We previously blogged on the Appellate Division’s notable decision in Rogers v. Gordon, which addressed the legal standard applicable to prenuptial agreements signed prior to New Jersey’s enactment of the Uniform Premarital Agreement statute. There, the Appellate Division reversed a trial court Order to the extent that it set aside the entire prenup, since, as to equitable distribution, the husband knew that the wife would likely be wealthier than him at the time of a divorce given her family wealth. As to the issue of alimony, however, the Appellate Division modified the trial court’s Order by holding that the husband could seek alimony at a later date if he could establish "changed circumstances" pursuant to Lepis v. Lepis, 83 N.J. 139 (1980).
Considering the level of acrimony involved in the divorce proceeding, which could be easily discerned from the first Appellate Division decision, it was no surprise that a second appeal was filed, this time as to the issue of counsel fees. On this appeal, the wife argued that the trial court erred by allowing the husband to seek and obtain counsel fees as to his claim for alimony, since he was denied such a claim in relation to equitable distribution issues previously raised.
The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s finding that the husband had expressly waived in the prenup his right to counsel fees in relation to equitable distribution, but that he had not done so as to alimony since the prenup provision regarding alimony did not contain a similar provision waiving counsel fees on that issue. Ultimately, the Appellate Division remanded for a proper calculation of fees incurred as to alimony, but what struck me as interesting in reviewing the Opinion was the Appellate Division’s conclusion that the husband’s attorney had achieved some sort of success as to the alimony issue. Specifically, while it noted that the attorney had not obtained for the husband an immediate benefit – i.e., he still was not entitled to alimony without establishing changed circumstances – the attorney was deemed successful in that he opened the door for the husband to make such a claim in the future. This even though the husband could very well fail in making that future claim.
The primary theme in the case was one of contract interpretation – while one paragraph contained language waiving counsel fees, another did not. Since the prenup was the product of expert drafting, the Appellate Division found the lack of language waiving counsel fees as to alimony to be significant and, as a result, did not preclude the husband’s claim.