While a judgment of divorce may be final, as an experienced New Jersey divorce attorney I know that circumstances change and, sometimes alimony and child support obligations must be modified either up or down, in the interest of equity. The lead case is Lepis v. Lepis. There is no time limit to file an application to modify child support. At times, it does not make any difference that the changed circumstances only arose after some years of financial stability. The lawyers at my law firm are experts at how to demonstrate to a Judge of the Superior Court of New Jersey of what is truly a change of circumstances that would warrant modification of alimony.
The court will consider both the finances of both parents, and the best interests of the children and determine a solution that is equitable to both parties. Alimony and support orders merely define the present obligations of the former spouses. These duties are always subject to review and modification on a showing of “change circumstances.” The burden of showing changed circumstances is on the party seeking to modify an alimony obligation. Additionally, a party seeking modification must demonstrate that the changed circumstances have substantially impaired the ability to support himself or herself. Moreover, “one cannot find himself in, and choose to remain in, a position where he has diminished or no earning capacity and expect to be relieved of or to be able to ignore to the obligations of support to one’s family.” New Jersey courts have the authority to modify support obligations, but the proper procedure must me followed, and the proper requirements must be met before the court will step in.
In Manne v. Manne, Rudy Manne appealed the denial of his July 11, 2014 motion for reconsideration by the Superior Court of New Jersey, Family Part, Middlesex County. After their divorce in 2008, Rudy was ordered to pay spousal and child support to his ex-wife, Susan. In 2013, Rudy’s child support obligations were modified and he was ordered to pay fifty-one-percent of the children’s college costs.
Unfortunately, for Rudy, he was laid off from his job in March 2014. He received a severance of four month’s salary which totaled $ 30,000. While Rudy did file for unemployment, he was denied benefits for a three month period due to the severance amount exceeding the State’s maximum weekly benefit rate. Rudy subsequently filed a motion in May 2014 and requested a suspension of his alimony support obligation and a reduction of his child support. The motion was denied without prejudice. Then Rudy moved the court for reconsideration which was later denied by the trial judge on July 11, 2014. As a result Rudy filed an appeal.
On appeal, Rudy argued four points. First, Rudy argued that the Family Part of Middlesex County did not consider, or seemed to ignore hi poor financial status and his ability to pay for spousal support, or build spousal support arrears to Susan while unemployed. He further alleged that the Family Part court seemed to ignore the need for the party’s child, Michael, to be able to continue his college education in the fall. He claimed that the judge was highly prejudicial, and maintained that the judge only seemed concerned about taking care of Susan because both were female.
Second, Rudy argued that the Family Part court refused to recognize that a “change of circumstances” had occurred for Rudy, due to his unemployment, and suspend his weekly alimony support and reduce his weekly child support. Third, Rudy argued that the Family Part court ignored New Jersey law and the child support and alimony guidelines defined by the New Jersey statutes.
Finally, Rudy claimed that the Family Part ordered Rudy to provide proof of two life insurance policies with Susan and the children listed as beneficiaries even though Rudy could not afford this. He claimed that he could not even afford medical insurance for himself and relied on free medical insurance and aid at the time.
The New Jersey Appellate Division started the opinion by stating that when reviewing a trial judge’s order, the New Jersey Appellate Division must defer to factual findings “supported by adequate, substantial, credible evidence.” However, a trial judge’s legal conclusions, and the application of those conclusions to the facts, are not afforded the same deference and are subject to plenary review. Moreover, to the extent that the trial court’s decision constitutes a legal determination, the New Jersey Appellate Division reviews it de novo. De novo means a second time or afresh. An appeals court hearing a case de novo may refer to the trial court's record to determine the facts, but will but rule on the evidence and matters of law without giving deference to that court's findings. A trial court may also hear a case de novo following the appeal of an arbitration decision. A de novo trial is a trial or a hearing that is ordered by an appellate court that has reviewed the record of a hearing in a lower court and sent the matter back to the original court for a new trial, as if it had not been previously heard nor decided.
According to the paramount 1980 New Jersey Supreme Court case of Lepis v. Lepis, alimony and support orders merely define the present obligations of the former spouses. These duties are always subject to review and modification on a showing of “change circumstances.” The burden of showing changed circumstances is on the party seeking to modify an alimony obligation. Additionally, a party seeking modification must demonstrate that the changed circumstances have substantially impaired the ability to support himself or herself. Furthermore, according to the 1982 New Jersey Supreme Court case of Arribi v. Arribi, “one cannot find himself in, and choose to remain in, a position where he has diminished or no earning capacity and expect to be relieved of or to be able to ignore to the obligations of support to one’s family.”
Applying these legal principles, the New Jersey Appellate Division found that Rudy’s arguments lacked sufficient merit to even warrant discussion in a written opinion. The Appellate Division affirmed the Family Part of Middlesex County for the same reasons expressed by the July 11, 2014 order. The appellate panel did however clarify some things from the trial opinion. The New Jersey Appellate Division stated that, in denying Rudy’s initial motion for reductions in both alimony and child support, the judge noted in her order that Rudy was working for Sony and became unemployed on March 28, 2014. He had received a severance package, would so be receiving unemployment benefits. Rudy failed to show a substantial, permanent change in employment sufficient to justify a suspension of alimony or a reduction in child support. In considering the motion for reconsideration, the family court judge suspended enforcement of Rudy’s alimony obligation until he obtained new employment. The New Jersey Appellate Division found that the rulings in both orders were supported by “adequate, substantial, and credible evidence. Even though Rudy was temporarily denied unemployment benefits, he was given a substantial severance package and allowed to refile for unemployment after July 7, 2014. Rudy had not demonstrated that changed circumstances had substantially impaired his ability to support himself. Therefore, he was not entitled to a modification of spousal or child support at the time the judge considered the application. Thus the New Jersey Appellate Division had no choice but to affirm the Family Part order.
Please contact my law firm if you are grappling with an alimony issue.