As a divorce attorney for over twenty years, I have had many folks come to me after they tried to obtain a divorce on their own. A common problem I have seen over the years is that their case has been dismissed due to a procedural defect. As my law firm only handles divorce and family law related cases, we are experts as to civil procedure. This includes knowing what documents to file and when to file them with the court depending on the issue. Although that might not seem important on the surface, ultimately you may go to the Superior Court of New Jersey thinking that you are about to obtain a divorce only to find out your case was dismissed and you need to start all over. Others have attempted to obtain child support only to be denied for a procedural error. That was the case in the recent Appellate Division decision of Licciardi v. Licciardi, where a pro se litigant forgot to file the Child Support Guideline worksheet with her application for more support. Let’s explore.
In the case, the parties were married for ten years. Two children were born of the marriage. Upon the parties’ divorce they executed a property settlement agreement, which provided that the husband would pay monthly child support of $3300 based on his annual income of $175,000. At the time, the wife was unemployed, but intended to become a teacher. The parties acknowledged that the husband would pay child support in excess of the New Jersey Child Support Guidelines found in Rule 5:6A. Additionally, the husband agreed not to seek a reduction in his support obligation for three years regardless of any changed circumstances.
In March 2010, the husband filed a motion to reduce his child support. The court granted the motion and reduced his obligations to $2107.43 per month, which was still greater than the amount provided for in the Child Support Guidelines. At the time the husband applied for and received the first reduction, he had remarried and had a two-year-old child with his new wife. The court did not refer to that child in its reasoning for reducing the husband’s support obligations. Rather it looked to his decline in income.
In September 2012, the husband applied for another reduction in child support. He filed a certification in which he asserted that since the prior reduction he and he new wife had divorced and he was now paying $500 per month in child support for his other child. Additionally, he certified that since the prior reduction his boss was legally able to deduct from his paycheck less than the ordered amount, and in order for him to stay current with his obligations, he had to take a loan against his 401K.
The wife filed an opposing certification seeking more child support from her ex. Additionally, she sought an order directing her ex to pay all of the children’s extracurricular and extraordinary expenses. The wife certified that she had lost her job, had credit card debt, and an added expense of $345 per month for reduced medical coverage. She stated that her ex husband had not complied with Rule 5:5-4(a) because he provided “incomplete, inaccurate and internally inconsistent documentation” to support his request for a reduction in child support. As a response, the husband filed another certification to dispute everything that his ex-wife had alleged. The trial court found for the husband and stated that he had proven changed circumstances to warrant a reduction in his child support obligation and of course, the wife appealed.
On appeal, the wife argued that the lower court erred in granting her ex-husband the reduction in his child support obligation. In particular, she argued that the trial court failed to properly use the Child Support Guidelines and failed to make proper findings of fact or conclusions of law in ordering a reduction of child support. Additionally, the wife stated that the trial court failed to apply the support guidelines.
However, the Appellate Division affirmed the findings of the lower court. The Court stated that it could not evaluate the wife’s argument without the child support worksheet prepared by the court. Since she failed to provide the worksheet with the record on appeal, her argument that the judge did not use the Child Support Guidelines was without merit. The Appellate Division looked to Rule 5:6A, which requires that a Child Support Guidelines worksheet be filed with any order or judgment that includes child support. Also, the Appellate Division stated that even though the wife represented herself pro se, she was still being held to the same standard for compliance with the court rules as a litigant represented by an attorney.
The main takeaway from Licciardi is that even if you choose not to hire a lawyer to represent you, you will still be held to the same standards for compliance with the New Jersey court rules as a litigant with counsel. That is why it is extremely important to retain an experienced New Jersey divorce attorney to guide you through every step of the way. If you or a loved one is having a legal issue regarding their family, please contact my office today.