On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Bergen County, Docket No. FM-02-1074-05.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Coburn, Fuentes and Grall.
This is an appeal from a final judgment of divorce entered following a trial in the Family Part.*fn1 Plaintiff Catherine Dounis filed the complaint in November 2004. Defendant Meletios Dounis filed a counterclaim. Defendant contends that the trial judge erred as follows: allowing defendant's attorney to withdraw ten days prior to trial; identifying and distributing marital assets and debt; fixing alimony and child support; requiring defendant to deposit $25,000 in a trust account held by plaintiff's attorney to secure defendant's obligation to pay child support and alimony; and requiring defendant to contribute to plaintiff's counsel fees. We reverse the counsel fee award and the equitable distribution of credit card debt. We affirm all other determinations, because they are supported by the record and within the boundaries of the judge's broad discretion to control the trial proceedings, fix alimony and distribute marital assets.
The parties were married on September 4, 1983. Plaintiff was twenty-eight years of age, and defendant was thirty-one.
They have two sons; the first was born in 1984 and the second in 1986.
In 1988, defendant and his brother George both worked in a diner. With the goal of purchasing that diner, they formed MGG Corporation (MGG). In 1990, they achieved that goal. Defendant and his brother each own fifty percent of MGG's shares. At first, the brothers leased a parking lot adjacent to the diner, but eventually that lot was purchased, in their father's name, for $110,000. Defendant's father transferred that lot to MGG, for less than $100, before plaintiff filed her compliant for divorce. According to plaintiff, the purchase was made with funds from MGG. According to defendant, his father paid for the lot.
In 1998, MGG recovered $147,226.30 as a consequence of a settlement of a legal malpractice claim. The proceeds were deposited in MGG's account.
In October 2004, defendant received $222,080.67 from the sale of a multi-dwelling residence. He acquired his part-ownership interest in that real estate prior to the marriage and derived income from that asset during the marriage. He deposited the proceeds of the sale in his loan account with MGG and used the money to pay personal expenses such as tuition for the children, attorney's fees and income taxes. The tax due on the $222,080.67 defendant received from the sale of this premarital asset was $23,940 on August 8, 2005.
The diner was the source of the family's livelihood. After defendant and George acquired the diner, they cooked and ran the kitchen. Plaintiff, in addition to caring for the children, also worked in the diner. She served as cashier, hostess, bookkeeper and manager of everything other than the kitchen.
Plaintiff's annual earnings from working at the diner, as reported on tax returns, were consistently between $20,000 and $25,000. She left her work at the diner in 2001 and subsequently took courses and worked in real estate. Between 2001 and 2005, her highest earnings were $13,000.
Defendant's wages from working at the diner, as reported on tax returns, were between $25,160 and $33,650 per year. He acknowledged, however, that he paid personal expenses from the MGG account and took cash from the business. Plaintiff also admitted that she took cash from the diner. In the opinion of defendant's expert forensic accountant, defendant's actual income, including cash, was between $80,000 and $85,000 per year.
According to plaintiff, the family regularly spent $8210 per month or $98,520 per year. For many years, the family lived rent-free in an apartment building owned by defendant's family.
In 1998, however, they purchased a home, which they subsequently renovated. They educated their sons in parochial schools, and both of their sons were attending college at a private university at the time of trial. During the marriage the family took one trip to Greece, where defendant was born, and plaintiff took ten trips to Ireland, where she was born and her parents lived. The parties had two BMW automobiles of similar value. The mortgage on their residence was $128,000. The appraised value of the residence was $459,000. Plaintiff stipulated that the parties accrued credit card debt in the amount of $4465.54 during the marriage.
According to plaintiff, defendant gambled on horse races, at casinos and on sporting events. He went to the Meadowlands frequently, and she enjoyed herself when she went with him. She recalled defendant winning $7020 on one race; those winnings were reported on her tax return because she cashed the ticket for him. Plaintiff asserted that her husband received benefits from the track that were reserved for those who wagered large amounts but admitted that he sometimes made "mind bets" rather than ...