Somerset County Divorce Attorneys

Sometimes, instead of practicing family law, it feels like we are playing a game of legal Whack A Mole.  You know what Whack A Mole is, right?  For those who don’t, it is the carnival game where the player has a mallet and has to hit the mole that pops up.  As soon as you hit one mole, another pops up, again and again.

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What is legal whack a mole, you may ask.  It is when every time you think that you have a case resolved, another issue is raised, out of the blue.  Often it is an issue that you thought you had resolved.  Often it is an issue of insignificance.  Perhaps it is a request for information that was already provided, or on a resolved issue, or better yet, a list for updated information that wouldn’t likely change the prior resolution.  Dealing with this makes you feel like the proverbial Dutch boy trying to plug the new leaks in the dike.  This is worse than the never ending negotiation that I have blogged about, because there really is no end in sight.

The key to dealing with this is to try to find out who this is coming from.  Is it coming from the other party?  If so, that might indicate that he or she is just not ready to settle the case and move on (especially if there has been extensive and complete or largely complete discovery.)  One of the first posts I did on this blog in 2008 was called All Cases Have a Life of Their Own.  Some times, you just have to wait for the other party to be ready to settle.

More problematic is when the other attorney is the impediment to settlement.  Now, it is one thing when you are trying to protect your client from selling him or herself out by agreeing to a deal that they will surely regret when the guilt, pressure, duress, etc. wears off.  I would argue that it is the attorney’s job to protect the client the best they can in that way, especially where all of the facts are not known – though at the end of the day, the decision to settle is ultimately the party’s.

That’s not what I am talking about here.  Rather, I am talking about when an adversary is obstreperous and an impediment to settlement for no apparent reason.  I have had an adversary that has blown up deals reached in mediation with lawyers present, 5 different times, though it was clear that his client wanted to settle.  I have had adversaries who have refused to allow the judge or mediator speak with their client alone.  I have had adversaries try to storm out of mediation with their client tugging on their arms to stay.  I have had adversaries delay, ask for more information, that they didn’t look at for months, only to then ask for updated information, or updated appraisals, or more depositions, or more experts with no clear direction or end game other than to drag the case out.

If the attorney is the culprit, as opposed to the client, some times it is best to get the trial judge involved.  If the trial judge cannot pressure/craft a settlement, at least she or he will see what is really happening and who is being unreasonable.  Because the issue in these types of cases often becomes counsel fees as the tail wagging the dog, the judge will quickly get the picture and this can impact or negate the offender’s claim for fees after a trial.  And if the nonsense continues, as I have said before, some times you just have to try a case.

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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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After the US Supreme Court decided Troxel v. Granville in 2000, invalidating Washington’s “breathtakingly broad” grandparent and third party visitation statute, there was an onslaught of litigation, nationwide, seeking to invalidate grandparent visitation statutes in each state.  Ultimately, in 2003 in the case of Moriarty v. Bradt (a case I was involved with), the New Jersey Supreme Court addressed this issue for the first time, post-Troxel, and held that because a judicial order compelling grandparent visitation infringes on parents’ fundamental right to raise their children as they see fit, the statute could only survive a constitutional challenge if a “threshold harm standard” augmented the “best interests of the child” factors set forth in the statute. What followed was litigation about what constituted harm, how it could be plead, etc.

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Thereafter, changes in court procedure began to create an obstacle to these cases meeting the initial threshold.  Because grandparent visitation cases are often treated as “non-dissolution” or “FD” cases, a streamlined, form pleading process was created by the court to use in FD cases.  The typical complaint which would lay out the facts was now not permitted.  Once it was determined that those attorney prepared pleadings could then be affixed to the form, the next issue that then arose was whether there was an entitlement to an expert and other discovery, since FD cases are deemed summary proceedings where discovery is not automatic.  While the Appellate Division seemed to resolve this in 2014 in R.K. v. D.L. which provided for a differentiated case management for complex FD cases, the Supreme Court had not yet weighed in on the topic.

Today, the Supreme Court has finally resolved this issue in grandparent visitation cases in the case of Major v. Maguire reaffirming the need for differentiated case management for complex grandparent visitation cases.  In this case, similar to the Moriarty case, one of the parents died and the remaining parent cut off the other grandparent’s access to the children leading to the litigation.  The trial court initially dismissed the Complaint because the grandparents could not prove harm.  The Appellate Division disagreed and reversed and remanded the matter to trial court with directions to re-examine the complaint under R.K..

The Supreme Court affirmed the Appellate Division, holding:

 We reaffirm the holding of Moriarty that, in order to overcome the presumption of parental autonomy in the raising of children, grandparents who bring visitation actions under N.J.S.A. 9:2-7.1 must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that denial of visitation will harm the child. This case, however, arises not from a court’s findings on a full record, but the grant of a motion to dismiss under Rule 4:6-2(e) at the pleading stage, in which plaintiffs must be afforded every reasonable inference of fact. Here, plaintiffs alleged in detail their involvement in their granddaughter’s life prior to the death of their son and contended on that basis that their alienation from the child caused her harm. The trial court should have denied defendant’s motion to dismiss and given plaintiffs the opportunity to satisfy their burden to prove harm.

Though the decision is 36 pages long, the following paragraphs encapsulate what you really need to know:

First, as applied to a complex grandparent visitation case, the Appellate Division’s case management recommendations in R.K., …, enhance the constitutional standard articulated in Moriarty. We concur with the panel in R.K. that in some grandparent visitation actions, the limitations imposed in summary actions may deprive a litigant of an opportunity to meet his or her burden under the statute and case law. … We recognize, however, that the case management procedures envisioned by R.K. also impose burdens on the privacy and resources of a family, and that they are neither necessary nor appropriate in every case.

We consider the approach reflected in Rule 5:5-7(c) to strike the appropriate balance. That Rule requires the trial court to hold initial and final case management conferences, and to enter an order addressing the full list of issues set forth in R.K., only in grandparent visitation cases that warrant assignment to the complex track. … Visitation applications that are not “complex” may be handled as summary actions, with or without case management and discovery as authorized by Rule 5:4-4(a). … Thus, when a trial court determines the need for complex case management in a particular case, the Appellate Division’s case management recommendations in R.K. provide a practical template for courts and parties.

Second, when a party seeks to have the matter designated as “complex,” the plaintiff should ordinarily file a non-conforming complaint, as permitted by Rule 5:4-2(i), to supplement the form pleading required by Directive 08-11. With no constraints on the length of their pleadings, many plaintiffs will be in a position to present a prima facie showing of harm in that complaint without the need for intrusive discovery. For example, in a case such as this one, the grandparent would be able to plead a showing of harm; he or she may allege his or her contacts with and care for a grandchild when the parent was alive, the timing and circumstances of the parent’s death, any changes in family relationships that followed, the nature of the claimed harm, and other pertinent considerations. … Relevant facts within a grandparent’s knowledge should be presented with precision and detail. Similarly, a parent opposing visitation should use his or her responsive pleading to identify issues on which the parties agree and counter the grandparents’ factual allegations on disputed issues…. Informed by the pleadings, the trial court can make a considered judgment about the complexity of the matter, the need for fact or expert discovery, and the issues to be resolved.

Third, in the event that fact discovery is required, the court and the parties should work together to coordinate and streamline the process. … Whether the case is designated as complex or handled as a summary action, Family Part judges have broad discretion to permit, deny, or limit discovery in accordance with the circumstances of the individual case. …Under the court’s supervision, the parties should address only the issues in dispute: whether the grandparents have met their burden to demonstrate harm to the child in the absence of visitation, and, if so, what visitation schedule will serve the best interests of the child, applying the factors identified in N.J.S.A. 9:2-7.1. …

Any discovery should be carefully circumscribed to prevent or minimize intrusion on the privacy of the child and his or her family. … It is the rare case that will require the trial court to embark on a comprehensive inquiry into family history or probe the relationships of warring adults. The court, counsel and parties should be aware that no matter how difficult the circumstances may be, the litigants’ interests are not the primary concern. Instead, the court’s focus, and that of the parties, must be the welfare of the child.

Fourth, as the Court noted in Moriarty, supra, expert testimony may be necessary for grandparents to meet their burden under N.J.S.A. 9:2-7.1. … Particularly in settings in which one of the child’s parents is deceased, and the other parent has barred or sharply limited the grandparents from contact with the child, parties seeking visitation may not have access to current information about the child’s status. In determining whether expert testimony is appropriate, trial courts should be sensitive to the impact of expert involvement on family resources, protective of the privacy of the child, and mindful of an expert’s potential value to the court and parties in suggesting a resolution of the dispute.

Fifth, even when it has afforded grandparents the opportunity to conduct fact or expert discovery, the trial court should not hesitate to dismiss an action without conducting a full trial if the grandparents cannot sustain their burden to make the required showing of harm. To that end, a court may dismiss summary actions pursuant to Rule 4:67-5, and decide complex visitation cases by summary judgment under Rule 4:46-2(c). Consistent with the due process autonomy interests recognized in Troxel, and Moriarty, a trial court should not prolong litigation that is clearly meritless.  (Emphasis added); (internal citations omitted and otherwise edited for space).

The takeaway is that, after a dozen years, there now seems to be more of a clear roadmap for the courts and litigants as to how to handle these cases if they are to be litigated.  That said, the Court interestingly noted that litigation may not be the answer, when it held:

Finally, trial courts should encourage parties to mediate or arbitrate grandparent visitation actions in accordance with New Jersey’s strong policy in favor of alternative dispute resolution. In a meritorious case, a seasoned mediator or arbitrator with experience in visitation and custody issues may devise a solution for the parties’ conflict promptly and inexpensively, to the benefit of the child and the parties.

Query, should or will a parent be forced to mediate a non-meritorious case because a trial court seeks to punt the above procedures down the road? If so, would that, in an of itself violate the constitutional protections that Moriarty and Major seek to impose.  The future of grandparent visitation cases will remain interesting, I’m sure.

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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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So you are divorced and your child is going off to college.  What is the best way to get the other parent to contribute, whether there is an agreement that says he should or the agreement says that the issue shall abide the event.  Should you A) consult prior to college and keep the other parent in the loop and then make a motion if you cannot agree before the child goes off ot college; B)  make a unilateral decision then file your motion; or C) wait until the child graduates and when the other parent makes a motion for emancipation, hit him with a cross motion asking him to pay his share of a six figure college bill?  Obviously, A is the preferred method, B is a worse method and C is a method that may risk you not getting re-paid.

As we learned from the Supreme Court a few years ago in Gac v. Gac, a former husband was not required to contribute toward his child’s college education expenses, because neither his ex- wife nor his child requested financial assistance from him until after he sought to terminate child support and the child had graduated from college.  The Coourt found that their failure to make such request at time that would have enabled the father to participate in child’s educational decision as well as to plan for his own financial future weighed heavily against ordering him to contribute to the child’s educational expenses after her education was completed.

As the philosopher George Satayana said, those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.  That is what happened in the unreported (non-precedential) case of Fletcher v. Euston decided on June 11, 2013.  The facts of this case are similar to Gac and the worst case noted above.  However, the parties’ divorce agreement did provide that the parties would share the cost of college based upon their financial ability at the time.  In response to the Husband’s motion for emancipation, the ctrial court ordered him to reimburse the former wife over $111,000.  The Husband appealed. Continue Reading If You Want the Other Parent to Pay for College, Don't Wait Until Graduation to Seek Contribution

Wikipedia defines grey divorce as a "term referring to the demographic trend of an increasing divorce rate for older ("grey-haired") couples in long-lasting marriages."  Now while "grey divorces" of a short or mid length marriage provide challenges for a divorce attorney, many believe that divorces of long term marriages are easy.  Just whack up the assets 50-50, agree to permanent alimony and call it a day, right?  That is not an uncommon result, but does it really make sense to do so and not consider real life anticipated events such as retirement and the receipt of Social Security, to name just two. 

Typically, when marriages are longer than 20 years, the concept of permanent alimony seems like a no brainer.  When the parties are in their sixties (or maybe even late fifties) does this make sense?  What if the parties always discussed and agreed that at age 65, the husband was going to retire and planned and lived their life accordingly?  Now, at age 61, either party seeks a divorce (I was going to say the wife – but it really doesn’t matter).  Should this be a permanent alimony case? The default answer is yes but should there be more critical analysis to this? 

In this case, we can assume that all of the assets will be divided 50-50, except perhaps a business asset.  Even then, while business assets are usually disproportionately divided, for longer marriages, the non-titled spouse gets more than they would have in a shorter marriage (the fairness of this may be the subject of another post.)  In addition, it is likely that the amount of alimony afforded will not allow the payor to save substantially before the divorce and a normal retirement age in a few years hence.

If the agreement does not account for retirement, aren’t the parties just buying themselves more litigation in a few years?  Should consideration be given to allowing for retirement and the termination of alimony any time after retirement age without the need to litigate?  If that is the case and someone still works full time after the agreed upon retirement age, should alimony continue? 

Continue Reading Divorce in Your Sixties – Is Permanent Alimony the Right Result?

This is my final offer!!!  Don’t you just love the ultimatum, the line in the sand, the threat of Armageddon if capitulation is not immediately at hand?  I sure do.  Is it because I love to go to trial?  Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy trial but that is not the reason. 

 

Seldom does it mean that a reasonable counter proposal won’t be considered it it doesn’t materially alter the terms being discussed.  Usually it means that your are getting pretty close to a settlement so that the proclamation can alert you and your client that now may be the time to do a deal.  In a recent case that I just settled, almost comically, each side probably sent 5 "final offers." 

 

And why is a final offer seldom a final offer?  Because 99% of all cases settle.  Because the system is geared to promote settlement.  Because before you go to trial, you will go likely go to custody and parenting time mediation, an Early Settlement Panel (ESP), mandatory economic mediation (sometimes several sessions), and an Intensive Settlement Conference (ISC) with the judge, or many.  Often, your first trial date is not a real trial date, but rather another day to bring the parties (and perhaps experts too) in to try and cajole or finesse and strong arm a settlement.  Even on your real trial date, perhaps before and often during the breaks of a trial, the judge will encourage settlement and/or the circumstances of how the trial is going may encourage settlement. 

 

So keep giving us your "final offers."  Sometimes, our client will accept them.  Other times, we will make a counter offer and await your next final offer until one day, the case will be settled or tried to conclusion.

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Eric 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 practices in Fox Rothschild’s Roseland, New Jersey office though he practices throughout New Jersey. You can reach Eric at (973)994-7501, or esolotoff@foxrothschild.com.

 

Some times, the most basic part of the case, discovery, can often be the most frustrating part.  In most cases, some amount of discovery is needed to do the due diligence necessary to bring a matter to its conclusion with some sense of comfort that the issues have been adequately addressed.  In complex cases, especially cases where there are businesses and other significant assets to value, the failure to complete discovery often stops a case in its tracks.  I have a few cases now where the business owner is simply stonewalling discovery. 

 

In your typical case, you may serve interrogatories (written questions to be answered under oath) and a document request.  Though per court rules, the responses are due in 60 and 45 days respectively, the rules are most often honored in the breach.  Is it right?  No.  But most people figure that they can get away with ignoring the rules because the deadlines to answer will be set at the first Case Management Conference.  And even when you complain that your discovery is now over due or due shortly, inevitably, the deadline is set for 60 days in the future, give or take.

 

Then what happens.  People ignore the new deadline.  When you finally get the discovery, you often get half-hearted, incomplete answers and some but usually not all of the documents requested.  While many banks and credit card companies let you go on line and print out a year or several years of past records, and certainly will provide them to you when you ask, most people don’t ask and just send an incomplete production which only serves to delay the process and cost both people more money (they don’t think about that when the complain that the process takes too long and costs too much).  They may offer to sign authorizations so that you can get the documents yourself.  More delay – more expense shifted to the other side. In response to the weak answers, sometimes you may serve a request for more specific answers, only to get more drivel, if you get a response at all.

 

This is the discovery dance.    Several months go by and basic information still isn’t exchanged.  Sometimes it is so late in the game that a judge says you can’t do any more discovery.  As we have blogged before, where someone has sandbagged a case, that argument shouldn’t fly.

Continue Reading The Discovery Dance

Yesterday, my post on this blog was called "Alimony – Back to Basics."  Just like with alimony, over the years, we have had dozens of posts on this blog about custody and parenting issues.  However, just like with alimony, there are statutory factors that the court, as well as the custody experts, must consider when making decisions (for judges) or recommendations (for experts) related to custody and parenting time.

The following is a refresher on the custody factors set forth in N.J.S.A. 9:2-4 that must be considered:

1. the parents’ ability to agree, communicate and cooperate in matters relating to the child;

2. the parents’ willingness to accept custody and any history of unwillingness to allow parenting time not based on substantiated abuse;

3. the interaction and relationship of the child with its parents and siblings;

4. the history of domestic violence, if any;

5. the safety of the child and the safety of either parent from physical abuse by the other parent;

6. the preference of the child when of sufficient age and capacity to reason so as to form an intelligent decision;

7. the needs of the child;

8. the stability of the home environment offered;

9. the quality and continuity of the child’s education;

10. the fitness of the parents;

11. the geographical proximity of the parents’ homes;

12. the extent and quality of the time spent with the child prior to or subsequent to the separation;

13. the parents’ employment responsibilities;

14. and the age and number of the children.

These factors are not all inclusive but represent the minimum of what must be considered.  After you decide that you wish to seek custody (or perhaps before you decide to jump into that battle) you should go down each of these factors and review, as objectively as possible, how they would apply to your case.

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Eric 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 practices in Fox Rothschild’s Roseland, New Jersey office though he practices throughout New Jersey. You can reach Eric at (973)994-7501, or esolotoff@foxrothschild.com.

An interesting case was recently decided by the United Supreme Court involving an international custody dispute, which has particular relevance for members of the military. For the case, click here. When there are allegations of parental kidnapping, or an unlawful removal of children to another country, there is an international treaty, known has the The Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction which provides an expeditious method intended to return a child removed by a parent from one member nation to another.   The primary intention of the Convention is to maintain the custody arrangement which existed immediately before an alleged wrongful removal thereby deterring a parent from crossing international boundaries in search of a more sympathetic court. The Convention applies only to children under the age of 16.

Unfortunately, not all countries are signatories to the treaty (most notably, the majority of Middle Eastern countries are not). However, those that are give litigants an important process to be heard when a child is unlawfully taken. The core premise of the Hague Convention is that custody disputes should be resolved in what is known as the child’s “habitual residence.” Recently, a father who had been denied relief by an American Court when it was found that Scotland was the habitual residence of his daughter had his case reinstated by the United States Supreme Court.   

 

The Hague Conventions requires the judicial or administrative authority of a signatory country to order a child returned to his or her country of habitual residence if the authority finds that the child has been wrongfully removed to or retained in the contracting country. The International Child Abduction Remedies Act (the name of the United States law which implements the Convention in the United States) also requires defendants to pay various expenses incurred by plaintiffs associated with the return of children. Generally, once a child has been return to his or her country of habitual residence, the case is considered concluded. However, this can, as the Supreme Court concluded, lead to inequities.         

Continue Reading Parent's rights under the Hague Convention Upheld

Okay, now that I hooked you with a bad movie reference, lets talk about laches.  Laches has been defined in New Jersey family law as "… an equitable doctrine which penalizes knowing inaction by a party with a legal right from enforcing that right after passage of such a period of time that prejudice has resulted to the other parent, so that it would be inequitable to enforce the right."  Put simply, it is sitting on your rights and doing nothing about it for many years and when you do try to enforce your rights, the other party would be unduly prejudiced by the delay.

The issue recently came up in the case of Mayer v. Mayer, an unreported (non-precedential) decision released on January 25. 2013 involving a situation where the support payor overpaid child support for 7 years.  Though the overpayment was indisputable, the beneficiary of this overpayment fought repayment of it claiming laches and other equitable remedies as a defense.  The trial court did not address these defenses and simply ordered that the child support be reduced by $42 week to pay back this more than $35,000 overpayment and also entered judgment against the recipient.

Continue Reading Laches? We Don't Need No Stinking Laches!

We don’t typically post about DYFS (now DCPP) or similar type cases on this blog as we usually focus on divorce and related issues. That said, for fun, I was reading the new cases that were decided yesterday and came upon a case that I found compelling, both because it indicated some systemic problems in custody cases and because it had some real strong language about parental rights – that while stating the obvious, perhaps, did so in a powerful way and in a way that needed to be reiterated. 

The case I’m talking about is  C.D., A.P. and D.D. v. N.D.M.  and A.L.   which was an unreported (non-precedential) decision released by the Appellate Division on January 8, 2013.  In that case, the aunt and grandparents received temporary custody of her niece and a best interest evaluation, to be completed within 90 days, was ordered.  The parties ultimately agreed to a joint expert to do the evaluation,  That evaluation, which by court order was to be completed in 90 days, took more than a year to complete.

SYSTEMIC ISSUE #1:  All custody and best interest evaluations are supposed to take 90 days or so.  That almost never happens.  Rather, it is not unusual for it to take 6 months or longer to get a report.  If it is a joint or court appointed expert, the party who doesn’t like the report has the right to get their own report so add another several months to the process.  As in this case, where the mother’s custody with her own child hinged upon this report, the prejudice cannot be quantified.

Continue Reading Getting Temporary Custody of a Relative Does Not Make You the Psychological Parent