When it comes to the division of property in a divorce, New Jersey is an “equitable distribution” state. Generally speaking, this means that property is divided based on each party’s contributions to the marriage. In Thieme v. Aucoin-Thieme, the wife, Bernice, appealed an August 4, 2014 divorce Court Order that awarded her limited equitable distribution from her ex-husband, Michael’s, deferred compensation, and denied her request for attorney’s fees. The New Jersey Appellate Division disagreed with Bernice and affirmed the Family Part Order. The facts of the case were as follows:
Michael graduated from college in 1993 and found a job in the technology field. He was not happy with his job for a long period of time, and accepted a lower-paying job with International Biometrics Group in November 1999. The company was a start-up biotechnology consulting firm, and he was the first employee hired. Michael spent a great amount of time and effort on the development of International Biometrics Group and his career. He often worked as many as 90 to 100 hours per week, and traveled 30 to 40 percent of that time. Michael spoke with his employers about his position in May 2002. As a result of this meeting, Michael and his employers reached a “Statement of Understanding”. The statement provided that International Biometrics Group recognized Michael’s lower pay and significant contribution to the company. It also stated that he would be justly compensated if International Biometrics Group was ever sold. However, the statement failed to say exactly how much he would be compensated, or what would happen if the company was never sold.
Michael met Bernice in 2000. In 2002, Bernice became pregnant and the couple moved in together. Michael and Bernice decided to wait to get married until after their child was born. In January 2003, Bernice gave birth to a daughter. Unfortunately, the couple had an increasingly turbulent relationship for many years. The evidentiary record documented numerous instances and examples of angry confrontations that included physical and verbal abuse. Many of these confrontations focused on Bernice’s unhappiness about the amount of time Michael spent at work, as well as Bernice’s intrusions into Michael’s work life. The couple eventually married on August 19, 2010, but the relationship continued to sour.
On November 29, 2011, Michael filed a complaint for divorce after only fourteen months of marriage. Seven months later, on June 20, 2012, the divorce was finalized and the parties entered in a comprehensive property settlement agreement. The agreement addressed alimony, child support, custody, and equitable distribution of property. Immediately after the divorce, Bernice moved to Mississippi with the parties’ daughter. Almost three months after the final judgment of divorce was entered, International Biometrics Group was bought out, and Michael received a one-time closing bonus of $2.25 million, pursuant to the Statement of Understanding he had agreed to years earlier.
On October 5, 2012, Michael deposited $ 200,000.00 of the bonus into a bank account that he shared with Bernice. Allegedly, Michael was unaware that Bernice still had access to that account. Bernice then withdrew a total of $ 200,029.60 from that bank account. Michael initially filed suit in Mississippi for the return of the money, and the case was ultimately transferred to New Jersey. The Family Part held a bench trial in June and July 2014. The Family Part judge issued an oral opinion on July 3, 2014. The judge determined Bernice should only receive a portion of Michael’s bonus because the parties’ marriage only lasted fourteen months.
The trial court considered the 13 years that Michael worked at International Biometrics Group and the $ 2.25 million bonus on a monthly basis. The court divided the total bonus by the number of months Michael worked at International Biometrics Group and arrived at a figure of $14,423.00 per month of work. The court then multiplied the monthly amount by the fourteen months the parties were married, in order to calculate the proper figure for consideration of equitable distribution. The court determined the after-tax amount of the equitable share of the bonus was approximately $101,960.00. The court made a point of noting that the bonus was not secured by mutual effort. More importantly, the court found that rather than adding to her ex-husband’s ability to earn, Bernice actually jeopardized it through her behavior.
On August 4, 2014, the court entered an Order awarding Bernice $30,288.00 from Michael’s deferred compensation, and Ordered her to return $169,712.00 to Michael with interest, if any had accrued on the bank account, within fifteen days. Both Michael and Bernice were Ordered to pay their own attorney’s fees. Bernice appealed.
Bernice argued that the trial court did not properly apply New Jersey case law by deciding that the time period before the marriage did not constitute a marital partnership, and that the court wrongly determined that she was only entitled to $30,288.00 of the $ 2.25 million deferred compensation. She relied upon the case law of Weiss v. Weiss, and Berrie v. Berrie, and argued that when property is acquired in contemplation of marriage and the parties have adequately expressed an intention to create a marital partnership before the marriage ceremony, the property should be subject to equitable distribution. Bernice also argued that the trial court improperly calculated the value of the bonus, and that the court did not make appropriate findings under New Jersey Statute 2A:34-23.1.
The Appellate Division started its opinion by noting that the review of a trial court’s findings are limited, as they are binding on appeal as long as they are supported by adequate, substantial, credible evidence. The Appellate Court further noted that Family courts have special jurisdiction and expertise in family matters, and therefore, deference is given to family court fact finding. The 2000 case of LaSala v. LaSala held that the trial court has discretion in dividing marital assets through equitable distribution. An appellate court will affirm a ruling of equitable distribution so long as the trial court could have reasonably reached its decision from the evidence presented at trial, and the award is not predicated on a mistake of fact. However, a trial court’s interpretation of law is not given any special deference.
Equitable distribution is based on the idea that marriage is a partnership—a joint enterprise between the parties. To determine equitable distribution of marital assets, Family Part judges conduct a three part analysis. First, the court must decide what specific property is eligible for equitable distribution. Then, the court must determine the value of the property to be distributed. Finally, the court must decide how to equitably divide the assets. The equitable distribution of property must be based on the factors set forth in New Jersey Statute 2A:34-23.1.
In Thieme, the record indicated that the trial judge’s decision was based on an analysis of all relevant evidence. The New Jersey Appellate Division found that all of the parties’ assets were equitably distributed. After weighing all of the evidence, the trial judge decided to allocate only a portion of the bonus. This evidence included alimony and child support payments, the property settlement agreement’s equal division of shared assets, Michael’s obligation to provide health and life insurance for Bernice, and a trailer home in Mississippi for Bernice’s mother. The trial judge further noted that Bernice should not receive an equal portion of the bonus, because of her intentional attempts to undercut Michael’s job. Generally, the equitable distribution of property is divided based on each party’s contributions to the marriage. In this case, the court determined that Bernice did not substantially contribute to Michael earning his bonus. Equitable distribution asks the question “What, equitably, did the spouse bring to the asset?” Here, the Appellate Division agreed with the trial judge that Bernice brought very little. After weighing the credibility of the witnesses, the Appellate Division found there was adequate evidence to conclude that Bernice did not contribute toward the bonus in contemplation of her marriage to Michael. Thus, the Family Part Order was affirmed.
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