Understand the Discretion Trial Courts Have for Final Determinations and Adjournment Requests
Docket No. A-1700-19
Decided May 3, 2021
Submitted by New Jersey Family Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark.
In a recent unpublished decision the Appellate Division reviewed a trial court’s decision to allow plaintiff’s attorney to be relieved at the day of trial in addition to alimony award of $39,160 per year and dividing of real estate, even though parties were separated for six years.
In Thomas, the parties were married in 2009. Their only child, born in 1999, was emancipated at the time of the divorce proceedings. When the parties separated in 2013, plaintiff moved to Pennsylvania where he purchased a home. Plaintiff filed a complaint for divorce in May 2018. Thereafter, the court granted defendant’s motion for pendente lite support in September 2018 and modified it in December 2018.
The parties were unsuccessful in settling their issues and they appeared for trial with counsel on July 22, 2019. As the proceedings began, the Family Part judge noted that plaintiff’s counsel had filed a motion to be relieved as counsel and that plaintiff “[did] not want [his attorney] to continue to represent him . . . .” The judge asked plaintiff if this information was correct and he responded affirmatively. The Judge asked if plaintiff wanted more time to seek an attorney, which he declined.
The trial proceeded. The judge assessed alimony factors after both parties testified. Despite nine years of marriage with six years of separation, the Judge determined an alimony award of $39,160 per year for four years was appropriate given that plaintiff earned approximately $225,000 per year and defendant only earned $34,000.
In addition, the Judge provided defendant with 20% equity in the home in Pennsylvania. The Judge found that plaintiff purchased the home with his money and made all repairs. Defendant did little to nothing with regard to the home, so 50% equity was no appropriate.
Lastly, the judge denied defendant’s request for attorney fees, finding that despite the disparity in income, neither party acted in bad faith and each party’s positions were reasonable. Plus, defendant was awarded a substantial alimony award and a counsel fee award was not appropriate.
The parties filed cross appeals. The Appellate Division affirmed, finding that the family Judge did not abuse their discretion. The judge’s decision was well grounded in appropriate legal principles and was substantially supported by the record.
This case is important to understand the discretion Trial Courts have for final determinations and adjournment requests. Unless you challenge a trial court’s application of the law, a family judge can make factual determinations, credibility determinations, and decisions regarding custody, child support, and even attorney’s fees so long as they analyze the appropriate legal tests with the facts provided. If a party wants to challenge a trial court’s decision on this basis, the challenger must demonstrate that the judge abused his or her discretion – a standard that is very difficult to overcome. Also, the Court has much deference in granting or denying adjournment requests and it is very hard to overturn those decisions. Therefore, it is important to hire an experienced family attorney early at the trial level to ensure your rights and interests are protected.
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