(NOTE: The status of this decision is Published.)
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE
APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
SUPERIOR COURT OF NEW JERSEY
DOCKET NO. A-0468-17T3
Plaintiff-Appellant, APPROVED FOR PUBLICATION
September 20, 2018
DEBRA HOWELL, a/k/a
DEBRA A. HOWELL,
Submitted September 12, 2018 – Decided September 20, 2018
Before Judges Messano, Fasciale and
On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey,
Chancery Division, Family Part, Cape May County,
Docket No. FD-05-0386-11.
Richard A. Renza, Jr., attorney for appellant.
Anthony J. Harvatt II, attorney for respondent.
The opinion of the court was delivered by
Plaintiff appeals from an August 15, 2017 order entered after a bench
trial requiring that he return the parties' children to New Jersey from South
Carolina. Judge James H. Pickering, Jr. conducted the trial, entered the order,
and rendered a sixty-six page written decision. He concluded that plaintiff
unlawfully removed the children from New Jersey without first complying
with N.J.S.A. 9:2-2.
Plaintiff gave defendant less than one day's notice about the move, and
although defendant objected, plaintiff moved to South Carolina without first
obtaining an order permitting the relocation. Defendant filed an order to show
cause (OTSC) seeking custody and the return of the children to New Jersey.
The judge found plaintiff knew the statute required that he obtain an order
permitting the removal before relocating to South Carolina, but he removed the
children anyway, because he feared the court might grant defendant's pending
motion for overnight visits with the children. After losing the trial, plaintiff
sought reconsideration of the order under review, and for the first time,
requested a best interests analysis.
We hold – because defendant had objected to the South Carolina move –
that N.J.S.A. 9:2-2 required plaintiff to first obtain an order permitting the
removal of the children from this jurisdiction before the actual relocation. The
time for the judge to determine whether plaintiff had established "cause" for
the removal of the children would have been before the relocation occurred.
Requiring the judge to analyze whether "cause" existed after the relocation
ignores the unambiguous plain text of the statute, plaintiff's ultimate burden of
proof to demonstrate "cause" before the move occurs, and the important
Legislative purpose for requiring a showing of cause – that is, to preserve the
rights of a noncustodial parent to maintain and develop her familial
We therefore affirm. Our affirmance is without prejudice, however, to
plaintiff seeking an appropriate order under N.J.S.A. 9:2-2 should he decide to
The parties were never married. They had two children together, born in
2007 and 2009. In approximately 2011, they agreed to joint ph ysical custody
of the children, and for eighteen months, they shared parenting time. In
October 2013, plaintiff became the parent of primary residence. At all relevant
times, they shared legal custody.
Initially, defendant developed an interest in relocating with the children
to Florida. On May 1, 2015, the parties entered into a limited consent order
(the May 2015 order) permitting plaintiff to relocate with the children from
New Jersey to Florida. The May 2015 order – which mentioned Florida seven
times and omits any reference to South Carolina – contemplated defendant's
parenting time before and after the expected move to Florida. Defendant never
relocated to Florida.
In November 2015, while the children remained in New Jersey,
defendant filed a motion seeking overnight parenting time with the children.
The motion had been initially returnable in February 2016, but the parties
asked the judge to adjourn that date so they could negotiate. The judge carried
the return date to March 2016, but plaintiff requested the judge relist argument
for April 7, 2016.
While the motion was pending, at 8:37 p.m. on Sunday, April 3, 2016,
plaintiff told defendant he and the children would be moving to South Carolina
the next day, and he offered her ten minutes in the morning to say goodbye.
Although defendant adamantly objected, plaintiff relocated with the children to
South Carolina on the morning of April 4, 2016, without obtaining an order
permitting the move.
On the April 7 return date, a motion judge (the motion judge) – not the
judge who entered the order under review – conducted oral argument on
defendant's motion for overnight parenting time. The motion judge learned for
the first time that plaintiff had taken the children to South Carolina three days
earlier, and informed plaintiff's counsel that the May 2015 order did not
authorize the move to South Carolina. In response, plaintiff's counsel
presented a proposed consent order, signed only by plaintiff, the purpose of
which was to permit the move, albeit after the fact. Defendant repeated her
strong objection and refused to sign the proposed order.
Also on the April 7 return date, the motion judge, as an interim measure
to deal with the new information she had just learned, temporarily allowed the
children to remain in South Carolina "until further order" of the court. As part
of that order, she did not perform – nor was she asked to do so – a best
interests analysis or otherwise determine, in accordance with N.J.S.A. 9:2-2,
whether "cause" existed for plaintiff to remove the children from New Jersey.
The motion judge made no findings of fact or conclusions of law as to
plaintiff's decision to relocate to South Carolina. Importantly, the motion
judge stated that she allowed the removal only on a temporary basis and that
the relocation "procedurally may have been defective."
The children remained in South Carolina for approximately two months.
In June, plaintiff and the children returned to New Jersey, but again on July 28,
2016 – without obtaining defendant's consent or a court order – plaintiff
returned to South Carolina with the children. Plaintiff then retained counsel to
petition the court for relief.
In September 2016, defendant filed her OTSC. With counsel's
assistance, defendant requested the court do two things: (1) require plaintiff
return the children to New Jersey, and (2) award her sole custody. By this
time, she did not know where in South Carolina the children resided, or have
any other basic information about the children.
On the initial return of the OTSC, the judge ordered electronic
communication between defendant and the children. The judge confirmed
plaintiff's address in South Carolina and established parenting time for
defendant. The judge then tried the case on five days between February and
May 2017. Thereafter, Judge Pickering made numerous findings of fact and
conclusions of law as to the unlawful removal and defendant's request for
As to the relocation, the judge concluded that plaintiff violated N.J.S.A.
9:2-2. The judge found plaintiff moved out of State without defendant's
consent, knowing that the May 2015 order applied only to Florida. The judge
found that the proposed order, the one only plaintiff signed and presented to
the motion judge, added additional proof that plaintiff understood that the May
2015 order did not authorize the move to South Carolina. After assessing
credibility issues, he found that plaintiff intentionally left New Jersey on April
4, knowing it was illegal. The judge entered a parenting plan, and then
directed plaintiff to consult with defendant about all "issues to which
[defendant] is entitled to have input [on] as a joint custodian," such as where in
New Jersey the children would reside. The order required the children be
returned within ten days.
The judge then denied defendant's request to modify the custody
arrangement after applying the governing case law and factors listed in
N.J.S.A. 9:2-4(c).1 The judge used these factors solely for his custody
analysis. Although the factors are relevant for determining whether "cause"
exists under N.J.S.A. 9:2-2, a judge undertaking such an evaluation may
1 N.J.S.A. 9:2-4(c) provides factors a court must consider when awarding
custody and states in part:
[T]he court shall consider but not be limited to the
following factors: the parents' ability to agree,
communicate and cooperate in matters relating to the
child; the parents' willingness to accept custody and
any history of unwillingness to allow parenting time
not based on substantiated abuse; the interaction and
relationship of the child with its parents and siblings;
the history of domestic violence, if any; the safety of
the child and the safety of either parent from physical
abuse by the other parent; the preference of the child
when of sufficient age and capacity to reason so as to
form an intelligent decision; the needs of the child; the
stability of the home environment offered; the quality
and continuity of the child's education; the fitness of
the parents; the geographical proximity of the parents'
homes; the extent and quality of the time spent with
the child prior to or subsequent to the separation; the
parents' employment responsibilities; and the age and
number of the children. A parent shall not be deemed
unfit unless the parents' conduct has a substantial
adverse effect on the child.
supplement the "cause" analysis by considering other factors as appropriate.
Bisbing v. Bisbing, 230 N.J. 309, 338 (2017). The judge considered the
N.J.S.A. 9:2-4(c) factors using the evidence relevant to custody. Plaintiff
never asked the judge – before the move, during the trial, or before the August
17, 2017 order – to determine whether he had "cause" to relocate to South
Carolina. Thus, the failure to do so deprived the judge from supplementing his
findings and conclusions regarding the N.J.S.A. 9:2-4(c) factors.
Plaintiff then moved for reconsideration of the August 17, 2017 order
requiring that he return the children to New Jersey. As part of his motion,
plaintiff requested – for the first time – that the judge perform a best interests
of the child analysis. Up until this point, plaintiff had never requested such an
analysis, be it one guided by Baures or Bisbing.2 Plaintiff did not ask the
judge on reconsideration to evaluate whether he had "cause" to remove the
Up to the end of trial testimony, Baures v. Lewis, 167 N.J. 91 (2001), was
the controlling law. The Court decided Bisbing between the end of the trial
and issuance of the August 17, 2017 order. "Under Baures, a parent with
primary custody seeking to relocate children out of state over the objection of
the other parent must demonstrate only that there is a good-faith reason for an
interstate move and that the relocation 'will not be inimical to the child's
interests.'" Bisbing, 230 N.J. at 312 (quoting Baures, 167 N.J. at 118).
Bisbing required courts to "conduct a best interests analysis to determine
'cause' under N.J.S.A. 9:2-2 in all contested relocation disputes in which the
parents share legal custody – whether the custody arrangement designates a
parent of primary residence and a parent of alternate residence, or provides for
equally shared custody." Id. at 335.
children to South Carolina. It was too late for that. Instead , plaintiff
contended that before the judge ordered him to return the children to New
Jersey, defendant had the burden to show it would be in the best interests of
the children to do so. Judge Pickering rejected plaintiff's burden-shifting
argument and denied reconsideration rendering a twenty-page written decision.
On appeal, plaintiff argues that the May 2015 order authorized the move
to South Carolina. He contends that even if that was not the case, then the
motion judge's temporary order permitting the children to remain in South
Carolina satisfied the requirements of N.J.S.A. 9:2-2. Plaintiff asserts that the
language of this statute does not require he first obtain an order permitting the
relocation before the actual move. The premise of his argument is that a
parent could remove his children from this State – without the other parent's
consent or a court order – and then after the move, make the other parent
demonstrate on her motion to return the children to New Jersey that it would
be in their best interests to do so.
We begin by interpreting N.J.S.A. 9:2-2. Our standard of review is well
settled. "In matters of statutory interpretation, our review is de novo." Verry
v. Franklin Fire Dist. No. 1, 230 N.J. 285, 294 (2017). "The Legislature's
intent is the paramount goal when interpreting a statute and, generally, the best
indicator of that intent is the statutory language." DiProspero v. Penn, 183 N.J. 477, 492 (2005). A court should "ascribe to the statutory words their
ordinary meaning and significance, and read them in context with related
provisions so as to give sense to the legislation as a whole." Ibid. (citations
omitted). "[I]f there is ambiguity in the statutory language that leads to more
than one plausible interpretation, we may turn to extrinsic evidence, 'including
legislative history, committee reports, and contemporaneous construction.'"
Id. at 492-93 (quoting Cherry Hill Manor Assocs. v. Faugno, 182 N.J. 64, 75
N.J.S.A. 9:2-2 governs plaintiff's removal of the children from New
Jersey. In relevant part, the statue "requires a showing of 'cause' before a court
will authorize the . . . removal of a child to another state without the consent of
both parents . . . ." Bisbing, 230 N.J. at 323 (emphasis added). Plaintiff's
counsel wrote in his merits brief, "[n]othing in the statute requires that an
order allowing relocation must precede the actual move." Such an assertion is
contrary to the plain and unambiguous text of N.J.S.A. 9:2-2, which states:
When the Superior Court has jurisdiction over the
custody and maintenance of the minor children of
parents divorced, separated or living separate, and
such children are natives of this State, or have resided
five years within its limits, they shall not be removed
out of its jurisdiction against their own consent, if of
suitable age to signify the same, nor while under that
age without the consent of both parents, unless the
court, upon cause shown, shall otherwise order. The
court, upon application of any person in behalf of such
minors, may require such security and issue such writs
and processes as shall be deemed proper to effect the
purposes of this section.
There is no need to look to extrinsic evidence. The children "shall not be
removed out of [this] jurisdiction . . . without the consent of both parents,
unless the court, upon cause shown, shall otherwise order." Ibid. The plain
text of the statute prohibited defendant from removing the children from New
Jersey without consent or a court order.
Plaintiff says he had no obligation to file a motion seeking permission to
relocate to South Carolina with the children. To support that assertion, he
relies on the May 2015 order and the motion judge's rulings. We reject,
however, plaintiff's argument that the May 2015 order, or the motion judge's
rulings, somehow satisfied his statutory obligation under N.J.S.A. 9:2-2 that he
first obtain defendant's consent or obtain a court order before making the move
to South Carolina. As to these contentions, the judge made detailed findings
and conclusions of law.
The scope of our review of the trial judge's findings of fact is limited.
Cesare v. Cesare, 154 N.J. 394, 411 (1998). We will not reverse if on appeal
the record supports the judge's factual findings by adequate, substantial, and
credible evidence. Id. at 411-12 (citing Rova Farms Resort, Inc. v. Inv'rs Ins.
Co., 65 N.J. 474, 484 (1974)). Moreover, "[b]ecause of the family courts'
special jurisdiction and expertise in family matters, appellate courts should
accord deference to [the judge's] fact[-]finding." Id. at 413. Although we
defer to the judge's findings of fact when supported by sufficient evidence, we
owe no deference to the judge's decision on an issue of law or the legal
consequences that flow from established facts. Manalapan Realty, L.P. v.
Twp. Comm. of Manalapan, 140 N.J. 366, 378 (1995). Applying these
standards, we have no reason to disturb the judge's findings of fact or
conclusions of law.
The judge found that the May 2015 order (which did not alter the parties'
joint custody) authorized plaintiff and the children to relocate only to Florida.
The judge reached that finding after taking testimony from the parties and
reading the order. The judge found that in March 2014, plaintiff began living
with an individual who had two children of her own. He married her (the
wife) in the summer of 2014, and plaintiff wished to take his children to
Florida, to care for the wife's mother. The parties then negotiated the terms of
the May 2015 order, which included parenting time in New Jersey and Florida.
Defendant testified that she understood the relocation would be around the
Orlando area, where the wife's mother lived. The parties' negotiations had
nothing to do with the children living in South Carolina under any
But while still living in New Jersey with plaintiff in November 2015, the
wife (who has since divorced plaintiff) and her two children left plaintiff and
moved to Florida. The judge found that plaintiff then moved to South
Carolina, while defendant's motion for overnight parenting time was pending,
"to deny defendant parenting time," specifically to "avoid the possibility that
the [motion judge would grant] overnight visits with defendant." He found
plaintiff "took actions to be sure defendant did not have sufficient time to get a
court order to stop the move."
Furthermore, in addition to the plain terms of the May 2015 order, the
judge found plaintiff knew he lacked defendant's consent to move to South
Carolina. Two weeks before plaintiff relocated to South Carolina, plaintiff
retained counsel to prepare the proposed order seeking defendant's consent,
which she never gave. And only plaintiff signed the proposed order on the
morning he took the children to South Carolina. The judge therefore found
that plaintiff moved to South Carolina "knowing full well that he was doing so
against the law of the State of New Jersey and the May 1, 2015 [c]onsent
Finally, plaintiff's contention that the motion judge's ruling satisfied
N.J.S.A. 9:2-2 ignores, in the absence of defendant's consent, the statute's
requirement that he show "cause" before removing the children from New
Jersey. The motion judge made no such finding, and stated that plaintiff's
relocation to South Carolina was essentially procedurally deficient. The
temporary order entered by the motion judge did not satisfy the statute,
especially because its issuance ignored plaintiff's ultimate burden of proof
obligation. And there is no suggestion that defendant had consented to her
children remaining in South Carolina, as ordered by the motion judge. In fact,
the temporary arrangement led to defendant's OTSC.
Plaintiff argues that once he relocated with the children to South
Carolina – without defendant's consent or a court order – defendant had the
burden to show that plaintiff lacked cause to remove them from New Jersey
before the judge could mandate their return. Plaintiff suggests that defendant
would do that by demonstrating that it would be in the best interests of the
children to return them to New Jersey. According to plaintiff's logic,
defendant would need to file a motion to return the children who he had
removed in violation of N.J.S.A. 9:2-2, and as part of that motion, assume the
Such an approach would encourage individuals to first remove children
from this jurisdiction, then later seek court approval. When the other parent
objects beforehand, the process envisioned by N.J.S.A. 9:2-2 is for the parent
seeking to relocate to first apply for an order permitting relocation, establish
"cause," then relocate only if permitted by the court. The process does not
permit a parent to relocate and then attempt to shift the burden to the other
parent to show on an application to return the children that it would be in their
best interests to do so.
When the other parent objects, the parent seeking removal of the
children has the ultimate burden of proof by the preponderance of the
evidence. Requiring the burden of proof to shift to defendant to show that it
would be in the children's best interest, as a condition precedent to returning
them to New Jersey, ignores the Legislature's reason for requiring a
preliminary demonstration of "cause" under N.J.S.A. 9:2-2 before the actual
removal. It is to "preserve the rights of the noncustodial parent and the child
to maintain and develop their familial relationship." Bisbing, 230 N.J. at 323
(citations and internal quotation marks omitted). Under the facts of this case,
preserving defendant's rights to maintain and develop her familial relationship
with the children required – by the plain text of N.J.S.A. 9:2-2 – that plaintiff
first obtain an order, before removing the children, by showing "cause" existed
for the relocation to South Carolina.
Plaintiff had numerous opportunities to apply for an order permitting the
move before relocating to South Carolina. He could have filed such an
application after the parties consented to the May 2015 order, when it became
apparent to him that he would not be following through on his intention to live
in Florida with the wife. Or plaintiff could have filed an OTSC immediately
after defendant first objected to the move on April 3. There was no basis
whatsoever to move the children to South Carolina without plaintiff first
obtaining a court order to do so.
If plaintiff sought an order in April 2016, before he removed the children
from New Jersey, the judge would have analyzed whether "cause" existed for
the removal by applying the Baures standard. That is, plaintiff (as the parent
seeking removal) would have had the burden of establishing "cause" under
N.J.S.A. 9:2-2 by showing "good faith and that the move will not be inimical
to the [children's] interest." Id. at 324 (quoting Baures, 167 N.J. at 116)
(internal quotation marks omitted). And if he had sought such an order, the
judge would have considered at a minimum the twelve factors relevant to his
burden of proof. Baures, 167 N.J. at 116-17. Those factors would have been:
(1) the reasons given for the move; (2) the reasons
given for the opposition; (3) the past history of
dealings between the parties insofar as it bears on the
reasons advanced by both parties for supporting and
opposing the move; (4) whether the child will receive
educational, health and leisure opportunities at least
equal to what is available here; (5) any special needs
or talents of the child that require accommodation and
whether such accommodation or its equivalent is
available in the new location; (6) whether a visitation
and communication schedule can be developed that
will allow the noncustodial parent to maintain a full
and continuous relationship with the child; (7) the
likelihood that the custodial parent will continue to
foster the child's relationship with the noncustodial
parent if the move is allowed; (8) the effect of the
move on extended family relationships here and in the
new location; (9) if the child is of age, his or her
preference; (10) whether the child is entering his or
her senior year in high school at which point he or she
should generally not be moved until graduation
without his or her consent; (11) whether the
noncustodial parent has the ability to relocate; (12)
any other factor bearing on the child's interest.
If plaintiff had not unilaterally removed the children and sought an order
permitting the removal after the Court decided Bisbing on August 8, 2017,
then the judge would have analyzed whether cause existed for the removal by
applying the Bisbing standard. In place of the Baures standard, the Court
stated in pertinent part that courts
should conduct a best interests analysis to determine
"cause" under N.J.S.A. 9:2-2 in all contested
relocation disputes in which the parents share legal
custody — whether the custody arrangement
designates a parent of primary residence and a parent
of alternate residence, or provides for equally shared
custody . . . . A number of the statutory best interests
factors will be directly relevant in typical relocation
decisions and additional factors not set forth in the
statute may also be considered in a given case.
In the best interests analysis, the parent of
primary residence may have important insights about
the arrangement that will most effectively serve the
child. The parent of alternate residence may similarly
offer significant information about the child. The
views of other adults with close relationships with the
child may also inform the court's decision . . . . The
trial [judge] may consider other evidence, including
documentary evidence, interviews with the children at
the [judge's] discretion, and expert testimony.
[Bisbing, 230 N.J. at 335 (citations omitted).]
The Court concluded that under N.J.S.A. 9:2-2, "'cause' should be determined
by a best interests analysis in which the court will consider all relevant factors
set forth in N.J.S.A. 9:2-4(c), supplemented by other factors as appropriate."
Id. at 338 (emphasis added). Because plaintiff never made such an
application, the parties and the judge never argued what other factors might be
relevant to relocation.
Therefore, under either Baures or Bisbing, had plaintiff sought an order
under N.J.S.A. 9:2-2 to remove the children from New Jersey, plaintiff had the
ultimate burden to show "cause" for the desired removal. But the judge and
parties never reached that step because plaintiff unlawfully removed the
children. We flatly reject plaintiff's burden-shifting contention.
Finally, we have considered plaintiff's assertion that the judge failed to
appoint a guardian ad litem for the children. Under the facts of this case, we
conclude that this contention and plaintiff's remaining arguments – including
that on this appeal, we should essentially retain original jurisdiction and enter
an order permitting him to relocate with the children to South Carolina – are
without sufficient merit to warrant discussion in a written opinion. R. 2:11-