Articles Posted in Family Law

The recent case out of New Jersey between Michael J. Thieme and Bernice Aucoin-Thieme explores the rules of equitable distribution and principles of equity in a love affair turned marriage, turned sour. The two parties met, briefly dated, and shortly after, Bernice discovered she was pregnant. Bernice had been working at a part-time retail job while Michael worked a high-power job for a bio metrics company, often working upwards of 90 hours a week with extensive travel. Michael’s relationship with the founders of the company was close, and they appreciated the work he had put into the success of the company. Therefore, they created a Statement of Understanding, essentially confirming that Michael would get a good share of the company should it ever be sold, in appreciation for all of his hard work and contributions to the company. In light of Michael’s demanding schedule and his significant compensation, the couple decided that, upon the birth of their child, Michael would continue to work but Bernice would stay home, raise the child and care for their shared residence. They talked frequently of marriage, but decided to use their time and money for other things that took priority. In 2003, their child was born.

Over a period of 8 years, the parties lived together, with Michael working long hours, Bernice conducting minor repairs on the property, taking care of their rental portfolio, and raising their child full-time. The relationship was fraught with disagreements and arguments, but eventually, in 2010, the parties finally married. Their honeymoon period was short-lived, and the relationship deterioriated quickly, with angry words and some nasty emails exchanged. In one email, Michael acknowledged the sacrifice that Bernice had made in order for him to pursue his career, and wrote that she should be fairly compensated and taken care of for such an act. Eighteen months after they said ‘I Do,’ Michael filed for divorce. The parties reached a settlement agreement, and it did not include any potential bonus from the company (IBG), particularly because Michael stated that there was no guarantee, and certainly no amount of money that was specifically discussed. While Bernice was aware of this statement of understanding, she was under the impression that Michael would allow her to share in any bonus he might receive, given his words and behaviors over the entire course of their relationship.

As luck would have it, just three month’s after the final judgment of divorce between the parties, IBG was sold and Thieme received a whopping $2.25 million as a Closing Bonus from the company. Not surprisingly, Bernice filed suit for her share of said bonus. In both the trial and appellate courts, the equitable distribution statute was examined fully. The court held that the equitable distribution statute concerned only the time of marriage, with no recognition of any partnership prior to ‘I Do.’ Therefore, the concept of palimony in New Jersey in this case would not apply. Palimony would be any payment to a person who cohabited with another as consideration for various sacrifices or agreements between the parties during their relationship.  But, because the parties did get married, palimony in New Jersey was unavailable to  Bernice. Therefore, she was ultimately being awarded around $30,000.00 of the bonus – or less than 2 percent. But, at the Supreme Court, the inquiry did not end there. Bernice argued that, under principles of equity, their long period of cohabitation should entitle her to a better share of the bonus in exchange for the sacrifice she had made to Michael to raise their child, maintain their home, and allow him to pursue his career. While the Supreme Court agreed that the equitable distribution statute was correctly interpreted and that it does not govern property between parties who have cohabited but never married, the court agreed that principles of equity demanded an examination into Bernice’s argument of unjust enrichment. Under this theory, Bernice would need to show that Michael received a benefit, and it would be unjust for him to retain the benefit without some compensation to her. If this is shown, then the court can impose a constructive trust on property to ensure compensation to the plaintiff. The court relied heavily on the case  Carr v. Carr, 120 N.J. 336 (1990) in delivering its rationale. There, the wife claimed that she should receive an equitable distribution of assets because the husband ended up dying during their lengthy divorce proceedings, and a judgment was never actually entered. The court agreed, imposing a constructive trust because the estate should not contain the share which would benefit Mrs. Carr because it would be unjust enrichment. Continue reading

What happens when a party to a divorce proceeding, before, during or after divorce, disposes of personal property belonging to the other party?  The party disposing of the personal property will be penalized in some fashion.  This question came to the forefront in the Superior Court, Ocean County before the Hon. L.R. Jones, a question that comes up frequently in NJ Family Law.

In this case, C.S. v. B.S., the parties made an agreement, later ordered by the court, to share the photos and videos taken during the 25 year marriage, all of which were in the possession of the wife. The wife provided the husband with only a few photos of his boyhood, one of which was ripped into pieces. Before bringing a court action, the husband attempted to get the wife to comply with the Order to share marital photos, and she responded by saying that she had gotten rid of all photos  because she did not want to be reminded of him. The photos and videos were kept in a big footlocker and various boxes at the former marital home, so they were nowhere the wife would have been regularly seeing them.

These photos and videos disposed of by the wife included their child’s birth, weddings, graduations, family celebrations and various family parties and gatherings, of great sentimental value. The husband brought this action seeking a remedy for the wife’s failure to comply with the court’s order to share the marital photos and videos and her, in fact, having disposed of it all. Continue reading

Family law cases are complex legal matters that often involve mountains of paperwork. Just as one party to a case will have reams of papers on his or her case, family law judges are often inundated with paperwork of their own. Motion papers make up a significant portion of the paperwork on a judge’s desk, and having enough information on paper to make a determination of a particular motion can be challenging for a judge. For that reason, plenary hearings are often ordered in family law cases. A plenary hearing occurs when a judge needs more information to rule on a matter than he or she has in the paperwork for the case.

WHY HOLD A PLENARY HEARING IN A FAMILY LAW CASE?

Why would a judge order a plenary hearing? New Jersey case law has held that the family part has the discretion to determine whether the motion papers are sufficient enough to rule on a motion, or if more information in the form of testimony is required. Because of this, New Jersey courts are reluctant to rule on motion cases based solely on written statements in motion documents when there is an opportunity to hear testimony in addition to the written statements.

WHEN IS A PLENARY HEARING REQUIRED?

A plenary hearing is required when the material facts of a case are in dispute by the parties, and the judge feels that hearing testimony of the parties would allow the court to resolve the factual issues. As you may imagine, two former spouses may offer different version of events or facts relating to their case. Hearing the testimony of the parties may often allow a judge to better determine where the truth of the matter at hand lies. A recent New Jersey family law case dealt with disputed facts in a divorce and support case. Continue reading

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Peter Van Aulen is certified by the New Jersey Supreme Court as a Matrimonial Attorney.

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