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

Why An Experienced Divorce Lawyer Will Help You Win Your Case

During the course of my career as a divorce and child custody attorney I have witnessed the importance that New Jersey Family Courts place on findings of fact and the credibility of the witnesses who testify to those facts. The factual findings and a witness’s credibility re of the utmost importance to a Judge of the Family Part, Superior Court of New Jersey. Moreover, the Judge’s determinations and conclusions are given special deference on appeal. That is why it is so important to have lawyer who is an expert in New Jersey divorce law.  The attorneys at my law firm know how to establish a strong factual record that will survive upon appeal.  New Jersey Appellate Courts defer to the factual findings of the trial court because the Family Part has the opportunity to make first-hand credibility judgments about the witnesses who appear on the stand. Generally, findings by a trial court are binding on appeal as long as they are supported by adequate, substantial, credible evidence. The Supreme Court of New Jersey stated that because a trial court hears the case, sees and observes the witnesses, and hears them testify it has a better perspective in evaluating the credibility of witnesses. Therefore, a trial courts factual findings and legal conclusions should not be disturbed by a higher court without a showing that they are so manifestly unsupported by or inconsistent with the competent, relevant and reasonably credible evidence as to offend the interests of justice. That said, a trial court’s interpretation of the law and the legal consequences that flow from established facts are not entitled to any special deference.

The Appellate Division can only consider what happened in the trial court. The Appellate Division can only review the pleadings and orders, and trial transcripts for the case below. If there is any additional evidence, or a "change in circumstances" since the date of the divorce, then a person may have to consider filing a motion to reopen the case, or a Lepis motion.

 The recent New Jersey Appellate Division case of Fliegel v. Fitzgerald reinforces the authority appellate courts give to the Family Part. In Fliegel v. Fitzgerald, father Steven Fliegel appealed an order of the Family Part which denied his motion to modify prior order pertaining to transportation and visitation of the minor children of his former marriage to mother Deirdre Fitzgerald. Steven argued that the Family Part “overlooked the evidence presented by him” in support of his motion. The Family Part order was based, in part, upon an in camera interview with the minor children, then ages thirteen and ten. The two children expressed discomfort with the changes sought their father. Steven argued that the children had been “coached” by their mother to give the court false responses to questions asked at the interview.

The law generally favors the finality of a divorce judgment. Therefore, it is very difficult for a person to obtain any relief from a final judgment of divorce judgment. When you file an appeal you are claiming that the higher New Jersey Appellate Division should reverse or overturn the lower court's decision in your divorce case. There must be some very exceptional and compelling circumstances to justify a reversal of a divorce judgment. Some courts find that while they are without legal authority to modify a divorce judgment, they can interpret a final judgment of divorce in a more equitable way by modifying terms of payment, or whatever is equitable under the circumstances.

The purpose of an appeal is to determine whether the family court judge made a legal error such as misinterpreting the law, or allowing into evidence or testimony that should not have been admitted. If the Appellate Division determines that the family court judge did make a legal error that is material, then it may send the case back to the same family court with the instructions to correct the mistake. The term material is a legal term of art, and it basically means that the legal error was very important. If a case is reversed, then in most cases a new trial is ordered.

The New Jersey Appellate Division started its opinion by stating that it is well-recognized that appellate courts “have a strictly limited standard of review from the fact-findings of the Family Part judge. Appellate courts defer to the factual findings of the trial court because it has the opportunity to make first-hand credibility judgments about the witnesses who appear on the stand. Family Part judges have a special feel of the case that can never be realized by a review of the cold record. This special authority is enumerated in Cesare v. Cesare. The paramount 1998 New Jersey Supreme Court cases of Cesare v. Cesare, concerned a domestic violence dispute and the interpretation of the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, New Jersey Statute 2C:25-17. In Cesare, the Supreme Court of New Jersey specifically tackled the issue of the applicable standard of review that should be applied. 

The Appellate Division will generally not second-guess factual conclusions that the trial judge has reached, because the Appellate Division does not take testimony or hear witnesses. Instead, the Appellate Division reads and listens to the arguments of the lawyers to determine if the trial judge made a reversible legal error that affected the outcome of the trial. If so, the case may then be remanded or sent back down to the trial court to have the error corrected.

Appellate review of a trial court’s fact-finding is limited. Generally, findings by a trial court are binding on appeal as long as they are supported by adequate, substantial, credible evidence. The Supreme Court of New Jersey stated that because a trial court hears the case, sees and observes the witnesses, and hears them testify it has a better perspective in evaluating the credibility of witnesses. Therefore a trial courts factual findings and legal conclusions should not be disturbed by a higher court without a showing that they are so manifestly unsupported by or inconsistent with the competent, relevant and reasonably credible evidence as to offend the interests of justice. Moreover, Family Part courts has a special expertise in domestic relations, and appellate courts must give their fact fining special deference. That said, a trial court’s interpretation of the law and the legal consequences that flow from established facts are not entitled to any special deference.

The Appellate Division can only consider what happened in the trial court. The Appellate Division can only review the pleadings and orders, and trial transcripts for the case at hand. If there is any additional evidence, or a "change in circumstances" since the date of the divorce, then a person may have to consider filing a motion to reopen the case, or a Lepis motion.

After applying both standards the New Jersey Appellate Division found that there was no basis in the record to disturb the findings and conclusions of the Family Part. At most, Steven’s arguments ask only the court revisit the facts of the case and reach a conclusion different from that of the Family Part judge. Because of their limited standard of review, the New Jersey Appellate Division had no choice but to reject the arguments raised by Steven on appeal.

As practicing New Jersey divorce attorneys we deal with these types of issues on a reoccurring basis, are equipped to guide you through your divorce and can help educate you as to your options and what you may be entitled to. If you have a question concerning your divorce, please do not hesitate to contact our law firm to further discuss your rights and how we can help you.