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DIVIDING MARITAL PROPERTY: EX-HUSBAND IS “SCREWED” IN PURSUIT OF HIS SHARE OF EQUITABLE DISTRIBUTION

By: Natalie Diratsouian

Liddell v. Liddell, No. A-5186-12T3, 2017 N.J. Super. LEXIS 70 (App. Div. Jan. 9, 2017).

The terms of marital settlement agreements typically govern the distribution of any real or personal property acquired during the marriage. The term “equitable distribution,” although technically not defined as an equal distribution of marital property, typically entails the parties retaining what they are each entitled to as a matter of fairness. Nevertheless, divorcing spouses can choose to divide their property according to their own standards.

However, enforcing compliance with the terms of an agreed-upon distribution may become an issue further down the road if the actual division of the property doesn’t take place prior to or at the time of the divorce.  A recent case, Liddell v. Liddell, demonstrates why it is important to specify in the agreement what property is included and when property must be turned over.

In that case, the former husband, Mr. Liddell had trouble securing his share of personal property after his divorce from his former wife. Specifically, the parties’ agreement provided that while each party was to have sole ownership of property in his or her possession, Mr. Liddell was to be entitled to the tools. The agreement did not specify which tools he was to keep but indicated that Ms. Liddell could keep those tools she needed to maintain the home. According to Mr. Liddell, he was to receive about 160 tools. Since Mr. Liddell was incarcerated, his brother was to retrieve the tools on his behalf. When he attempted to retrieve the tools from Ms. Liddell, he was able to retrieve only fourteen of the tools.

Thereafter, Mr. Liddell filed two successive motions for enforcement of the terms of the parties’ agreement. Both motions were granted, requiring Ms. Liddell to turn over the tools. Upon Ms. Liddell’s continued noncompliance, Mr. Liddell filed a third motion, which the court denied on the basis that the motion was “duplicative… and harassing.” Mr. Liddell then filed a fourth motion, which the court denied with prejudice, finding that Ms. Liddell no longer possessed the tools.

Mr. Liddell then appealed the trial court’s denial, contending that the judge mistakenly failed to compel Ms. Liddell to turn over the tools. The Appellate Court agreed with Mr. Liddell, finding that the trial court’s denial was not supported by any findings. The denial was reversed and the case was remanded to the trial court for a hearing.

During that hearing, Ms. Liddell testified that Mr. Liddell’s brother came to pick up the tools years earlier, that the parties’ children requested to keep some of the tools, and that Mr. Liddell’s brother left with a pick-up truck full of tools. Ms. Liddell also testified that she had moved three times since then and no longer possessed any of the tools, as the parties’ sons now lived on their own. Mr. Liddell testified that he did not have a problem with his children keeping some of the tools, but he wanted them to request his permission first. He also testified that his brother and nephew only picked up a couple of boxes but did not call his brother or his nephew as witnesses. As a result of this hearing, the court found that Ms. Liddell was far more credible than Mr. Liddell, as Mr. Liddell’s information was second-hand because he didn’t know what his brother actually picked up. Thus, the court denied enforcement against Ms. Liddell.

Mr. Liddell appealed this ruling. The Appellate Court reviewed the record and determined that the trial judge “carefully reviewed the relevant evidence and explained his reasons in a logical manner” and therefore refused Mr. Liddell the relief requested.

                This decision highlights why it is critical to specifically itemize property to be distributed in a settlement agreement.  Clearly, the delay between the execution of the agreement and the challenge to its performance was a critical factor in the court’s decision.  Although the trial court made a decision largely based upon a credibility finding, Mr. Liddell may have rightfully been entitled to his agreed-upon share of equitable distribution. Mr. Liddell could have been inherently prejudiced by having to appear via video conference from prison or having to represent himself. The passing of several years, the claim of non possession of the property, and the lack of specificity in the property settlement agreement were critical factors, making enforcement improbable. The court may have simply regarded Mr. Liddell’s tools as too insignificant so as to impose sanctions against Ms. Liddell or require her to compensate Mr. Liddell for the monetary value of the missing items.

                 At the end of the day, this decision underscores the difficulty of enforcing agreements after the divorce has been finalized.  Therefore, if the property is important to you, it is crucial that the agreement list the property with specificity, state exactly when it is to be turned over, and even provide a remedy for noncompliance. That will hit the nail on the head!

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