A New Twist On Who Gets The House When The Relationship Ends

by: Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

House + money (pd)If you read this blog then you know that failed relationships often make for the most interesting cases. For example, if your would-be spouse calls off your wedding, then you are usually entitled to get the engagement ring back. But, if you cancel your wedding reception, you may not be entitled to a refund from the venue where it would have taken place. And, of course, if your ex-wife agreed to pay all "utilities" under a divorce settlement but fails to pay for water filtration services that remained in your name and you get sued by the water filtration company, your ex-wife will be required to reimburse you for those charges. Now, Burke v. Bernardini can be added to this list.

In Burke, plaintiff and defendant were involved in a "romantic relationship." (They had actually known each other for 25 years before they began dating.) While they were dating, plaintiff bought property on which he built a house where he and defendant lived together. He paid approximately $368,000 for the property and another $100,000 for improvements and additions. Both plaintiff and defendant contributed furnishings.

Before buying the property, the parties entered into an agreement that provided:

[Plaintiff] acknowledges and agrees that [defendant] has provided, and will continue to provide[,] companionship to him of an indefinite length. [Plaintiff] promises and represents that upon closing, the home shall be deeded and titled in the name of "[plaintiff] and [defendant], as joint tenants with the right of survivorship."

(As a side note, only in the hands of a lawyer does "'til death do us part" become "I agree to provide companionship of an indefinite length.") The agreement also provided that defendant would have no "financial obligations for the home, including, but not limited to, property taxes, homeowners association fees, and homeowners insurance."  

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After You Break Up, Dont Expect To Get Paid For Those Home Repairs You Did For Your Girlfriend While You Were Dating

by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

Tools (pd)Nothing says romance like asking your girlfriend to sign a contract before you agree to help her fix up her house. Nonetheless, this is essentially the take-home message from the Appellate Division's decidedly unromantic decision in Sukenik v. Dizik.

In Sukenik, plaintiff and defendant dated for approximately 18 months. "Beginning in January 2014, they spent every weekend and holiday together, with plaintiff frequently staying overnight in defendant's home." Eventually, plaintiff moved into defendant's home.

Plaintiff claimed that while he and defendant were dating, he "spent substantial sums not only on mutual expenses such as vacations and dinners, but also on needed improvements to defendant's home and property because the home was in poor condition." He testified that he spent more than $8,000 on materials. He also "contributed his labor, which he valued at $3,000." Unfortunately for plaintiff, "the relationship ended shortly after he underwent kidney surgery on June 18, 2015, when defendant demanded he move out of her home." Two weeks later, plaintiff sued, seeking to recoup the costs of the materials and labor he contributed to the repairs on defendant's home. Defendant denied liability, arguing that the improvements plaintiff made to her home were unconditional gifts.

Plaintiff was the only witness to testify at trial. After his testimony, defendant moved for involuntary dismissal. The trial court granted the motion, and plaintiff appealed.

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Failure To Launch! Bride’s Post-Wedding Cold Feet = Equitable Fraud = Annulment

Divorce(2)
In a case involving facts that could have been the plot of a soap opera episode or Lifetime Original Movie, a New Jersey court recently held that a husband could annul his marriage due to his wife's equitable, not actual, fraud.

In Easton v. Mercer (names were changed by the court to protect the innocent), plaintiff began dating defendant and, two years later, proposed to her. Defendant's parents objected because they "disapproved of [plaintiff] as a suitable husband for their daughter." True love, however, would not be denied. Without telling defendant's parents, plaintiff and defendant scheduled a small wedding to take place three weeks after plaintiff's proposal. Prior to the wedding, they applied for a marriage license, which was issued seven days later. They then got married in a small ceremony, administered by a reverend, and attended by approximately 15 guests. All of the guests were invited by plaintiff. Defendant did not invite any guests, including her parents, with whom she still lived and who were still unaware that the wedding was taking place. This, as they say, is when the plot thickens.

 

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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.

Divorce Equality Comes To New Jersey

by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher)

When asked about same-sex marriage, the musician/politician/author Kinky Friedman is quoted as having said: “I support gay marriage. I believe they have a right to be as miserable as the rest of us.” In a recent decision, Groh v. Groh, a New Jersey trial court ruled that, if same-sex partners are "as miserable as the rest of us" (present company excluded, natch), they can now get a divorce for the same reason as "the rest of us" — irreconcilable differences. Interestingly, while Groh dealt with the often divisive issue of same-sex marriage (or, more accurately, divorce), it was a lesson in the much less divisive practice of statutory interpretation.  

In Groh, plaintiff and defendant entered into a civil union only to file competing claims to dissolve the civil union five years later on the no-fault grounds of irreconcilable differences. The parties entered into a written settlement agreement that resolved all of their differences, and “sought to conclude the proceedings via dual judgment of dissolution.” However, N.J.S.A. 2A:34-2.1, which sets forth the grounds upon which the dissolution of a civil union can be based, does not include irreconcilable differences. Accordingly, the court had to decide whether it could grant the dissolution on those grounds.

 

 

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