Under New Jersey law, getting your alimony increased is a challenging case for even the most savvy divorce attorney. Your lawyer, by way of credible evidence, must demonstrate that you have endured a substantial change on circumstances since the entry of the Final Judgment of Divorce (or a subsequent court order from the Superior Court of New Jersey). Below is this lawyer’s analysis of a recent case handed down from New Jersey’s Appellate Decision. Here you shall find a solid example and explanation as to why and how your attorney presents your evidence can make or break your case.
In Bier v. Bier, ex-wife Jill Bier appealed from an order of the Superior Court of New Jersey, Family Part of Somerset County dated March 20, 2015, that denied her for to increase her ex-husband, Robert Bier’s, $ 25,000 alimony obligation. The Family Part did not hear oral argument or hold an evidentiary hearing, and based the decision on the facts that: Jill failed to provide the 2003 letter opinion that awarded alimony at the end of her divorce, and as such there was no established baseline for a changed circumstances analysis; she did not accurately catalogue and document her numerous health issues, some of which existed before the divorce; and her financial evidence was deficient and less than accurate.
Even without the aid of the 2003 written decision, the judge observed that it was clear from the final judgment of divorce that Jill’s medical expenses would increase in the future. Jill became responsible for her own health insurance premiums three years after the divorce. Also, in her case information statement, Jill alleged that spent about $ 17,194 every month in unreimbursed medical expenses. However, in her supporting certification, she claimed she only spent $ 6,000 a month in unreimbursed medical expenses. The trial judge could not determine that her medical status had significantly changed since the divorce, because Jill herself acknowledged that she suffered from health problems before the divorce, and she failed to provide documentation of her conditions, expenses, or the changes to them since the time of divorce.
The Family Part judge characterized Jill’s financial evidence as “woefully deficient,” and this lack of evidence and disclosure was her biggest problem. She had also listed some expenses that the judge found to be unusually high in light of her alleged poor health. In Jill’s submitted case information statement she claimed she spent $ 600 a month at restaurants, $ 3,200 for groceries and household supplies, and $ 450 a month for tobacco and alcohol. While she alleged that she spent all this money every month, at the same time she certified that her medical illness was so severe that she needed around the clock, twenty-four-hour care, found it difficult to walk on her own, and had a difficult time getting out of bed. Even though she stated to the court that her medical condition was so bad, in her case information statement she claimed that her commuting expenses were $ 5,500 a month, and she listed another $ 8,800 in other unnamed charges in the transportation section of her case information statement. She also bought a Mercedes E550 just a few months before filing this motion.
Instead of support her motion for increased alimony, the Family Part judge found that her financial documentation actually called her credibility into question. It presented such a muddled view of her finances that no determination regarding changed circumstances could have reasonably been made. Therefore, her motion was denied.
No oral argument was heard by the Family Part judge, but it was unclear if Jill even requested oral argument. Furthermore, an evidentiary hearing was not conducted because, the judge stated that Jill failed to establish a prima facie case of changed circumstances required by the paramount 1980 New Jersey Supreme Court case of Lepis v. Lepis. Lepis v. Lepis, is one of the most paramount cases in New Jersey family law, and illustrates the proper procedure required for modifying support and maintenance arrangements after a final judgment of divorce has been entered. A showing of changed circumstances is required in the modification of both child support and alimony. Then, the court will consider both the finances of both parties, and the best interests of the children and determine a solution that is equitable to both parties.
A supporting spouse’s support obligation is primarily determined by the quality of life during marriage, and the continued maintenance of the standard of living the dependent spouse and children had become accustomed to. As a general principle, a modification to the same obligation may be warranted in certain changed circumstances. A few examples of valid changed circumstances include: an increase in living cost; increase or decrease in the supporting spouse’s income; illness or disability; the dependent spouse living with another partner; or employment by the dependent spouse.
A “prima facie” showing of changed circumstances is required before a court will order the ex-spouse to produce financial documents. “Prima facie” is a Latin term that literally means “on its face.” It means a fact presumed to be true unless it is disproved. Prima facie proof is based on first impression, and accepted as correct until proved otherwise. To accomplish this, the party seeking modification must demonstrate that changed circumstances have substantially impaired the ability to support himself or herself. This involves the full finding of the dependent spouse’s financial status. Only after a prima facie showing has been made will the supporting spouse’s ability to pay become a factor.
In Bier, the New Jersey Appellate Division stated that an appellate panel’s review of a Family Part court’s decision is limited. The question of whether a supporting spouse’s alimony obligation should modified due to a claim of changed circumstances is well within the sound discretion of a Family Part judge. Generally, findings by a trial court are binding on appeal as long as they are supported by adequate, substantial, credible evidence. The Supreme Court of New Jersey stated that because a trial court hears the case, sees and observes the witnesses, and hears them testify it has a better perspective in evaluating the credibility of witnesses. Therefore, a trial court’s factual findings and legal conclusions should not be disturbed by a higher court without a showing that they are so manifestly unsupported by or inconsistent with the competent, relevant and reasonably credible evidence as to offend the interests of justice, and “could not reasonably have been reached on sufficient credible evidence present in the record after considering the proofs as a whole.” Moreover, Family Part courts has a special expertise in matrimonial matters, and appellate courts must give their fact finding special deference.
The New Jersey Appellate Division applied the afore-mentioned standards of review and found that Jill’s claims lacked merit because she: failed to provide the 2003 letter opinion that awarded alimony at the end of her divorce, and as such there was no established baseline for a changed circumstances analysis; she did not accurately catalogue and document her numerous health issues, some of which existed before the divorce; and her financial evidence was deficient. Therefore, the order of the Family Part was affirmed.
As our law firm only handles divorce and family law related matters, we are here for you if you are facing an alimony issue.