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Hopkins v. Hopkins

June 11, 2007


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division-Family Part, Camden County, FM-04-569-05.

Per curiam.


Submitted: May 23, 2007

Before Judges Cuff and Baxter.

In this appeal concerning the dissolution of the parties' five-year marriage, we review the Judgment of Divorce entered following a seven-day trial. Plaintiff Michael Hopkins contests the allocation of marital debt, the inclusion of two parcels of real estate in the marital estate, the valuation of those parcels, and the inclusion of a pre-marital investment account in the marital estate. Plaintiff also challenges the designation of defendant as primary residential custodian of the three children and the award of counsel fees to defendant. We affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand for correction of the Amended Judgment of Divorce as required by this opinion.

The parties began cohabitation in 1995. Defendant Heather Hopkins had one daughter from a prior marriage born in 1993. The couple lived at 1371 Oriental Avenue in Gloucester City, a two-bedroom bungalow owned by plaintiff. In September 1996, still unmarried, they purchased 821 Hudson Street and were residing there in April 1999 when they wed. Their three daughters were born in 1996, 1997, and 2001.

Plaintiff worked as a tax preparer for his father, who ran his own tax service. At about the time the parties began living together, defendant joined the father's tax service business. After their second child was born in September 1997, defendant went to work full-time for an attorney as a paralegal. After the parties married in 1999, defendant worked for the United States Bankruptcy Court, before returning in 2005 to her prior paralegal position. Plaintiff remained at the tax service throughout the marriage and assumed full operation of the business after his father's death in 2001.

According to plaintiff, his father had purchased and gifted various stocks to plaintiff over the years. Plaintiff valued those premarital stock gifts at approximately $60,000. On his case information statement (CIS), however, plaintiff listed only PECO stock, valued at $4300, as a premarital gift from his father. Plaintiff listed $5000 in stocks or bonds acquired during the marriage, $2200 described as "[j]oint stocks," and an additional $3500 for securities without denominating whether they were jointly owned. According to plaintiff, defendant had asked during their marriage that he put the stocks his father had given him in joint names, but he refused. Plaintiff listed retirement accounts totaling $6200; defendant's retirement account was worth $9629.

According to plaintiff, the parties accumulated substantial credit card debt paying their living expenses. He claimed that defendant had exhausted her credit limits in 2000,*fn1 and by June 2004, defendant was dependent on him for support. Plaintiff also claimed that he was supporting the three children, plus defendant's daughter from the previous marriage. The debt increased around the time the parties separated in 2004. At one point in his testimony, plaintiff stated the credit card debt totaled $47,000, and then later referred to four particular credit card balances totaling approximately $39,000. His CIS, however, listed debts to six credit card companies totaling $63,365.

At the time of trial, monthly mortgage payments on the marital home at 821 Hudson Street were about $850, with a balance of approximately $69,000. Plaintiff valued the property on his CIS at $110,000. After the parties moved to the 821 Hudson Street house, plaintiff became involved in other real estate ventures. Plaintiff and his father purchased 403 North Fillmore Street for $11,500 in 2000. The property was located across from a chemical plant, and plaintiff estimated that it required $30,000 in renovations in order to sell it. After plaintiff's father died in 2001, the property was owned by plaintiff and his mother. As of trial, it was rented for approximately $680 per month.

Plaintiff and his father acquired another income property at 433 Monmouth Street in 2001 for $32,500. According to plaintiff, his father loaned to him his half of the purchase price and expected to be repaid. On his CIS, plaintiff listed himself and his mother as owners and $16,500 as a debt to his mother for his half-share. By the time of trial, the tenants had vacated and the property needed repairs, but plaintiff planned to re-rent it.

Plaintiff rented the parties' initial residence at 1371 Oriental Avenue, which he had purchased in 1992. The approximate $780 he received in monthly rent covered the monthly mortgage on that property.

231 North Fillmore Street was a house owned by plaintiff's grandmother before she died in 1997. Plaintiff inherited the property and rented it to defendant's mother.

According to plaintiff, his father's estate acquired 115 Hickman Avenue in 2004 as a result of a lawsuit, but subject to liens. He said his father had helped a prior owner pay back taxes on it "for a number of years" resulting in a tax lien, which taxes "we continued to pay" even after his father's death. Moreover, plaintiff also asserted that his father became involved with the property due to a business account receivable and as a result of a "def[a]mation of character suit . . . that . . . came up after my father actually passed away." In any event, plaintiff listed it on his CIS as an "inheritance from father" though the title report showed he acquired it by deed from the prior owner in November 2003. Plaintiff estimated the value at $45,000, but testified that it was uninhabitable at the time of trial. According to the title report, the property was subject to a federal tax lien of $17,279 and an $8000 judgment. He also testified that he then had no plans for the property which, he said, was "basically my mother's property because she had to get about $100,000 in loans to basically pay ...

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