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Brillon v. Watson

April 24, 2009


On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Somerset County, Docket No. FM-18-416-06.

Per curiam.


Argued January 27, 2009

Before Judges Winkelstein and Fuentes.

Defendant Craig T. Watson appeals from the order of the Family Part enforcing certain aspects of a Property Settlement Agreement (PSA) entered into by the parties as part of a final judgment of divorce. Specifically, acting on plaintiff Veronica D. Brillon's motion to enforce litigant's rights, the court found that defendant failed to use the net proceeds from the sale of certain real property to pay off a joint marital credit card debt. The court also awarded plaintiff $3,658 in counsel fees.

After reviewing the record and in light of prevailing legal standards, we affirm the trial court's decision finding defendant in violation of the PSA, vacate the award of counsel fees, and remand for the court to determine the amount of counsel fees, if any, plaintiff is entitled to receive after applying settled principles of law to counsel's certification of professional services rendered. Mani v. Mani, 183 N.J. 70, 93-95 (2005). This analysis must be set forth by the court in a statement of reasons delivered orally on the record or in a memorandum of opinion. R. 5:3-5(c); R. 1:7-4.

These are the relevant facts. The parties were divorced on May 23, 2006. The final judgment of divorce incorporated a PSA that provided, in pertinent part, as follows:

It is agreed that a 2-family home at 643 Palisades Avenue, Jersey City, New Jersey, previously owned by wife, was conveyed to husband as part of a financial restructuring and is currently listed for sale. It is agreed that upon the sale of that home and the payment of all mortgages, ordinary closing costs, realtor commissions, attorney's fees, and the like, approximately $40,000.00 of the net proceeds will be used to pay off the following joint marital credit card debt: MBNA, Bank of America/Fleet, Bank of America, and Chase Mastercard. The remaining net proceeds estimated to be in the amount of $44,000.00 will be equally divided by the parties at the time of closing on the sale of that property.

The credit cards referred to in the PSA were all in defendant's name. In addition to the Jersey City property, which the parties rented out, the couple also owned a home at 45 Manor Road in Princeton, New Jersey, which they used as the marital residence. The Princeton property was also to be sold and all net proceeds equally divided between the parties.

The court entered a supplemental order on July 10, 2006, indicating that the Princeton property was under contract for sale, and reflecting that the parties had agreed to use 50% of the net proceeds of that sale to pay down the MBNA credit card debt. Pursuant to this agreement, approximately $17,000 from the sale of the Princeton home was applied to the MBNA credit card debt.

The Jersey City property was sold on December 29, 2006, for $444,500.00, netting $46,022.86. As agreed, defendant had taken responsibility for making repairs to the property and handling the sale. In implicit violation of the PSA, however, defendant waited two months to notify plaintiff that the sale had occurred, and did not give her any portion of the sale proceeds.

In this light, plaintiff sought an order from the court directing defendant to pay her half of the net proceeds of the sale as provided for in the PSA. A plenary hearing was held on January 18, 2008, to consider plaintiff's application. Defendant did not offer any evidence showing that he had paid any of the marital credit card debt after the sale of the Jersey City property.

Instead, defendant produced a number of credit card statements reflecting outstanding balances. These statements did not differentiate between joint marital debt and defendant's personal debt. Defendant also produced bank statements showing that he had made eight monthly payments of $1,713, which, according to plaintiff, went to a credit counseling agency that had consolidated the marital credit card debt. The trial court rejected defendant's application to credit these payments against his liability to utilize half of the net proceeds from the sale of the Jersey City property to pay off joint credit card debt.

As a partial defense, defendant testified that he had incurred substantial expenses in preparing the house for sale, and offered documentation in support of some of the expenses. The trial court credited defendant for $1,100 in electrical work, approximately $500 for expenses related to the purchase and installation of smoke detectors ...

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