New Jersey Separation Agreements Law

Divorce – Separation Agreements – New Jersey

Note:  This summary is not intended to be an all inclusive discussion of the law of separation agreements in New Jersey, but does include basic and other provisions.

General Summary: In New Jersey, the courts have a well established authority to modify property distribution, alimony, and support orders issued in divorce cases.  This authority also extends to the review of property settlement agreements.

Where a separation agreement is executed prior to the filing of an action for divorce it will be a bar to equitable relief or modification only if, and to the extent that, it can qualify as a property settlement, and can likewise be shown to have been fair and equitable. Only then can it be said to be the substantial equivalent of an equitable distribution of marital assets, sufficient to justify denial of such relief.

Statutes:

New Jersey Statutes
TITLE 2A  ADMINISTRATION OF CIVIL AND CRIMINAL JUSTICE

Alimony, maintenance:

Pending any matrimonial action brought in this State or elsewhere, or after judgment of divorce or maintenance, whether obtained in this State or elsewhere, the court may make such order as to the alimony or maintenance of the parties, and also as to the care, custody, education and maintenance of the children, or any of them, as the circumstances of the parties and the nature of the case shall render fit, reasonable and just, and require reasonable security for the due observance of such orders, including, but not limited to, the creation of trusts or other security devices, to assure payment of reasonably foreseeable medical and educational expenses…Orders so made may be revised and altered by the court from time to time as circumstances may require.

h. In all actions where a judgment of divorce or divorce from bed and board is entered the court may make such award or awards to the parties, in addition to alimony and maintenance, to effectuate an equitable distribution of the property, both real and personal, which was legally and beneficially acquired by them or either of them during the marriage. However, all such property, real, personal or otherwise, legally or beneficially acquired during the marriage by either party by way of gift, devise, or intestate succession shall not be subject to equitable distribution, except that interspousal gifts shall be subject to equitable distribution.  Section 2A:34-23.

Case Law:

In New Jersey, the equitable authority of courts to modify property distribution, alimony, and support orders issued in divorce cases is well established. Marital property is treated as distinctive, Carr v. Carr, 120 N.J. 336, 346-49, 576 A.2d 872 (1990), and it is held that “property settlement agreements” entered into in anticipation of divorce reflect the unique nature of the marital enterprise. Rothman v. Rothman, 65 N.J. 219, 229, 320 A.2d 496 (1974). Marital property settlement agreements “involve far more than economic factors” and must serve the strong public and statutory purpose of ensuring fairness and equity in the dissolution of marriages. Rothman, supra, 65 N.J. at 229, 320 A.2d 496; see Peterson v. Peterson, 85 N.J. 638, 644, 428 A.2d 1301 (1981). Even when a divorce order incorporates agreements reached privately between the parties, such orders can be modified “in light of all the facts” bearing on what is “equitable and fair.” Smith v. Smith, 72 N.J. 350, 360, 371 A.2d 1 (1977). In New Jersey, “contract principles have little place in the law of domestic relations.”  Lepis v. Lepis, 83 N.J. 139, 148, 416 A.2d 45 (1980).

The adoption of a property settlement into a divorce decree does not render it immutable. Courts have continuing power to oversee divorce agreements, Corbin v. Mathews, 129 N.J. Eq. 549, 552 19 A.2d 633 (E. & A. 1941), and the discretion to modify them on a showing of “changed circumstances,” Berkowitz v. Berkowitz, 55 N.J. 564, 569 264 A.2d 49 (1970), that render their continued enforcement unfair, unjust, and inequitable. Lepis, supra, 83 N.J. at 154-55, 416 A.2d 45.

Where equitable distribution is sought pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23, an earlier separation agreement will be a bar to such relief only if, and to the extent that, it can qualify as a property settlement, and can likewise be shown to have been fair and equitable. Only then can it be said to be the substantial equivalent of an equitable distribution of marital assets, sufficient to justify denial of such relief.  Smith v. Smith, 72 N.J. 350 (1977)371 A.2d 1.


Inside New Jersey Separation Agreements Law