It happens in family and matrimonial disputes that litigants are investigated by the Department of abuse-300x198Children and Families, which investigate claims of child abuse and neglect.  In a recently published decision in S.C. v. New Jersey Department of Children and Families, the Supreme Court of New Jersey addressed whether findings of “not established” by he Department of Children and Families (DCF) without a hearing and without informing the investigated person of the opportunity to challenge and supplement DCF’s record violates due process.

The Supreme Court explained that since 2013, DCF could make one of four findings: that an allegation of abuse or neglect was “substantiated”, “established”, “not established” or “unfounded” pursuant to N.J.A.C. 3A:10-7.3(c).   A finding of “not established” would mean that findings are based on some evidence of a child being harmed or placed at risk of harm, but not necessarily by a preponderance of the evidence. A finding that an allegation is “unfounded” is subject to expunction.   A record has to be retained for any of the other findings. While DCF records are intended to be confidential, N.J.S.A. 9:6-810a(a) provides for circumstances in which the release of information about reports to other agencies.

In this case, a mother was accused of abusing one of her children by engaging in corporal punishment.  The incident was reported to the Department of Children and Families (DCF) after the 7 year old boy refused to make a Mother’s Day card for his mother at school, claiming that she hit him with an open hand and with a spatula.   When DCF interviewed the boy, he said that his mother “smacks” him, and that she has hit him on the bottom with a spatula, although he could not remember when that had last happened.  He also said that his father hit him with his hand.  The child’s sisters told DCF that their parents sometimes hit them with an open hand but denied that their parents hit them with a spatula.  None of the children had marks or injuries.  The children’s school principle stated that the boy’s parents were involved, that school personnel had not had concerns about the family, and that the boy had behavioral problems in the past but that his behavior had improved. The boy’s mother admitted to hitting the children with an open hand but denied hitting them with a spatula. She said she smacks a spatula on the counter to get the children’s attention.  The boy’s father admitted to spanking the children lightly, but denied hitting the children or seeing his wife hit the children with any objects.  He had seen her smack the counter with a spatula.

When a client retains an attorney to represent him or her in a divorce or other family law dispute, agreement2-300x200usually the goal is to try and settle the matter. Trying a case is viewed as a last resort when all efforts to reach an amicable resolution have failed. From the outset, the courts do everything they can to encourage parties to reach an agreement, and participation in various forms of alternate dispute resolution, including Early Settlement Panels and Custody/Economic Mediation, are mandated in hopes of accomplishing that goal. The parties reach an agreement. They enter into a “contract’ memorializing same. The court may even “approve” it and close the case as “settled”. That’s the end of it, i.e. a contract is a contract – right? Not so fast! When it comes to family law “contracts” it is clear that the court has the last word if it is enforceable or not. “Equitable considerations” often trump “contract principles”. However, what is “equitable” seems to turn on what result is the most fair and reasonable one given the circumstances of that given case.

The extent of family law contracts being enforceable as a matter of interpretation was highlighted in the recent Appellate Division case of Holtham v. Lucas, 460 NJ Super. 380 (App. Div. 2019). In Holtham, the parties entered into a marital settlement agreement in resolution of their divorce. The agreement provided for the enforcement of a previously entered Prenuptial Agreement, as well as for the husband making certain payments and property transfers to the wife, including the payoff of an auto loan and transfer of the car title by July of 2017. The Agreement also included a provision that if the husband defaulted in any of it’s obligations, the wife would not only be entitled to reasonable counsel fees incurred to enforce, but that the husband would be subject to a per diem penalty of $150.00 for every day he failed to comply. The husband did not pay off the car loan or transfer title by the required date; rather, he asserted various offsetting claims as his reason for not doing so. He finally paid off the car loan and transferred title (although wife had always enjoyed its use and possession) but not until 4-5 months later, and after receiving wife’s enforcement motion. The trial court not only ordered the husband to pay over $6,000.00 towards wife’s attorney fees, it enforced the per diem penalty provision by ordering husband to pay $18,450.00 (for each day of non – compliance between July 9 and November 8, 2017), noting that although the husband had the ability to comply, he had unjustifiably delayed by interposing offsetting claims he had already forfeited under the Agreement’s mutual release provision. The husband appealed arguing that the $150 daily charge constituted an unenforceable penalty.

Simply applying traditional contract principles, the Appellate Division actually agreed with the husband that a $150 per diem charge would constitute an unenforceable penalty. The court noted that according to well – settled contract law, a provision that stipulates an unreasonably large amount of damages for a future breach would be an unenforceable penalty. Also referred to as the “Penalty Rule”, it was intended to avoid oppression, excessive recovery (that is recovery that far exceeds the economic losses normally recoverable for breach of contract), and the deterrence of efficient breach. Such stipulated damage provisions must be scrutinized for reasonableness and their enforceability turning primarily on the extent the stipulated amount is within a plausible range of actual damages and the difficulty of calculating damages upon breach. Analyzing these principles, the court found that the husband had met his burden to demonstrate that the $150 per diem charge was a penalty, noting that the “harm” suffered by the wife for the 4-5 month delay fell short of $18,450, that she had been able to retain full use of the vehicle, and that the “damage” under this penalty provision would have been the same regardless of the number, nature or amount of the obligation husband was deemed to be in default of. However, this did not end the court’s analysis, concluding that this “Penalty Rule” would not apply with equal force to marital settlement agreements embodied in final divorce judgments.

money-300x200When calculating child support obligation, the courts first look to the Child Support Guidelines established by the Supreme Court of New Jersey. The Guidelines factor in income from all sources of both parents in order to determine the parents’ respective child support obligations.   However, when it comes to income that is available for support purposes, what is important to consider is not merely what someone’s actual, earned wages are, but what the parents’ income capacities are.  If a parent is voluntarily underemployed or unemployed and earning less than what he or she is capable of earning, the Child Support Guidelines allows the court to impute income to the parent who could or should be earning more.   Child support would be calculated based on what a parent is capable of earning, rather than what the parent is actually earning.

It is not, however, always clear what a person is capable of earning or whether a person is voluntarily underemployed. Some people have sporadic or variable income.  Some people earn income from second jobs or from overtime hours.

In the recently published case of the Superior Court of New Jersey in Ferrer v. Colon, FD-2392-07 (Ch. Div. 2020), the family court assessed whether to impute income to a parent for child support purposes because overtime hours were available to her that she did not utilize.  Should the court impute income to her based on income available to her even if she did not take advantage of all of those hours?

I previously blogged about the ever expanding definition of “household member” as it relates to  who canfist-blow-power-wrestling-163431-300x200 meet the definition to be considered a “victim” under the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act” (PVDA) in order to obtain a restraining order.   New Jersey courts have continued to expand the circumstances in which the PDVA can be utilized.

In a recently published decision from the Honorable Gregory L. Acquaviva, J.S.C. in Monmouth County in the matter of  S.C. v. J.D., the family court addressed the definition of a “household member” in the context of a modern, blended family.  In this case case, the parties were half-siblings who did not reside together, but who spent regular time together as part of their blended family.

The Prevention of Domestic Violence requires that certain relationships exists before the statute can apply to them.    Relevant here, “victim of domestic violence” is defined as: “any person who is 18 years of age or older . . . who has been subjected to domestic violence by . . . 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). The PVDA does not define “household.”

Last month I wrote a blog post highlighting many of the practical considerations in trying to negotiate a divorce2-300x200 resolution of a divorce given the dramatic and significant impacts caused by the coronavirus pandemic. The loss of jobs. The reduction of income. The decline in the value of assets. Even more important was the uncertainty of how long this situation would continue. I wrote that blog post during the peak of the crisis. As I write this blog post, things have stabilized somewhat. The curve was flattened and the rate of new infections have declined. SLOWLY some of the restrictions have been relaxed and some businesses are reopening and activities being allowed – with strict guidelines. Optimism remains tempered with trepidation over the extent to which things will return to some level of “normal”. However, most people seem resigned to the reality that things will not be returning to the way things were anytime soon, if at all. Confronted with this uncertainty, and the considerations raised in my earlier blog post, one might conclude now is not the right time to pursue a divorce. I submit this should not be the determiner of one’s decision.

There is no question that the decision to terminate one’s marriage is a major, life-altering one. It is not one to be made rashly, on the spur of the moment, or as an emotional reaction to a given situation. When I meet with a prospective client for the first time, I always inquire as to the reasons why they are considering divorce and the extent they have considered or pursued all reasonable efforts to save their marriage. Hopefully having weighed all these considerations carefully, the decision to divorce remains a highly personal one. It is a purely subjective one. Once counseled as to the legal consequences of that decision, it is one to be respected. One point of caution, however. The pandemic itself should not be the sole reason why someone decides to end the marriage. This situation is as “novel” as the virus itself. To one degree or the other, everyone has been impacted by it – stress, fear, uncertainty – be it emotional, health-wise, or financial. Parties to an otherwise solid marriage should be able to work together to overcome these consequences, or make every effort to do so. It is the marriage that is already on shaky ground that the pandemic and its impact can be the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Once a spouse comes to the decision that the marriage is over and can no longer be saved, the question is whether now is the time to commence the divorce process. I submit that the decision to do so or not should be the same now as before the pandemic arrived.

This month, the Appellate Division approved for publication the case of Gormley v. Gormley, A-1428-18, disability-200x300(App.Div. 2019) which addressed the standard to apply in determining the income of a litigant who has been determined by the Social Security Administration to be disabled and whether the Court should impute income for someone who has been adjudicated disabled and does not work.

In this case, the parties married in 2000, had one child, and the plaintiff filed a Complaint for Divorce in 2015.  The Defendant had already been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at the time of the marriage. In 2002, also during the marriage, the Social Security Administration determined that the Defendant was disabled by multiple sclerosis. As such, she did not work and was receiving $2,023 per month in social security disability benefits. The Plaintiff was employed full-time and earned a commission based income.  In the two years before the trial, he had been earning approximately $150,000 per year.   However, in the year of the trial, he was working fewer hours in order to represent himself at trial, and to study psychology and parental alienation.  As such, he was earning approximately $112,000 per year.

The family court judge imputed $240 per week of earned income to the Defendant even though the Social Security Administration had determined that she was disabled and had been paying monthly social security disability benefits since 2002.  The judge reasoned that she did not visibly observe Defendant exhibit in court disabling symptoms from multiple sclerosis such as fatigue, bladder issues, tremors , difficulty in concentration or any other difficulties that the judge felt would prevent her from working.   No income was imputed to the plaintiff.

In Amzler v. Amzler, (Docket No. A-3384-18), 2020 N.J. Super. LEXIS 38 (App. Div. 2020), the  retirement-300x200Appellate Division provided direction on the effect of the September 2014 amendments to New Jersey’s alimony statute, N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23 as it relates to a litigant’s desire to retire before his full retirement age and stop paying alimony.   Before the 2014 amendments, a party seeking to modify an alimony obligation was required to “demonstrate that changed circumstances have substantially impaired the ability to support himself or herself.” Landers v. Landers, 444 N.J. Super. 315, 320 (App. Div. 2016) (quoting Lepis v. Lepis, 83 N.J. 139, 157(1980)).  The Legislature amended the alimony statute to add subsection (j), which applies in situation applies in situations involving “the prospective or actual retirement of the obligor.”

In  the Amzler case, the parties in 2009 signed a matrimonial settlement agreement (MSA) that required the plaintiff to pay alimony.  The MSA contained an “anti-Lepis” provision, meaning that a “voluntary reduction in income of either party” would not constitute a substantial change in circumstance for the purpose of reviewing alimony.  After the parties’ divorce, the plaintiff continued to work, but due to medical reasons, retired before reaching full retirement age. The defendant filed a motion seeking to enforce the MSA and the plaintiff’s alimony obligation; the plaintiff filed a cross motion seeking to terminate or reduce his alimony obligation due to his retirement.

The trial court granted the plaintiff’s motion to terminate alimony, relying on section N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23(j)(2) of the alimony statute, which applies when a payor spouse retires before reaching full-retirement age. The defendant argued that the judge incorrectly applied subjection (j)(2) of the statute rather than subsection (j)(3), which governs the review of final alimony orders or agreements that were established before the effective date of the 2014 statutory amendments.

After years of a booming economy, the coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc on our state and family-corona-300x200national economies.  Non-essential businesses have been forced to close and millions have become unemployed.  Many others who have held onto their jobs have had their hours or pay reduced.  The pandemic has caused households to struggle financially and many are worried about how they will pay their bills and trying to determine how they can reduce expenses.   What are  the options to modify alimony and/or child support obligations if one or both parties has experienced a reduction in income or a loss income due to the coronavirus pandemic?

If one or both litigants cannot resolve the issue on their own, a lawyer and/or mediator can offer up assistance to resolve the matter.  A resolution is going to require both parties to be reasonable and understanding.  The person receiving support may need to be understanding of the obligor party’s financial distress and worry.  The person paying support may need to understand that alimony and child support may represent all or most of the receiving party’s income and that party cannot apply for unemployment benefits to replace lost support. The matter is more significant when there are children that have to be cared and provided for, and that is paramount.

If the parties cannot come to an agreement, can the court offer relief?  The courts have not been having hearings but for emergency matters, and financial disputes are generally not considered emergent.  However, the courts in New Jersey have risen to the occasion and applications to modify support can be filed electronically. A Family Division judge can decide the matter based on the review of the papers alone if that is requested, or the judge can conduct oral argument, settlement conferences and the like via telephone and/or video conference.  The courts are still open to conduct family law business.

It goes without saying that the impact of the coronavirus pandemic has been widespread and file2381251825687-238x300devastating. It has been dramatic and sudden. It has reached every corner of the globe. It has affected virtually every institution – political, economic and social. It has touched every community, every family and every person in some way. For those already going through the personal upheaval of divorce, it’s emotional and financial consequences have only served to make a difficult situation even more stressful and complicated. Even though the vast majority of divorce cases will end up being resolved by the parties by way of a negotiated agreement, the pandemic’s impact has clearly had a drastic effect upon the parties’ ability to negotiate a resolution of their cases at this juncture.

Front and center on our website is the quote from Justice Brandeis: “Nothing is settled until it is settled right.” The pandemic has certainly put this to the test. Until six to eight weeks ago, we were in the midst of a period of sustained economic prosperity. Unemployment was at historic lows. Incomes and wages were up. Businesses were flourishing. The stock market and other investments were at record highs. The real estate market had finally rebounded from the impact of the recession years earlier. One of the biggest keys in trying to negotiate a resolution of a divorce case is having some sense of stability in regards to the family’s financial picture now and of its predictability into the future. When it comes to issues of support, a payor spouse’s willingness to commit to an amount to pay is not only tied to what he or she is earning then, but the reliability of these earnings going forward. When it comes to the division of assets, determining what allocation or distribution of same would be fair and equitable depends not only on being able to identify and value those assets at that time, but some level of predictability of what will happen with those assets into the future. Until recently, that task seemed fairly easy. However, the pandemic has swiftly turned this process on its head.

Record employment has turned to record unemployment in a matter of weeks, largely the consequence of the government’s policy to shutdown “non-essential” businesses in an effort to blunt the spread of the virus. Twenty-two million claims were made for unemployment in the past three weeks alone. Even if people didn’t lose their jobs, they may have suffered a reduction in hours or pay. Social distancing and stay home requirements have further curtailed many jobs and other economic activity. Many businesses have been closed or have seen their revenues drastically reduced. To make matters worse, no one has been able to predict with any level of certainty how long the shutdown will last – weeks, months, until there is a vaccine – or even what the impact all of this economic dislocation will have either short-term or long-term. Whenever it is over, will things simply return to the prior “normal” or will a new “normal” come into being? Will people get their old jobs back? Will there even be businesses or jobs to return to? How much will future earnings be impacted? Will the stock and financial markets rebound?

Due to COVID-19, New Jerseyeans, among others, are experiencing difficult financial times. While there stimulus-300x198has been action by the government to ease financial burdens such as staying evictions and forbearing mortgage payments, the fact of the matter is that ensuring the receipt of child support during this time is critical. Children need the financial support of their parents in good times and bad times. The coronavirus relief bill includes direct cash payments to help people through the crisis — but one red flag that can cost otherwise eligible Americans money is owing past due child support.

When a parent does not make child support payments on time, the overdue payments are called arrears. In order to collect arrears there are various measures that can be taken against a parent that owes child support such as the following:

  • Jail