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The economy and the workforce have been changing rapidly in the face of technological advances, as well as from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. Some ongoing family law monetary obligations, such as child support and alimony awards, may require modification as years go by and the earning ability of certain professions changes with the times. The Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court recently affirmed a family court’s judgment to reduce a payor’s alimony obligation based on the fact that he was unable to earn the same amount as he could at the time the parties agreed to the initial settlement.

According to the facts discussed in the recently released appellate opinion, the parties were married from 1999 to 2012, and the husband was the primary earner, earning over $150,000 annually in the advertising industry by the time the parties separated. As part of a divorce settlement agreement, the man agreed to pay approximately $3,000 per month in alimony, in addition to child support. After the divorce was finalized, the man claimed he was unable to make the complete payments, and requested the court reduce his alimony obligation.

The man argued that the advertising field had changed in recent years and “gone digital”, and that he had aged out of the industry. As part of his modification motion, the man submitted that he had been trying to seek higher-paying jobs both in and out of the advertising industry, but he was unable to find any employment that paid enough to fulfill his alimony obligations. Ultimately, the man accepted work in a new industry and took a pay cut of more than 50% from what he was earning when the divorce was finalized. Initially, the trial court ruled that the man did not make a “good faith effort” at finding new employment, but after receiving some guidance from the Appellate Division, the trial court modified the man’s alimony obligation to approximately $400 per month, which he was able to afford.

New Jersey family courts can award alimony as part of a divorce for various reasons. Primarily, courts order alimony payments to allow the lesser-earning spouse to maintain a lifestyle close to that which was experienced during the marriage. Because of this, in cases involving a long marriage and significant assets, an alimony award can total millions of dollars over a lifetime, or even more.

Alimony can also be awarded on a more temporary basis. Sometimes it is awarded to rehabilitate one spouse into a position to earn more once the term of alimony has expired, and other times to compensate spouses involved in relatively short marriages, where an open durational alimony award would not be fair or appropriate. The Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court recently addressed a claim by a woman that the alimony she was awarded in her divorce was unjustifiably rescinded by the lower court

According to the facts discussed in the recently published opinion, the parties involved had been married for several years, shared two children, and executed a divorce in 2007. As part of the divorce settlement, the ex-husband (the defendant) agreed to pay the plaintiff “rehabilitative alimony” for a period of five years after the divorce. Shortly after the divorce was finalized, the plaintiff became permanently disabled and sought to have the temporary alimony extended to become permanent based on her disability. Although the court denied the plaintiff’s request to extend alimony payments in 2012, the defendant continued to pay alimony to the plaintiff until 2021.

The dissolution of a marriage can be one of the most challenging experiences in someone’s life. Not all divorces are complex and ugly. Some divorcing couples can agree to the terms of their divorce with little conflict, agreeing to settlements without the help of attorneys. In contrast, other couples spend years of their lives and millions of dollars in legal fees on litigating disputed issues. Early settlements can be desirable, but settlements entered into too quickly without the advice of an attorney might not be as favorable to a party as they thought. Under some (usually very limited) circumstances, parties can get out of divorce settlements after they’ve been entered into. The Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court recently addressed a woman’s attempt to set aside her divorce settlement.

According to the facts discussed in the appellate opinion, the parties were married in 1996 and had no children. In 2015, the plaintiff/wife filed for divorce from her husband. The parties negotiated a settlement without the help of counsel, and signed a notarized agreement reflecting such. Part of the agreement included the defendant making regular payments to the plaintiff as part of their property division settlement. At the court hearing scheduled to finalize the divorce, the plaintiff failed to appear; however, her attorney did so. Based on her signing the agreement and failure to appear to object to its entry, the court entered a final order under the terms of the agreement

After the divorce was finalized, the parties proceeded for nearly five years to follow the terms of the agreement, with the plaintiff accepting payments from the defendant as outlined in the settlement. Approximately five years after the agreement was entered into, the plaintiff asked the court to set it aside, claiming that she signed the agreement under duress, or that it was forged, and that she was not aware of the hearing where the divorce was finalized. The trial court did not find the plaintiff’s arguments convincing. The court noted that she enjoyed the benefits of the agreement for nearly five years with no issue. The Court noted that a pending criminal prosecution of the plaintiff most likely gave her the motivation to set aside her divorce so that the defendant could not be forced to testify against her. The court noted that the plaintiff’s explanations for her signature on the settlement agreement were inconsistent with each other and that her testimony generally lacked credibility. Under these circumstances, the appellate court refused to set aside the settlement agreement, and the divorce is final and enforceable.

After a divorce, individuals may get into new relationships. This can affect many aspects of their life, including, who they spend time the majority of their time with and even their financial situation. In some instances, when a new relationship results in the partners living together, the ex-spouse may request a reduction or termination in their alimony payments. In a recent New Jersey case, an appellate court was tasked with determining whether a woman was cohabitating with her new partner, which would result in a termination of alimony payments from her ex-husband. Ultimately, the court determined that the ex-husband did not present enough evidence to prove his former wife and her new fiancée were cohabitating—thus, there was no termination of alimony payments.

In this case, the former couple was married for over twenty-four years before getting a divorce. During their final divorce proceedings, they signed a marital settlement agreement, which provided that if the wife cohabitated with a future romantic partner, the husband could request an alimony review that could result in a termination of alimony. Seven years after the signing of the agreement, the ex-husband moved to terminate his alimony obligation because he claimed his ex-wife was living with her new fiancée.

The defendant argued that the cohabitation provision in the marital settlement agreement was triggered because the ex-wife and her fiancée had been in a continuous relationship for over six years, and the fiancée played a critical role in his and the ex-wife’s youngest child’s life—including attending dance recitals, paying for family dinners and driving her to the airport. However, the lower court ruled that the ex-husband did not meet the standard for cohabitation under New Jersey law.

Couples with children who go through a divorce often bring up several points of contention that will need to be addressed in the final divorce order. Divorcing parents often request orders for child custody, visitation, child support, alimony, and property division, among other things. When circumstances change after a divorce is finalized, one of the parties may motion or petition the court to modify the divorce orders to more fairly incorporate those changes into the parties’ legal obligations. The Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey recently ruled on an appeal filed by a father, which sought to modify the custody and child support provisions of his divorce from his ex-wife.

The plaintiff in the recently decided case is a woman who divorced the defendant several years ago. At the time of their divorce, the parties shared a two-year-old daughter. To resolve their divorce, the parties entered into a settlement agreement, which gave the mother primary placement of the child, with the father having parenting time every other weekend and one weeknight per week. The parties also agreed on an amount of child support that the father would pay to the mother.

Since the entry of the final divorce order, the father has alleged that circumstances have changed and the order should be changed. For a New Jersey custody and support order to be changed, the moving party must show that there has been a substantial change in circumstances to justify the modification and that any changes would further the best interests of the child(ren) involved. The father argued that the mother’s move to a new town with her new husband affected his daughter’s quality of life, while also alleging that the mother took a higher-paying job with her new husband, and requesting support be recalculated with the parties’ updated incomes.

Divorce and separation are commonly predicated upon mental or psychological changes that one of the parties experiences during a marriage. In some instances, one party to a divorce may suffer from mental health problems that could inhibit their ability to participate in the divorce proceedings. While married persons should be entitled to seek divorce from their spouse at any time, a spouse who is suffering from mental illness must be protected throughout the proceedings. To protect a mentally ill spouse during a divorce, a family court may appoint a guardian to make decisions on behalf of the mentally incompetent party. The New Jersey Appellate Division recently addressed an appeal filed by a divorced woman who challenged a family court’s decision to appoint a guardian who negotiated a divorce settlement on her behalf.

According to the facts discussed in the appellate opinion, the parties to this divorce were married in 1985. After a long marriage, the plaintiff filed for divorce against his then-wife in 2016. Prior to the divorce, the defendant developed mental health issues, was hospitalized for psychiatric breakdowns several times, and was diagnosed with several serious mental health disorders. As part of the divorce proceedings, a guardian ad-litem was appointed to represent the interests of the defendant and negotiate a settlement on her behalf.

As part of their recommendations to the court, the defendant’s guardian ad-litem recommended that the parties’ adult children assume legal guardianship of the defendant, which was promptly effected. The parties, their counsel, and the guardians eventually reached a settlement agreement, which resulted in the defendant being awarded approximately $900,000 from the plaintiff in exchange for the marital property which he retained. After the divorce was finalized, the defendant was later adjudicated as mentally competent by another psychologist, and she challenged the settlement at the Appellate Division.

Although it is generally the case that the assets obtained by a couple during a marriage will be divided equally in the event of a divorce, not as many people understand how debts that are assumed during a marriage are to be divided. Generally, debts assumed by either party during a marriage are divided equally at the time of divorce. A New Jersey Appellate Court recently addressed a case where a divorced ex-husband failed to pay tax debts as agreed to in the divorce settlement.

The plaintiff in the recently decided case is a man who filed for divorce from the defendant. The parties agreed to a settlement without a divorce trial, which was entered during the Fall of 2020. According to the facts discussed in the appellate opinion, part of the divorce settlement involved the plaintiff liquidating certain retirement accounts and using the proceeds to pay off over $100,000 in unpaid taxes to the federal and state governments.

After the settlement was finalized, the plaintiff liquidated the retirement accounts and entered into a payment plan to repay the tax debts. The plaintiff then used some of the money from the retirement accounts to pay off delinquent medical bills for the parties’ son. Although the settlement agreement allowed the plaintiff to use retirement account proceeds to pay off these medical debts, the order was clear that the plaintiff needed to pay off the tax debts first.

When a person’s financial situation changes—either positively or negatively—it can impact other aspects of the person’s life as well. This may include being able to pay for groceries, rent, or even alimony. In a recent New Jersey case, the appellate court was tasked with determining whether a consent order signed after the ex-husband purportedly lost a majority of his income was enforceable. Ultimately, the court ruled the consent order was not conscionable considering it was entered under fraudulent circumstances.

In this case, the couple was married for more than thirty years before divorcing in January of 2011. The divorce settlement included an agreement that the ex-husband, who was the Chief Scientific Officer of a major company, agreed to pay the ex-wife $12,000 per month in alimony. A few years later, the ex-husband was let go from his job. He then filed a motion asking to reduce his alimony payments as he was disabled and unable to work at the time. The parties then settled and reduced the alimony payment to $3,200 per month in a consent order. However, the ex-wife later learned the ex-husband was re-employed and was not actually disabled to the point of being unable to work. She sought to vacate the Consent Order. The court below agreed with the ex-wife and vacated the Consent Order—thus reinstituting the ex-wife’s alimony payments of $12,000 per month.

The ex-husband argued that the lower court should not have reinstated the initial alimony payments by vacating the Consent Order. He explained that the ex-wife did not prove the consent order was secured by fraud—meaning him lying about being disabled and unable to work.

Although generally property a spouse purchases before marriage is not subject to equitable distribution, some assets purchased before the marriage are still subject to equitable distribution. A New Jersey appeals court recently issued a decision in a New Jersey divorce case in which it found that rental properties the wife purchased before the marriage may still have been considered as part of the marital estate.

In that case, the husband and wife were married in 1999, and the husband filed for divorce in 2018. Before they were married, the wife bought six residential properties in New Jersey with her own money. The husband later renovated the properties and maintained them. The couple bought many other properties together after they married. They earned rental income from the properties, and the wife eventually managed the properties full time. The husband maintained and repaired the properties, at least to some extent. The parties did not keep separate accounts for premarital and marital properties. At the time of trial, the rental properties were generating a rental income of about $12,000 per month.

The family court divided the properties purchased after the marriage evenly and equitably distributed two of the six premarital properties, which the court found were purchased in contemplation of the marriage. The court assigned the remaining four premarital properties to the wife. The husband appealed several issues, including that he was entitled to an equitable share of the premarital properties.

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In the course of a New Jersey divorce, the parties often enter into agreements that discuss future splits of costs and expenditures, sometimes called a Property Settlement Agreement (PSA) or Matrimonial Settlement Agreement (MSA). For example, parties often will include provisions in these agreements on who will pay for future college costs for their children, or for extracurricular activities. Sometimes, however, circumstances change after these initial agreements are made, and one party may seek to reduce his or her originally agreed-upon financial obligations. This often is much easier said than done—and must be based on a meritorious claim.

In a recent Superior Court of New Jersey opinion, the court considered a divorced couple’s obligations toward their sons’ college costs. The parties had four sons during their twenty-year marriage. When they divorced, they entered into a PSA, which included a provision that would divide the costs of college and secondary education evenly between the two parties.

The plaintiff filed a motion to reduce his child support obligation, which failed when the trial court required the plaintiff to still contribute 50 percent of college costs for two of his sons. The plaintiff appealed, arguing that he should not be obligated to pay for his two sons’ college expenses because he did not agree to their choice of schools.

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