On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Middlesex County, Docket No. FM-12-0174-06D.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted November 14, 2011
Before Judges Ashrafi and Fasciale.
In this post-divorce action, defendant-father appeals from a May 7, 2010 order reducing his alimony obligation and denying his motion for downward modification of his child support and life insurance obligations. Plaintiff-mother cross-appeals from the same order, arguing that changed circumstances warranting alimony modification did not exist and, in any case, the judge miscalculated the reduction. We affirm the order to modify alimony and not to modify child support, but remand for recalculation of the new alimony obligation. Further, the court made insufficient findings to deny defendant's motion to modify his life insurance obligation, and we therefore remand and instruct the court to re-examine the record.
The parties married in 1988, had two children together,*fn1
and divorced in 2006. On October 20, 2006, the court entered
a supplemental judgment of divorce, incorporating the parties'
property settlement agreement (PSA).
The PSA sets defendant's alimony obligation at $100,000 per year based on defendant's 2002, 2003, and 2004 average gross income of $400,000 per year and plaintiff's imputed income of $25,000 per year. It sets child support at $650 per week based on defendant's 2003, 2004, and 2005 average gross income of $340,700 per year; plaintiff's imputed income; defendant's anticipated payments toward the children's health insurance; and his alimony obligation. The PSA also requires defendant to maintain a $1,000,000 life insurance policy to secure alimony and a $468,000 life insurance policy to secure child support.
In May 2009, defendant filed a motion to modify his alimony, child support, and life insurance obligations.*fn2
Plaintiff cross-moved for discovery and a plenary hearing on the parties' finances. On July 17, 2009, the court denied without prejudice defendant's requested modifications and scheduled forty-five days of discovery followed by a plenary hearing.
A plenary hearing occurred on four nonconsecutive days in February and March 2010.*fn3 Both parties and defendant's employment supervisor testified. The parties produced extensive financial documentation. Defendant established that after the divorce, his salary and commissions as a computer software and license salesperson decreased to $248,000 per year through no fault of his own.
On May 7, 2010, the court entered an order and issued a written decision, granting defendant's motion for alimony modification and setting his new obligation at $80,000 per year. The order denied downward modification of defendant's child support and life insurance obligations.
On appeal, the parties raise an array of issues. Plaintiff argues that because defendant bears the blame for his decreased income, the judge erred in finding changed circumstances warranting alimony modification, and both parties challenge the judge's calculation of the modified alimony obligation. Next, defendant argues that because he established decreased income warranting alimony modification, the judge erred in not likewise modifying child support. Finally, defendant contends that the judge erred in not reducing his life insurance obligation securing plaintiff's alimony.
"Our review of the amount of an alimony award is limited." Gordon v. Rozenwald, 380 N.J. Super. 55, 76 (App. Div. 2005).
To vacate a trial court's findings in a proceeding modifying alimony, an appellate court must conclude that the trial court clearly abused its discretion, failed to consider all of the controlling legal principles, or it must otherwise be well satisfied that the findings were mistaken, or that the determination could not reasonably have been reached on sufficient credible evidence present in the record after consideration of the proofs as a whole. [Rolnick v. Rolnick, 262 N.J. Super. 343, 360 (App. Div. 1993) (citations, internal quotation marks, and alterations omitted).]
Generally, we will not disturb a trial court's factual findings when "supported by adequate, substantial, credible evidence."
Cesare v. Cesare, 154 N.J. 394, 411-12 (1998) (citing Rova Farms Resort, Inc. v. Investors Ins. Co., 65 N.J. 474, 484 (1974)).
We begin by addressing plaintiff's contention that the judge erred in finding changed circumstances warranting alimony modification. She argues that the judge ignored defendant's spending habits and did not ascribe "blame or culpability to [him] with respect to his own financial mismanagement." We disagree.
The goal of alimony is to "assist the supported spouse in achieving a lifestyle that is reasonably comparable to the one enjoyed . . . during the marriage." Crews v. Crews, 164 N.J. 11, 16 (2000). Nonetheless, courts retain equitable power to modify alimony obligations at any time on a showing of changed circumstances. Lepis v. Lepis, 83 N.J. 139, 145-46 (1980); N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23. In such cases, courts should consider whether the alleged change is "continuing" or merely "temporary," Innes v. Innes, 117 N.J. 496, 504 (1990), and "whether the agreement or decree has made explicit provision for the change." Lepis, supra, ...