Articles Posted in Divorce Cases

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.

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.

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.

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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A New Jersey appeals court recently considered a case regarding the modification of child support and alimony based on alleged changed circumstances. In that case, the husband and wife had married in 1993 and later had three children. They divorced in 2007 and agreed to a Matrimonial Settlement Agreement. In the agreement, the husband agreed to pay the wife $15,500 per month in alimony and $5,500 per month in child support. The Agreement was based on the husband’s earnings at the time, which were around $778,000 per year. In 2007, his business began to decline and by 2015, his income had reduced to about $120,000 per year. As a result, the parties amended the agreement in 2015 to reduce the alimony payment to $5,500 per month and the child support payment to $1,408 per month.

The husband then negotiated to leave his employment with a severance package of $100,000 and opened a restaurant. The husband fell into arrears on his child support and alimony payments. Two of the children had been emancipated and the youngest was in college. The husband’s restaurant closed and the husband began selling life and health insurance, allowing him to make about $100,000 to $140,000 per year. The wife filed a motion to enforce the husband’s obligations and the husband argued that the obligations should be modified based on a change in circumstances.

Modifications to Alimony and Child Support

New Jersey family court judges can modify alimony and child support orders based on the parties’ circumstances and the nature of the case. The party seeking to modify a child support or alimony obligation must demonstrate changed circumstances.

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A recent decision from the New Jersey Appellate Division centered on the decision that a child attend the public school where the father lives in a contentious child custody case. In that case, the mother had filed for divorce, and the husband and wife agreed to temporarily share joint legal custody and to designate the mother as the parent of primary residence (PPR) and the husband as the parent of alternative residence (PAR). They worked out an alternating weekly parenting schedule. However, the parents had numerous issues in co-parenting the child, including deciding the child’s medical care, agreeing on how to share holidays and birthdays, and deciding on the method of communication between the parents. The parents also could not agree on where the child should attend preschool, and ended up having the child attend one preschool on Tuesdays and Thursdays (in the mother’s town of Moorestown) and another preschool (in the father’s town of Mount Laurel) on Fridays.

Three years after the mother filed for divorce, the court held a custody trial that lasted six days. The child was four years old at the time. The mother, the father, the mother’s parents, the director of one preschool, the father’s employer, and a police officer who was involved in a domestic dispute testified during the trial. At the conclusion of the trial, the judge decided to grant joint physical and legal custody to the parties. He declined to designate either parent as the PPR, finding it was not in the child’s best interests to do so. He also ordered that when the child was to begin kindergarten, that she be enrolled in the public school district where the father lived and where he worked as a guidance counselor. He noted that both Mount Laurel and Moorestown had good school districts. He also noted that the father planned to continue living in his town long-term, whereas the mother was not sure about her future living arrangements. The mother appealed the decision.

The appeals court upheld the decision of the family court. The court found that the judge’s decision was supported by the evidence in the record and the decision was within the court’s discretion. The court also noted that the father’s town had a full-day kindergarten program, whereas the mother’s town provided full-day kindergarten only at a significant cost. The court reasoned that the child spent “considerable time” with each parent and went to preschool in two different towns so that she was not so rooted in one community that the decision would uproot her life. Although the mother was the child’s primary caretaker up until the custody trial, both parents had spent significant time with the child.

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