The right to raise and maintain a relationship with one’s child is a fundamental right. In a recent case before the New Jersey Appellate Division, the court upheld the visitation rights of a father who had not seen his daughter in three years after an allegation of abuse. The mother and father in the case had divorced when the daughter was three years old. According to a settlement agreement, the mother was designated as the parent of primary residential custody, and the father was afforded parenting time.

After the divorce, the mother and father had a difficult relationship and filed several post-judgment motions concerning the father’s parenting time. At some point, there was an allegation that the father had inappropriately touched his daughter. However, law enforcement and the Division of Child Protection and Permanency did not find evidence to support the allegation. The mother later filed a motion for the recusal of the family judge. When the judge then scheduled a hearing, she requested an adjournment and then argued that she had appealed the decision on the motion for recusal and could not appear because the appeal was pending. The mother failed to appear for a scheduled hearing, and in her absence, the judge granted the father supervised parenting time. The court reasoned that the mother’s appeal was deficient because there was no decision on the motion, and thus, her failure to appear was unexcused. The father had filed a request for parenting time more than two years prior. The judge noted that the father and daughter had not seen each other in three years and found that the mother was purposely alienating the daughter from the father.

The mother appealed the decision, and the appeals court upheld the judge’s decision to grant the father supervised parenting time. The court reasoned that New Jersey law “favors visitation” and the right to visitation “is strong and compelling.” The court noted that the allegation against the father was not found to have merit by law enforcement or the courts, and the father and daughter had not seen each other in three years and thus upheld the judge’s decision.

A New Jersey appeals court recently dismissed a case after the defendant claimed the parties did not have a valid marriage. In that case, the plaintiff had filed a complaint about divorce in Middlesex County, and the complaint was subsequently dismissed. The plaintiff filed a second complaint for divorce in Essex County, and the defendant moved to dismiss, arguing that there was no valid marriage between the plaintiff and the defendant. The claim was dismissed without prejudice pursuant to a stipulation of voluntary dismissal executed by the parties’ attorneys.

After the second dismissal, the parties entered into a Settlement Agreement, which addressed the distribution of assets as well as custody and child support. Over two years after the Agreement was signed, the plaintiff filed a motion to reopen the divorce case and enforce the signed Agreement. The defendant argued that the case could not be reopened because there was no underlying divorce case.

The appeals court found that the plaintiff could not enforce the Settlement Agreement by reopening the divorce case, as the case had been dismissed. The court noted that the divorce complaint was dismissed without prejudice—meaning that another complaint could be filed—and thus the complaint could be refiled if a valid marriage existed. In addition, if the parties never had a valid marriage, the plaintiff could enforce the Agreement by filing a complaint in the non-dissolution docket. Therefore, the plaintiff’s motion to reopen his matrimonial case was dismissed.

A person’s financial situation can constantly change, this may have a dramatic impact on other areas of their lives—this may include less spending money, needing to move, or reducing child support. However, proving child support obligations need to be reduced can be a complicated process overall. In a recent New Jersey appellate court case, the court was tasked with determining whether or not to recalculate the father’s annual earnings—and thus the amount he would pay in child support—after a dramatic decrease in his income.

In this case, the parties were married and had three children. When the parties were married, the father earned between $300,000 and $1.38 million per year; however, the father was diagnosed with leukemia. The father contends that the cancer diagnosis—along with the travel, stress, and time away from the family—impacted his yearly earnings. At the time of the divorce, the parties agreed to impute an annual income of $500,000 to the father and $35,000 to the mother; this would mean the father would pay $4,000 per month in child support for the three children. The father’s yearly earnings then dramatically declined to $82,000 and then $12,000 in the years following the divorce.

The father now argues that the court erred in calculating child support payments by overemphasizing his yearly income, along with not taking into account the health insurance premiums he paid for the children. Considering the oldest two children had also left to go to college, the father argued that this change in living circumstances should alter his monthly payments to a lesser amount.

When life throws you a curve ball, your financial circumstances may change, so too may your ability to make alimony payments. Modifying, reducing, or terminating New Jersey alimony payments, however, can often be a tricky and complex legal situation. For parties considering such a change, it is crucial that you evaluate all of your options under state law to ensure the best chances of success.

In a recent Superior Court of New Jersey opinion, the court considered a case concerning the termination of alimony. The parties were married for nearly 13 years before getting divorced and agreeing to $100,000 a year in alimony, broken down into monthly payments. The plaintiff eventually moved to terminate alimony payments, arguing that an increase in the defendant’s income by $80,000 constituted a change in circumstances. The motion judge, however, found that the plaintiff failed to prove a change in circumstances warranting a modification of alimony. The judge further claimed that the plaintiff’s credibility was compromised and his arguments were unconvincing to warrant a change.

On appeal, the plaintiff argued that the judge failed to enforce the terms of the couple’s agreement and instead rewrote the parties’ contract. The Superior Court of New Jersey sided with the lower court’s decision on the issue and rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the judge rewrote the parties’ contract. Because the judge assessed the totality of the circumstances, including the negotiation of the parties’ agreement, the judge was both able to understand the context of the agreement but also the parties’ intent when crafting the language.

An appellate court recently issued a per curiam opinion in a defendant’s appeal of a decision regarding his alimony obligation. During the parties’ New Jersey divorce proceedings, the parties agreed that the defendant must pay permanent alimony. The agreements did not contain an anti-Lepis provision, or any provisions addressing modifications because of a change in circumstances. The parties agreed that the plaintiff maintain a 29.25% interest in the defendant’s business.

About two years after the alimony agreement, the defendant argued that the plaintiff was cohabitating with her partner and asked the court to terminate his alimony obligation. The parties agreed to place a time limit on the defendant’s alimony obligations. Further, the negotiations addressed whether the court may terminate the defendant’s obligations because of disability. In addition, the order contained an anti-Lepis provision and barred any modification during 2019-2026, for any reason, except catastrophic physical disability.

Starting in 2019, the defendant failed to make alimony payments, explaining that he was experiencing financial difficulties. In response, the plaintiff filed a motion to enforce the alimony order. The defendant cross-motioned to vacate the order. In the alternative, he motioned to rescind the anti-Lepis provision, modify the obligation based on impossibility, and schedule a hearing regarding his capacity to consent.

Alimony, otherwise known as financial support that a person must pay to their spouse following a separation or divorce, is a common part of many divorce settlements. However, when things change, and the party responsible for paying the alimony is no longer able to because of extenuating circumstances, what does the law say? If you are experiencing significant hardships or obstacles in meeting your New Jersey alimony obligations, are you able to terminate or modify your obligations?

In a recent Superior Court of New Jersey opinion, the court considered a case involving termination of alimony obligations in light of extenuating circumstances. In the case at hand, the parties divorced in 2006 after a 26-year marriage and negotiated a Property Settlement Agreement (the “Agreement”). Based on the Agreement, the wife agreed to pay her husband $300 per week in alimony. Several years after the divorce, the wife experienced many significant health and medical issues, including a brain tumor, which forced her to retire from her job. She ceased making alimony payments to her husband and moved to terminate her alimony obligation. The husband opposed the motion. Following oral arguments, the trial court terminated the wife’s alimony obligations, and the husband appealed.

On appeal, the court sided with the wife and affirmed the trial court’s decision. Because of the wife’s extenuating circumstances, such as her retirement and significant health issues, the court held that in light of her retirement and poor health, along with sufficient financial documents from the parties, the trial court had properly analyzed the dispute. Further, the wife was 66 years old, was at a good-faith retirement age, and her health was proof of further changed circumstances that would warrant a modification or termination of her alimony responsibilities.

An appeals court recently issued a decision in a New Jersey custody case concerning the appeal of a sole custody award to a mother, despite the parents’ agreement to the contrary. According to the court’s opinion, the parties were married for 11 years and had one child together who was 11 years old at the time of the trial. The husband filed for divorce and sought joint legal custody of the child and to be designated the parent of primary residence.

The parties attended mediation and prepared a custody agreement through mediation in which the wife was designated the parent of primary residence. The wife then filed a domestic violence complaint against the husband, and a judge found the husband had harassed the wife. The court later held a divorce trial, which focused on economic issues in the divorce and had little to do with custody. The wife advocated for primary residential custody and joint legal custody and the husband stated that he was fine with the shared custody agreement, though he would have liked full custody. Despite the parties’ agreement, the court awarded sole legal and physical custody to the wife, based in part on the domestic violence proceeding, a claim by the wife that the husband had improper conversations with the child, and the husband’s long work hours. The husband appealed the decision, arguing the award of sole legal custody was an abuse of discretion because it was contrary to the parties’ positions at trial and uncontested.

New Jersey Policy on Physical and Legal Custody

Under N.J.S.A. 9:2-4, New Jersey has a stated policy of allowing children to have frequent and continuing contact with both parents. The statute explicitly states that “it is in the public interest to encourage parents to share the rights and responsibilities of child-rearing in order to effect this policy.” The law further states that a court will respect custody arrangements agreed upon by the parents unless it is not in the best interests of the child. Physical custody refers to where the child physically resides. Legal custody refers to the authority to make major decisions in the child’s life and is often shared by both parents. Based on the state’s policy, courts often favor custody arrangements that provide for joint legal custody and joint physical custody.

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During a divorce, coming to an agreement about custodial arrangements is often one of the most hotly contested issues between parties. Moreover, when subsequent changes need to be made to custodial arrangements because of changes in circumstances, things can get just as messy as they were when the arrangements were made in the first place. Before pursuing such changes, it is always important to consult with an experienced New Jersey family law attorney to ensure that you know your rights.

In a recent Superior Court of New Jersey Appellate Division decision, the court had to consider whether the defendant (Mother) would be allowed to take her children to visit extended family given their original custodial agreement. In the case at hand, the Mother moved to change her parenting time schedule so that she could bring their children to see their paternal grandparents. The plaintiff (Father) sought to restrain the Mother from doing this. The lower court sided with Father and denied Mother’s motion for reconsideration.

On appeal, the court stated that a party seeking to modify custody must demonstrate that the changed circumstances affect the welfare of the children. Furthermore, the appellate court found that the lower court erred in denying Mother an opportunity for reconsideration because she had met all of the requirements necessary for requesting a change by demonstrating a change in circumstances that would affect the welfare of her children. Because Mother demonstrated a change in circumstances, and Father failed to put forward credible reasons to bar his children from seeing their grandparents, the appellate court reversed the lower court’s decision.

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In a recent case before a New Jersey appeals court, the court considered whether the wife was entitled to the gains and losses on her share of the husband’s 401(k) from the date of the filing of the complaint until the date of distribution. In this New Jersey divorce case, the parties had been married for twenty-seven years before the wife filed for divorce. The parties agreed to have their disputed issues resolved through arbitration and mediation.

Through mediation, the parties reached an agreement on their disputed issues, and the arbitrator prepared a memorandum of understanding, which both parties signed. In the agreement, the parties agreed that the wife would receive half of the husband’s 401(k) balance, which was approximately $340,000. The parties agreed that the $170,000 would be applied to the husband’s equitable distribution obligation.

The wife later argued that she was entitled to the gains and losses on her share of the 401(k) account from the filing of the complaint until the date of distribution. The trial court disagreed, finding she was not entitled to the gains and losses, and she appealed. The appeals court agreed with the trial court, finding that the memorandum of understanding was clear regarding the distribution of the 401(k) account. It clearly stated that the wife was entitled to half of the account—$170,000. It also said that the sum would be paid by the husband towards the plaintiff’s share of the equitable distribution. There was no reference to the wife’s entitlement to credits or debits for any market fluctuations. It was also unnecessary to establish a formula to allocate shares because the parties had agreed on the amount of the wife’s share. Thus, the court found that the wife was not entitled to the gains and losses after the filing of the divorce complaint.

Like so many divorce lawyers, I have been asked these questions countless times, both by clients, friends, acquaintances, and sometimes, even fellow lawyers. Usually, the questions are asked with a sense of puzzlement as to why someone would voluntarily choose divorce law.

These questions, and their many variations, never fail to elicit a wry, knowing smile from me, as I managed to become a divorce lawyer by pure chance. In law school, I concentrated in criminal law classes and clinics and found this area of law very interesting and challenging. After law school, I was lucky enough to obtain a judicial clerkship with Judge Vincent LeBlon in Middlesex County, who, at the time, was assigned to the Criminal Part. Shortly before my clerkship began, I learned that Judge LeBlon was to be rotated to the Family Part; hence, I too was being rotated to the Family Part. My initial reaction was not entirely a happy one because, after all, how does one do that kind of nasty, distasteful work?

Initially, I found the work of a Family Law Clerk to be emotionally taxing. As time went on, it became less so and eventually, I gained a deep appreciation of how the Court struggled to bring calm and order to sometimes chaotic family situations. I got to know many members of the family law bar, most from Middlesex County, and developed a great deal of respect for many of them.

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