Over the course of my career as a New Jersey divorce lawyer, the 2014 amendments to the alimony laws in our state were the most revolutionary I have ever seen. Specifically, changes were made to New Jersey alimony laws as it pertains to how a New Jersey Family Court shall evaluate cases involving cohabitation of the recipient of the alimony. For a number of reasons, I believe the law was modernized with respect to cohabitation. This attorney breaks down a recent case that illuminates many aspects of this complex area of New Jersey divorce law.
In J.S. v. J.M., the parties were married for twenty years. The parties divorced in 2010 by a final judgment of divorce. Incorporated in the parties’ final judgment of divorce was a property settlement agreement, which laid out the terms of the parties’ divorce, including alimony. The parties agreed in the property settlement agreement that the husband would pay the wife alimony each month until the husband reached normal retirement age. The agreement also stated that the husband’s alimony obligation would end if the wife cohabitated with an unrelated man for a period of thirty or more days.
The husband filed a motion with the Superior Court of New Jersey Family Part to terminate alimony in September 2015. The husband claimed that the wife was romantically involved with the husband’s brother, Nolan, for several years, and that they had moved in together. In support of his motion, the husband attached a lease agreement for an apartment that listed and was signed by both the wife and Nolan as residents from March 2014 to February 2015. The wife opposed the husband’s motion and filed a cross-motion with the court for attorney’s fees. The trial court ordered a plenary hearing, which is necessary when material facts are at issue and the judge needs to hear testimony to resolve the issue. At the plenary hearing, the wife, Nolan, the wife’s former boyfriend, Jack, and the wife’s mother, Millie, testified. The husband and the husband’s sister, Vickie, testified as well.
At the hearing, the wife admitted to the relationship with Nolan beginning in 2010, but she denied that she gave him any money toward rent or other household expenses. The wife stated that she was living at home with her mother, Millie, and only spent a few days at Nolan’s apartment when he moved in. The wife also stated that the relationship with Nolan ended in May 2014, and that she began dating Jack after. She also stated that she did not contribute toward Jack’s rent either. The wife’s relationship with Nolan began again in February 2015, but at that time, Vickie had moved into the apartment with Nolan and things were tense. Jack confirmed the wife’s account of the relationship.
Nolan testified at the hearing that he had a relationship with the wife, and he confirmed that he and the wife never lived together. Nolan stated that he only asked the wife to co-sign his lease because he had poor credit and would not have secured the lease on his own. Furthermore, he testified that the wife did not contribute to rent or any household expenses. The wife’s mother testified that she was aware of the relationship between the wife and Nolan, but that the wife was living with her and rarely stayed the night anywhere else. The mother also stated that she needed the wife’s alimony payments to help and support her. The husband testified at the hearing and stated that his wife had extra-marital affairs. The husband indicated that he performed surveillance on Nolan’s apartment and that the wife had stayed there on several occasions. Vickie testified that the wife stayed at Nolan’s family home one to two nights per week for years before Nolan moved to his apartment. She also stated that after Nolan moved to his apartment and when Vickie was temporarily living there, the wife would stay over the apartment one or two nights per week, and would buy groceries and clean.
The trial court judge found that the only credible witness for the wife was her ex-boyfriend, Jack. The judge found that Millie was told what to say and was not credible. The judge also found that the husband was a credible witness, but that his understanding of the parties’ property settlement agreement was wrong. Lastly, the judge found Vickie’s testimony to be malicious. The judge found that the wife and Nolan had a dating relationship, but that a relationship does not mean that the wife and Nolan cohabitated. The judge found that the wife and Nolan did not comingle funds and that, based on Vicki’s testimony, the wife only stayed at Nolan’s apartment one or two nights per week. The judge denied the husband’s motion to terminate alimony on April 1, 2016.
The husband then filed a motion for reconsideration and the wife opposed and filed a cross-motion for attorney’s fees. Before the motion was heard, the husband filed a motion under Rule 4:50-1 seeking relief. The husband used a letter that Nolan gave him, dated March 15, 2016, that explained Nolan’s testimony at the plenary hearing. In the letter, Nolan stated that the wife did spend some nights at the new apartment and that he hid that from the court because he knew it would cause his brother pain. The judge heard oral arguments on the husband’s motions and denied reconsideration and the husband’s R. 4:50-1 motion stating that Nolan’s letter did not provide any new evidence on the matter.
On appeal, the husband argued that the judge was wrong to deny his motion to terminate alimony. The husband also argued that the judge did not consider decisions in other court cases when determining reconsideration. The New Jersey Appellate Division stated that its review on appeal is limited to the July 18, 2016 order denying both motions. The Appellate Division stated that reconsideration is at the discretion of the court and should be used only when a decision was made based upon an incorrect basis or that the court clearly did not consider all the evidence. Furthermore, the Appellate Division stated that the gravity of the error must have been very great in order for reconsideration to be appropriate. The husband argued that the court failed to consider the wife’s ability to pay Millie’s expenses and whether the wife’s relationship with Nolan increased her standard of living. The Appellate Division stated that cohabitation was not at issue on appeal, only reconsideration of the trial judge’s denial of the husband’s motions.
Additionally, the husband argued that the trial judge should have utilized the 2014 amendments to the alimony statute when determining whether termination of alimony was appropriate. The Appellate Division stated that the amendments were in effect at the time of the plenary hearing; however, the amendments contain a provision stating that the amendments should not be utilized to modify alimony specifically bargained for. The court then noted that the parties negotiated and agreed to a property settlement agreement before the amendments were adopted. Therefore, the Appellate Division held that the trial judge correctly applied the law in regard to alimony. Lastly, the husband argued that his R. 4:50-1 motion should have been granted based on Nolan’s letter. The Appellate Division held that the letter did not provide any new evidence other than Nolan’s sympathies for his brother, and that the letter did not call into question the trial judge’s decision. Ultimately, the Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s decision to deny both of the husband’s motions.
Please contact my office if you are involved in a situation involving alimony and cohabitation in New Jersey.