Because a lawyer who focuses on divorce cases knows that the language contained in your matrimonial settlement agreement must be crystal clear. In turn, any ambiguities only invite a party an opportunity to “relitigate” a case that has already been settled as their lawyer files a post-judgment divorce motion for “clarification” as to what you agreed upon in the first place. The matrimonial settlement agreements drafted by the divorce attorneys at our law firm are diligent in the details ensuring that every detail is addressed within the divorce agreement. Examples include real estate, enumeration of assets and liabilities to each spouse as well as alimony terms. When children are involved, while a savvy lawyer would never micro-manage the co-parenting of children, as many details as possible should be included in issues ranging from extra-curricular activities to the allocation of college related expenses.
In Busch v. Busch, the parties were married in 2004. The parties divorced in June 2016 after separating in June 2014. The parties divorced pursuant to a Final Judgment of Divorce, which incorporated a Matrimonial Settlement Agreement. A matrimonial settlement agreement is negotiated and agreed to by the parties, and spells out the terms of the divorce, including property division, alimony, child support and custody, among other things. The parties’ matrimonial settlement agreement stated that the wife would not receive any interest in the marital home but leave the marriage free of debt. However, the matrimonial settlement agreement did not list the specific debt. The matrimonial settlement agreement also contained some ambiguity due to the handwritten edits to the document.
During the divorce hearing, the husband admitted that the wife agreed to take less in alimony if the husband agreed to take on all the marital debt. The husband also acknowledged that marital debt included credit card debt as well as debts related to the home. The only debt the wife was assuming was debt from a car she owned and debt from a credit card that she opened while the parties were separated. Lastly, the husband acknowledged that he was to assume all marital debt regardless if the amount was more or less than what the parties believed it to be.
After the divorce was finalized, the wife sent the husband credit card statements from two Discover Card accounts. The first account had a balance of $9,987.55 and the second account had a balance of $8,948.16. The statements from both accounts were from 2013 and 2014, respectively. Despite receiving the statements, the husband ignored the wife’s requests to pay the account balances; therefore, the wife filed a motion with the Superior Court of New Jersey Family Part to force the husband to pay the credit card balances. In support of her motion, the wife stated that she provided all relevant information in relation to the Discover accounts and that the husband took responsibility for the Discover accounts back in 2014. The husband claimed that the Discover accounts were solely in the wife’s name and only used by the wife. The husband also argued that the Discover accounts were not included in the parties’ matrimonial settlement agreement as marital debt. Furthermore, the husband stated that his responsibility of credit card debt was limited by a handwritten note on the matrimonial settlement agreement to $12,500.
The trial court was unable to determine if the Discover accounts were marital debt. In response, the trial court ordered that the husband reimburse the wife in the amount of $742 for the Discover accounts. The court also ordered that the husband pay the full balance of the Discover accounts. The court stated that if there was proof that the husband was given the account statements before the parties signed the matrimonial settlement agreement or that the debt accrued while the parties were separated, then the husband would be responsible for the Discover account debt. However, if there is no proof, then the husband is not responsible. The court stated that the wife was required to show proof within fourteen days that the husband was given the account information. If the wife provides the information, the husband then has seven days to contest the documentation and then the court would decide the issue.
Almost three months after the court order, the wife filed a motion for reconsideration. The wife showed the court the husband’s Case Information Statement from 2014, which stated the $9,867 Discover Card debt under the husband’s liabilities. The husband filed a cross-motion with the court to deny the wife’s motion to reconsider. The husband claimed that the wife used the Discover card for her business and that the parties’ matrimonial settlement agreement stated that the parties would be responsible for individual credit card debt in their own names. The wife, again, stated that the matrimonial settlement agreement indicated that the wife would leave the marriage debt free, which was the only reason she agreed to a reduction in alimony. In its order, the trial court stated that the wife’s request for reimbursement of the payments made to the Discover accounts was denied. Also, the court granted the wife’s request for the husband to pay the remaining balance of the two Discover accounts. However, the wife would be responsible for the payment and the husband would be responsible for reimbursing the wife.
On appeal, the wife argued that the trial court wrongly applied the terms of the parties’ matrimonial settlement agreement. The husband argued that the terms of the agreement are confusing and unclear. The New Jersey Appellate Division agreed with the trial court’s decision and affirmed. The Appellate Division stated that the trial court did not incorrectly interpret or apply the terms of the matrimonial settlement agreement, but that the agreement should have included an itemized list of the parties’ debt. The Appellate Division further stated that the wife was provided with an opportunity to prove that the Discover debt was marital debt. The court stated that the wife did so by using the husband’s Case Information Statement, and that the husband failed to contradict that evidence. However, the wife did not provide any documentation to support that the charges to the account were personal and not for the wife’s business. The Appellate Division held that without proof, it could not conclude that the trial court decided wrongly. Ultimately, the Appellate Division affirmed the decision of the trial court.