Upper Saddle River Divorce Attorney

As a divorce lawyer, I follow with interest the high profile divorces when they are in the news.  There were actually three in yesterday and  today’s papers, John & Kate, Christie Brinkley and Peter Cooke and Stephanie Seymour. 

If the news accounts of the allegations are correct, then the news of the last few days included one party wiping out a large bank account and leaving the other with little cash; the other party in the same case not allowing the spouse to share in the children’s birthday party; failure to timely turn over a passport so that a child could attend a school trip being chaperoned by the other parent; and the destruction of art work in the family home.  A few weeks ago, one of the combatants was quoted about how he "despised" the other spouse.  Even if you think that, why do you say it, especially in the press, no less.

These kind of things happen every day in divorces that don’t make the news.  That does not make it right. The process is difficult enough for the parties and their children without having to deal with aberrant, aggressive or hateful conduct.  When it clearly happens, the conduct usually blows up in the face of the perpetrator.

Having represented a few professional athletes and celebrities or their spouses in the past, it is fascinating how these things play out in the press. I wonder, with disbelief, especially now that the Internet provides a record of everything, why certain dirty laundry is aired in such a public way where the kids (or their friend, classmates, etc.) may be able to see it either now or in the future. Some of this may be unavoidable because most divorce filings are public records available for anyone to see. That said, one wonders if there is not a better way.  Is the prolonging of the 15 minutes of fame worth it?. 

It would be an understatement to say that these are trying financial times.  Real estate values are done, retirement assets are down, stock accounts are down, many people have lost jobs and many other feel lucky to still have their job, albeit earning less than they once did. 

In the past, the proceeds of the sale of of the marital home was a solution to many post-divorce cash flow issues, including down payments for new homes, getting a new car and paying the lawyers and experts in a case.  With the decline in property values, many people are facing situations with negative equity or much less equity to divide. 

What I learned in the last few years, and what I have found that many attorney and many accountants do not know is that a spouse receiving a share of the other spouses retirement account in divorce (IRAs and 401ks) can avoid the early withdrawal penalty if they take with withdrawal "incident to a divorce."  Many people think  and I used to be one of them, that if you liquidated retirements assets, you had to pay the 10% penalty. 

However, provisions of Internal Revenue Code sections 72, 401 & 408 (as well as the Treasury Regulations), allow a person to avoid the penalty if the take the cash at the time of the transfer.  If the transfer is in to an IRA account and then they try to get the cash, there will be penalty.  The tax in either instance still has to be paid. 

I suggest that parties can be creative with this to get money out for both of them, if they are cooperative, transfer the money to the non-tiled spouse which will then be divided, and they agree on a fair division of the taxes. 

In any event, if the rainy day is at the end of the divorce, retirement assets to be transferred incident to a divorce could mean money for that rainy day.

In an interesting unreported decision released on August 3, 2009 entitled Mathias v. Mathias, a wife was granted both permanent and rehabilitation alimony after a 15 year marriage. 

In this case, the husband was a state trooper.  The wife had cared for the children, by agreement, though she had worked on and off as a cosmetologist.  She was attending college seeking to be a registered nurse at the time of trial.

The trial judge imputed two income figures to the wife.  One as to what she was earning at the time and what she could earn in the future as a nurse.  The matter was reversed and remanded for further consideration as to both.  For the current income, there was a finding that the wife was underemployed yet the Court used her current income.  For the future, the statistics from the department of labor as to what a registered nurse could earn were used. 


Last week we blogged about a recent unreported Appellate Division case where I was the attorney for the winning party at trial and on appeal.  To view the prior post, click here – to view the Appellate Division opinion, click here.  In last week’s post, I blogged about the importance of credibility.  There were other interesting parts of the decision.

In this case, the parties agreed that they would have joint legal custody but that the wife would have the children about 60% of the overnights.  The husband, however, in what we deemed a game of semantics, would not agree that the wife was the Parent of Primary Residence (PPR), though by definition, since she had the children more than 50% of the time, she was the PPR.  There is case law that says that the PPR has final say if parents deadlock on major decisions for the children.  Despite this being the law, this was an unresolved issue at trial.  The trial court essentially acknowledged the law.  The husband appealed claiming that the custody agreement was modified.

The Appellate Division held:

Defendant initially argues that the trial court erred in "setting aside material portions of the Consent Judgment to elevate plaintiff’s decision-making authority" respecting the parties’ two children. We disagree.
This was a bitterly contested divorce as evidenced by the extent of the record and the expense of the litigation. The court recognized that the parties "dispute[d] how to make decisions related to their children" and "recognized the parent of primary residence to be the parent in the better position to make those decisions." The court held that as "primary caretaker," plaintiff "shall decide in the best interest of the children their medical needs and treatment, schooling, expenses, and even religious instruction" because it was not in the children’s interest to "be in the middle of parental conflict" when decisions concerning their welfare needed to be made. The court left intact the parties’ agreement to "confer on all important matters concerning the children’s health, education and general well being" and to use a mediator to resolve disputes that might arise concerning the children. The court concluded that "[t]he parties shall be bound by the terms of their consent judgment fixing custody and parenting time subject to the plaintiff’s authority as parent of primary residence." With respect to extraordinary medical treatment, the parties were to consult each other in advance, except in cases of emergency, and "[n]either party shall unreasonably withhold consent."

We agree that the trial court’s modification of the parties’ consent judgment is in the children’s best interest, considering the hostility between the parties. Kinsella v. Kinsella, 150 N.J. 276, 317 (1997). Should the parties come to a resolution of their hostilities and be able to deal reasonably with each other regarding the children, they may seek to amend the judgment in respect of the custody provisions pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23. In the meantime, irrespective of the parties’ agreement, the court properly exercised its "supervisory jurisdiction as parens patriae," in the children’s best interests. Sheehan v. Sheehan, 38 N.J. Super. 120, 125 (App. Div. 1955).


To the extent that parenting agreements are unclear, or there is a dispute as to what joint legal custody means, this case provides some guidance.

We have previously blogged on the issue of whether a separate tort cause of action exists for parental alienation.  At present there are at least  two cases in the Appellate Division addressing this issue.  In at least one of the cases, there is the direction that parental alienation should be dealt with in the family court, but not as a tort. 

In an unreported Appellate Division decision dated June 5, 2009 entitled Cole v. Cole one of the issues raised in an application was parental alienation on the mother’s part.  Specifically, the father alleged hat the mother seeks to alienate the children from him. He made a number of
general allegations that defendant was not abiding by the parenting schedule fixed by court order, including contentions that on multiple occasions defendant refused to allow court ordered parenting time or to permit the children to speak to him on the phone.  In her responsive certification, the mother denied  that she interferes with the father’s.   She stated that the children were "well, adjusted, healthy and normal, both physically and emotionally," although she did indicate problems with the children when they returned from defendant’s home.

The trial court did not change custody or even give a hearing.  The judge did find that certain additional parenting time should be considered for the father but denied his motion without prejudice.  The father appealed arguing among other things that the decision condoned the mother’s bad acts. The Appellate Division affirmed.  In doing so, there was a very interesting quote, as follows:

After a careful review of the record, we concur with the trial judge that defendant has not made a sufficient showing that changed circumstances have occurred and that "a genuine and substantial issue" of custody is present. Certainly, the hostility between these parents does not benefit the children. In a divorce setting, oftentimes the greatest test of a parent’s love for the children is to foster, in the face of adversity, the children’s love for and relationship with the other parent and to work with the other parent in a civil manner to benefit the children. It is a circumstance that forces a parent to dig deep into himself or herself and put that love for the children ahead of the bitterness felt toward the former spouse. However, defendant’s proposal to change custody will not accomplish that nor remedy any problem here.

If, indeed, parenting time is being denied, enforcement remedies should be sought. If defendant seeks additional parenting time, such as an additional weekday dinner as suggested by the trial judge, that relief can be requested from the trial court if the parties cannot agree. The record does not indicate that the circumstances here are so deleterious to the children that "a genuine and substantial issue" of custody
is present.



In an interesting unreported Appellate Division decision released on May 20, 2009, in the case of Williams v. Williams the appellate court affirmed a finding by the trial court that the former husband had not shown a change of circumstances and therefore was not entitled to eliminate his alimony obligation.  The case is also a primer of what not to do when seeking a reduction.

In this case, the husband was a long time employee at JP Morgan Chase making $185,000 per year.  His alimony obligation was $1,000 per month.  When he lost his job in August 2006, he immediately stopped paying alimony despite receiving one year of severance pay.

The husband asserted that he had tried but failed to find comparable work.  The opinion was not clear but given the final outcome, one can surmise that overwhelming proof of an unsuccessful job search was not supplied to the Court.  The husband further alleged that he had attempted unsuccessfully to establish a consultant business focusing on information technology. He claimed, however, that the only employment he could obtain was a position in a florist shop. It was not disputed that the florist shop was operated by his girlfriend.  Though the issue was ultimately decided for other reasons, these facts could also lead to a conclusion the he had not made an initial showing of a change of circumstances.


Mark Ashton, a partner in our Exton, Pennsylvania office, and the editor of the firm’s Pennsylvania Family Law blog, wrote an excellent post on that blog entitled, "Sizing Up the Litigation:  An Examination of Cost vs. Benefit.  To read the post, click here.

The point of the post is that a litigant should choose their battles wisely, recognizing the potential costs. I often tell clients that it does not make sense to spend $2 to get $1, or for that matter, to spend $1 to get $1.  As Mark states, there are times to fight over principle.  A litigant needs to weigh when it makes sense to fight over principle, or choose to fight another day over something more important financially.

Mark Ashton, a partner in our Exton, Pennsylvania office, and the editor of the firm’s Pennsylvania Family Law blog, wrote an interesting post on that blog entitled Mediate, Arbitrate, Negotiate:  What’s a Client to Do?" To read the post, click here.

Mark’s blog entry goes through the options of alternate dispute resolution.  Like Pennsylvania, in New Jersey, there is very limited review of an arbitrator’s decision.  However, parties can agree to an appeals type process.  However, that appeal would be to a trial court, not the Appellate Division as we recently learned in the reported case of Hoogoboom.  Moreover, in New Jersey, you can mediate, but you cannot arbitrate custody and parenting time disputes.

Also, in my experience, arbitrations are very much like trials with the arbitrator serving as the judge.  While you can agree to relax the rules of evidence and the arbitrator, under the arbitration act can choose to relax the rules, most often unless people agree to proceed in some kind of summary format, an arbitration proceeds in the same manner as a trial in a Court would.

That said, the benefits of an arbitration noted in Mark’s post are the same.

Mark Ashton, a partner in our Exton, Pennsylvania office, and the editor of the firm’s Pennsylvania Family Law blog, wrote an excellent post on that blog entitled "Stock Option Developments."  To read the post, click here.

Stock options have become a large part of executive compensation over the last few decades.  Moreover, they have become common additional/incentive compensation even for non executives who work for large public companies.  We have had to deal with the issue of options both in terms of the division of them in equitable distribution and as a component of income for determining alimony and child support.

Mark’s post raises interesting food for thought regarding the issue of the re-casting and/or re-pricing of options, post-complaint. 

Stay tuned for updates as the law develops regarding this topic.

On March 10, 2009, the Appellate Division issued a precedential (reported) decision on the issue of the possession of a dog in the case of Houseman v. Dare.  To see the full text of the case, click here.

The parties were together for 13 years.  In 1999 they purchased a house together.  In 2000, they got engaged (but never married).  In 2003, they purchased a pedigree dog for $1,500.  Both parties were listed as the owners on the papers filed with the American Kennel Club.



In May 2006 Dare decided to end his relationship with Houseman. At that time, he wanted to stay in the house and purchase her interest in the property for $45,000 which was what he represented half of the equity to be. In June 2006, she signed a deed transferring her interest in the house to him.  When she vacated the residence in July 2006, Houseman took the dog and its paraphernalia with her. 

There seems to be little dispute that there was an oral agreement that Houseman was going to take the dog with her as her own when the parties separated.  However, thereafter, she allowed Dare to visit with the dog.  On one occasion in 2007 after watching the dog while Houseman was on vacation, he refused to give the dog back and the lawsuit ensued wherein she sought specific performance of their agreement that she keep the dog.