Saturday, September 19, 2009

Appellate Review, Business Ownership, and Support

Catherine Romania v. Nicholas Mattera - A Discussion

[Unpublished Decision of the Appellate Division - Decided September 4, 2009]

The facts in brief: After 17 years of marriage, Romania filed a complaint for divorce on May 10, 1999. The parties had five children, aged fourteen, eleven, nine, seven, and four at the time the complaint was filed.

The divorce was contentious, including domestic violence complaints, municipal court complaints for interference with custody and harassment, and claims of malicious prosecution. The parties retained a psychologist and psychiatrist to assist in determining the best custody and visitation arrangement for the children, one of whom described the children's situation as living in a "war zone."

The trial regarding financial issues ancillary to the divorce was conducted separately after a failed attempt at mediation.

Both parties were attorneys. After the children were born, Romania became a partner in Mattera’s firm, later leaving to work part-time in another firm for an hourly wage. Mattera continued to run his own law firm. He did not keep the finances separate, instead paying household bills and expenses directly from the firm’s account and intermingling the funds.

The firm’s income fluctuated throughout the years. Romania retained two experts to determine the actual disposable income from the business for the purpose of evaluating alimony and child support, and Mattera one.

The parties stipulated to the value of the marital home and that Romania’s share of Mattera’s $1.8 million dollar law firm was $627,000. The parties also had several investment accounts.

The trial court ordered that Mattera pay permanent alimony, child support for the five children, health insurance for the children, and two thirds of the college expenses. The court also ordered an equal division of assets, subject to several debits and credits. One such credit was to Romania for one half of $330,000, the sum withdrawn by Mattera from his profit-sharing account. Mattera was not granted credit for funds Romania withdrew from accounts which was used to pay for major repairs on the marital residence and litigation expenses. The trial court explained that it considered Mattera’s share of those withdrawals to be Mattera’s contributio to Romania’s litigation expenses, in effect ordering that Mattera pay some of Romania’s counsel fees. It also acknowledged that the funds used to repair the residence increased its value, thereby increasing the amount Mattera and Romania would both receive with regard to equitable distribution. The court also directed additional credits for Romania, including one half of the tax she paid on joint assets for several years and one half of Mattera’s vehicle. A credit was given to Mattera to reimburse him the full payment he made to an escrow account. Both parties were denied other requested credits.

The court also determined custody and visitation.

The issues: Was the court biased, having an impact on it’s discretionary determinations regarding custody and parenting time, alimony, child support, and equitable distribution?

The court's holding: Affirmed in part, and remanded for reconsideration of alimony, child support, and college expenses.

The trial court had expressed concern that the children were being damaged by the actions and hostility of both parties, simply reflecting the observations of all the professionals involved in the custody recommendations and determination. Beyond that, the judge was obligated to, and did, make findings of credibility.

Because the judgment of the trial court concerning custody and parenting time was based on findings of fact adequately supported by the credible evidence, and because the review of the Appellate Division is limited to solely determining whether the findings of fact could reasonably have been reached based on that evidence, it could not alter the judgment. The Appellate Division is forbidden from undertaking an independent analysis of the trial court record or making it’s own credibility findings.

The standard for appellate review of a trial judge’s determinations regarding equitable distribution is one of “abuse of discretion.” The Appellate Division cannot “disturb decisions that have reasonable support in the record as a whole and are consistent with the law.” The question is whether the “division is clearly unfair or unjustly distorted by a misconception of law or findings of fact that are contrary to the evidence.” The Appellate Division cannot, in essence, hold a new trial, and so the decision will be affirmed even if the court would not have made the same division of assets as the trial judge.

The denial of additional credits to Mattera was not an abuse of discretion resulting in an unfair division of assets, according to the Appellate Division, given the financial circumstances of the parties and the likelihood that Romania would have been awarded pretrial counsel fees.

It was also not an abuse of discretion when the trial court refused to award Romania interest on her share of Mattera’s law practice, since during that same period of time, she has use of the marital residence and significant assets, a portion of which were later awarded to Mattera. The use of those assets were used in lieu of the interest she demanded.

The standard used by the Appellate Division to review alimony and child support awards is also “abuse of discretion.” If the decision has reasonable support in the record, the Appellate Division cannot touch it.

The Appellate Division found that the trial court’s determination that Mattera’s net income approximated $778,000 per year had no support in the record. The trial court relied upon the testimony of Mattera’s accountant, who assumed unreasonably and contrary to the history of the firm’s finances, that the law firm’s receipts and expenses would remain constant throughout the year. The Appellate Division also found that the evidence would permit a finding of net business revenue higher than that reported, but that business revenue cannot be equated with net income available to Mattera. The Appellate Division therefore found that both support orders were based upon a mistaken foundation, requiring remand to the trial court for an additional determination.

The end result: The Appellate Division upheld most of the judgment of the trial court, and so equitable distribution and custody were not altered. The issues that were determined by Mattera’s disposable income, those of child support, alimony, and college payments, were sent back to the trial court for a new trial.

What does all of this mean to you? Although you may not be happy with the trial court determinations regarding your divorce, the Appellate Division is very limited in its ability to make changes. The higher courts cannot re-try your case, or make credibility determinations, they can only determine whether, under the standards dictated by the specific issue in question, the trial court made such a large error that the decision must be overturned.

In addition, if you or your spouse owns a business, even when the business and personal funds and expenses are intermingled, the income of the business is not equivalent to the income of the person, and cannot be used outright for determination of support amounts.

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