Keeping Your Divorce On Track While Stuck At Home

By Frank Morano, Esq.

So you’ve hired a lawyer and filed a complaint for divorce but now you are quarantined and you hear the Courts are closed or only hearing emergent matters.  Does it feel like you are never getting divorced?  Not necessarily!  Many county courts will still go forward with uncontested divorces either on the papers (no appearances, just need to send the documents) or with a brief hearing telephonically or virtually.

You can be doing valuable work to keep your divorce process moving forward.

What can you be doing during this time? Well, there are many things you could be preparing for while you wait for the Courts to catch up.

  1. Complete your Case Information Statement: That multipage document which asks for all your financial information is one of the most important documents in your divorce.  This is the perfect time to hunker down and look up balances, pay stubs, and W2s and fill in as much as you can.  Review past credit card statements and bank statements to come up with what your monthly spending has been for the many different categories found in that form.
  • Gather important documents: We know, a home quarantine does not mean you have extra time on your hands.  Kids, homeschooling, work from home, exercising, cooking, and making sure you stay sane takes up 25 hours a day! But if you find yourself with some time, it’s the perfect opportunity to gather certain documents that you will most likely need, and, if you get to the discovery phase, will most likely be sought in a Notice to Produce.  The last few years of tax returns and W2s, your last several paychecks (which you need for your CIS anyway,) checking account statements, savings account statements, 401K statements, mutual funds, and other financial documents are important. 
  • Answer the discovery questions if they were sent to you: In addition to a Notice to Produce that requests specific records, you may have received sets of interrogatories, which are questions for you to answer.  They may come under separate topics (financial and lifestyle interrogatories, custody and parenting time interrogatories) or they may come as one long list of questions.  Take the time to read the questions fully, make notes about the questions, write down any questions you have for your attorney, and then answer the questions to the best of your ability.
  • Review documents sent by your attorney: Remember to be checking your email as attorneys are still working.  You may be needed to review documents before they are filed.  As with the interrogatories, read each document carefully and write down questions for your attorney.
  • If children are involved, develop your idea for parenting time, custody, and holiday/vacation schedules: Take some time to think about what you would like for parenting time and custody and what practically works for your family’s life (under normal circumstances!).  Write out all the major holidays, birthdays, and other special days, and list which of those days you would like to have the children.  Then think about how to equitably divide those times between you and your coparent.  Make note of any particular days or times that are extra special for you and the kids that are not necessarily major holidays like Thanksgiving. (Super Bowl? Valentines Day? St. Patrick’s Day?) Fourth of July is one that many people forget, even though it often involves travel opporunties. Also, think about the children’s birthdays and how time might be shared on those days.
  • Talk to your attorney: As you work on questions and come up with concerns, set up times to speak to your attorney.  Ask your questions and discuss concerns.  Your attorney is most likely working remotely and many firms are set up with all the same resources and capabilities they have in a formal office. 

As you can see, there are many steps that can be taken to continue to make progress in the process of your divorce.  Your attorney can work with you and opposing counsel to try and settle the matter without the Court’s intervention.  Even mediation can move forward using virtual mediation methods.   This time of quarantine may help speed the process giving parties the opportunity to focus on their cases and work out challenges to come to an amicable agreement. 

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Making Choices For Our Kids

We didn’t agree on a lot of things when we were married. We had a lot of feelings clouding our judgement. There was a lot of stress distracting us from prioritizing. After our divorce was finalized and everything was written in ink and signed off on, it all got easier.

It wasn’t quite overnight, but over time we grew closer and more capable of healthy communication when it comes to our kids. We had been on the same page before we got married and now we are back on the same page. We just needed to get rid of some of the other aspects of our relationship to become the parents we were meant to be.

So while some minor details aren’t always agreed on, we seem to always find a good place to land when it comes to the big issues. Like our children’s wellbeing, mental health, and meeting their individual needs.

Our daughter comes with a whole host of needs. Not all of which made sense to us at first. And not all of which came with any sort of “how to” guide. Allowing our child to transition was the simplest and hardest thing to come to terms with. We both knew who she was and who she needed to be allowed to be. We both were terrified of messing this up. We consulted wit ha specialist. We met with other families, some in real life, some virtually. We took it slowly and followed her lead.

Most recently, we signed documents and mailed out a check. We finally gave our girl what she needed in order to be able to live her life. A child shouldn’t have to come with an explanation or a “heads up” before starting a new class. A child shouldn’t always have to enter a new arena by waiting on the outskirts while their parents explained to the adults in charge what to expect. And now, she won’t have to.

Split Days Are A Thing

I showed up to the play date with one kid.  My friend was shocked.  Where was my other kid? I guess the concept of having a split day isn’t something people are too familiar with.  Many parents take one kid out for a special activity.  Many kids go out with their friends or family without necessarily taking their sibling along.  But once you start breaking down their schedules into parenting time, people tend to be far more hungry for that time. 

Early on in the divorce process I worried about losing time with my kids.  I worried about missing out on huge memories and all of their little milestones.  I worried about all of it.  As the kids got older though, I noticed that there were a lot of things we were all missing out on.  A little one on one time started to become something to look forward to.   

Our kids are their own people.  They have their own hobbies, interests, all of it.  And they have an amazing ability to interrupt each other and a strong desire to steer conversations and play in their own direction.  It became apparent that they needed one on one time. 

The split day was born.  It was such a raging success from the very first one that we knew we had to work this into our parenting schedule.  It made it so much more clear too that this wasn’t about my days or about my exes days.  All of this is about the kids days.   

Birthday parties are much easier to navigate without an extra sibling.  Bringing a 4 year old on a 4 hour hike is surprisingly doable when it’s one 4 year old instead of 2.  A trip to the museum became a truly interactive learning event rather than a push-me pull-me down a spiral of exhaustion.  The kids missed each other and were happy to be reunited at the end of the day.  They were eager to share their experiences.  They were thrilled to have had one of us to themselves.  So yeah, split days are a thing.  And we like them. 

K.D.E. v. J.E.: A Lesson in How Vague Language in an MSA Can Cost You Money

On October 12, 2018, the Appellate Division handed down an unpublished decision in K.D.E. v. J.E., a post-judgment matrimonial matter in Monmouth County. 

The parties married in 1988, had two children, and divorced in June 2009.  The parties negotiated a Marital Settlement Agreement (MSA) which was incorporated into their Judgment of Divorce.  At the time of the divorce, both parties resided in the marital residence.  The MSA allowed for Plaintiff and the children to remain in the marital residence until it sold.  It also allowed Defendant to remain in the home until she found alternate housing approved by her GAL. 

Defendant moved out of the marital residence approximately one month after the parties signed the MSA.  Plaintiff and the children ended up living in the marital residence for six years thereafter.  Plaintiff later claimed that he tried to sell the home but that Defendant refused to cooperate; however, Plaintiff did not file a motion in those six years.  Finally, the parties agreed to list the home for sale in 2015 and the house sold on November 30, 2015.   

The parties were unable to agree on how the sale proceeds should be distributed, so Plaintiff filed a motion seeking certain credits, including a credit for the mortgage principal he had paid down in the six years following the divorce.  Defendant opposed Plaintiff’s motion and pointed out that Plaintiff received the benefit of the mortgage deduction on his taxes as well as the benefit of not having to spend more money to buy/rent a new residence.  The trial court did not hold a plenary hearing on the matter, but instead, issued a written decision based upon the conflicting certifications filed by the parties.  The trial court granted Plaintiff’s request and commented that the parties did not anticipate the lengthy delay in the sale of the home and that Defendant was the sole cause of the delay. The decision did not address Defendant’s arguments that Plaintiff reaped tax benefits and saved money by not moving.  Defendant appealed. 

The Appellate Division lamented about the fact that there was no language in the MSA stating that the Plaintiff was supposed to receive credit for reducing the mortgage while remaining in the home, and that the language was ambiguous at best.  The Appellate Division ultimately reversed the trial court’s decision and remanded the case for a plenary hearing to be held as to the issues concerning the proper interpretation of the MSA.  Further the Appellate Division commented that when courts are determining the meaning of matrimonial agreements, they must “discern and implement the common intention of the parties.” Pacifico v. Pacifico, 190 N.J. 258, 266 (2007) but not use extrinsic evidence to rewrite the MSA.  (citing Conway v. 287 Corporate Ctr. Assocs., 187 N.J. 259, 268-70 (2006)).  Ultimately, the Appellate Division reversed and remanded the case for the trial court to hold a plenary hearing to parse out the parties’ conflicting stories and their intentions with respect to their MSA.