After two parties sign a Marital Settlement Agreement (MSA) as part of a Judgment of Divorce (JOD), either party may seek to modify the agreement based on changed circumstances. For example, one spouse may request a modification of the agreed-upon alimony amount due to a loss of employment. In these situations, New Jersey courts may grant a modification to a support obligation if the moving party can show changed circumstances that would substantially impair their ability to support themselves. In a recent New Jersey Superior Court Decision, Sherer v. Sherer, Superior Court of New Jersey Appellate Division, Docket # A-1886-21, the court affirmed the district court’s decision denying a husband’s motion to modify his alimony obligations.
The Facts of the Case
As the Superior Court explained in its opinion, the parties entered into an MSA requiring Husband to pay $2,500 per month in permanent alimony. Husband was unemployed at the time. The MSA also stated that the parties would exchange financial information if Husband earned over $120,000 per year of Wife earned over $30,000. The parties further agreed that, should Wife later cohabitate, her cohabitation would not constitute a changed circumstance sufficient for Husband to seek a modification. Finally, the MSA stated that any future disputes would be conducted in New Jersey or the state of the party defending application of the MSA if both parties had moved. Husband moved to Georgia with his girlfriend shortly before the JOD, and Wife moved to Florida with her boyfriend shortly after. Parties later entered into a consent order providing that Husband would pay additional alimony to Wife to satisfy his existing alimony arrears.
Husband later filed a post-judgment motion in New Jersey to, among other things, terminate or reduce his alimony obligation. In his motion, Husband claimed he suffered significant financial setbacks since the divorce; he could not pay alimony due to child support obligations to another former partner; and Wife concealed her cohabitation prior to the JOD to fraudulently induce Husband to pay alimony. At the time of the motion, Husband was earning over $145,000 per year. Wife opposed the motion and cross-moved to enforce the JOD. The district court granted Wife’s motion and denied Husband’s motion.
The judge found that the MSA allowed Wife to receive alimony regardless of her cohabitation status. The judge also found no evidence that Wife fraudulently concealed her cohabitation, let alone cohabitated, before the JOD. Finally, because Husband was unemployed and already paying child support at the time of the MSA, he could not claim changed circumstances. This was particularly compelling to the judge because Husband’s financial situation had improved. The MSA had imputed a $120,000 income to Husband, which his annual income now exceeded.
On appeal, Husband argued—among other things—that the district judge abused her discretion in failing to find Husband showed a change in financial circumstances warranting a review of alimony, including as a result of Wife’s cohabitation. Husband further argued that the judge’s order should be voided because New Jersey lacked jurisdiction, meaning the power to hear the case.
The Appellate Court’s Decision
The appeals court rejected Husband’s arguments. The court emphasized that matrimonial agreements are entitled to considerable weight because both parties consent. The moving party seeking to modify such an agreement must demonstrate a permanent change in circumstances. Here, the appeals court adopted the district court’s reasoning, concluding that Husband failed to demonstrate changed circumstances based on his alleged financial setbacks of Wife’s cohabitation. Because Husband’s financial situation had improved since the agreement, the appeals court found no reason to conclude the district court abused its discretion in enforcing the JOD against the Husband.
Additionally, the appeals court rejected Husband’s new argument regarding lack of jurisdiction because the MSA designated New Jersey courts as the appropriate place to resolve the parties’ disputes. Courts tend to enforce agreements selecting a particular court to hear a dispute (often called “forum selection clauses”) unless they are fraudulent or unreasonable. Moreover, Husband filed his post-judgment motion in New Jersey district court, so he could not claim a lack of jurisdiction simply because he disagreed with the district court’s opinion. Therefore, the appeals court affirmed the district court’s ruling to enforce the MSA.
Resolving New Jersey MSA and Alimony Disputes
If a party’s financial circumstances change, they may not have the ability to pay the alimony required under an MSA. If you are seeking to enforce or re-open a marriage settlement agreement, contact Scully Family Law for immediate assistance. The dedicated New Jersey family law attorneys on our team will help document parties’ financial circumstances to present the strongest possible evidence to a family court. At Scully Family Law, we understand that re-opening a final agreement can cause significant stress. We will guide you through every step of the process to help secure a favorable outcome. Contact the New Jersey alimony lawyers on our team at 743-462-1122 to schedule a free initial consultation.