Various blogs have been written by members of our firm about situations where a custodial parents IMG_1930-300x225wants to move with the parties’ children to a state other than New Jersey.   Can a custodial parent live wherever he/she wants within the State of New Jersey?  Can a non-custodial parent ask a New Jersey family court just to stop a custodial parent from moving with the children to another town or city within the State of New Jersey?

Certainly some parents have reached an agreement with one another that they will live within a certain proximity to one another where they feel that it is in their own best interest for their children to live in certain areas of New Jersey or for the parents to live within a certain proximity to one another in order for their custody and parenting time agreement to work out.   New Jersey has a public policy of enforcing settlement agreements where they are fair and equitable.

What if parents do not have such an agreement?  Can the non-custodial parent prevent the custodial parent from living anywhere within the state of New Jersey that the custodial parent wants to live? In 2003, the Appellate Division addressed this question in the case of Schulze v. Morris, 361 N.J. Super. 419 (2003).  In this case, the parties had both been living in Middlesex County, New Jersey, but after the custodial parent was denied tenure at her teaching position, she found another teaching job in Sussex County and wanted to move with the parties’ child to Sussex County.  The non-custodial parent filed an Order to Show Cause seeking to stop the custodial parent from moving with the parties’ child to Sussex County.   The Appellate Division concluded that a custodial parent’s request to move to a different place within the State of New Jersey is not a “removal” action pursuant to N.J.S.A. 9:2-2 for which the custodial parent has to obtain the permission of the Court.   However,  the Appellate Division recognized that a custodial parent’s move with a child can have significant impact on the relationship between the child and the non-custodial parent and that there are occasions where an intrastate relocation can constitute a substantial change in circumstance warranting a modification of the custody and parenting time arrangement.   When a noncustodial parent opposes an intrastate relocation of the child(ren) but the custodial parent on the basis that the move will be “deleterious to the relationship between the child and the non-residential custodial parent, or will be otherwise inimical to the child’s best interests”, then the Appellate Division in Schultze directed that the family court had to assess the factors in Baures v. Lewis, 167 N.J. 91 (2001), an interstate relocation case.

In my last blog post I noted that, effective September 1, 2019, a number of Court Rules directly court-rules-225x300impacting upon Family Part practice had been amended. In this blog post, I will continue this discussion, summarizing some additional court rule amendments, including those which were in response to, or in clarification of, statutory changes which went into effect over the last few years.

Domestic Violence

Rule 5:7A was adopted for the purpose of implementing the provisions of the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, N.J.S.A. 2C:25-17 et seq., and provided a procedure by which a victim of domestic violence may obtain both temporary and long-term relief to the extent afforded under the statute. There were six (6) subparagraphs to this Rule, designated (a) through (f). However, as part of the 2019 Amendments, these subparagraphs were reorganized “to better reflect the flow of a case through the court process”. Notwithstanding this reorganization, most of the language of these Rule provisions remained unchanged, except for three (3) specific modifications/clarifications.

Ascertaining whether a supported spouse is cohabiting with a romantic partner in such a way that it 3e728f0b3d0e026b62a8cb4b38918e95-300x200constitutes a changed circumstance warranting a modification of alimony is often an issue that family courts have address.  In 2014, the New Jersey Legislature modified the alimony statute, N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23(n), to codify factors to determine whether a former spouse is cohabiting with a romantic partner such that an alimony award may be modified.  Those factors are:

(1) Intertwined finances such as joint bank accounts and other joint holdings or liabilities;

(2) Sharing or joint responsibility for living expenses;

The calendar turning to September signifies different things to different people. For some it signals the court-rules-225x300end of heat and humidity, cooler temperatures and changing leaves. For others, it’s the kids finally going back to school. To still others, it signals the start of the football season, the excitement of baseball pennant races and playoffs, or the opening of basketball or hockey training camps. However, for lawyers such as myself, the holidays come early as each September brings with it special gifts, namely the annual amendments that have been approved by our Supreme Court to the Rules Governing the Courts of the State of New Jersey.

Unlike last year, a number of these recent Rule Amendments directly impact upon Family Part practice, many being in response to, or in clarification of, statutory changes that went into effect over the last few years. I will summarize and discuss these Amendments over the course of several blog posts.

Arbitration

In enacting New Jersey statute, N.J.S.A. 9:2-2, the Legislature established a mechanism and25ebc4898eb30bc0cd7290a9cc18a32e-300x200 procedure for a divorced or unmarried parent when seeking to move with one’s children outside the state of New Jersey.  The statute provides:

“When the Superior Court has jurisdiction over the custody and maintenance of the minor children of parents divorced, separated or living separate, and such children are natives of this State, or have resided five years within its limits, they shall not be removed out of its jurisdiction against their own consent, if of suitable age to signify the same, nor while under that age without the consent of both parents, unless the court, upon cause shown, shall otherwise order. The court, upon application of any person in behalf of such minors, may require such security and issue such writs and processes as shall be deemed proper to effect the purposes of this section.”

The Courts in New Jersey have on several occasions interpreted this statute to address the standard for the family courts to apply when one parent wants to move out of New Jersey with the parties’ children, and the other parent objects to the children making such a move.   We addressed this standard in a previous blog with regard to parents having a shared 50/50 custodial arrangement based on the decision of the Appellate Division in Bisbing v. Bisbing, 445 N.J. Super. 207 (App.Div. 207), affirmed in part, modified, 230 N.J. 309  (2017).  In another blog, we addressed the standard for relocation based on the factors outlined in Baures v. Lewis, 167 N.J. 91 (2001).  In those cases,  before the children were removed from New Jersey, an application was made by the parent seeking to move.  Does that have to be the procedure?  Can the parent make that application after the move?  Is it the obligation of the objecting parent to make an application objecting to the children’s removal from New Jersey?

DSC2330-300x200In E.S. v. C.D., FV-02-00194-19 (Ch.Div. 2018),  the family court deal with the question of whether Plaintiff was entitled to protection under the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act (“PDVA”), given the economic relationship between the Defendant, who was employed in Plaintiff’s household as a live-in nanny.

The Defendant had been employed as a live-in nanny by the Plaintiff for seven months, before the Plaintiff fired the Defendant for assaulting the Plaintiff’s child.   After Defendant’s employment was terminated, Defendant made numerous calls and sent threatening text messages to the Plaintiff. Defendant also threatened to lie to the child’s father in order to cause Plaintiff to lose custody of the child.

The Plaintiff sought a restraining order pursuant to the domestic violence statute based upon harassment, cyber-stalking and terroristic threats.  The Prevention of Domestic Violence Act protects from domestic violence a victis defined as “any person who is 18 years of age or older or who is an emancipated minor and who has been subjected to domestic violence by a spouse, former spouse, or any other person who is a present household member or was at any time a household member. ” N.J.S.A. 2C:25-19(d).  In order to determine if defendant qualified as a household member, the trial court considered the factors listed in Coleman v. Romano, 388 N.J. Super. 342, 351-52 (Ch.Div. 2006), which are:

“All you need is a dollar and a dream”. Mega Millions. Powerball. Pick-6. State lotteries all over the Lottery-300x232country encourage people to pluck down their dollars for the dream of possibly winning a fortune and being financially set for the rest of your life.

However, for one Michigan man that “dream” may have been considered more of a nightmare when he was directed in his divorce case to turn over to his ex-wife $15 million, nearly one-half of the Mega Millions jackpot he won in 2013. That decision was recently affirmed by the Michigan Court of Appeals in Zelasko-v-Zelasko (Docket No: 342854 decided June 13, 2019). Why the husband may have considered a lottery jackpot to be a “nightmare” included the fact that the parties married in 2004, separated in 2008, filed a divorce complaint in 2011 – almost two years before the winning lottery ticket was purchased – and where the wife had been the primary breadwinner, earning roughly three times what the husband earned. Why such a result? Most critically, under Michigan law “marital property” subject to equitable distribution in a divorce includes all property acquired from the date of marriage until the date of entry of the divorce decree. Hence even property acquired after a separation or after a divorce complaint is filed is considered marital property in Michigan. Since these parties’ actual divorce did not become final until 2018, the lottery winnings of 2013 were still considered marital property.

Among the other reasons this significant award to the wife was affirmed on appeal included: (1) that the determination was made by an arbitrator during a binding arbitration process which had been agreed upon by the parties, with the ability to challenge such rulings being statutorily limited; (2) the arbitrator’s ruling that such a division was fair and equitable, opining that the winning lottery ticket was probably not the first lottery ticket the husband purchased during the marriage and that as losses throughout the marriage were incurred jointly, winnings should also be shared jointly; and (3) that the dollar spent for the ticket was arguably marital money and as such a joint investment. Beyond this, the husband had not engendered much sympathy since he allegedly failed to contribute any money for the support of the parties’ three children.

Divorce is a life-altering event. For many it is an emotionally charged situation. The person you had loved and intended to share a life with is now someone who you consider your “enemy” – 6821f1126a34f02c8e256da1560d1e52-300x200viewing them from indifference to hatred. Any sense of trust has gone out the window. For some, notwithstanding the breakdown of the marriage, they sincerely want to resolve their marital issues amicably and in a fair and reasonable manner. However, for a significant number the raw emotions at the outset of the marital breakup seem to engender a need to “screw” the other person as much as possible. Depending upon your position in the relationship, you either want to “milk” the other spouse for all you can get, or want to pay the other as little as possible. One spouse may feel the need to “protect” one’s assets or income in some fashion from the claims of the other. One spouse may suspect that the other is hiding assets or diminishing income. In many cases, these feelings are borne out of the mistrust which exists and are not occurring in reality. However, in others these feelings or suspicions have some basis in fact. Claims of concealed or diminished income aside, this blog post will focus instead on concerns over the possibility of concealed or hidden assets in divorce, and provides a brief overview of what to look for and how to address them when such issues arise.

In divorce matters, New Jersey law provides for the equitable distribution of assets and property legally or beneficially acquired during the course of the parties’ marriage. In order to do so, marital assets first need to be identified, then they need to be valued, and after which they are to be distributed “equitably”. Unless the property was acquired by gift or inheritance from a third-party, it generally does not matter how or in whose name the assets or property was acquired if it was acquired during the marriage. Hence, if a divorce client suggests that because an asset or property is in his or her name alone the other spouse has no right to it or even to know about it, that person needs to be cleansed of that view right off the bat. Furthermore, if a divorce client tells his or her attorney about “secret assets”, the attorney/client privilege may not shield them from disclosure since the attorney code of ethics prohibits an attorney from facilitating a client engaging in fraudulent conduct or offering knowingly false testimony or statements under oath.

What if a divorce client suspects that his or her spouse has been secreting or hiding assets? Besides inquiring as to the basis for these suspicions, an attorney should obtain from the client their perception of the commencement date of any serious marital difficulties or their sense of when certain suspicious financial activity began, such as changes in the manner finances were being handled, records were maintained, or information shared. In most divorce cases, you usually ask for five years worth of financial records in discovery. However, if the suspicious financial activity has been ongoing for longer than five years, one should extend the time for which discovery is sought.

While not limited to family law matters, at the conclusion of a case a client may often have an outstanding balance due for legal fees in regards to services rendered by the attorney in the a615c5170cfbe42ac3ed71065bce6f12-300x199underlying action. Most of the time payment arrangements end up getting worked out. Sometimes they are not. In those instances most attorneys are reluctant to initiate legal proceedings against their former client to collect the outstanding fees, viewing it as a matter of last resort. However, even before being able to pursue same, an attorney is obligated to advise the client of his/her opportunity to request fee arbitration, a program implemented by the New Jersey Supreme Court as a means to resolve fee disputes between an attorney and client under R.1:20A-1 et. seq. Sometimes clients choose not to proceed with fee arbitration. Other times, a fee arbitration request may be declined as being beyond the jurisdictional limits of the program. In those instances, an attorney may feel he/she is left with no alternative but to file a civil action complaint against his/her former client to collect its outstanding fee.

In certain of these instances, a former client may express dissatisfaction with the legal services rendered by the attorney on their behalf. Perhaps the client is displeased with what he/she views to be an unfavorable result, and blames the lawyer for this outcome. Perhaps the client questions the specific services rendered or fees charged. However, there may be times where the client believes that the attorney did not represent them properly or was somehow negligent, alleges that they sustained some sort of damage or loss, and which they assert gives rise to a claim for legal malpractice.

When must a claim for legal malpractice be brought? If an attorney has already filed a collection action, would this impact how and when such claims must be filed? Are there circumstances where a legal malpractice claim may be barred? In the recent case of Dimitrakopoulos v. Borrus et als 2019 N.J. LEXIS 272, 2019 WL 1065049, the New Jersey Supreme Court attempted to address and clarify these questions, specifically in the context of what is known as the Entire Controversy Doctrine.

At the end of 2017, the U.S. Congress passed the most sweeping tax changes in over 30 years, referred to as the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 (TCJA). While there were many provisions of the file0001546166524-300x225federal tax laws which were impacted, the most publicized changes were the reductions in the income tax rates along with the reduction and/or elimination of various deductions or exemptions. Most of these changes went into effect for the 2018 tax year. However, when it came to family law matters, the biggest change brought about by this tax law was regarding the deductibility and taxability of alimony. Until this law, alimony payments were deductible by the payor and had to be included as income for the recipient, albeit subject to certain regulations and phase-out provisions. While this tax treatment was “grandfathered” for pre-existing alimony obligations, alimony obligations established after January 1, 2019 were no longer tax deductible to the payor or considered taxable income to the recipient under the TCJA. Indeed, there was a mad dash to finalize divorces prior to December 31, 2018 to take advantage of the prior tax treatment of alimony; so much so that many counties continued to make Family Court judges available during their winter recess to put through divorces.

While the tax treatment of alimony may be considered the most prevalent provision of the TCJA impacting family law, it is becoming evident that there is a more subtle, but no less important, impact which is only now coming to light. Again, one of the major changes in the tax law was the across-the-board reduction in the individual tax rates. As a result, the IRS promulgated revised withholding schedules, which adjusted [downward] the amounts being withheld from one’s paycheck for federal taxes during 2018. Since the vast majority of taxpayers are W-2 wage earners, these revised withholdings applied. What people saw was some sort of increase in their net pay each paycheck. Who wouldn’t enjoy having a little more money in your pocket?

What’s the problem? UNDER WITHHOLDING!