Oftentimes, family matters are emotional, contentious, and leave both parties feeling unhappy with the outcome. Particularly with divorce proceedings, litigants will often want to appeal a judge’s determination because they perceived something in the decision as unfair. Frequently, this perceived unfairness has to do with money. A judge’s determination on issues such alimony or the equitable division of property are some of the most commonly litigated matters. While you may believe you have a strong case arguing against a judge’s unfair decision, the law may not support you in the way you might think.
Any family matter can be appealed to the Appellate Division in New Jersey and legal decisions of family judges are reviewed under the same legal standard applicable to other cases, like civil or criminal matters. Generally, appellate courts give some deference to a trial court’s findings of fact when supported by “adequate, substantial, credible evidence.” Cesare v. Cesare, 154 N.J. 394, 411-12 (1998). However, according to Cesare, this standard is modified slightly when the Appellate Division reviews family cases due to the family courts’ “special jurisdiction and expertise in family matters.” The Court in Cesare held that because of this expertise, appellate courts should accord significant deference to the trial court’s factfinding.
With this deferential standard in mind, let us examine the standards of review for two of the most hotly contested issues: alimony and equitable distribution. The “standard of review” essentially refers to the legal lens through which the appellate court is looking at the matter.
First, the standard of review for alimony is narrow. Judges determine alimony pursuant to multiple factors contained in N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23(b) and case law. Because judges must adhere closely to these factors, Foust v. Glaser held that generally the appellate courts will not disrupt an alimony award if the trial judge’s conclusions are consistent with the law and not “manifestly unreasonable, arbitrary, or clearly contrary to reason or to other evidence, or the result of whim or caprice.” 340 N.J. Super. 312, 316 (App. Div. 2001). Moreover, the standard is that of an “abuse of discretion,” meaning that a trial judge’s findings regarding alimony should not be vacated unless the court clearly abused its discretion. Per J.E.V. v. K.V., a court abuses its discretion when it failed to consider all of the controlling legal principles, made mistaken findings, or reached a conclusion that could not reasonably have been reached upon review of sufficient credible evidence and the proofs as a whole. Overall, it is very difficult to prove that a trial judge abused their discretion and considering how much the Appellate Division defers to the trial court in terms of the case’s facts, appeals based on alimony are often unsuccessful.
Second, the appellate court also uses an abuse of discretion standard for equitable distribution. The equitable distribution of marital assets is also governed by statute, N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23.1. Borodinksy v. Borodinsky held that in determining which assets are available for distribution or the valuation of those assets, the court must look to whether the trial judge’s findings were supported by adequate credible evidence in the record. If there is a question regarding the allocation of the assets, the appellate court will determine whether the amount or manner of the award constituted an abuse of discretion. Again, the Appellate Division generally gives family judges broad distribution, particularly in allocating assets subject to equitable distribution, which is incredibly fact specific.
While an appeal in a divorce matter may be a difficult prospect, it is not impossible. Every family is different and depending on the facts of a particular judicial decision, an appeal may be warranted. If you would like to discuss the possibility of an appeal, contact the experienced attorneys at Lyons & Associates, P.C. that have successfully handled family law appeals.