Family courts in New Jersey have broad discretion in dividing property owned or shared by a married couple in the process of divorce. Unmarried people who share children may also be subject to family support or other orders by the family court. The lines between shared and individual property can become blurry when unmarried parents keep their finances separate, but each contributes to family expenses. New Jersey courts are entitled to use principles of family law, contract law, as well as property law when addressing financial disputes between unmarried parents. The Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey recently addressed a dispute between parents who each sought reimbursement for money they contributed to their family while together.
According to the facts discussed in the Appellate Division’s opinion, the couple met in 1997, and had their first child in 2002, after which the man purchased a home for the family to live in with his own money. The woman agreed to contribute to the household while they lived there. In 2006, after the couple had another child, the woman purchased a larger house with her own money, and the family moved there. The couple split expenses equally at the new home, while the man rented out the first home and kept all of the proceeds to himself. During the relationship, the man borrowed money from the woman, and also forged her signature on loan documents to take out a home equity loan on the second house.
After the parties separated in 2017, the woman sued the man in civil court for reimbursement of the money that he borrowed from her, as well as the money he took out of the second home without the woman’s consent. The man responded, requesting reimbursement for the money that he contributed to the second household while the family lived there. The trial judge ruled in favor of the woman, finding that the man had no interest in owning the second property, and only wanted to benefit from it. Any contribution he made to the household was in consideration of the fact that he lived there, and was supporting his children who lived there. The judge additionally awarded the woman reimbursement for the home equity loan that was taken out by the man against her property. The ruling was appealed by the man, but the Appellate Division found no error in the trial court’s judgment.