On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Essex County, Docket No. FM-07-9473-83.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued September 27, 2011
Before Judges Carchman and Baxter.
Defendant Hamlet E. Goore appeals from a series of post-judgment matrimonial orders that set his child support and alimony arrears at $102,350, required him to pay $500 per month to satisfy the arrearage, and denied his motion to reduce or eliminate his child support obligation for the parties' developmentally disabled adult daughter, H.G., in light of the considerable Social Security Disability (SSD) benefits that H.G. receives monthly.*fn1 Having thoroughly reviewed the record and the parties' arguments, we agree with defendant's contention that the judge: wrongly accepted the Hudson County Probation Department's (Probation) calculation of the arrearage without making an independent determination of whether the Probation audit was correct; and failed to make any findings of fact or conclusions of law on whether the SSD benefits received by the parties' daughter should have an impact on defendant's child support obligation. We reverse the orders under review and remand for further proceedings.
Although defendant was divorced from plaintiff Joyce Goore by a decree issued on August 2, 1985, the judgment of divorce (JOD) did not make any provision for the payment of alimony or child support. An amended JOD was issued on February 20, 1986, which incorporated a property settlement agreement reached by the parties. The February 20, 1986 judgment required defendant to pay to plaintiff the aggregate sum of $2000 per month, of which sixty percent ($1200/month or $277.14/week) was designated as alimony and forty percent ($800/month or $184.76/week) was designated as child support. The portion designated as child support was to be equally divided among the three children until their emancipation. The amended JOD provided that alimony was to continue for only thirteen years, until January 21, 1998. The judge ordered that all payments were to be made through the Probation Department in the county in which defendant resided.
On November 2, 1994, defendant moved before the Family Part for a reduction of his alimony obligation in light of a reduction in his income. On May 2, 1995, the judge granted defendant's motion in an order that provided:
1. The defendant is temporarily ordered to pay the plaintiff the sum of $150.00 without prejudice per week alimony effective November 4, 1994.
2. This matter is carried to May 2, 1995 for review of the emancipation status of the parties' three children and the parties' changed circumstances.
3. The parties shall answer the interrogatories previously served upon the other and may exchange and shall answer such additional interrogatories either party finds necessary dealing with the emancipation status of the parties' three children, ear[n]ings[.]*fn2
The "temporary" reduction in alimony ordered on May 2, 1995 was still in effect on May 31, 1996, when defendant moved to suspend his alimony obligation due to a $9000 federal income tax lien, as a result of which there was a garnishment of $421 from his wages every two weeks. Plaintiff cross-moved to compel defendant to pay the support arrearages in full, on penalty of arrest if he failed to do so. During the May 31, 1996 hearing, when denying plaintiff's motion, the judge stated:
I have had this case for probably five or six years. I know it used to be $2000 [in alimony and child support per month]. I know it's [now] $150 a week [for alimony].
I also know that I don't have the financial ability to pay the amount [sic]. You want me to reduce [it to] judgment and issue a warrant for his arrest[, but] the relief you've sought is just not there to be granted. And even though you made the appropriate . . . cross-motion for that, for you to suggest to me that I order him to pay a fixed amount in the thousands of dollars or put him in jail, I can't grant. The facts just don't allow it.
When plaintiff asked the judge during the May 31, 1996 motion hearing whether he would "ever . . . deal" with the arrearages, the judge stated he would not do so "until [defendant's] circumstances change. . . . I just don't see any way to deal with it at the moment." The judge entered a confirming order on August 20, 1996 continuing defendant's alimony obligation at $150 per week via a wage garnishment "until further order of the Court." Additionally, the judge ordered defendant to transfer ownership of a mutual fund, which defendant's mother had established for the joint benefit of defendant and H.G., "to the plaintiff . . . to satisfy past due arrears." The order provided that defendant would receive a credit for the value of the mutual fund being transferred to plaintiff.
According to the record, neither party sought to modify the alimony payment or enforce the collection of arrearages for fourteen years. In May 2010, defendant moved to: terminate his alimony and child support obligation; discontinue the collection of alimony and child support arrears; obtain a credit or a reimbursement for any overpayment of alimony and child support; and compel an audit by the Essex and Hudson County Probation Departments of all child support and alimony he had paid. The judge conducted five hearings, on June 11, September 15, and December 3, 2010 and January 21 and March 18, 2011.
At the hearing on June 11, 2010, the judge correctly recognized that, in accordance with the amended JOD, defendant's alimony obligation lasted for only thirteen years, from January 21, 1985 through January 21, 1998. However, the judge calculated defendant's alimony obligation during that thirteen-year span at the original figure of $277 per week, without taking into consideration the order of May 2, 1995, which reduced defendant's alimony obligation to the sum of $150 per week. The June 11, 2010 ...