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Hart v. Hart

November 27, 2007

TERRY J. HART, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT/ CROSS-RESPONDENT,
v.
WENDY M. HART, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT/CROSS-APPELLANT.



On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Morris County, Chancery Division, Family Part, FM-14-634-97.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Argued October 17, 2007

Before Judges Lisa, Lihotz and Simonelli.

Plaintiff, Terry J. Hart, appeals from the denial of his post-judgment motion to reduce his alimony obligation. He also appeals from the denial of his reconsideration motion and from orders requiring him to pay counsel fees with respect to two applications that were part of this round of post-judgment motions. Defendant, Wendy M. Hart, cross-appeals from orders denying her applications for counsel fees in connection with two other applications in these proceedings.

Plaintiff argues that he demonstrated a sufficient showing of changed circumstances to warrant a reduction in alimony or, at the least, to require a plenary hearing on the issue. He further argues that the judge erred by not granting the requests of both parties for oral argument on the various motions and in failing to make sufficient findings of fact to support the orders entered. Finally, plaintiff argues that the judge mistakenly exercised his discretion in awarding counsel fees to defendant on two of the applications. On her cross-appeal, defendant contends the judge mistakenly exercised his discretion in failing to award her counsel fees in connection with two other applications. We reject the arguments of both parties and affirm on the appeal and cross-appeal.

The parties married in 1975. Two children were born of the marriage, in 1977 and 1978, both of whom were emancipated by the time of the motions that are the subject of this appeal. The parties separated in 1996, and they divorced in 1999, when they were both fifty-two years old.

Plaintiff holds an engineering degree from Lehigh University, and masters degrees from MIT and Rutgers University. During the marriage, he was employed as an engineer. From 1978 to 1984, plaintiff was a member of NASA and participated in the astronaut program. During that time, the family relocated to Houston, Texas. The family then returned to New Jersey until 1989. During that time, plaintiff was employed by Bell Labs/AT&T. In furtherance of plaintiff's career, the family moved to Sweden in 1989 for one to two years, after which they returned to New Jersey.

Throughout the marriage, other than occasional part-time work, defendant did not work outside the home. Instead, she devoted the bulk of her time to raising the children, caring for the home and supporting her husband's career.

The parties enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle. They lived in a five-bedroom home in Morris Plains. Plaintiff had a membership in the Mendham Golf Club for which he paid a $20,000 membership fee. Both children attended private schools.

In 1997, after AT&T sold its satellite company to Loral SpaceCom, plaintiff was hired as president of the new division, Loral SkyNet. Plaintiff's base salary at the time of the divorce was $225,000, with potential bonuses of up to fifty percent of his gross salary. In 1998, the year prior to the divorce, plaintiff's gross earned income was $312,538.

The parties negotiated a comprehensive Property Settlement Agreement (PSA) at the time of the divorce. Considering plaintiff's income, defendant's status as a homemaker, and the parties' standard of living, the PSA obligated plaintiff to pay permanent alimony of $8,000 per month (reduced to $6,250 until the younger child graduated college).

The PSA provided for the sale of the marital home, with the net proceeds to be divided, subject to various credits to each party, as part of an overall equitable distribution arrangement. After the divorce, defendant first lived in a condominium she purchased but was unable to maintain; she has since resided in a rental apartment. Plaintiff remarried and purchased a substantial home, located on seven acres in Pennsylvania, adjacent to the prestigious Saucon Valley Country Club, in which he maintains a membership. Plaintiff and his current wife adopted a newborn child, who was born on October 19, 2004. Plaintiff's current wife was an AT&T executive. According to plaintiff's certification, she has been unemployed for several years. Nevertheless, we note that on the Case Information Statements (CIS) filed in connection with these motions, plaintiff listed approximately $3,000 per month in daycare expenses.

After the divorce, plaintiff's income continued to escalate, and he continued to maintain a very comfortable lifestyle, apparently above that which he and defendant experienced during their marriage. Defendant never requested an increase in alimony based upon plaintiff's good fortune.

In 2004, plaintiff's employer filed a Chapter 11 bankruptcy petition. Due to restructuring and downsizing, plaintiff was terminated from his position on August 2, 2004. His salary at that time was $380,000, and he received an eighteen-month severance package based upon that annual salary beginning September 7, 2004. He was required to sign an eighteen-month non-competition agreement as part of the package. In February 2006, as the ...


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