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Debra Newman v. Laurence S. Newman

May 31, 2011

DEBRA NEWMAN, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
LAURENCE S. NEWMAN, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Morris County, Docket No. FM-14-96-05.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Argued November 8, 2010

Before Judges Grall and LeWinn.

In this post-judgment matrimonial matter, defendant appeals from the April 3, 2009 order denying his motion to vacate the parties' property settlement agreement (PSA) incorporated into their April 27, 2005 final judgment of divorce. The basis of defendant's motion was that due to mental illness brought on by his long-term addiction to drugs and alcohol, he lacked the mental capacity to enter into the PSA at the time of the settlement hearing in court. We affirm.

The parties were married in September 1995; two daughters were born of the marriage, in 1996 and 1998. This was defendant's second marriage, having been divorced from his first wife in April 1994.

The parties entered into a PSA; neither was represented by counsel. Under the PSA, defendant agreed to pay limited duration alimony of $370 per week for five years; he also agreed to pay child support of $214 per week until each child's emancipation. The PSA contained the parties' acknowledgement that neither was under the influence of any "drugs or alcoholic beverage which would impair their ability to understand" the agreement.

On April 27, 2005, a settlement hearing was held at which the parties placed the terms of their agreement on the record; each was questioned by the judge as to their understanding and acceptance of those terms. Defendant acknowledged that (1) he understood the agreement; (2) it was the product of "negotiations"; and (3) he voluntarily entered into it without force or coercion. The following colloquy ensued:

[Court]: Do you think under all the circumstances of this matter this is an equitable outcome?

[Defendant]: I don't think it is . . . to tell you the truth, but I think I'm doing the right thing for my kids in giving her the house. [Court]: Do you understand that this is it?

If we complete this process today, you're bound to this agreement. It's no longer voluntary. It's a court order. [Defendant]: Yeah. I'm finished. I'm ready. I'm ready. [Court]: Are you presently under the influence of any alcohol, drugs, anything at all that could affect your understanding of what's happening right now? [Defendant]: I understand. I'm just trying to step up to the plate and give my kids a good house, and I guess, you know, not have anything.

The judge found that the parties entered into the PSA "because each considers, under all the circumstances, it does represent a reasonable resolution of the differences between them and is in the interest of the children." He thereupon entered judgment incorporating the PSA.

Defendant brought two post-judgment motions. The first, in which he appeared pro se, resulted in an order in December 2005, reducing his alimony and child support obligations because of his change in employment. In 2007, represented by counsel, defendant moved to correct clerical errors in the December 2005 order. Counsel also argued that defendant's support obligations in the PSA were "very onerous" and asked the judge to "arrive at . . . a fair and equitable alimony award." The judge denied that motion in an order entered in January 2008. Neither of these motions sought to vacate the PSA based on a claim of diminished mental capacity.

On January 5, 2009, defendant filed his motion to vacate the PSA. He certified that "for years prior to [the] divorce," he "had . . . been addicted to Oxycontin and Perchocet [sic]." He claimed that plaintiff "had actual knowledge [that he] was ...


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