It is all in the details. During the course of my career as a family law attorney I have witnessed first-hand, I am keenly aware of the importance New Jersey courts place upon their “findings of fact” when rendering a decision. Facts tempered with conclusions of law decide everything involved in a divorce ranging from alimony, child support obligations to child custody. In the recent case of Elgart v. Elgart, the Appellate Division considered the modification of a child support award where the incomes of the two parties exceeded the child support guidelines. However, because the Court Order was not accompanied by findings of fact and conclusions of law by the trial judge, the appellate court remanded the case back for further proceedings.
The Appellate Division’s September 14, 2015 opinion marked the second time the court had reviewed orders issued in the case. Irina Elgart appealed Family Part orders, dated November 1, 2013, and January 10, 2014, which reduced her ex-husband, Michael Elgart’s, child support obligations, and denied her motion for reconsideration.
Irina and Michael were married on August 17, 1997. A son was born to them on June 2001, and a daughter in June 2005. The couple filed for divorce on March 20, 2009. On March 8, 2010, the judge dissolved the marriage on the record. The court directed Michael’s attorneys to draft the final judgement of divorce, and to incorporate the decisions made by the judge in doing so. On April 5, 2010, Irina and Michael filed a consent agreement resolving some, but not all of their issues. Negotiations proved unsuccessful, and after several months the judge held a hearing to complete the dissolution of the marriage. On October 20, 2010, in an effort to finalize the divorce and resolve the deadlock, the judge struck down any provision in the property settlement agreement that the parties could not agree upon. In addition to numerous other changes, the judge modified Article 1.4 so that it excluded the list of extraordinary expenses. When the final judgment of divorce was entered later that day, it incorporated the version of the property settlement agreement revised by the judge.
The final property settlement agreement reflected the parties’ agreement to deviate from the New Jersey Child Support Guidelines. Under Article 1.2, Michael was required to pay Irina $ 1350 monthly in child support for their two children. The agreement also stated that the parties knew this amount was $ 200 over the guidelines. The agreement further provided that Michael would be responsible for 55% of the children’s extra-curricular activity expenses, and uninsured medical expenses. Article 1.2 also provided that any future adjustments would be pursuant to Article 1.3, however, Article 1.3 was struck out by the court on October 20. Article 1.4 of the property settlement agreement covered extraordinary expenses for the children. This included recreational and extracurricular activities. Irina was to pay 45% and Michael 55%.
In May 2013, Michael filed a motion to reduce his child support payments. He argued three points: that Irina earned significantly more in 2013 than she did at the time of the divorce; her higher child care cost were because her babysitter worked longer hours than the court approved; and that his income decreased because his bonuses had diminished. In response, Irina filed a cross-motion to enforce the order dated March 19, 2012. She admitted that she now earned more money, but her salary increase was contemplated at the time they negotiated the settlement agreement, and therefore did not amount to a changed circumstance. After a final judgment of divorce has been entered, a showing of changed circumstances is required in the modification of both child support and alimony. Then, 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. A few examples of valid changed circumstances include: an increase in living cost; increase or decrease in the supporting spouse’s income; illness or disability; the dependent spouse living with another partner; or employment by the dependent spouse. Courts have consistently rejected requests for modification for temporary changes in circumstances, or expected changes that have not occurred. An increase in children’s needs due to maturing has also been held to justify an increase in support as long as the supporting parent is financially able.
The Supreme Court has also noted that the dependent spouse’s ability to contribute to his or her own expenses, both at the time of the original judgment and during when the modification is requested should be considered. The extent of economic reliance, not a status as a wife, must determine the length of support as well as its amount. Gender is no longer an acceptable reason for economic need. Need must be calculated based on the earning capacity of the individual spouse in the marketplace.
Irina argued that any increase in her salary directly benefitted her children, and was not a change that warranted a decrease in Michael’s child support obligation because the child support was a negotiated amount, and a decrease would not be in the best interest of the children because their expenses have increased with their age. Furthermore, she incurred a larger portion of the extraordinary expenses, while Michael’s salary has stayed the same but his expenses have decreased. The parties’ case information statements showed that Michael’s annual income for 2013 was $ 194,370, while Irina’s was $ 181,000. During this time Michael paid $ 1414 in child support every month due to cost-of-living increases.
On November 1, 2013 the trial judge considered the motions and recalculated the child support according to the Guidelines. Based on the judge’s calculation, Michael was to now pay Irina
$ 228 per week in child support. Furthermore, all extraordinary expenses were to be split 50/50 going forward. Irina filed a motion for reconsideration and argued that the trial court was in error when it used the Child Support Guidelines to calculate Michael’s child support obligation instead of enforcing the property settlement agreement. She contended that both parent’s incomes were well above the guidelines, and so the imposition of the guidelines in the matter was inappropriate and deprived the children the benefit from the financial advantages that Michael enjoys.
Irina’s motion was denied by an order dated January, 10 2014. The court referenced Cummings v. Bahr, and wrote that Irina failed to meet the standards for reconsideration because she failed to provide any new information available to her on November 1, 2012. Irina filed a timely appeal. The Appellate Division noted that their ability to review the case was hindered by the trial courts failure to properly and clearly articulate its factual findings and conclusions of law, both of which are critical to a meaningful appellate review. This rule is enumerated in New Jersey Rule 1:7-4(a), which demands that the court find the facts and state its conclusions of law on every motion decided by a written order that is appealable. By law, a judge must fully and specifically articulate findings of fact and conclusions of law, and the absence of the same necessitates a reversal of judgment. Moreover, the record before the appellate panel did not even include the transcript of the November 1, 2012 proceeding. Without a transcript of the oral argument the panel found that they could not properly understand the judge’s findings and conclusions. The order itself provided no basis for the judge’s reasoning behind departing from the property settlement agreement. It also failed to reflect consideration of the criteria set forth in the governing law, N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23(a), for discretionary above-guideline child support awards. As a result, the Appellate Division reversed the November 1, 2012 order and remanded the motions to be heard again. They also vacated the January 2014 motion denying reconsideration. Finally, the Appellate Division order that upon remand, the trial court must consider the property settlement agreement that specifically states Irina and Michael’s agreement to deviate from the guidelines. Also, if the court does find a sufficient showing of changed circumstances to warrant a departure from the property settlement agreement, then it must articulate its reasons for doing so.
If you or a loved one is dealing with a divorce or family law related problem, please never hesitate contact my office to learn more about how we may help you.