its heart the best interests of the child.  A consideration of where the child will live is logically an important part of any custody determination made pursuant to New Jersey’s custody law.  It is therefore critical that the parent establish that the home is a safe and loving place for the child to live. 

Earlier this year, I blogged on the Houseman v. Dare case decided by the Appellate Division in a reported (precedential) opinion that held that  the special subjective worth of a pet to a party must be considered . Similarly, there were allegations there there was a specific agreement that one party would keep the dog, which was breached by the other party and Appellate Division remanded, as well, to consider whether there was an agreement. 

To see the prior post, click here.  To see the full text of the Appellate Division’s decision, click here.

During the remand that was recently decided, the trial court,  in a somewhat Solomonic fashion, decided that the dog was to spend equal time with each party.  This seems to ignore the contract aspect of the case.  If more facts come out about this, we will update this post accordingly.

Per news reports, the trial judge stated that this was not a "custody arrangement" because, dogs are not children and do not get the same consideration. Despite the Appellate Division ruling, the judge reiterated that the dog was really no more than property.

A basic question that people often ask at the outset of a divorce is, does the Court have the ability, or jurisdiction, to hear their case, especially when one spouse lives in a state other than New Jersey?

New Jersey statutory law seems clear, but the outcomes of a jurisdictional question over whether the Court can hear the cause of action for divorce are often based on highly fact-specific scenarios. N.J.S.A. 2A:34-10 states, in relevant part to this blog entry, that a New Jersey Court may have jurisdiction over a divorce when either party to the marriage has “become, and for at least 1 year next preceding the commencement of the action has continued to be, a bona fide resident” of New Jersey. As noted by the Appellate Division in the recently decided Boghosian v. Boghosian, an intricate and interesting unreported (not precedential) opinion decided on August 17, 2009, New Jersey Courts interpreting the language of this law have concluded that “bona fide resident” is the equivalent of “domiciliary” and that either party must actually be domiciled in this State. 


One of the main questions often arising in a potential domestic violence scenario is whether the victim is protected by the New Jersey Prevention of Domestic Violence Act.  Courts have broadly interpreted the Act’s terms to protect victims within the Act’s legislative purpose. 

For instance, a "victim of domestic violence" under the Act must be a person 18 years of age or older who has been subjected to domestic violence by a spouse, former spouse or any other person who is a "present or former household member."  What does "former household member" actually mean?  Courts have concluded that while more than a casual dating relationship is required, the parties need not actually reside together. 


In an interesting unreported decision released yesterday in the case of Christopher v. Christopher, the Appellate Division reversed a trial court opinion granting the wife permanent alimony. 

The parties were married 2006 and the Complaint for Divorce was filed in December 2004.  Interestingly, the trial court found and the Appellate Division affirmed the tacking of the period of premarital cohabitation to the length of the marriage.  Thus, the 8 year marriage became a 9 year marriage. 

Even still, the Appellate Division found that the relationship was simply too short to award permanent alimony.  Rather, citing the reported Cox decision, the Appellate Division again noted:

limited duration alimony is not intended to facilitate the earning capacity of a dependent spouse or to make a sacrificing spouse whole, but rather to address those circumstances where an economic need for alimony is established, but the marriage was of short-term duration such that permanent alimony is not appropriate. Those circumstances stand in sharp contrast to marriages of long duration where economic need is also demonstrated. In the former instance, limited duration alimony provides an equitable and proper remedy. In the latter circumstances, permanent alimony is appropriate and an award of limited duration alimony is clearly circumscribed, both by equitable considerations and by statute.

The Appellate Division in Christopher deemed this to be a marriage of short duration.  Moreover, despite finding that the husband (a medical doctor) will probably earn more in the future and the wife (a personal trainer) will probably not earn enough to maintain the marital lifestyle in the foreseeable future, those facts alone don’t justify permanent alimony in a marriage of short duration.

While not precedential, this case is instructive because it is not unlike many cases that we see and that come before the Courts.


For about a decade, Limited Duration Alimony (LDA) has been an available form of alimony in New Jersey.  The questions often asked regarding LDA is, when should it be awarded and, relatedly, for how much and how long? 

These questions were recently addressed in the unpublished Appellate Division opinion of Elliott v. Prisock-Elliot, decided on June 2, 2009.  Generally, where one spouse is economically dependent upon the other at the end of a marriage, an alimony award helps the dependent spouse achieve a lifestyle "reasonably comparable" to that enjoyed during the marriage.  Several factors are included in a Court’s alimony determination under N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23, including, but not limited to the dependent’s spouse’s needs and ability to fulfill them, and the other spouse’s ability to contribute.

LDA, though, is specifically intended to address a dependent spouse’s economic need for support where the marriage reflected a true partnership, but the marriage itself was too short in duration for a permanent alimony award, and the dependent spouse needs neither education nor job training to return to the workforce that would potentially merit a rehabilitative alimony award.  LDA essentially aids the dependent spouse who has the education/job skills to have a career, but devoted efforts instead to the marriage and allowed the other spouse to increase their own earning capacity at the same time. 

The Appellate Division found that the trial judge in Elliott failed to adequately consider the alimony factors and the purpose of LDA in granting its award of 10 years of LDA at $30,000 per year on a marriage of less than 10 years at the time the complaint for divorce was filed and approximately 12 years when the dual judgment of divorce was entered.  Specifically, the Appellate Division noted the trial court’s error as to the length of the marriage; its complete lack of findings as to each spouse’s marital contributions other than that each had worked on their own to care for the children; and its insufficient assessment of the dependent spouse’s need for alimony and the other spouse’s ability to pay.  The trial court’s decision on alimony was reversed as a result.

While LDA should not be awarded as a substitute for permanent alimony when a permanent award is appropriate, a proper LDA determination requires a careful look at each fact-specific case and how those facts mesh with the statutory alimony factors in New Jersey, as well as a consideration of LDA’s overall purpose in aiding a dependent spouse in need.  Also, while the amount of an LDA may be modified, N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23(c) prohibits modification of the length of the LDA term except in the case of the broadly termed "unusual circumstances."

Previously I blogged on the issue of mediation and my skepticism of the process under certain circumstances.  This week there was a spirited discussion regarding the issue of mediation on the New Jersey State Bar Association Family Law Section listserve.  As a result, I thought it would be wise to highlight some of the issues again.

To frame the issue, the bigger debate surrounded the practice where a couple goes directly to a divorce mediator or some other trained mediator, without attorneys.  Some of the things that raised concern were as follows:

  1. Some mediators are concerned not whether the mediation is fair, but rather, simply that the parties reached a settlement
  2. Number 1 would be less troubling, except that many mediators are not telling the party receiving an unfair deal that it is unfair
  3. Rather, apparently, for many mediator’s, the phrase, "I think you should discuss this issue with a lawyer" is code for the resolution of this issue or this case is unfair.  However, people go to mediators to avoid lawyers and/or there is an undercurrent among mediators that divorce lawyers really are not looking out for the parties’ interests.  Moreover, some parties think that if a mediator is not putting a stop to the mediation when something is unfair, that it must be fair.

There was also a concern that the imbalance of power in the marriage that naturally is creeping into the mediation is being ignored.  A perfect example is in a case where alimony, perhaps permanent alimony is a no brainer, yet the wife is willing to waive it in mediation.  Is anyone asking why?  Did the husband vow to never pay alimony?  Was there a threat to "go after custody" if a spouse sought alimony?  Did one spouse say "I spoke to a lawyer who said you weren’t entitled to alimony" as a means to deter the other spouse from seeking it?  Was the other spouse given access to money to consult their own attorney?  I once represented a woman in a post-judgment matter whose husband would not give her money for the attorneys she wanted to see, only for mediation and then an attorney he hand selected for her to draft the Agreement.  It was not shocking that the "mediated agreement" included a waiver of alimony and the child going to school where the husband lives, when the child was of school age, despite the fact that the wife was the primary caregiver. 

I have also seen many a  complex matter where one party is pushing for mediation and there hasn’t even been the most basic exchange of information at that time, much less formal discovery. I have even seen cases where the party with the documents will not provide them in advance of mediation and will only bring them to mediation and take them with him at the end. The better practice, and the better mediators require, parties to have attorneys involved from the start of the mediation so that both parties are fully informed about the law and the process and so that any imbalance of power can be rectified with an attorney protecting the weaker party.

There is no doubt that mediation and other methods of alternate dispute resolution can be a good thing.  That said, I have often seen mediations result in a "settlement", but one where the disadvantaged spouse got a "deal" that was neither fair nor reasonable, if not unconscionable. The problem in these cases is that often, once there is an "agreement", the person that got the great deal refuses to concede anything. Thus, a method meant to avoid litigation can often create litigation.



In this day and age, marriages involving people of different religious in no longer uncommon.  In some of these families, the parties choose one religion to raise the children in.  Sometimes even, one parent converts to the other’s religion.  In other cases, the parties and the children observe both religions.

The question is what happens when the parties divorce?  What happens if one parent converts to another religion post-divorce and wants the children to similarly convert.  Though it seems as though this would be a complicated issue, in reality, the answer to the question is relatively easy. 

Specifically, under NJ law, the primary caretaker has the right to determine the religious upbringing of the children in their custody and courts will not interfere in that parent’s decision regarding religious training for the children.  The policy behind this judicial reluctance to interfere with the religious training of children is that it is in the best interests of the children that the custodial parent be allowed to determine their religious upbringing. 

This principle was confirmed by the Appellate Division in a case where the parties were Protestant and raising the children in that religion before the divorce.  After the divorce, the mother converted herself and the children to Orthodox Judaism.  The mother, however, was not allowed to use the religion to interfere with the father’s time with the children.  Moreover, the father could expose the children to his religion when they were with him but was not allowed to educate them in his religion.

Simply put, the custodial parent can determine the children’s religion – the non-custodial parent can expose, but not formally educate the children in that parent’s religion. 

The Court’s have been clear that this has nothing to do with the preference of one religion over another. Rather, it is consistent with the law in general that gives custodial parents final say in decisions regarding children, even where there is joint legal custody, because that parent is presumed to know more about and be more in tune with what is in the children’s best interests.  This principle has been applied to disputes ranging from religion to those involving elective medical procedures such as a nose job. 

While this issue does not come before the Court all that often, as noted above, the law is well settled in this area and pretty straight forward.

Though we have blogged about this issue in the past, as it is particularly topical given the article in today’s NJ Biz that New Jersey area (including the New York Metropolitan area) job losses are outpacing the national addresses. 

As noted on prior job posts. the standard for modifying support is that there has to be a substantial and continuing change of circumstances.  Moreover, in order to get relief, you must document your job search efforts to show the court that you have made a good faith effort to find a new job.

When a client loses their job, the following things should be done:

  1. Retain all documentation from the employer showing that the job loss was involuntary.  If there is a severance agreement and any other documentation, that should be maintained as well as the final paycheck showing the severance received (if paid in a lump sum).
  2. Keep a detailed log of all efforts made to find new employment with as much information as possible (who you contacted, when you contacted them, what they said, etc.)  If the communications were in writing, keep copies of all emails, resume’s, cover letters, rejection letters, if you applied for a job on lie (i.e., confirmation that you applied for work.
  3. If the problem is industry wide, any newspaper, trade or other articles or documentation showing that the industry has contracted or is having problems.

The question arises regarding what you do when offered a job that is not consistent with your prior earnings.  If you have been out or work for a short time, this creates a tough decision about whether to take this job or wait.  If you do take this job, my suggestion early after losing a job, my suggestion would be to continue your job search if at all possible.

If you have been out or work for some time and you have made a good faith job search, while possible, I find it hard to believe that a court would penalize someone for taking work – especially in this economy.


On March 12, 2009, the Appellate Division issued a reported decision in the case if Sweeney v. Sweeney..  RBC Dain Rauscher Inc was also involved in the appeal.  To view the case, click here.

The parties were married in 1991.  In 1999, the wife sold a premarital business and building for $555,000 and kept the proceeds as her separate property.  She invested the proceeds with RBC, signing a standard agreement containing an arbitration clause in the event of a dispute.  The husband was a broker at and he became the broker for the wife’s account. He was already
the broker for the couple’s joint account and for two accounts held by RBC on behalf of the couple’s minor children.

The parties divorce in 2004.  Their divorce agreement does not mention any of the parties’ brokerage accounts, but it contains a standard mutual release clause in which the
parties give up any and all claims that each might have against the other by reason of any matter.

In 2006, the wife filed with NASD (now FINRA) a Statement of Claim for Securities Arbitration against RBC, alleging, among other things, mismanagement of her accounts, breach of contract,
breach of fiduciary duty and breach of the duty to supervise. In response, RBC filed in the family court where the divorce was heard a  post-judgment motion to intervene in the divorce action and to stay arbitration. RBC contended that as a result of the Judgment of Divorce, her arbitration claims were barred by res judicata and by the entire controversy doctrine. RBC also claimed that it is a third-party beneficiary of the Judgment of Divorce and that  the release of the husband released RBC. The Wife filed a notice of cross-motion to compel arbitration.

Both the trial court and Appellate Division ruled in the wife’s favor.