- January 26, 2023
File Under: Child Support, Custody, Divorce, Family Law, Jeralyn Lawrence
Jessie Frees of WMTR 1250 AM Radio Station’s host of Ask The Expert interviewed Jeralyn Lawrence, a New Jersey Divorce and Family Law Attorney. This is Part IV of a five part series of transcripts from the radio interview with Jeralyn.
Ask The Expert Host Jessie Frees of WMTR 1250 AM Radio Station Interview with Divorce and Family Law Attorney Jeralyn Lawrence – Part IV
The following is a continuation of Jeralyn Lawrence’s interview with “Ask the Expert” host Jessie Frees on WMTR 1250 AM a station streaming live on wmtram.com and talkstreamlive.com.
Jess: Does it matter who files first into divorce?
Jeralyn: It does not. Some people don’t like being called the plaintiff. Some people don’t like being called the defendant, but that’s just an optics thing or a personal preference thing. You don’t get any more or less if you’re the plaintiff or the defendant.
As president of the state bar, I want to talk to the court about changing that whole structure.
I don’t know why in family court we even have plaintiffs or defendants. Right? When a letter comes out of my office, particularly in a collaborative case, my team is mindful of this.
In every case, we try to describe it as “regarding the marriage of”. Regarding the marriage of Smith, regarding the marriage of Lawrence. Whatever the name is, we talk about it in terms of a family unit or a couple instead of a plaintiff or defendant. It just seems to start the case off on the wrong foot when you’re fighting about or worrying about who’s the plaintiff or the defendant when it doesn’t mean a thing, who files first.
And generally speaking, we don’t even file a complaint for divorce until after the agreement is signed. It’s a rare case where people are fighting and it matters who files first, or you need to get to the court first. That’s more for TV movies rather than reality. That’s generally not how divorce starts.
Generally, a divorce starts where the spouses talk and say, look, this isn’t working out I’ll have my lawyer call your lawyer. We start a conversation or we’re getting into mediation, or the lawyers are talking. It’s a rare case where, you know, people are throwing someone’s clothes out the window and you’re rushing to the court. That that can happen, but that’s an aberration.
Jess: How is custody of the child determined in New Jersey? Can a child ever choose between the parents of who they want to live with?
Jeralyn: In New Jersey, we have what’s called the best interest of the child standard. Whatever facts and circumstances of that particular family are relevant, speak to whatever the best interests of the child are. That’s always going to be what the court’s focus is on.
When I first started practicing 25 years ago and I will stereotype, generally speaking, dads were getting every Wednesday for dinner. Then every other weekend, Friday to Sunday that was their parenting time schedule. That’s just not the case anymore.
If you have an actively involved father that is willing and able to participate in custody and parenting time and wants robust and meaningful parenting time, they’re going to get more than what I just described. Everybody has to be available for their parenting time. They may have to change their work schedule.
Still, the cornerstone of any analysis is what’s in the best interest of the child, and historically, what was the status quo? What did their schedule look like? And what will the schedule look like going forward in this? Does that schedule meet their best interest?
Generally speaking kids aren’t deciding what the parenting time schedule should be. Unless they’re getting up there in age. Courts don’t even deal with custody and parenting time issues for kids that are 18. 17-year-olds are pretty much deciding where they’re going. 16, getting close to that. 15-year-olds it’s tough, they’re not controlling it, but they have a voice in what they want to do.
Jess: Very good. I’ve got to go on this quick break. And then as soon as we get back, we’ll be talking a lot more about divorce and custody, who gets the children, the rights of people in separation requirements.
I’m Jessie Frees, we’re talking to Jeralyn Lawrence, managing member and founder of Lawrence Law divorce and family attorneys in Watchung, New Jersey. We’ll be right back.
Now we return to, Ask The Expert on am, 1250 Classic Oldies WMTR.
Welcome back. My guest today is Jeralyn Lawrence, managing member and founder of Lawrence Law, Divorce and Family Attorneys of Watchung, New Jersey, certified as a Supreme Court of New Jersey as matrimonial law attorney. She represents clients with family law needs, including divorce, mediation, arbitration, custody, parenting time issues, alimony and so much more. We’ve got so much to get to today. Is child support ever impacted by the amount of time each parent physically spends with the child? How do the courts or attorney decide who gets the child the most?
Jeralyn: In New Jersey, we have child support guidelines, and those guidelines state the number one driver of what child support will be is the income of the parents. The more time the non-custodial parent is spending, the less child support they’re paying.
The more overnights that you have, it does correlate in child support, where you would pay less.
We have child support guidelines. It’s a computer program. All the judges have the same software, a lot goes into that calculation, but the number one driver is the income of the parties, parenting time. How many overnights is each of the parents having? You can put health insurance in the guidelines, if there are extracurricular activities or something like that, you can add that into the guidelines.
It can be a complicated calculation, but it’s helpful. There’s certainly a rebuttable presumption. If in your individual case, the guidelines come in too low, you can certainly advocate for your client and articulate to the court why the number that the guideline is saying is too low, and why that may be adjusted, but we have to use them. We have to look at them. It’s a tool that the judges are using to calculate child support.
Jess: And what if the main breadwinner loses his or her job and cannot meet the payment required?
Jeralyn: So, our (New Jersey) law there’s a whole body of case law that talks about changes in circumstance. If you have an agreement that says for alimony or child support, you have to pay X or Y, and that agreement was predicated on you earning Z you must show that you have suffered a permanent, substantial change in circumstance
It can’t be something that you’ve brought on yourself. You can’t say, I’ve agreed to pay X dollars. I’m working at a job in New York city making X dollars, but now I want to go golf in Hilton Head, South Carolina, and now I’m making, you know, a fraction of that. So therefore, I’m not going to pay alimony or child support a court can’t allow.
That kind of abuse and thumbing one’s nose at a court order would not likely meet the court’s approval of a change in circumstance. On the other hand, if you lose your job, you are downsized or the company goes out of business, and that happened for a period of time, generally more than three months, a court would say that’s a change in circumstance and would allow you to review your support obligations.
Jess: Who pays the debts between the couple and the college costs?
Jeralyn: Equitable distribution is usually the easiest part of my job. I need to do three things there. I need to identify the party’s assets and debts, value them and divide them. Assets and debts are treated just the same.
If they are marital and for marital purposes and acquired during the marriage, they are to be divided. So, if somebody is putting on their credit card, groceries, Taekwondo classes for the kids’ activities. Those are marital debts that are to be addressed and divided at the time of the divorce.
If somebody is having an extramarital affair and funding that affair on that same credit card, the other spouse is going to say, I’m not paying them. Right. So that’s not a marital debt. That would be put in the column of the person charging that. And they would be solely responsible for that.
Jess: Is adultery illegal in New Jersey and does it matter in a divorce case?
Jeralyn: It doesn’t. It used to matter. This is going back even before I started practicing law. From what I heard, a long time ago, adultery’s fault used to matter. This usually was harmful to women. All her husband had to show was that the woman had the opportunity and inclination to have an affair. If he could show that, the woman wouldn’t be entitled at all to alimony, it was a bar to alimony.
What was happening was women were being supported by the state. The state said this is crazy. Now our public policy has swung 180 degrees where now courts don’t care why you’re getting divorced.
Infidelity doesn’t matter. Again, if something is egregious courts care about fault, but generally speaking fault really doesn’t play any role in divorce. It could impact custody and parenting time. If you’re doing something not smart with your kids, subjecting your kids to something that shows a real lack of judgment absolutely can impact custody and parenting time.
Generally speaking, you’ll hear judges tell you, ”You are married. You thought he was a good person. You thought she was a good person. We’re not going to get into refereeing fault. We just don’t have the capacity to be able to do that. We already are overworked, underpaid, and have a huge backlog. So, we’re just not going to get into it. Unless it’s an egregious fault.”
Jess: Wow. New Jersey and the world have changed. So, I’ve been doing this for years. We had a huge, huge change. We’ve got to go on a quick break. And my guest today is Jeralyn Lawrence managing member and founder of Lawrence Law, Divorce and Family Attorneys of Watchung, New Jersey. She has so many honors listed to her. We’ll be right back with Jeralyn Lawrence.
And now we return to Ask The Expert on am 1250 classic oldies WMTR
Welcome back. We are talking with Jeralyn Lawrence, managing member and founder of Lawrence Law, Divorce and Family Attorneys of Watchung, New Jersey.
Jeralyn, do you see any cases where one spouse is so bitter or angry at the other that they use the child as a pawn or speak ill of their spouse?
And how harmful is this to the whole case?
Jeralyn: Unfortunately, I have seen that happen. You know, I try to educate or enlighten my client. That’s not a good thing, that you’re hurting your child, the person that you love the most in the world, you are hurting, by doing that.
You know, if that’s happening, I rely very much on the therapeutic process. Try to get professional therapists involved to figure out what’s driving that and how can we best approach that so that stops it from happening, because kids don’t want to be involved in this. They love mom and dad. They just want to be happy.
That can make a case take a wrong turn and have a lot of litigation, get a lot of child psychologists and experts involved. It can take a case down a path where it can become very expensive, very prolonged. If a judge is making a decision, there can be significant consequences to that. You can lose custody. You can be a stay-at-home parent, and if you’re found to have abused your child like that, tried to alienate your child, you can lose custody. Well, you can have supervised visits. There are severe consequences if you’re able to prove that the other parent is doing that to a child.
Jess: Right. And there’s a parent who has main custody of a child. Are they ever allowed to move out of the state?
Jeralyn: Our law changed recently and, the Supreme Court came down with an opinion that addressed relocation. The standard is now in the best interest of the child. The same standard that I was speaking about earlier with regard to how a court decides custody and parenting time.
It’s much harder now in New Jersey to relocate. If both parents are actively involved parents, it’s hard for a court to say it’s in the child’s best interest to be moved out of state and away from a parent. It’s harder to do that. If you have a parent that’s absent, inactive it has become easier to relocate because it’s in the best interest of the child to do that. And the age of a child can impact that as well. If you have an older child that can choose where they want to live, courts are paying attention to that.
Jess: If one parent wants a child to be vaccinated and the other disagrees or one thinks they should be wearing a mask and the other disagrees, how did they settle a little dispute such as that?
Jeralyn: That’s a hot button item right now. And it’s been anything but a little dispute. I get a phone call a day about this right now. So, most parents share what’s called joint legal custody. Meaning both parents have equal say in major decisions affecting the kid’s health, education, safety, welfare, and under that umbrella for joint legal custody or medical decisions.
Do they get a vaccination or not? All parties or parents are aligned with what they want their child to receive or not receive. But with this COVID vaccine, there is a lot of friction with parents. If the parents agree, I don’t ever hear from them, but if I hear from the ones where they can’t agree and one wants them vaccinated or one doesn’t want them vaccinated in New Jersey, we do not have a reported decision on it just yet.
From everything that I’m hearing, courts are wanting to have a trial on it, then they will render a decision. New York has issued a decision where if parents disagree as to having the vaccine, the court ordered the child to be vaccinated. I suspect that that’s where New Jersey is going to come down.
If a parent has testimony from the child’s pediatrician that they are recommending that the child be vaccinated, I think a court is going to compel the objecting parent to cooperate with the vaccine, although there’s no reported case on it just yet. I just think that that’s where we’re going to land.
Jess: Well, that’s good, but what about spoiling? If one parent wants to get in with the child and let him stay up late and does all the wrong things for them, and it’s already been decided, is there any recourse the other parent has?
Jeralyn: We hear that a lot. We call them Disneyland parents. They changed their ways, post-divorce. Now one household has all the rules. There’s discipline, there’s you have to do schoolwork, you have to have a curfew, you have to put your phone away at a certain time.
Then there’s another household where there are no rules and its playtime party time all the time. I can just tell you that if that’s the households where there are no rules, that’s going to catch up with that parent. When school is impacted. Attendance lists will bear that out. If a child is tardy all the time, or if you’re always getting notes from the teacher on the days, following the parent that’s not running a reasonable household at home, the court’s going to pay attention to that.
Courts do not want to see absences. They do not want to see tardies. and that sticks out like a red flag on a report card, you know, five tardies, six tardies. And when you drill down on that and map that out on a calendar that was always following mom’s time or always following dad’s, a court’s going to pay attention to that and they can change your parenting time schedule.
Consult a New Jersey Family Lawyer
Divorce is a challenging emotional time. There is never a good time for a divorce. Schedule a consultation with one of our New Jersey family law attorneys who all specialize in divorce and family law by calling Lawrence Law at 908-645-1000 to learn how we can guide you through the emotional journey of divorce and related matters to a desired outcome and better place.