Edward R. Weinstein, Esq.Edward R. Weinstein, Esq.

Do I Have A Right To Know Why A N.J. Family Court Judge Came To Their Decision?

            Yes.  All told, you have a right to know why the court came to it’s decisions that resulted in a court order.  One of many reasons that you want to hire a lawyer who only handles family law cases in New Jersey is we have the experience to know when a judge of the Family Part of the Superior Court of New Jersey should place onto the record their exact “finding of fact ore conclusions of law” with respect to how they decided the issues, arguments and relevant law presented by the respective attorneys.

            In N.W. v. A.S., the parties were married in 2002 in India.  The parties had one child born of the marriage.  In 2010, the parties filed for divorce and were divorced pursuant to a dual judgment of divorce on January 30, 2012.  The parties’ dual judgment of divorce included a custody and parenting time agreement.  The agreement stated that the parties would share joint legal custody of their child, meaning the parties would make all important decisions together regarding the child such as health and education decisions.  The agreement also stated that the mother would be the parent of primary residence, meaning the child would live with the mother most of the time. 

            The dual judgment of divorce required that the father pay limited durational alimony to the mother for four years.  During the first year, the father paid $3,120 per month in alimony.  The father then paid $2,100 per month beginning in February 2013 until completing his alimony payments on January 31, 2016.  Under the dual judgment of divorce, the father was also required to pay child support weekly.  After the father’s alimony obligation decreased after the first year, his child support obligation increased.  The amount of child support was to be based on the parties’ incomes after the father’s alimony obligation was terminated in 2016.  The father was also required to continue providing health insurance for the parties’ child under the agreement.  The mother was given possession of the marital home even though the home was pending foreclosure.  Additionally, the dual judgment of divorce divided the parties’ marital assets.  Each party was given one-half of the other party’s 401k and the mother was given $15,885.09, which was one-half the investment accounts.  The mother was also given half of the marital assets that the father dissolved, totaling $177,675.  Lastly, the father was required to pay $10,000 toward the mother’s attorney’s fees.

           The father appealed the Superior Court of New Jersey Family Part’s decision regarding the division and distribution of marital assets.  The father also filed a motion with the court on November 25, 2014, seeking to enforce his rights because the mother moved to Pennsylvania with the parties’ child.  The father filed the motion because the mother did not seek court approval before moving with the parties’ child, and she did not obey the court’s orders on October 3, 2014 or October 14, 2014 requiring her not to move and ordering her to move back, respectively.  In his motion, the father asked the court to grant him custody of the parties’ child, to terminate alimony, to suspend and modify child support, and attorney’s fees.  The father also wanted the mother to pay for homeowner association fees totaling $12,000. 

            In response, the mother acknowledged that she moved to Pennsylvania with the parties’ child without the court’s permission.  The mother reasoned that she had lost her job and had found employment in Allentown, Pennsylvania.  The mother filed a cross-motion with the court and asked to vacate the order requiring her to move back to New Jersey or find employment in New Jersey within twelve months.  On January 9, 2015, the trial court judge found that the mother was in violation of the father’s rights by moving with the parties’ child without court permission.  Despite this finding, the court denied the father’s motion for custody of the child or to compel to the child’s return to New Jersey.  The trial court considered the child’s best interests and found that it was best if the mother was able to continue living in Pennsylvania.  The court also denied the father’s request to terminate alimony or suspend child support because those requests were unrelated to the child the case here. 

            On March 26, 2016, the mother filed a motion requesting the court to enforce her rights because the father had not paid the amount he owed under the dual judgment of divorce.  The mother requested interest with the amounts owed and consented to giving the father custody of the child at the end of the school year.  The father filed a cross-motion asking the court to grant him custody only if the court also agreed to allow the father to relocate wherever his job took him.  The father also asked the court to modify his parenting time schedule and to retroactively terminate his alimony payments to October 1, 2014.  The father claimed he would be losing his job soon and that the mother’s annual income increased; therefore, the father claimed there was no need for alimony.  Since the alimony obligation already finished, retroactive termination would result in a $33,600 refund to the father.  The mother argued against retroactive termination of alimony.  The father also requested that the mother pay $7,000, which represented the amount he settled for with the homeowner’s association.  The mother argued against this because part of the fees occurred while the parties were still married and the father was required to pay roof expenses, which were part of the outstanding fees.  The father’s cross-motion also requested that the mother provide health insurance for the child beginning June 1, 2016.  The mother agreed to provide health insurance but only after October 1, 2016.

            The trial court heard the parties’ motions on June 24, 2016.  The judge terminated the mother’s alimony because her income was now higher than what it was at the time of the divorce.  The court denied the mother’s request for interest and for attorney’s fees because the mother did not lose any money on the distribution payments, so no interest payment was necessary.  The court granted the father’s request for retroactive alimony and granted that he be given $33,600 to be credited against the distribution obligation.  Additionally, the court found the homeowner’s association fee to be marital debt and split the $7,000 obligation in half.  The court also denied the father’s request for retroactive modification of child support out of fairness, and the court made no decision on custody.  The mother agreed to allow the father four consecutive weeks of parenting time in the summer, and the court decided the four weeks should begin the last week of July and end after the third week in August.  Lastly, the court required the mother to provide health insurance for the parties’ child in November 2016 and denied both party’s requests for attorney’s fees.

            The father’s counsel agreed to prepare the order.  On June 29, 2016, the court entered the order, however, the order included parenting time that the court did not order, and it changed the father’s parenting time from what the court ordered.  Also, the order stated that the mother’s obligation to provide the child health insurance was to begin in June, not November 2016, and it retroactively modified child support to November 25, 2014.  The mother then appealed from the June 29, 2016 order. 

            On appeal, the New Jersey Appellate Division stated that it gives great deference to the trial court because of its expertise in family matters.  The Appellate Division explained that factors, such as a spouse’s need and the spouse’s ability to contribute, are used to consider modification of alimony.  The court further explained that there is no statute that prevents or limits retroactive reduction of alimony, unlike retroactive modification or termination of child support.  The Appellate Division stated that limited durational alimony can be modified upon a showing of changed circumstances.  The Appellate Division found the trial court retroactively modified alimony without considering the mother’s expenses or marital standard of living.  The Appellate Division reasoned that by retroactively terminating alimony, the trial court changed alimony from four to two years but did not explain what circumstances warranted such a change, especially since the father’s alimony obligation was already fulfilled. 

            Additionally, the Appellate Division stated that a trial judge must provide an opinion with facts and legal conclusions when making a decision.  The court stated that the trial court’s June 29, 2016 order lacked meaningful explanation and findings of fact and law.  Specifically, the trial court did not explain the parties’ distribution of assets or why the mother was responsible for half of the homeowner’s association fees.  The Appellate Division also reasoned that the June 29, 2016 order did not accurately reflect the court’s decision regarding the father’s four weeks of parenting time or the mother’s obligation to provide health insurance for the parties’ child.  Ultimately, the Appellate Division held that specific factual and legal findings need to be made; therefore, the Appellate Division reversed the decision of the trial court and sent the case back to the trial court to make such findings.