What is a plenary hearing and when is one required?

Posted on Thursday, February 26th, 2009
Theodore Sliwinski, Esq.

1. I have filed a motion to have reduce my alimony payments, and the court granted me a plenary hearing. What the “hxll” is a plenary hearing and is one expensive?

Plenary hearings are all the rage now in family court. It seems that nearly one half of the motions that I file now end up with a plenary hearing being ordered. Basically, the courts now grant hearings if there are disputed motions papers, and if there are disputed material facts at issue. The family courts are loathe to make important decisions by merely reviewing paperwork, they want to listen to the testimony of the parties. For instance, in a motion for emancipation if there is a dispute as to whether a grown up child is attending college, then the court may set the matter down for a plenary hearing. If an alimony reduction motion filed, then the court may set down a plenary hearing to assess the merits of the reasons cited to justify a decrease. There is an endless amount of reasons why a court could grant the parties a plenary hearing. The positives of having a plenary hearing is that it increases the chances that the judge will make a correct and informed decision. The judges are overworked and swamped. Many judges make mistakes all of the time. That is the reason why the appeal process was made. However, appeals are very expensive and time consuming. The less mistakes that the judges make then the better the family court system operates. The down side of a plenary hearing is that they are expensive and very time consuming. In my experience, whenever a plenary hearing is ordered it is routinely adjourned at least three to four times. Every time that your lawyer has to attend a plenary hearing he has to charge you for his prep time and to appear. If a plenary hearing is adjourned three to four times then your legal fees could sky rocket.

At the plenary hearing, both parties have the right to present witnesses, present evidence, cross-examine witnesses, and make additional oral argument. A plenary hearing can be as short as an hour, or as long as a few weeks. Many alimony reduction cases routinely last three to four court sessions. Moreover, there are reported case law wherein a plenary hearing for an alimony reduction case has lasted several weeks. Please keep in mind that if you are granted a hearing, then you don’t have a continuous trial. You have an hour of the hearing on one day. On the next scheduled date, you may have three hours of trial time. In many cases, you wind up waiting around the court house for hours waiting for your plenary hearing to start. The plenary hearing process is maddening, and it costs the clients big bucks. Therefore, it is always advisable to try to settle your case during the break times in the plenary hearings. Blowing your money on lawyers is no fun. Save your money for a better cause. Most lawyers have plenty of cases and no shortage of work. They would be more than happy to settle your case if they can. It is important to emphasize that you should not have unrealistic expectations whenever you are in family court. Keep an open mind, be willing to make a deal, and move on.

2. Does New Jersey case law require a plenary hearing for every alimony/child support reduction application?

The trend for the family courts is to grant a plenary hearing for most child support or alimony reduction applications. In my view this is ridiculous because there simply are not enough judges to conduct all of these plenary hearings. Thus, if you are granted a plenary hearing that are adjourned routinely 3 to 7 times before you get your day in court. All of these adjournments inevitably drive up the cost of the case. I know that Minnesota has already established a section of their family court system that just deals with child support and alimony reduction motions. If the economy in New Jersey does not perk up soon, then I predict that most counties will soon establish an alimony or support reduction court. This court will only have a docket that only addresses child support and alimony reduction motions. Nonetheless, there is still good case law that holds that not every child support or alimony reduction application merits having a full blown out and expensive plenary hearing. In the case of Weber v. Weber, 268 N.J. Super. 64 (App. Div. 1993), the court held that the family court is vested with discretion to determine whether the proofs presented on the motion papers are sufficient to decide the issues presented.

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