Due to the nature of divorce and family law cases, experienced lawyers understand that many cases are decided on the testimony and the credibility of witnesses. As many of the trials and plenary hearings that the attorneys at our law firm have handled, it is well known that New Jersey Family Court judges are given broad discretion in evaluating witness credibility when rendering their divorce decrees. In turn, the New Jersey Appellate Division with afford deference to Family Part judges with respect to the credibility of witnesses that they observed during the divorce trial.
In J.K. v. M.T., a mother, M.T., appealed from two orders of the Superior Court of New Jersey, Family Part of Hudson County, dated February 20, 2013, and July 12, 2013. She challenged the decision to award her ex-husband, J.K., sole legal and physical custody of their three child, a provision in the judgment of divorce that restricted her from traveling outside of the United States of America with the children, and the limited duration alimony award that required J.K. to pay her $ 120,000 every year for six years. The New Jersey Appellate Division reviewed her contentions and found that she did not present any valid legal points, and that the trial court properly decided the issues of the case. The trial courts conclusions were based on witness testimony and credibility, which the New Jersey Appellate Division found were supported by credible evidence, and consistent with the law.
Both J.K. and M.T. worked as physicians, and had one son and two daughters’ together. According to the trial judge’s in-depth opinion, all of the children were traumatized by the long, drawn out and contentious divorce litigation, and their parent’s stormy marriage. M.T. had anger and psychological issues, and during the marriage she had a history of displaying her anger towards J.K in front of the children. She had even gone so far as to point a knife at J.K. and herself more than once. On November 2009 she pointed a knife at her chest in front of the children, and asked J.K. if he wanted her to stab herself in the heart. Needless to say the children were horrified by this incident.
In March 2010, M.T. took tranquilizers and overdosed. This incident would start the long and contentious custody dispute. J.K., and M.T.’s psychiatrist were worried that she might commit suicide. As a result, J.K. got emergency custody of the children from the court, and the assignment judge ordered that M.T. would only have supervised visitation. The case then went to a trial judge whose orders were later appealed in this case. The trial judge continued the supervised visitation, which M.T. took offense to. She expressed her distaste with the order by refusing to see her children all together. By October 2011, however, she was given unsupervised parenting time, due to a recommendation by a mental health professional.
A couple weeks later she accused J.K. of abusing one of the children. An investigation was launched by the Division of Youth and Family Services, and the claim was found to be untrue. Still, a month later M.T. filed charges that J.K. sexually abused one of the daughters. This resulted in an extended investigation conducted by both DYFS and the County Prosecutor. Again these allegations were found to unfounded.
The trial judge found that M.T. was not able to work, and cooperate with J.K. in raising the children, and determined that J.K. should keep sole legal and physical custody. The judge recognized expert testimony that stated M.T. had uncontrollable anger issues against J.K., which she expressed in front of the children. Because of the credible testimony, and all the factors in New Jersey Statute 9:2-4, the trial judge awarded M.T. parenting time from Thursday to Monday on alternating weeks, and extra visitation time during summer breaks. Still, because of her prior threats that she would take the children to the Netherland’s so J.K. would never see them again, he restricted her from traveling internationally with the children.
The New Jersey Appellate Division started its opinion by stating that they give broad discretion to Family Part judges in custody decisions because of their special expertise in family matters. The New Jersey Appellate Division will defer to the factual findings of a Family Part judge as long as those findings are supported by credible evidence. Similarly, appellate courts give special deference to a trial judge’s valuation of witness testimony and credibility as well. While, J.K. was found to a credible witness by the trial judge, M.T. was not. The New Jersey Appellate Division could not find any reason to change the trial judge’s credibility valuations, and as such found no reason to doubt the factual findings based on those credibility valuations.
Sole custody is comprised of legal custody and physical custody. A parent with legal custody has the sole right to make decisions about long term plans, education, religious upbringing, discipline, medical care, and any other decision that may affect the child’s welfare. A parent with physical custody lives with the child and has the right to make decisions regarding the child’s everyday needs. In sole custody only one parent has both legal and physical custody, and the child only has one primary home.
The New Jersey Appellate Division found M.T.’s custody arguments to be without merit. The trial judge’s custody decisions were based on thoroughly explained credibility evaluations, and as such the appellate panel found no reason to change them. The appellate panel further found that there was no basis for M.T.’s contention that the trial judge was biased against her. Rather, the New Jersey Appellate Division found that the trial judge conducted the trial in a just and fair manner, and all the decisions were based on evidence. The New Jersey Appellate Division stated that custody determinations are not about one parent winning and the other parent losing. Instead they are focused on fashioning parenting arrangements that promote the child’s best interest.
In regards to the alimony challenge, once again the appellate found that M.T.’s arguments lacked merit. During the course of the three-year divorce litigation, she was already receiving $ 6,000 every month in pendente lite alimony. Pendente lite alimony is paid while the divorce is still going on, and its purpose is to make sure that both parties remain in the same or similar financial situation they were in before the divorce proceeding began, and to preserve the status quo throughout the divorce litigation.
M.T. wanted a $ 25,000 a month permanent alimony award. Conversely, J.K. argued that $ 6,000 a month for the next two years was more than reasonable. Taking the all the factors into consideration, the trial judge awarded M.T. an award of $ 10,000 a month limited duration alimony for six years. Limited duration alimony is an alimony obligation that the supporting spouse is only required to pay for a set amount of years. Adding the three years that she already received alimony, she would end up receiving alimony for nine years, the same length of time the marriage lasted. The New Jersey Appellate Division found that the trial court did not abuse its discretion or error in calculating this alimony award.
Limited alimony was appropriate in this case because the marriage only lasted for a relatively short time. Furthermore, the trial judge did not believe M.T.’s reasons for her refusal to find full-time work. The judge determined that as a physician she could earn anywhere between $ 200,00 and $ 400,000 a year. The judge also found that she exaggerated her expenses on her case information statement. She claimed very large expenses to support the children, but in reality, J.K. had been paying all of the expenses to support the children for many years. The New Jersey Appellate Division held that the trial court’s findings were supported by credible evidence and found no abuse of discretion. Thus, the appellate panel affirmed the orders of the Family Part.
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