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C.L.H v. C.B

February 10, 2012


On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Monmouth County, Docket No. FM-13-1156-06.

Per curiam.


Argued December 7, 2011 -

Before Judges Fuentes, Harris and Koblitz.

Defendant C.B. appeals from a July 16, 2010 post-divorce judgment order enforcing a 2007 agreement made between the parties. He also appeals a November 17, 2010 order denying his motion for reconsideration. C.B. maintains that the 2007 agreement is invalid because plaintiff C.L.H. procured it through overreaching and duress and because the resulting terms of the agreement are unconscionable. Additionally, C.B. argues that the court abused its discretion in affording C.L.H. greater relief than the 2007 agreement anticipated without conducting a hearing or requiring an accounting of monies actually owed to C.L.H. Finally, C.B. claims that the motion judge wrongfully denied his affirmative requests for relief without explanation.*fn1

We conclude that the motion judge failed to develop a record sufficient to determine the validity of the 2007 agreement and did not conduct the required fact-finding on C.B.'s affirmative claims. We reverse and remand for further proceedings.

C.L.H., who holds a juris doctor, and C.B., who holds a doctoral degree in education, were married in New York on December 28, 1993. Three children were born of the marriage.

The parties separated in 2004 and entered into a property settlement agreement (PSA). The PSA indicates that C.L.H. was represented by counsel, but that C.B. was not. The PSA was prepared in New York and contains a New York choice of law provision. On July 14, 2005, the parties obtained a default judgment of divorce in New York, which incorporated the PSA. The PSA established shared joint custody of the parties' unemancipated children and provided that their primary residence would be with C.L.H. The PSA also awarded C.B. ownership of the Lake Placid condominium unit and his TIAA-CREF account, after C.L.H. received her marital share.

The PSA provided for no alimony obligation as to either party, but it imposed a child support payment schedule upon C.B. At the time, he had an annual income of $146,000 from university employment; C.L.H. had an annual income of $15,288. The PSA required C.B. to pay $35,781 in child support per year. This schedule was to continue until April 2005, when C.B. was expected to begin employment at a different university at an annual salary of $175,000. His child support obligation was then scheduled to increase to $44,083 per year. The agreement also stated that the parties would each provide a pro rata share towards the children's college expenses.

C.B. had been dealing with ongoing substance abuse problems and mental health issues. Although he participated in rehabilitation, he was deemed disabled by the Social Security Administration as of July 13, 2005, based on "affective mood disorders." Due to C.B.'s disability, C.L.H. began to receive monthly social security disability (SSD) payments for their three children in the amount of $374 per child, or $1122 total. C.B. was terminated from his new university employment in October 2005.

On October 28, 2005, C.B. signed a limited power of attorney to permit C.L.H. access to his TIAA-CREF account for the limited purpose of paying his living and medical expenses. C.B. claims he did not consent to a withdrawal by C.L.H. on February 6, 2006, in the gross amount of $232,579.11. C.L.H. received the net amount of $186,295. C.L.H. claims the withdrawal was for amounts owed to her by C.B., including costs for child care, C.B.'s storage unit, his insurance coverage, rent, and maintenance of the Lake Placid residence.

Dr. Chunilal H. Kasagra, C.B.'s personal physician, issued a report on March 17, 2006, which stated that C.B. was being treated for severe depression and suicidal ideation, and that C.B. had relapsed with alcohol. Dr. Kasagra concluded that C.B. could not function in either a part-time or full-time employment circumstance. However, the report also indicated that C.B. remained capable of "making decisions on his own behalf." Another psychologist, Dr. Christopher Williamson, who evaluated C.B. on behalf of the New Jersey Department of Labor, Department of Disability Determination Services (DDDS) indicated in a report dated March 25, 2006, that C.B. was extremely depressed, but was "cognitively competent to handle his own funds at the present time . . . ." A functionality capacity assessment performed by DDDS on April 30, 2006, also revealed that C.B. was "unable to sustain concentration, pace or persistence at this time."

On May 31, 2006, in a fit of anger, C.B. choked C.L.H. in front of the children outside the Lake Placid residence. He thereafter confronted the police with a loaded shotgun. C.B. was arrested and charged criminally. He pled guilty to criminal contempt, and on March 20, 2007, was sentenced to a five-year probationary period, having already completed a six-month term in prison and a half-way house. A final restraining order was also issued in C.L.H.'s favor against C.B.

On June 8, 2006, approximately eighteen months after the plaintiff moved to New Jersey, a consent order was entered registering the New York judgment of divorce in New Jersey and providing New Jersey with continuing exclusive jurisdiction. This order provided that "[t]he parties shall enjoy all rights and be held to all obligations of the State of New Jersey, as if the [j]udgment ...

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