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

May I Contest My New Jersey Divorce If I Settle On The Day Of Trial?

            No, unless pursuant to New Jersey’s Rules of Court (4:50-1) your lawyer can prove to a judge of a New Jersey Family Court, including but not limited to, fraud, coercion or lack of mental capacity.  Certain factors of this court rule have a one year time limit starting from the date your divorce was finalized. Over the course of over twenty years as a practicing divorce lawyer, my law firm has handled countless uncontested divorce hearings.  At that time, a judge shall require both parties to answer, under oath, a number of questions in order to confirm that you entered into the settlement voluntarily, that you are thinking clearly and the like.  Please click here to find a list of such questions that your attorney shall ask you during an uncontested divorce hearing.  Following, please find this lawyer’s take on the seminal case regarding this issue.

In Skillman v. Skillman, ex-wife Ruth Skillman appealed an order of the Family Part that denied her motion to increase the child support and alimony obligation of her ex-husband, Junior Van Skillman, and to review the fairness of the property settlement agreement they had entered into. Ruth and Junior entered into a property settlement agreement on March 27, 1973, which settled matters of alimony and child support. This agreement was incorporated into the final judgment of divorce on April 23, 1973. A year later on August 22, 1974, Ruth filed a motion to increase the alimony and child support she received, and for a review of the fairness in the property settlement agreement. She argued that the property settlement agreement was unfair and should not be enforced because she felt pressured when agreeing to it and therefore lacked sufficient mental capacity to execute the agreement.  The Family Part denied her motion. On appeal, Ruth contended that she felt pressured into signing the agreement because the property settlement agreement was executed on the day of trial, and the Family Part judge stated that if the parties could not agree, he would have no choice but to decides the issues of alimony, child support and property distribution himself. However,  the New Jersey Appellate Division explained that just because a party agrees to sign a  property settlement agreement because that party does not want a judge to decide the issues of support or equitable distribution, does not mean that person lacked mental capacity due to feeling pressured. The New Jersey Appellate Division affirmed the judgment of the Family Part and held that Ruth’s allegations were unfounded and did not rise to a level where she lacked mental capacity, and she failed to demonstrate  changed circumstances that were not foreseeable or contemplated at the time the agreement was executed.

            Ruth and Junior, at the Family Part judge’s suggestion, entered into a property settlement agreement on March 27, 1973, that enumerated the alimony and child support obligations of Junior. This agreement was approved in open court and then incorporated into the final judgment of divorce dated April 23, 1973.

            Ruth filed a motion on August 22, 1974, in which she requested a review of the property settlement agreement’s fairness, and an increase in the child support and alimony she received.  Ruth based her claims of unfairness on the allegation that she was pressured into signing the property settlement agreement, and therefore she did not have sufficient mental capacity to execute the agreement. A person lacks mental capacity when they do not have the capacity to make adequately considered decisions is diminished. Some examples of litigants who may lack sufficient mental capacity to execute an property settlement agreement are minors or people who suffer from mental impairment or disability. The motion was denied, and Ruth appealed the decision.

            The New Jersey Appellate Division found Ruth’s argument that the property settlement agreement was not made freely, and was executed under pressure, to be without substance. Her allegation of pressure related to the fact the property settlement agreement was executed into on the day of trial, and the Family Part judge stated that if the parties could not agree, he would have no choice but to decides the issues of alimony, child support and property distribution himself. However,  the New Jersey Appellate Division explained that a property settlement agreement is not “pressured” or involuntary simply because it was executed under the above mentioned circumstances. The proposed property settlement agreement was read to Ruth in open court., and she explicitly stated that she understood each provision within it and that they were satisfactory to her.

            This was because, in this case, the parties had agreed to the provisions of the property settlement agreement, and voluntarily chose to incorporate the same agreement in a judgment of divorce, that went unappealed. As such, they were legally bound by that agreement. The New Jersey Appellate Division reasoned that Ruth had a problem, or was feeling pressured to sign the property settlement agreement, she could have, instead of signing such a property settlement agreement at the time of the divorce, she could have allowed the court to determine the rights of both parties, and if she was not satisfied with the outcome, could have filed an appropriate and timely appeal. There was no evidence that Ruth was reasonably under any actual “pressure” from either the court or the opposing party when she executed the property settlement agreement. While a lack of mental capacity may be a proper reason to vacate a mutually agreed to property settlement agreement, it is only a valid defense in narrow circumstances. The “pressure” did not rise to this level, and was clearly not sufficient to find that Ruth reasonably lacked mental capacity to enter into the property settlement agreement, especially since the agreement was read to her in open court, and she clearly expressed that she understood the terms she was agreeing too.  t's capacity to make adequately considered decisions in connection with a

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            New Jersey Family Part courts favor enforcing voluntary agreements, and will not unnecessarily modify or vacate mutually agreed to property settlement agreements. w

The New Jersey Appellate Division reviewed the record and agreed with the Family Part judge in refusing to grant a hearing to determine any need for an increase in child support and alimony.  The appellate panel stated that Ruth failed to prove a sufficient showing of a prima facie case of changed circumstances that would entitle her to a plenary hearing relating to the modification to the property settlement agreement she had entered into as part of the divorce judgment.

Ruth alleged two changes in circumstance that she claimed justified an increase in child support and alimony. First, that the two older children that were not in her custody were either emancipated or not in college anymore, and therefore his expenses were less, and second, that the cost of living had gone up.

When an settlement agreement resolves issues of child support and alimony is entered into voluntarily less than one and a half years before a motion to modify that settlement agreement is filed, as was the case here, the moving party has the burden to demonstrate that the enforcement of that agreement would be unconscionable, and the changed circumstances relied upon were not contingencies that were, or should have reasonably been foreseeable or considered when the agreement was executed.

The New Jersey Appellate Division found that the change in status of the older daughter and son, and the increase in the cost of living were clearly foreseeable when the property settlement agreement was stated on the record on March 1973, and when the judgment was entered on April 1973. Based on the record, the appellate panel found no justification to increase either child or alimony or a plenary hearing relating to either. As such, the New Jersey Appellate Division affirmed the order of the Family Part.

 Please contact my office if you or a loved one is facing a divorce.