Alimony Term Of Property Settlement Agreement Will Not Be Reinterpreted By The Court
- May 26, 2015
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In Sercia v. Sercia, the Defendant appealed from a post-judgment matrimonial Family Court Order that denied her Motion for the payment of supplemental alimony from the Plaintiff’s annual bonus income under. The Appellate Court affirmed the decision of the Family Court. The parties were married in 1999 and have two (2) children. The Plaintiff filed for divorce and the parties amicably resolved all issues and executed a property settlement agreement (PSA) that was incorporated into their final divorce judgment in 2010. In the agreement, the Plaintiff agreed to pay alimony and child support based upon his salary of $125,000 and the Defendant’s imputed income of $20,000. Further, a provision in the agreement specified that the Plaintiff was to pay the Defendant one third of the net cash bonus that he earned each year in addition to the alimony award. Under the PSA, the Defendant was only entitled to a share of the Plaintiff’s bonus when the bonus totaled $100,000 or greater. In 2011, the Defendant submitted a Motion to enforce litigant’s rights and among the relief that she requested was to compel the Plaintiff to pay one third of his bonus. The Plaintiff did not oppose the Motion. The judge denied the Defendant’s request because the Plaintiff’s bonus did not come close to $100,000. Another Motion was submitted in 2013 in which the Defendant requested discovery regarding the Plaintiff’s income and bonus income, payment of one third the net bonus for 2010, 2011, and 2012, and counsel fees. The Plaintiff did not respond. A Family Court judge granted the Defendant’s request for discovery, but denied her request for the payment of supplemental alimony. The Defendant appealed from this decision arguing that the language of the parties’ PSA was being misinterpreted by the court and by the Plaintiff and that it was intended to award her with alimony payments both from the Plaintiff’s base income, as well as, his bonus despite the amount. According to the Appellate Court: “An agreement to settle a lawsuit is a contract, which like all contracts, may be freely entered into and which a court, absent a demonstration of fraud or other compelling circumstances, should honor and enforce as it does other contracts.” Brundage v. Estate of Carambio, 195 N.J. 575, 601 (2008). “When examining the terms of a settlement agreement, we are guided by the rules of contract construction.” Globe Motor Co. v. Igdalev, 436 N.J. Super. 594, 601 (App. Div. 2014); Thompson v. City of Atl. City, 190 N.J. 359, 379 (2007). “The polestar of contract construction is to discover the intention of the parties as revealed by the language used by them.” Karl’s Sales & Serv., Inc. v. Gimbel Bros., Inc., 249 N.J. Super. 487, 492 (App. Div.) certif. denied, 127 N.J. 548 (1991). Therefore, a court cannot re-write a contract or grant a better deal than that for which the parties expressly bargained. Solondz v. Kornmehl, 317 N.J. Super. 16, 21 (App. Div. 1998). The Appellate Division held that the language at issue in the parties’ PSA is unambiguous and therefore should be applied as the Family Courts and the Plaintiff have understood it to apply. The decision of the lower court was affirmed. If you believe that a post-judgment modification to your property settlement agreement (PSA) regarding alimony may be beneficial to you or if you anticipate defending the language of your PSA as written it is critical that you seek out the advice of an experienced attorney before moving forward. For more information about post-judgment modification, alimony, equitable distribution or other family law matters in New Jersey visit DarlingFirm.com. This blog is for informational purposes and in no way is intended to replace the advice if an attorney.