In the recent New Jersey family law case, Ricca v. Ricca, Superior Court of New Jersey Appellate Division, Docket No. A-3195-20, the court reversed the trial court’s alimony decision so that the court could hold a hearing.
The Facts of the Case
After divorcing in 2000, Plaintiff (wife) and Defendant (husband) entered into a property settlement agreement (PSA) which required the defendant to pay the plaintiff permanent alimony. The agreement stated that the alimony obligation was to continue for the natural lives of the parties unless the plaintiff remarried or cohabitation with another or if the parties agreed to a modification. A subsequent PSA stated that unless a party demonstrated substantially changed circumstances, neither party could seek alimony or support contrary to the agreement.
The current issue arose when the defendant sought to terminate alimony retroactive to his retirement, and the plaintiff cross-motioned to, amongst other things, increase alimony and secure counsel fees. The trial judge reduced alimony and declined to award any counsel fees.
On appeal, the plaintiff argued the judge erred in modifying alimony because
the PSA is unambiguous and grants her alimony for life. On the cross-appeal, the defendant asserts the judge misread the PSA to include an anti-Lepis provision and should have terminated alimony.
The appellate court reversed and remanded the alimony determination for discovery and a plenary hearing. The court explained that discovery and a plenary hearing were necessary before the trial judge could decide the parties’ intention regarding post-retirement alimony. Further, the court reversed the counsel fee determination because the judge misapplied the law. The court explained that the trial judge was mistaken to adjudicate the counsel fees issue on bad faith alone.
Is a Hearing Required to Modify Alimony in New Jersey?
New Jersey case law, Murphy v. Murphy, 313 N.J. Super. 575, 580 (App. Div. 1998), explains that while a hearing is not required in every alimony dispute case, it is necessary in cases involving a dispute in material fact. When there is any ambiguity regarding the terms of a settlement agreement, a hearing may be necessary to determine the parties’ intent at the time the agreement was entered. Further, a hearing may be appropriate when the disputes involve the parties’ financial standing, earning ability, ability to pay, and needs.
When Can You Get Counsel Fees in an Alimony Case?
Rule 5:3 of the General Provisions for Family Actions governs when the court can award counsel fees. One of the nine factors the courts must consider when deciding to award fees includes bad faith. However, Rule 5:3 requires that a judge assess the reasonableness of a party’s position and balance those findings against other factors unrelated to good or bad faith.
New Jersey Alimony and Counsel Fees’ Disputes
Divorce can be an arduous process that may present ongoing issues as the party’s financial and health circumstances change. While an experienced attorney can anticipate some issues, disputes and disagreements are often unpredictable. The Freehold family law attorneys at Scully Family Law have an extensive history of securing favorable outcomes for those involved in an array of family law matters. In addition to representing New Jersey and New York clients in divorce proceedings, our attorneys handle cases involving alimony, child support, property division, restraining orders, and equitable distribution. Contact the New Jersey alimony lawyers at Scully Family Law by calling 743-462-1122 to schedule a free initial consultation.