For Richer And For (Perhaps Very Shortly) Poorer: Wife Must Testify About Husband’s Allegedly Hidden Assets

by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher)

For husbands, the lesson from a recent Appellate Division opinion is that you cannot assert the marital privilege in an attempt to keep their wives from being deposed by a judgment creditor about assets that you might be trying to conceal from that judgment creditor. In U.S. Electrical Services, Inc. v. Electrical Solutions Group, Inc., plaintiff obtained a judgment for approximately $165,000 against defendants (a corporation and an individual who was alleged to be the sole shareholder of the corporation). In post-judgment proceedings, plaintiff applied for, and obtained, an order of discovery permitting the deposition of the individual defendant's wife based upon plaintiff's assertion that she had knowledge of certain assets that the individual defendant had failed to disclose.

The individual defendant moved to vacate the order, arguing that any testimony from his wife would be subject to the marital privilege — codified at N.J.SA 2A:84A-22 — and that he did not consent to the disclosure of the information. The trial court denied the motion, holding that the individual defendant's wife could be deposed about her "first-hand knowledge and observations of facts and occurrences." The individual defendant appealed.

The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court's order. It started with the general proposition that privileges must be narrowly construed. With this in mind, it turned to the specific elements of the marital privilege: (1) a communication; (2) made in confidence; (3) between spouses. The Appellate Division further noted that the purpose of the privilege is to "encourage[] free and uninhibited communication between spouses, and, consequently, [to] protect[] the sanctity and tranquility of marriage." But, because the "only effect" of the privilege is to "suppress[] [] relevant evidence," it must be "confined as narrowly as is consistent with the reasonable protection of marital communications."

In U.S. Electrical Services, the individual defendant argued that any "personal and business financial records" that he "brought into the martial home where [his wife] may have seen them [were] necessarily [ ] confidential communication[s] between spouses." The Appellate Division disagreed for a number of reasons.

First, it held that documents that were stored in the marital home and were observed by a spouse do not a "confidential communication" make. The privilege protects communications, not conduct or occurrences. Thus, a wife's observations of what her husband did, including bringing documents into the marital home, are not covered by the privilege. The court did hold, however, that communications about the documents could potentially be protected under the marital privilege "provided the right proofs" (which were not present in the instant case).

Second, the Appellate Division held that the contents of the documents were not automatically privileged "just because both parties have seen them." In this regard, the court held that many business and financial records are generated by, or submitted to, third parties outside of the marital home. As a result, they may not be confidential at all. Moreover, the Appellate Division observed that, even if documents were initially confidential, "placement in the home where another member of the household or a guest could discover them does not guarantee continued confidentiality." At a minimum, a party seeking to assert the privilege would have to demonstrate that the underlying documents remained confidential while in the marital home.

Third, the Appellate Division held that the act of leaving document in the marital home does not encourage communications between spouses or protect marriages, the very purpose behind the privilege. Absent convincing evidence that applying the privilege would protect and further the interests it was designed to advance, the Appellate Division saw no reason to recognize the privilege.

Ultimately, the take home message from U.S. Electrical Services is that simply bringing documents into the marital home, and even sharing them (or making them visible or available to  your spouse) does not bring the existence or content of those documents within the marital privilege. But, both the trial court and Appellate Division left open the possibility that communications about such documents, in the right situation, might be privileged.

Who Says Babies Don’t Play Bocce? Law Division Rules On Age Restricted Housing Conversion

by: Gregory S. Ricciardi

With the continuing strain on residential development projects, some developers may seek relief in the form of a recent New Jersey law, which allows for the conversion of age-restricted projects to non age-restricted projects.  A recent opinion from the Law Division may serve as a helpful tool to developers seeking to take advantage of the law.

Heritage at Towne Lake, LLC v. Planning Board of Sayreville interprets and applies N.J.S.A. 45:45:22A-46.3 (the “Conversion Statute”), which regulates the conversion of age restricted units to non-age restricted units in development projects.  In this case, the Sayreville Planning Board (the “Board”) denied a developer’s application to convert a one hundred eighty-four (184) unit, age restricted community to a non-age restricted community, containing the same number of units, but configured differently. 

Pursuant to the Conversion Statute, the approving board has broad discretion to require the applicant to prove that the conversion can be granted  without substantial determinant  to the public good and will not substantially impair the intent and purpose of the zone plan and zoning ordinance.  The Conversion Statute establishes a set of criteria that applicants must prove, which include: (1) that the site meets RSIS standards; (2) recreation improvements and other amenities are revised, as needed, to meet the needs of the converted development; (3) water and sewer systems are adequately designed;  and (4) sufficient parking is available to accommodate the converted development. 

In addition to arguing that the applicant failed to meet the burden of proof as to the conditions of the Conversion Statute, the Board claimed that approving the conversion application would create a density violation.  Since the applicant received a density bonus for age-restricted development, if the conversion were approved, the Board argued that the project would require a (d) variance for density pursuant to N.J.S.A. 40:55D-70d(5).  The court dismissed this argument, citing the plain meaning of the Conversion Statute, which states:

“No application for an amended approval seeking the authority to construct a converted development shall be considered a “use variance” or other “d variance” application pursuant to subsection d.  of section 57 of P.L.  1975, c 291 (C:4055D-70).”

The court ultimately concluded that the applicant had met its burden of proof and that the denial of the conversion application by the board was unreasonable.  The court remanded the matter back to the Board an ordered that the conversion be approved subject to the conversion of the originally proposed bocce courts to a “tot lot” for children.  

The Conversion Statute remains an attractive option for distressed, age-restricted development projects, provided the projects and the application for conversion can meet the statutory requirements, including a 20% set aside for affordable housing.    The publication of this decision helps shed light on the conversion process and eliminate confusion as to its application.