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)
The necessity of a litigant to establish a prima facie case in regards to applications to modify support was clearly set forth by New Jersey Supreme Court in the seminal case of Lepis v. Lepis, 83 NJ 139, 148 (1980) . The court in Lepis also made clear the requirement of a moving party to establish a prima facie showing of changed circumstances before a Court will require discovery of the opposing party’s financial circumstances. These principles were reaffirmed by the Appellate Division in the recent case of Landau v. Landau, 461 NJ Super 107 (App. Div. 2019). Landau involved a circumstance in which the movant was seeking to modify and/or terminate his alimony obligation based upon a claim that his former spouse was cohabiting. Although the trial court determined that the assertions raised by the movant were insufficient to establish a prima facie showing of cohabitation, the Court nevertheless afforded the movant a right to obtain limited discovery from his former spouse to see whether such a prima facie case could be established. In reversing the decision of the trial court, the Appellate Division held that the changed circumstances standard set forth in Lepis, requiring the moving party seeking modification to establish a prima facie showing of changed circumstances before a Court will order discovery of an ex-spouse’s financial status “continues to strike a fair and workable balance between the parties’ competing interest, which was not altered by the 2014 amendments to the alimony statute”. Landau, supra at 118-19.
Hence, if a party believes that they may have a basis to modify an existing alimony or child support obligation, it is imperative that they are able to present sufficient evidence or proofs of a significant or substantial change in circumstances to establish at a minimum this prima facie showing. In certain instances, one’s proof of changed circumstances may be so compelling that a Court will be able to render a determination without the necessity for any sort of discovery or further proceedings. However, the key is to make sure one can meet that threshold prima facie showing if you hope to obtain any relief. The law firm of James P. Yudes, PC has the knowledge and experience to guide you through that process.