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Consistent with our firm’s position of being a leader in the field of Family Law, we have just received a decision on one of our appeals, meaning it is now law that will be binding for trial courts. The case is, Steele V Steele, and it was approved for publication today as I write this on, April 30, 2021.

This case analyzed the types of contracts that engaged and married couples can enter into. It makes clear that contrary to unreported decisions that premarital agreements are creatures of statute and that judges are bound by the statutory scheme and can not vary it. In the Steele case, the trial judge erroneously found that an agreement entered into after the marriage was a prenuptial agreement under the act because the husband had expressed an intent to have such an agreement.

The case then goes on to discuss when and if a marital agreement can become enforceable. Recognizing that divorcing adults are susceptible to entering into agreements that are enforceable because they are adverse to each other. It should also be stated that those with marital trouble on the potential path to divorce can contract so long as the agreement is fair at the time it was entered into and at the time enforcement is sought. In Steele, the wife had just conceived a child and was breastfeeding when she entered into the agreement. Unbeknownst to her, the husband had been preparing an agreement even before the parties were married changing the way he valued assets; ignoring some assets and sources of income altogether. The court indicated that for the post-marital agreement to be enforceable the agreement needed to be fair and equitable. Meaning that the dominant partner needed to make a full and complete disclosure of all assets and income without exception. In the Steele matter the husband who admitted to being worth at least 9 million dollars at the time of the agreement, did not decide to play fair and disclose all assets and used inconsistent means to value assets choosing in each instance the valuation technique that yielded the lowest monetary value. In this matter, the husband did not disclose all sources of income and ignored significant income-producing assets held in trusts. Another condition of enforcing such agreements is that they must be fair and equitable when the agreement is reached as well as when enforcement is sought. In this matter, a home selected and purchased after the parties’ marriage was excluded from property to be shared upon divorce and in the event of the husband’s death, his wife and young child would be left destitute as in the document the wife had waived any claim against the husbands’ estate. The overreaching of the husband is well documented in this exquisitely crafted appellant decision.

pexels-august-de-richelieu-4427541-200x300This happens with regularity. A new and sometimes even an existing client will tell me about a divorce case involving a friend, relative, or acquaintance that had issues “similar” to theirs’s, and that the judge, in that case, had decided those issues this way or that. They expressed a belief that how the judge decided those issues “must be the law”, and therefore, they would expect to have a similar result in their case. Why I certainly thank them for the information, they are then surprised and disappointed when I tell them that every divorce case is different and that how one judge may have decided the issues is not necessarily determinative on what will or shall happen in their case, and/or that the decisions of a judge in a different case are in no way binding upon the judge handling their case. The other judge’s decision may be the “law” in their friend, relative, or acquaintance’s case, but is not necessarily the law in theirs.

Before discussing the “legal” reasons for this, there are some very practical reasons why it is unwise to compare what may have happened in one divorce case with any other. The first reason is very simple. Just like no two people are exactly the same, neither are any two marriages nor the issues arising from the dissolution thereof. A primary breadwinner may “earn” the same amount of money, but one is a W-2 employee with a long-standing steady job and the other a small business owner whose income is based on many variables and creates a whole different set of considerations. The parties may be married for the same number of years but in one both parties have been gainfully employed, while in the other a party may have given up or deferred a career to raise children. In another, the parties may each have had two children, but in one the children are relatively healthy and doing well academically, but in the other, a child may have special needs or behavioral or educational deficits. The parties may have enjoyed the same family income, but one lived frugally and the other beyond their means. You get the point. As much as one may see similarities, no two marriages are alike. No two life stories are the same.

When a divorce case comes before a judge, there are certain legal authorities that the judge is to apply in deciding the issues in that case. There are statutes which have been enacted by the Legislature. There are Court Rules which have been promulgated by our Supreme Court. There are published decisions, which have been rendered by the courts in which they have interpreted, implemented, and/or applied those statutes and rules to a given case. A judge applies that legal authority to what it finds to be the facts and evidence in the case and renders a decision. However, since the facts and evidence are never exactly the same and vary from case to case, the resulting decision, even applying the exact same law, will vary as well. That, plus the fact that much of the law governing divorce matters is not based upon any sort of simple “formula”, but upon a multitude of factors a court is to consider, and which afford the court with a great level of discretion in determining. This ability to exercise discretion necessarily leads to different results depending not only upon the facts and circumstances of the case, but the weight of the evidence, the credibility of the testimony, and the “feel” of the case itself, so the judge can make a decision which is fair and equitable.

The care and feeding of the lawyer you hire is an important aspect of divorce husbandry. Too often I hear a litigant complain that their lawyer made a deal or a concession without consultation of the client. Some divorce lawyers take a paternalistic role in the responsibilities of their client, which can be a good thing when not taken to the extreme. The extreme occurs during non-emergent situations when the lawyer makes an agreement that affects a substantive right.  Unless you have given the lawyer authority in advance, they should never do something that impacts yourpexels-anthony-shkraba-5816300-200x300 economic or custodial rights without your permission.  Often in conferences with the court concessions can be strongly suggested by a judge or pushed by an adversary, because of this a lawyer can feel cornered.  A good lawyer will always back off reminding the participants that they themselves (the lawyer) can not make such a concession without first discussing it with their client. I have never been in this position when that simple reminder did not cause the court to immediately back off. Judges want cases to move and they want the parties to settle but they are aware that litigants, not lawyers make deals and that lawyers should not make concessions without their client’s authority. The problem that arises, is that lawyers have what is called “apparent authority” meaning if the lawyer agrees to something the law assumes they had the authority to do it.  If your lawyer has made a substantive concession without consulting you document it.  Send the lawyer a letter or an email indicating the date you were advised of the concession and that you were not consulted and do not agree. Insist they reverse the agreement and that they admit they made a mistake.  If they refuse… run.  Get another lawyer quickly and fix it. Waiting could be viewed as agreeing to the terms.

Note that I have been talking about substantive issues.  Substantive issues, for example,  deal with; parenting time, the level of alimony or child support, the payment of fees, and the sale or distribution of property.  Lawyers usually do not seek their client’s consent when dealing with calendar issues unless the issue involves the client.  If you are being deposed or if the deposition of a witness is being scheduled you have a right to be consulted about your availability however if the calendar does not concern you, the lawyer may rightfully resolve the timing of things.

I often analogize my role as a family law attorney to that of a captain of a ship.  When on the high seas and an emergency occurs that requires an immediate decision that is up to me as well as direction and strategy. But ultimate decisions are made by the shipowner ( the client). The relationship between a lawyer and his client is interactive and symbiotic. The need to work cooperatively should be a consideration when choosing your lawyer. Objectives should be discussed and parameters established to reach those objectives. The lawyer develops the strategy to accomplish those goals.  During the process, open communication is important looking at the objectives but always with the understanding that the ultimate decision is always the clients, although that decision may be informed by the lawyer.

 

 

During one of my recent commutes, I heard a commercial on the radio for a New York law firm talking about people’s “fear” of the divorce process. When I hear the term “fear”, it brings to mind the phrase uttered by FDR to the effect that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. I believe that this expression rings true when it comes to divorce. When I consult with a prospective client, one of my most important jobs is to reassure that person that there should be nothing to fear from the divorce process and of making the leap of moving on from an unhappy, unhealthy, and/or destructive relationship.

Perhaps fear is too strong a word. Apprehension. Trepidation. Nervousness. Embarrassment. Concern. Ignorance (i.e. a lack of knowledge). These seem to better reflect the range of feelings and emotions that I see from most of my prospective clients when they first meet with me. Whether these consultations are conducted in person, virtually, or over the phone, my experience is generally the same. Regardless of whether the person is a man or a woman, their voice is full of emotion. Their voice may crack. They have trouble finding the right words or even getting the words out. They may tear up. Often they feel the need to apologize. But no apology is needed. I assure them that what they are feeling is real, is normal, and to assure them that I am there to help them and to listen to what they have to say. Gradually, those acute emotional feelings begin to subside. They become more comfortable in opening up as to what is going on in their lives and why they are considering the possibility of divorce. After having done this work for almost 40 years, the reasons why people are considering divorce are often similar; however, everyone’s life story is personal to them and is entitled to respect and understanding. It is not only important to hear but to listen. And when someone senses this, a client will not only lose their apprehension in speaking to whom only minutes ago was a perfect stranger, but will be receptive to answering the questions us attorneys must ask to learn exactly what the issues are in a given case and to provide the appropriate advice and knowledge to the client to move forward with whichever course of action they may want to pursue.

When it comes to divorce, fear can be a most negative emotion. Fear can be paralyzing. Fear can cloud one’s judgment. Fear can lead to rash and imprudent decisions. Fear can lead to harm to oneself or others. This destructive side of fear can arise at any time. Hence my job is not only to temper it at the outset but to prevent it from infiltrating my client’s psyche throughout the process. At the outset of a representation, it is important for a client to know that they have someone that listens, that has explained the law, their rights, and the divorce process. However, as the disputes surface, and the reality of the marriage’s end arise, an attorney’s job is to provide a constant state of assurance and not allow one’s emotions to take over. Being there, listening, explaining, and advocating hopefully serve as an antidote from destructive emotions such as fear overrunning a case.

I am frequently asked if It makes sense to buy out of an alimony obligation with a lump sum payment. The answer to the question is a bit complex but I will try to tackle it in the length of this post. Usually, when there is a discussion of the buy-out of alimony, the question that is most common to follow is what motivates the desire for a buyout? The recipient of alimony may want a lump of money to use to invest, buy a house, or start a business. The payor can be looking for a clean break and may find the process of paying alimony on a regular basis annoying or emotionally destabilizing or they can be in the process of seeking a final end to the interaction withpexels-karolina-grabowska-4386289-200x300 the payee and has a concern for what can feel like the never-ending revolving door of the courtroom. What motivates a recipient to want a lump sum is personal and that motivation should be discussed with your attorney. This post is to focus on the payor’s rational decision-making process, the emotional need to walk away with a clean break once again should be discussed with your attorney.

When a lump sum is discussed at the very least the payment of alimony overtime must be established. In a marriage of under 20 years the likely length of alimony and amount that needs to be established and then discounted to present value using the present value formula. In marriages, over 20 years alimony is usually assumed to end at the social security retirement age of the payor. Once the term and the amount of alimony is agreed upon there then needs to be an agreement as to the discount rate. The discount rate is the assumed interest rate that will prevail in the marketplace during the term of alimony. The assumption is that if a payee banked the money paid to them or annuitized it they would end up with their full alimony over a period of time.

To put it simply, if you compute the present value of the future payment of alimony and pay it out while assuming you have the economic ability to do so the payment makes very little economic sense for a multitude of reasons. One obvious consideration that is to be made is that you in theory could bank or set up your own annuity to pay the alimony which would hedge your obligation against the possibility that alimony might not be paid for the full term. For example, if your ex-spouse should die, alimony ends. If your spouse received a lump sum the beneficiaries of the remaining lump fund could be your children or could be a new spouse. The payor; could die and alimony would then also come to an end. In most circumstances, alimony is protected with some sort of insurance, however, the money you did not payout in lump sum would be part of your estate and would go to people you love. Your ex-spouse could remarry, alimony ends upon remarriage.

pexels-karolina-grabowska-5632379-200x300After my last blog post, I am getting a lot of emails… let me say this as clearly as I can, divorce’s are cheaper now due to the fact that most court appearances are virtual. Sitting around the courthouse waiting to be reached usually doubles the time in court on a motion. Trials are notoriously interrupted by a host of administrative and emergencies which routinely eat through the day.

People get caught in traffic, they forget their file… human error causes delay, and as I’ve mentioned before and will again, yes it takes time to get everyone to look at the same exhibit.

Another point to consider is lawyers have more time to do substantive work. Pre- Covid it sometimes became difficult to set up a conference due to the time constraints put on the workday joined with the physical location of everyone in the matter that was in need of attendance. Now with virtual platforms available at the ready, most of us have found more time available for substantive discussion now that we are not focused on more mundane tasks and driving to court. All these innovations are really efficient and enure to the benefit of the litigants. I would encourage you to not be afraid of the courts under these new rules. If your matter is complex and the lawyers agree there are still trials in person with appropriate approval but most of the time a virtual courtroom works just fine.

In 2014, the New Jersey divorce statute, NJSA 2A: 34-23 as it pertains to the issue of spousal support or alimony was substantially modified. One such modification dealt with the vexing question of what the duration or term of the obligation to pay alimony should be. While a prior amendment to the statute had afforded courts the ability to award “limited duration” alimony, the lack of specific standards of under what circumstances this would apply, or for how long, versus an awarding of “permanent” alimony, led to divergent interpretations and applications by the courts. The Legislature sought to bring clarification to this issue when it included the following language to NJSA 2A: 34-23(c):pexels-rodnae-productions-6670068-229x300

“For any marriage or civil union less than 20 years in duration, the total duration of alimony shall not, except in exceptional circumstances, exceed the length of the marriage or civil union.”

Hence, for a marriage of over 20 years, the duration of a possible alimony award was left “open”, and subject to the discretion of the trial court, applying the statutory factors and other legal principles to the facts and circumstances of a given case. Hence the development of what has been come to be known as “open duration alimony” for marriages in excess of 20 years.

I have received many questions as of late regarding Covid-19 and the effect it has had on the divorce process. Those I have spoken to expect to hear that the courts are in shambles unable to handle all of the paperwork and processing that has become necessary in this new socially distant world. In point of fact, my experience with the courts since the shutdown has been quite positive. I have argued several matters in the Appellant Courts since the shutdown most by Zoom or through the phone. The Judges have been attentive and as well prepared as an Appellant Judges always is. Most importantly though, the quality of the discussion has been in no way compromised, in fact in many ways I find this virtual experience better than in-person argument. pexels-ruslan-burlaka-140945-300x200Let’s start by our means of travel or getting there, my office in my home is in the family room. I joke to my wife when descending the stairs that I am ‘driving to work.’ The point being, I do not have to drive to the argument this saves time and furthermore the headache brought on by the annoyance of finding a parking space. My clients save money as well because as a lawyer, I bill for travel time. I also do not have to wait as the Zoom meeting starts promptly when the court is ready to hear our case; a second savings to our clients who are otherwise billed for waiting time. Lastly, I find argument easier as I am able to have all of my documents spread out on my desk (and floor.) When arguing in person the need to drag my files with me and have them all stored at the speaker’s podium which leaves me minimal space to spread out, the ease of finding documents and case law has greatly improved when my appearances have been virtual.

When looking at the trial level, a virtual conference has the same travel and waiting time advantages. When participating in a Zoom trial, the ability to load all of one’s exhibits onto the server and instantly deliver the documents being presented to the judge, the witness, and opposing counsel is very efficient. No more fumbling around for a piece of evidence or waiting for everyone to find the relevant page or section being referred to. Further, when trials were held in person, there were constant interruptions by lawyers seeking emergency relief or other parleys with the Judge. There is more of a flow with uninterrupted trial time on zoom. When first having to cross-examine a witness virtually, I was concerned that it would be harder for the court to capture the demeanor of the witness, this concern I learned is unfounded. Delays in responding and hedging are actually more obvious on zoom. You can literally see the liar sweat.

Motion practice has also been an absolute joy to do via zoom. Usually, on motion days a busy lawyer could be racing from county to county sometimes making three court appearances in three geographically distant locations on any given day. Clients paid for the travel and racing across the state takes a toll on the lawyer. Now I am able to schedule matters in; Bergen, Atlantic, and Sussex County and get them all done in the morning.

Ever since I wrote my past blog on correcting judicial errors, I have gotten a lot of questions from readers and interested clientele alike about how judicial errors can be addressed and amended. When it comes down to it, there are essentially three types of judicial error:1) Clerical, 2) Legal and 3) Matters of Law.pexels-magda-ehlers-1329297-300x211

Clerical errors encompass the indisputable or incontrovertible mistakes that have been made; these can include but are not limited to computation errors or other matters where both parties are in agreement.  These errors can be correct by the court on its own initiative or when called to the attention of the court by either party.  Usually, they can be corrected with something as simple as a letter but if the adverse party contests that an error exists it may require a motion. Computation errors can be corrected at any time, so there is generally no specific time frame in which an application needs to be made; however, it is best to make the application as soon as the error is discovered to avoid claims of estoppel.

Errors of the law or mixed errors of law and fact pertain to situations where the court either misinterprets legal precedents in the former or misapplied the precedents to the facts in the latter.   Legal errors may be corrected through an application to the court within 20 days of the receipt the court’s order if it is a final decision, or if the decision is not final anytime prior to the final decision.  If the decision is final, one also has the option to appeal the court’s decision to the Appellate Division rather than take the matter back to the court. The decision to bring a  motion for reconsideration rather than an appeal is a tactical decision, best discussed with your lawyer.

In many divorce cases, obligations for the payment of alimony and/or child support are established. Whether the result of an agreement between the parties or an order of the Court, such support obligations are generally determined based upon the relative financial circumstances of the parties at the time the agreement was made or the order was entered. However, as has clearly been reinforced by the pandemic, the financial circumstances of either party can substantially or dramatically change. Incomes can increase or decrease. People can lose their jobs or obtain new ones. Someone can suffer from a disabling illness or injury. Needs and expenses may increase or decrease. A recipient of support may enter into a new relationship. Generically referred to as “changed circumstances” they can be many and varied. The issue is whether they are significant enough that it would render continued enforcement of an existing support obligation to no longer be fair and equitable, and in some instances, perhaps even unconscionable. As a divorce lawyer, a significant percentage of our practice are litigants looking to either modify existing support obligations or defending against requests for same. When someone meets with me and believes they have a basis upon which to modify support, whether they are seeking an increase in the amount they are receiving or a decrease in the amount that they are paying, the first hurdle to determine is whether the circumstances which they allege have changed are sufficient, either factually or legally, to support a possible modification. While in some instances the changes proffered may be convincing and irrefutable, the real test is whether the changes claimed, and the proofs substantiating same, would at least rise to the level of making out a threshold showing of changed circumstances. Often when parties come in to discuss these issues they focus less on what their circumstances are and focus more on what they believe the other party’s financial circumstances may be, and feel a right and entitlement to obtain information from them regarding same. When that occurs, I need to explain to the party that before you may have the ability to obtain financial information from the other side they must first establish to a Court’s satisfaction that they have met their own threshold, what the law refers to as a “prima facie” showing of changed circumstances. What does “prima facie” mean?

Black’s Law Dictionary defines a prima facie case as either (1) the establishment of a legally required rebuttable presumption or (2) a party’s production of enough evidence to allow the fact-trier to infer the fact at issue and rule in the party’s favor. The New Jersey Supreme Court has defined prima facie evidence as that which, “if unrebutted, would sustain a judgment in the proponent’s favor” Baures v. Lewis, 167 NJ 91, 96 (2001). Similarly, the United States Supreme Court has previously defined prima facie evidence as “such as, in judgment of law, is sufficient to establish the fact; and, if not rebutted, remains sufficient for the purpose.” Bailey v. Alabama, 219 US 219, 234 (1911) (quoting Kelly v. Jackson, 6 Peters, 632)

In establishing a prima facie case, the “evidentiary burden is modest” and the Court should evaluate the prima facie case “solely on the basis of the evidence presented by the plaintiff, regardless of the defendant’s efforts to dispute that evidence”. Zive v. Stanley Roberts, Inc., 182 NJ 436, 441 (2005) “As in a summary judgment motion, courts should view the facts in the light most favorable to a defendant to determine whether a defendant has established a prima facie claim”. State v. Preciose, 129 NJ 451, 462 (1992) A movant seeking to establish a prima facie case should further be given the benefit of all reasonable inferences that can be drawn from the evidence presented. See Kant v. Seton Hall Univ., 210 NJ Super. Unpub. LEXIS 2469, *7(App. Div. 2010); Teilhaber v. Greene, 320 NJ Super. 453, 464 (App. Div. 1999)