New Jersey Husband’s Social Security Disability Payments Not Enough to Show Alimony Modification is Warranted

file0001153014994 morguefile graceyIn New Jersey, an individual who seeks to modify his or her alimony obligation based on changed circumstances must establish that such changes are permanent. In an Appellate Division case, a couple divorced in 2007. At the time, the terms of the couple’s property settlement agreement (“PSA”) were incorporated into their dual judgment of divorce. As part of the PSA, the husband agreed to pay his former wife $2,500 per month in permanent alimony.

In January 2013, the man stopped working for his towing business due to health reasons. Despite this, he maintained a 51 percent share in the company.  A few months later, the former husband sought to reduce or terminate his alimony obligation. According to the man, his changed circumstances merited such a change.

At a plenary hearing (which is a mini trial, in effect, on limited issues), the man and his former wife presented financial and other evidence related to his request. The former husband testified that he suffered a back injury and received $2,386 in monthly Social Security disability benefits as a result. Next, the man stated that he gifted a 25 percent ownership interest in his company to his son in 2012. The former husband also testified that the company’s gross sales exceeded $1 million during each of the previous three years. Additionally, the man admitted that he provided his children with gifts totaling at least $100,000 in the preceding two years.

In February 2014, a family court judge ruled that the man failed to provide sufficient evidence to demonstrate his disability was permanent. After noting the man received income from four sources, the judge analyzed the former husband’s 2012 income tax return. According to the judge, this was appropriate because the man’s 2013 income from the towing business was not yet available. The judge stated the man’s income was significantly higher in 2012 than it was when the parties agreed to the permanent alimony payments. As a result, the judge held that the man did not experience a change in circumstances related to his income and denied his motion.

Thereafter, the former husband filed an appeal with the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division. In his appeal, the former husband argued the judge committed error when he used the man’s 2012 tax return in order to determine his income. The former husband also claimed the judge erred when he held that the man failed to prove he was permanently disabled.

First, the Appellate Division stated it would defer to the family court’s findings of fact as long as they were supported by credible evidence.  This is the standard of review by the Appellate Division in New Jersey.  They do not hold a new trial.  The Appellate Division is NOT a court of original jurisdiction.  Rather, their role is to review the trial court’s decisions, to determine if the trial court made a mistake in the application of the  law  to the particular facts in the case, or if the judge abused his or her discretion, in those areas where the judge is given that discretion.  Next, the court said the burden of demonstrating that permanent changed circumstances occurred is on the party seeking modification of an alimony or other support award. The court stated such circumstances may include a disability, illness, or other infirmity that arose after the original judgment was rendered. After that, the Appellate Division turned to the facts of the case.

According to the court, the family court judge did not commit error when he examined the man’s 2012 tax return in order to analyze whether changed circumstances occurred because the former husband’s 2013 business income was not yet available. The court also said the judge properly considered the man’s additional income since the parties’ PSA was created. Because of this, the Appellate Division affirmed the judge’s holding that the man failed to demonstrate he experienced changed financial circumstances sufficient to merit an alimony modification.

Next, the Appellate Division affirmed the judge’s holding that the former husband did not offer sufficient evidence to demonstrate he was permanently disabled even though he received Social Security disability benefits. The court said the only medical evidence offered stated the man could not return to work “until further notice.” According to the court, it was reasonable for the judge to conclude that the former husband’s disability was temporary based on this statement.

Finally, the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division affirmed the lower court’s order refusing to modify or terminate the former husband’s alimony obligation.  If you are the payor of alimony and believe you may be entitled to a reduction or termination of your alimony obligation to your former spouse, OR, if you are the recipient of alimony and are faced with an application from your spouse which seeks to reduce or terminate your alimony, it is strongly recommended that you retain qualified, zealous legal representation to protect your rights.

If you need to seek or defend a motion or application to modify the terms of your divorce settlement agreement (PSA or MSA), you need a knowledgeable New Jersey family law lawyer on your side. The skilled attorneys at Goldstein Law Group have the experience and ability needed to help you achieve a workable result. To request a confidential consultation with a veteran alimony lawyer, please call Goldstein Law Group today at 732-967-6777 or contact us online.

More Blog Posts:

Establishing a ‘Change of Circumstances’ in New Jersey for Modifying Custody in a Multi-National Situation, February 21, 2015, New Jersey Divorce Lawyers Blog

Negotiated Property Settlement Agreements (a “PSA” or “MSA”) Can be Tough to Change in New Jersey, February 19, 2015, New Jersey Divorce Lawyers Blog