1. I have just finished my divorce trial, and the court issued a judgment of divorce that gave my wife $500 per week in alimony. I am really crushed and I have to appeal because I don’ t want to have to live in a shack. What is the legal standard to appeal an alimony award?
The major grounds to appeal an alimony award is if the family court does not make any specific findings of fact when awarding alimony. A family court is required to make specific findings of fact and it must also consider all of the factors enumerated in the alimony statute. N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23(b). The family court is required to make findings of fact concerning marital lifestyle when it makes an alimony award. The family court judges are swamped. In many alimony decisions the judge may be rushed and he may overlook some of the alimony factors and omit to make all of the necessary findings of fact. In some cases, the judge may simply award alimony and only skimp through the alimony factors, and forget about making a detailed lifestyle analysis. If the judge makes any of these type of mistakes then it very well could be a reversible error.
2. What is the scope of appellate review of a family court case?
Generally, in a matrimonial case, the findings of the family court are not changed unless they are so wholly insupportable and if they are no supported by adequate, substantial and credible evidence. The family court is legally required to make specific findings of fact and conclusions of law on every family court trial, and on every motion decision. See, Monte v. Monte, 212 N.J. Super. 557 (App. Div. 1986).
3. What is the seminal case to refer to in any alimony appeal?
The “King Kong” case in any alimony appeal case is Crews v. Crews, 164 N.J. 11 (2000). Here, the Supreme Court reversed the lower court denial of a former wife’s post-judgment application to modify alimony based on a change of circumstances. Here, the Supreme Court held that there was an inadequate record made at the time of the entry of the judgment of divorce concerning marital lifestyle. Moreover, the court also held that the original alimony award was no longer fair because of Mr. Crew’s increased financial circumstances.
In summary, the Supreme Court reversed the denial of the wife’s post-judgment motion for an increase in alimony. The reason for the reversal was because there was not enough information for the court to analyze the alimony reduction application. The court wanted to compare the wife’s standard living at the time of the divorce as compared to the time of the motion for an increase in alimony. In analysis, the less detailed that the findings are to justify an alimony award are, then the better chance you have obtaining relief on appeal. The Appellate Division does not prefer to disturb or change the findings of a family court judge. However, the high court will do so if the family court judge does not issue careful findings of fact and law, and if the judge does not identify and discus the martial standard of living.
4. What type of specific findings must the family court make when it determines an alimony award?
It must be emphasized that the family court is required to make specific findings of fact. Illustrative is the case of Gordon v. Rozenwald, 380 N.J. Super. 55 (App. Div. 2005). Here, the Appellate Division reversed and remanded for more specific findings of fact. In this case, the family court judge described the parties marital lifestyle in very general and vague terms. The court just used the terms “affluent and prosperous,” “finest neighborhood”; “very well off”, “largely high class”; “wanton abandon as to spending”; and “of the highest order.” The Appellate Division further held that these expressions were very subjective and inadequate.
5. What is the legal standard to appeal a modification of an alimony award?
To vacate a family court’s findings to modify alimony, the Appellate Division must conclude that the family court clearly abused its discretion or failed to properly consider the prevailing and controlling legal principles. Moreover, it must be settled that the family court’s findings were mistake or that a determination could not be reasonably have been reached on sufficient credible evidence, that was present in the record after a consideration of the proofs as a whole. Rolnick v. Rolnick, 262 N.J. Super. 343 (App. Div. 1993).