As a divorce attorney I am well aware that, generally speaking, the equal distribution of property is divided based on each party’s contributions to the marriage. In Theime v. Aucoin-Thieme, wife Bernice appealed an August 4, 2014 divorce court order that awarded her limited equitable distribution from her ex-husband, Michael’s, deferred compensation and the denial of attorney’s fees. The New Jersey Appellate Division affirmed the Family Part order. Following is this lawyer’s analysis.

Michael obtained a job in the technology field after graduating from college in 1993. He was not satisfied with his for long period and on November 1, 1999 he accepted a lower-paying job with International Biometrics Group. He was the first hired employee for this start-up biotechnology consulting firm Michael spent a great amount of time and effort on the development of International Biometrics Group and his career. It was not unusual for him to work as much as 90 to 100 hours every week. He also traveled 30 to 40 percent of that time. Michael had a discussion with his employers about his position with the company on May 2002. A “Statement of Understanding” was the product of this meeting. The statement provided that International Biometrics Group recognized Michael’s lower pay and significant contribution to the company. It also stated that he would be justly compensated if International Biometrics Group was ever sold. However the statement failed to say just how much he would be compensated or what would happen if the company was never sold.

Michael met Bernice in 2000. The couple moved in together in 2002 when Bernice became pregnant with their daughter. The couple were happy with the news that they would be having a child together and discussed marriage, but decided to wait. On January 2003 the couple’s daughter was born. Unfortunately, for a long time the couple had an increasingly turbulent relationship. The evidentiary record documented numerous instances and examples of angry confrontations that included physical and verbal abuse. Many of these confrontations concerned Bernice’s distaste about the amount of time Michael spent at work and her intrusions into his work life. The couple married on August 19, 2010, but even marriage did not improve the relationship.

On November 29, 2011, Michael filed a complaint for divorce after only fourteen months. On June 20, 2012 the divorce was finalized and the parties entered in a comprehensive property settlement agreement. The agreement addressed alimony, child support, custody, and equitable distribution of property. Immediately after the divorce, Bernice moved to Mississippi with their daughter. Almost three months after the final judgment of divorce was entered, International Biometrics Group gave Michael a one-time closing bonus of $ 2.25 million pursuant to the Statement of Understanding, because the company was purchased.

Michael deposited $ 200,000 of the bonus into a jointly-owned bank account on October 5, 2012. Allegedly, Michael was unaware that Bernice still had access to that account. She withdrew a total of $ 200,029.60 from that bank account. Michael initially filed suit in Mississippi for the return of the money Bernice withdrew from the bank account. The case was ultimately transferred to New Jersey. The Family Part held a bench trial in June and July 2014. The Family Part judge issued an oral opinion on July 3, 2014. The judge determined Bernice should only receive a portion of Michael’s bonus because the formal marriage only lasted fourteen months.

The trial court considered the thirteen years that Michael worked at International Biometrics Group and the $ 2.25 million bonus on a monthly basis. The court divided the total bonus by the number of months Michael worked at International Biometrics Group and arrived at $ 14,423 per month of work. Then the Court multiplied the monthly amount by the fourteen months the parties were married to calculate the proper figure for consideration of equitable distribution. The court determined the after-tax amount of the equitable share of the bonus was approximately $ 101,960. The court was sure to note that the bonus was not secured by mutual effort. More importantly the court found that rather than adding to her ex-husband’s ability to earn, Bernice actually jeopardized it through her conduct.

On August 4, 2014, the court entered an order awarding Bernice $ 30,288 from Michael’s deferred compensation and ordered her to return $ 169,712 to Michael with interest, if any had accrued on the bank account, within fifteen days. Both Michael and Bernice were ordered to pay their own attorney’s fees. Bernice appealed.

Bernice argued that the trial court did not properly apply New Jersey case law by deciding that the time period before the marriage did not constitute a marital partnership, and that the court wrongly determined that she was only entitled to $ 30,288 of the $ 2.25 million deferred compensation. She relied upon the case law of Weiss v. Weiss, and Berrie v. Berrie, and proposed that when property is acquired in contemplation of marriage and the parties have adequately expressed an intention to create a marital partnership before the marriage ceremony, the property will be subject to equitable distribution. Bernice also argued that trial court improperly calculated the value of the asset, and that the court did not make appropriate findings under New Jersey Statute 2A:34-23.1.

The Appellate Division started its opinion by noting that the review of a trial court’s findings are limited as they are binding on appeal as long as they are supported by adequate, substantial, credible evidence. Family courts have special jurisdiction and expertise in family matters. Therefore, appellate courts give deference to family court fact finding. The 2000 case of LaSala v. LaSala, established that the trial court has discretion in dividing marital assets through equitable distribution. An appellate court will affirm a ruling of equitable distribution so long as the trial court could have reasonably reached its decision form the presented evidence, and the award is not predicated on a mistake of fact. Nevertheless, a trial courts interpretation of law and the resulting legal consequences of established fact are not given any special deference.

Equitable distribution is based on the idea that marriage is a shared partnership. To determine equitable distribution of marital assets Family Part judges conduct a three part analysis. First, the court must decide what specific property is eligible for equitable distribution. Then the court must determine the value for distribution. Finally, the court must decide how to most equitably divide the assets. The equitable distribution must be based on the factors set forth in New Jersey Statute 2A:34-23.1.

In Theime, the record indicated that the trial judge’s decision was based on an analysis of all relevant evidence. The New Jersey Appellate Division found that all of the parties’ assets were equitably distributed. After weighing all of the evidence, the trial judge decided to allocate only a portion of the bonus. This evidence included alimony and child support payments, the property settlement agreements equal division of shared assets, Michael providing health and life insurance for Bernice, and a trailer home in Mississippi for Bernice’s mother. Furthermore, the judge noted that Bernice should not receive an equal portion of the bonus because of her intentional attempts to undercut Michael’s job. Generally, the equal distribution of property is divided based on each party’s contributions to the marriage. In this case the court determined that Bernice did not substantially contribute to Michael earning his bonus. Equitable distribution asks the question what equitably did the spouse bring to the asset. The Appellate Division agreed with trial Judge Sogluizzo that it was clear that Bernice brought very little. After weighing the credibility of the witnesses, the Appellate Division found there was adequate evidence to conclude that Bernice did not contribute to the bonus in contemplation of her marriage to Michael. Thus, the Family Part judge did not abuse her discretion the proportion of the bonus to the length of the marriage. The Family Part order was affirmed.

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