Articles Posted in Marriage

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.

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)

I recently argued a case via Zoom in the appellate division that could have far-reaching implications in this new pandemic world. The issue dealt with an agreement that resolved marital rights in divorce entered into while the parties were happily married. We know that prior to getting married, engaged couples can enter into a prenuptial agreement resolving certain marital issues. The ability for couples to enter into such an agreement has existed since 1988 when it was codified into a Uniform Statutory Law.

Divorcing couples must face and resolve a myriad of issues involving support, property distributions, and, where applicable, the care and custody of children. What ability then do parties have after they are married to contract for and away marital rights and obligations? Before yesterday the law was pretty clear. Mid-Marriage agreements were suspect. Two separate courts have found these types of Mid-Marriage agreements are inherently coercive and as such held that they needed to be seriously scrutinized. Since happily married people are not adverse to each other as they are when they are divorcing and, unlike people contemplating marriage, have already committed to the marriage, it was generally held that the courts needed to examine such mid-marriage agreements to determine if they are fair and fairly entered into. The burden to overcome the presumption of compulsion by circumstance was, these cases opined, monumental. The maxim that to obtain equity one must do equity, rings loudly when questioning such agreements.

In my recent appeal, my adversary argued that the Mid-Marriage agreement should be governed by simple contract law. A deal is a deal he would argue. The protections of those two cases where divorce is threatened should not apply to happily married people. These people, he argued, should be free to contract without restriction. In fact, he argued the dominant financial spouse had no duty of fair dealing or full disclosure. If the subservient spouse did not ask the right questions or seek more information, that person is an adult and should suffer the consequences of the bad deal they chose to make. Spouses should be free Mid-Marriage to give away their rights so long as they have a lawyer, even if that lawyer was hand-selected by the dominant spouse.

With the COVID-19 pandemic raging, I have spent a lot of time thinking about what the holidays will be like this year. Of course, the holidays are supposed to be a time filled with love and joy; a time spent with family and friends. This is true no matter what holiday you celebrate at this time of year. After all, that is what we see in all the holiday movies and hear in all the holiday songs. But, as most grownups know, even in normal times, as special as this time of year is, it is also a time that is inevitably more hectic and more stressful. But this year is different. Many are facing the loss of a loved one, in some cases, more than one loved one. So many people are separated from family members – in hospitals, nursing homes, or just keeping their distance to stay safe. Those who live alone are feeling the solitude even more while those who live with others are feeling the added pressure of the extra time couped up inside because while time together is wonderful, most of us are not accustomed to quite this much “time together.” And then there is the absence of so many of the holiday activities and traditions which we have come to treasure. As an Italian American from Brooklyn, for me, this means foregoing Christmas Eve in Brooklyn with extended family. As the mom of a two-year-old, it means no visit to see Santa this year. But I consider myself lucky. My family is healthy and I have not had to suffer the loss that so many have.pexels-nicole-michalou-5765727-200x300

Yet even as the pandemic drags on, we are striving to make the holidays a time of happiness. These are unusual circumstances, we tell ourselves. It is only one year and next year we will be able to celebrate again like we once did. These feelings of loss, loneliness, sadness, and hopelessness are not usual for this time of year and this too shall pass. But of course, this is not true for everyone. For some, the holidays are not a happy time, even when there is no pandemic. This is true for so many including those who are recently divorced or in the middle of a divorce.

Certainly, it is hard to be happy when the life you knew changes. Suddenly you find yourself dealing with the magnification of loneliness and navigating the stress and the hectic of the holidays alone. Maybe you are struggling with old traditions. Perhaps it is the first year that you will spend the holidays without your children. And added to the normal stress that always comes with the holidays is the need to manage parenting time schedules and feeling like you need to keep everything the same for the kids, while so much has changed.

Dear Santa:pexels-cottonbro-6140236-200x300

I know I wrote to you in October asking you for just a few things for Christmas. I know you are busy and that kids all over the world need you more than ever. I was looking forward to Christmas when Uncle Harry always come dress like you and my sister plays carols on the piano. I just want to let you know that I would like to change my Christmas list. It’s not that I do not like Transformers or Batman. I love them! It’s just that things have changed around here. Mom and Dad’s fighting has gotten a lot worse. I know they think they are keeping it from me but I hear them fighting and I see the way they look at each other. I heard Dad say he wants a Divorce and mom said she did too. I know what Divorce is My friend Tom’s parents got divorced last year. Tom did not see his Dad for a long time until he was asked a lot of questions by some Doctors. He was scared. I don’t mind if Mom and Dad divorce. If they Divorce like my friend June. Her parents divorced but did not fight over her and were nice to each other. June sees her mom and dad all the time and they even go to her soccer games. She says nothing is that different she sees her mom and dad and she likes that there is no more fighting in the house. So here is what I would like. I want mom and Dad to stop fighting. I want them to be happy. I do not want them to fight over me and I want to see both of them Dad was sick this year and Dad said mom was the best nurse and told me what a great mother I had. Mom said that Dad was a hard worker and I should appreciate all the things he did to make our family better. Could you please remind them about that? I know that usually, you give kids like me toys and that you have a magical workshop. It’s

really the magic I am looking for this year. So what I really want for Christmas is for my mom and dad to calm down. When I get upset my Dad always says calm down buddy and my mom gives me a hug. That really works. Maybe you could give my mom a magic hug and tell my dad to calm down. I figure they would listen to you. I told my sister who is really big that I was going to write to you. She said it was a great idea and she would get it to you or your elves. She said she would like mom and dad to calm down too. I see her cry sometimes so I know she is sad. We are usually happy this time of year even mom and dad. We didn’t decorate the tree together we did it with mom and dad sat in the room by himself. I could see mom was being brave like she tells me to be when I get a shot. Every year we drive around the neighborhood looking for tacky lights this year mom had a headache and didn’t go. It wasn’t as much fun cause mom laughs through her nose when things get funny. I know things will be different now. But it could be nice different that would be best. And if you think I should have the transformers and batman too that would be great. I have been very good.

pexels-ketut-subiyanto-4308054-300x200People are always asking me if they should divorce. My stock answer is that the decision to divorce is personal and that I am not qualified to make that decision for the client or even make a recommendation. Everybody has a different view of what a good marriage should look at and it is not mine to Judge. I do when the reasons for divorce seem like an argument that will blow over or the parties are older ask the client to think about options and give it a week to let things settle down and the realities of Divorce hit home. I am aware that not all marriages are built to last and that happiness like beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. Having said that I do have some views of my own about when a Divorce makes sense and when it does not. I am not a mental health professional. I am a lawyer who has practiced in this field for most of my career after a near-death experience ( from boredom) as a tax lawyer.

Often the decision to Divorce has been made by your spouse and you really have no option but if the choice is yours here are some things to think about. If you are in a destructive relationship and your spouse is physically or mentally abusing you should get out. Abusive people do not change. It is not your fault. If your spouse cheats on you and you will only reconcile if they don’t stop cheating now and forever and you can not live with a spouse who keeps cheating, get a divorce. My experience shows that once a cheater always a cheater.

If your marriage leaves you so unhappy that each day is drudgery or you find yourself wishing you were dead so the marriage can be over get the divorce. There is life on the other side.

While the U.S. Supreme Court has declared that same sex marriage is now legal all across the country, the states are still addressing with the newly accepted concept of a family in other contexts aslimo-suv-wreck-300x225 well.  This is demonstrated in the recent published opinion of the Appellate Division in Moreland v. Parks, A-4754-16, which was decided on August 17, 2018.   In this matter, Valerie Benning and I’Asia Moreland were a same sex couple.  Ms. Benning was living with Ms. Moreland and her two children, along with Ms. Benning’s godson.  After leaving a Disney on Ice show at the Sun Bank Arts Center in Trenton, the couple witnessed a pick-up truck hit Ms. Moreland’s two year old daughter, I’Maya, and kill her.    Ms. Moreland and Ms. Benning were not married.   Ms. Benning and Ms. Moreland filed a civil suit, which included a count by Ms. Benning for bystander negligent infliction of emotional distress.  The trial court dismissed Ms. Benning’s claim for bystander negligent infliction of emotional distress on the basis that she did not present enough evidence of an “intimate familial relationship” with the the child to bring a claim under Portee v. Jaffee, 84 N.J. 88 (1980).

Ms. Benning was not married to Ms. Moreland, who was I’Maya’s mother.  Ms. Benning was not biologically related to I’Maya, nor did she have custodial rights.  She began dating Ms. Moreland in 2007 and began to live with Ms. Moreland and her children in 2008.   Within a few months, both of Ms. Moreland’s children began referring to Ms. Benning as “Mom”.   I’Maya was killed in 2009.  Ms. Benning and Ms. Moreland became engaged in 2011 and they married in 2014.   A psychologist who evaluated Ms. Moreland’s son, I’Zhir, noted that he considered Ms. Benning and her godson members of his family, and that he felt safest when with his two mothers and his grandmother.   Two year old I’Maya was holding Ms. Benning’s hand in January, 2009 to cross the street when she was struck by the truck and killed.  Ms. Benning’s godson’s legs and ankles were broken in the accident as well.   In the ambulance after the incident, Ms. Benning was able to describe to the paramedics I’Maya’s medical history. I’Zhir told hospital staff that he had two mothers.   Ms. Benning was so distraught when told of I’Maya’s death that the hospital had to put her in restraints.  Benning helped pay for I’Maya’s funeral and borrowed money from her family to help pay for it.

The trial court referred to Ms. Benning and Ms. Moreland as lovers, but found that the case of Portee v. Jaffee requires a showing of an intimate family relationship, not merely an intimate relationship.   The trial judge rejected the contention that Ms. Benning was a psychological parent to I’Maya.  The trial judge noted that in the case of Dunphy v. Gregor, 136 N.J. 99 (1994), a decedent’s fiance was permitted to bring a claim for bystander negligent infliction of emotional distress.  However, the trial judge distinguished this matter because Ms. Moreland and Ms. Benning had not been engaged at the time of the I’Maya’s death, and he found no evidence of a permanent bond between them or one that was “deep, lasting and genuinely intimate.”

In 2004, Massachusetts became the first state in the United States to recognize same sex marriage.  Numerous states thus enact differing laws regarding the ability of same sex couples to marry infile000224065590-300x200 their states, with numerous states  passing laws to ban same sex marriage, and various states over the years, voting to allow same sex marriage.  Some states began to allow same sex couples to enter into “civil unions”.  New Jersey did so in 2006.  In 2012, Governor Chris Christie vetoed a potential law in New Jersey that would have allowed same sex marriage. Continue reading ›

If only for a sliver of time, a joyous occasion made everyone in the world forget all of its trials and tribulations. North Korea, Gaza, the Mueller investigation, MS13 – mere distractions. A dividedRoyal-wedding-300x169

nation, a divided world came together as one to witness the Royal Wedding between Price Harry and Meghan Markle to share in the magic, the pageantry, their unbridled love. Questions like whether there was Russian collusion or if Iran has nukes were insignificant when compared to what kind of wedding gown would Meghan be wearing, who was on the guest list, or what color pocketbook would the Queen be carrying. What else would be important enough to get me up at 4am on a Saturday morning? Continue reading ›

During the New Year’s season we often reflect on the blessings we have received over the course of the last year and give thanks. Many of us visit family during this time and if we are fortunate enough our parents. This past week, the Sixth Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals affirmed the decision of the United States District Court in the case of Sun Life Assurance Co. v. Jackson that involved the distribution of a deceased father’s life insurance policy proceeds to his daughter even though he failed to change the beneficiary designation to his daughter from his brother. Continue reading ›