(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NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE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-1326-20
APPROVED FOR PUBLICATION
February 22, 2022
K.H.G., APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued January 27, 2022 – Decided February 22, 2022
Before Judges Alvarez, Haas, and Mawla.
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey,
Chancery Division, Family Part, Ocean County, Docket
Darren C. O'Toole argued the cause for appellant (Law
Office of Darren C. O'Toole, LLC, attorneys; Darren C.
O'Toole and Alexa N. Joyce, of counsel and on the
Bonnie C. Frost argued the cause for respondent
(Einhorn, Barbarito, Frost & Botwinick, PC, attorneys;
Bonnie C. Frost and Jessie M. Mills, on the brief).
The opinion of the court was delivered by
We use the parties' initials pursuant to Rule 1:38-3(e).
Defendant K.H.G. appeals from a January 8, 2021 order denying her
motion to vacate a January 25, 2018 final judgment of divorce (FJOD), which
incorporated a property settlement agreement (PSA). We affirm.
In April 2016, plaintiff D.M.C. filed a complaint for divorce ending the
parties' thirty-one-year marriage. During the marriage, defendant was employed
as a guidance counselor and later vested in the Teachers' Pension and Annuity
Fund (TPAF); plaintiff owned a tavern, other businesses, and properties. Since
2000, defendant has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, manic type with
psychotic features, schizophrenia, paranoid type, and schizoaffective disorder,
bipolar type. After her initial diagnosis, defendant experienced fifteen
psychiatric inpatient hospitalizations, including a breakdown following the
filing of the divorce complaint.
In September 2016, the parties' counsel entered a consent order appointing
Diana L. Anderson as defendant's guardian ad litem (GAL). The order granted
Anderson, an attorney specializing in elder and guardianship matters, "full
access to all information regarding defendant's situation" and provided for a six -
month review of her role as GAL. The order also memorialized defendant's right
to revoke her consent to the GAL's appointment.
The court also entered a case management order in October 2016
memorializing that defendant retained a forensic accountant "to value plaintiff's
business interest in [the tavern,] . . . his interests in various real estate entities,
determine the plaintiff's economic cash flow from all sources, prepare a marital
net asset statement, and perform a tracing analysis as it relates to specific marital
bank accounts." Plaintiff retained his own expert to "perform a forensic
evaluation of [the] business and cash flow."
In February 2017, the court entered a pendente lite order adjudicating
various relief sought by the parties. Defendant sought $6,000 per month in
pendente lite support and plaintiff argued the figure should be $2,000 per month.
The court noted both children were emancipated and awarded defendant $4,100
per month. In April 2017, the court entered an order, noting it heard oral
argument and took testimony from the GAL, appointing the GAL as attorney-
in-fact for defendant "to make any and all financial decisions," and allowing the
GAL to attend all court proceedings on defendant's behalf. The order directed
defendant to undergo psychiatric evaluation, permitted the GAL to accept
defendant's Social Security Disability (SSD) retroactive payment, and ordered
her to establish an account for the SSD and pendente lite funds.
The GAL filed an order to show cause in the Probate Part asking the court
to grant a judgment of guardianship appointing the parties' two adult children as
co-guardians. The application cited two 2017 assessments diagnosing defendant
with "Schizoaffective Disorder, Bipolar Type, Continuous with Paranoia ." The
evaluations, which were based on a review of defendant's medical records and
interviews, concluded defendant did not have the cognitive capacity to make
decisions for herself. 2 One doctor found that since February 2015, defendant
"demonstrated continuous severe psychiatric issues with fixed delusions[,] . . .
[and] impulsive behavior, including excessive spending . . . ." The other doctor
reached a similar conclusion.
On October 16, 2017, the Probate Part judge entered a judgment declaring
defendant incapacitated, finding her "incapable of governing herself and
managing her affairs and unable to consent to medical treatment." The court
appointed the parties' son and daughter, then approximately twenty-eight and
twenty-six years of age, as defendant's permanent co-guardians and directed the
co-guardians to participate in the divorce on defendant's behalf.
Contrary to defendant's arguments on appeal that the doctors performing the
evaluations did not meet with her, each doctor noted defendant refused to meet
with them, which was symptomatic of her paranoia.
On October 27, 2017, the Family Part judge entered an order denying
plaintiff's motion to reduce the pendente lite support citing defendant's
incapacitation and the costs of her care. The judge also denied defendant's
requests for counsel fees, finding the fees excessive because defendant's
attorney requested $100,000 and predicted she would need an additional
$50,000 to attend mediation. The judge also noted defendant's counsel lacked
the authority to request fees because defendant was declared incapacitated and
the decision should be left to the guardians "who . . . were just appointed, [to]
determine whether continued litigation at the expense of the marital estate is
prudent or necessary."
The judge also reviewed a certification filed by the forensic accountant,
noting his firm had incurred over $48,000 in fees and was seeking nearly
$23,000 for outstanding fees and an advance of $10,000. The expert opined
plaintiff's 2015 monthly cash flow was $21,633 but attached no analysis to
support the opinion. The judge also noted the expert's bills provided only a
summary "with no breakdown" and "[s]ome of the monthly totals, which exceed
$10,000, appear excessive. Moreover, the court has reviewed [defendant's
expert's] certification and notes the same is close to a net opinion in that he
provides little factual support necessary for his conclusions." The judge denied
the request for expert fees, observing they exceeded plaintiff's expert fees, "who
appears to have handled the bulk of assembling the financial information." The
judge ordered Anderson continue serving as GAL.
The co-guardians terminated the expert and retained new divorce counsel.
The court held a settlement conference, which was attended by both counsel,
plaintiff, the co-guardians, and the GAL. On January 25, 2018, the matter
settled, and the court entered the FJOD. Anderson was dismissed as GAL the
same day. Plaintiff was sixty-two and defendant fifty-seven years of age when
The PSA required plaintiff continue paying defendant the monthly $4,100
pendente lite support until sale of the marital residence. Defendant received a
$61,500 tax free alimony buyout, which the PSA stated was based on the
A. [Plaintiff] had a 2016 cash flow of $97,731 as
calculated by his forensic accounting expert . . . ;
B. Upon entry of a divorce judgment [plaintiff] will
lose the medical insurance coverage he currently
receives as part of [defendant's] retirement package
which will cost him approximately $1,500 per month
C. [Defendant] has [a] pension income of $3,036 per
month or $36,432 annually; [and]
D. [Defendant] has [SSD] [i]ncome of $1,967 per
month or $23,604 annually.
The PSA stated the buyout would be included in the monthly equitable
distribution payment, which is discussed below.
The PSA contained a mutual alimony waiver and stated: "In entering this
waiver of alimony, both parties recognize that generally alimony waivers are
modifiable based upon significant changes in circumstances. The parties,
however, have agreed that the alimony waiver contained herein shall be non-
modifiable." The parties also agreed they could not maintain the marital
standard of living set forth in their respective Case Information Statements
Regarding equitable distribution, the parties agreed to sell the marital
residence and equally divide the proceeds. The PSA identified plaintiff's
seventy percent interest in three corporate real estate entities, valued at
$790,551, of which defendant received forty percent. The PSA noted plaintiff
owned fifty-two percent of the tavern, valued at $270,400, and awarded
defendant thirty percent of the value.
The PSA did not attach the CISs or otherwise identify them. The appellate
record only contains plaintiff's July 13, 2016 CIS showing a joint marital
lifestyle of $14,955 per month and three pages of defendant's December 6, 2016
CIS without the budget section of the document.
Other assets included three loans receivable. One note paid $7,027 per
month with a balloon payment due in April 2020 of $719,000. The parties
agreed plaintiff would retain the monthly payments on the note to pay the costs
of the marital residence pending its sale. After the sale of the marital residence,
the PSA provided for an equal equitable distribution of the note and the interest
until the balloon payment was made. On the second note, defendant received
$35,000 representing fifty percent of the principal balance and an additional
equitable distribution payment of $2,800, in exchange for plaintiff retaining the
note. Plaintiff retained the third note and defendant received $24,668.50,
representing thirty percent of its value and an additional equitable distribution
The PSA also gave defendant a credit in equitable distribution for 100%
of a $50,000 loan made to the parties' son. The value of the parties' private
retirement accounts was equalized by crediting plaintiff fifty percent of the
difference, or $134,017. Plaintiff waived any interest in defendant's TPAF
The PSA attached an equitable distribution schedule prepared by
plaintiff's expert setting forth the value of each asset and showing an equal final
distribution of the value of the marital assets of $919,789 to each party. The
parties' assets were largely comprised of retirement accounts, the loans
receivable, and the business assets. The PSA stated plaintiff would pay
defendant her share of the assets in 180 monthly installments of $4,945.84
following the closing on the marital residence.4 Defendant's equitable
distribution obligation was secured by a stock pledge agreement of his fifty-two
percent interest in the tavern and a mortgage against his seventy percent interest
in one of the commercial properties.
The PSA also established an irrevocable trust naming defendant as the
beneficiary to "privately pay for [defendant's] long-term care, whether at home
or in a facility, and [in consideration of plaintiff's] anticipated expenses related
to his remaining in the community . . . ." The trust's term was a minimum of
sixty months and could be terminated by the children, who were appointed as
trustees. The trust also named the children as the remainder beneficiaries.
Plaintiff was required to deposit $4,100 within thirty days of the divorce
judgment to fund the trust.
The PSA stated each party would retain all other assets, property, and
debts held in their individual name, free and clear of the other's interest. Each
The total payout was $890,252, representing the sum plaintiff owed defendant
net of the marital assets subject to equitable distribution in her name.
party was also responsible for their own counsel and expert fees incurred while
negotiating the PSA.
The PSA also memorialized the parties had fully disclosed all income,
assets and liabilities to each other, were advised of the right to retain experts
and engage in discovery, and waived "the right to complete formal discovery
proceedings." The agreement stated:
The parties further acknowledge that [plaintiff] has
provided [defendant's attorney] with the opportunity to
review financial information including, but not limited
to, balance sheets, personal and business tax returns,
insurance information and other documents relating to
[plaintiff's] financial affairs. [Defendant]
acknowledges that she is waiving the right to have such
financial analysis completed deeming, once again, the
terms and provisions of this [a]greement to be fair and
equitable notwithstanding the failure to complete such
In February and April 2019, defendant obtained evaluations from two
doctors different than those who evaluated her when the guardianship complaint
was filed. Each doctor concluded she had returned to mental competency and
could make decisions for herself. A third evaluation took place in September
2019, conducted by one of the doctors who previously declared her
incapacitated. He, too, concluded defendant could make her own decisions and
was "no longer a candidate for guardianship" but recommended her children
monitor her for "signs of psychiatric decompensation[,] . . . medication
noncompliance and have a mechanism to enforce psychiatric treatment and
protect her finances" because "she is of high risk of having another psychiatric
decompensation and/or deciding to stop taking her medications" given her
history. In December 2019, the Probate Part judge terminated the guardianship
and declared defendant competent.
In November 2020, defendant filed a post-judgment motion challenging
the PSA. In pertinent part, the motion sought to: vacate the judgment of divorce
and PSA; schedule a plenary hearing to address alimony and equitable
distribution; schedule a case management conference to set a discovery
schedule; and modify alimony and equitable distribution obligations based on
Defendant certified the children should not have been involved in the
divorce because they "were not neutral parties" and were under plaintiff's
"financial influence and control." She asserted the children did not protect her
interests and were influenced by plaintiff because they were negotiating a
settlement including assets they stood to inherit and "[p]laintiff was paying their
expenses . . . ."
Defendant claimed the PSA's alimony and equitable distribution
provisions were "grossly inequitable" because "[p]laintiff retained the vast
majority of [the] marital assets, and [she] was left with nothing . . . ." She
alleged the income derived from plaintiff's CIS and relied upon during the
settlement process was low because it did not explain how the parties supported
the marital lifestyle budget, and the alimony provision was based on a cash flow
analysis by plaintiff's expert, who was partisan. She further asserted the alimony
calculation included her pension income, which was subject to equitable
distribution, and could not be used to calculate alimony. She requested open
durational alimony "of at least $5,000 per month" and noted she previously
received $4,100 per month pendente lite. Defendant's certification did not
include an updated CIS.
Defendant also argued she was entitled to a fifty percent equitable
distribution of all the marital assets. She characterized the payment of equitable
distribution over time and into a trust as "patently unfair," and contended there
was a substantial change in circumstances because she was no longer
incapacitated and did not require long-term care. She accused plaintiff of
structuring the equitable distribution as a long-term payout because he was
funding the children's lifestyles, undervaluing the marital assets, and improperly
omitting interest from the equitable distribution payout. Furthermore, she
alleged she should have been paid interest on the equitable distribution of the
notes receivable or received a lump sum and should have shared in the note once
the balloon payment was tendered. She asserted the equalization of the
retirement accounts, including the accounts in her name, was unjust.
Plaintiff's opposition to the motion explained the lengthy history of the
case, including the process of appointing the GAL and guardians. He certified
his income declined after the PSA was signed due to the COVID-19 pandemic
and because the tavern had a fire. He explained his CIS was accurate, noting
the income information was derived from the parties' tax returns and the alleged
increased income defendant claimed actually comprised both parties' incomes.
The assets were valued by the forensic accountant and the properties were
formally appraised; the equitable distribution protected defendant from her own
"unstable behavior." Defendant had a GAL, guardians, was represented by
counsel, and "had trusts created on her behalf and received $890,252 equitable
distribution[,]" evidencing the fairness of the process.
The parties' daughter, a mental health counselor and a Board-Certified
Behavior Analyst, denied any financial influence from her father and stated she
became a guardian "to protect [defendant] and hired the appropriate
professionals to assist . . . in ensuring that she receive[d] what she [was] entitled
to and that the divorce settlement was fair." She terminated the first divorce
attorney because defendant "was placing many calls, texts and emails in her
manic and paranoid state and was constantly being charged for these calls based
upon [her] review of [the] lawyer's bills." She certified the lawyer "appeared to
be taking financial advantage of [defendant]" and if she and her brother were
not protecting defendant's interests, defendant would have "spent hundreds of
thousands of dollars feeding into her delusions and paranoia." Plaintiff assisted
her with rent while she pursued her master's degree, but neither she nor her
brother received financial assistance or gifts from plaintiff. On the contrary, she
noted defendant offered to fly her to Maui during graduate school and promised
her she would never have to worry about money if she moved there with
Plaintiff also supplied a certification from Anderson confirming defendant
was unable to participate in the litigation and required the appointment of the
guardians. She certified she "participated in the four-way settlement
negotiations regarding the [PSA], worked with the [c]o-[g]uardians in creating
One of the doctors who submitted an evaluation opining defendant was
incapacitated recounted how defendant had impulsively moved to Hawaii and
become psychiatrically hospitalized there.
[and] funding an irrevocable trust for [defendant]" and was not dismissed until
the FJOD was entered.
Defendant's reply averred Anderson only wanted to make money from her
and did not protect her interests. Additionally, she claimed the daughter
contacted her nurse practitioner and therapist, and lied about her mental health
status. She attached an undated text message supposedly authored by the
daughter, which read:
I just wanted to reach out after over a year of not talking
to you and let you know that you are STILL number one
on my list for the most selfish, self-centered,
HORRIBLE person. Yes you are schizophrenic (which
[I] do empathize and pray for you for) but that doesn't
give you an excuse for being a borderline/narcissistic
person. Your mother . . . was more of a MOTHER to
me my entire lifetime than you EVER were to me. Any
memory of my childhood was [g]rammy as my
motherly figure. Go play victim to whoever you want
in [your] new life because that's what you're good at.
Defendant accused plaintiff of understating his income following the fire to
obtain loans, stealing her jewelry, and mischaracterizing her spending habits.
The motion judge heard oral argument and concluded the settlement
process was fair. There was no bar to the children serving as guardians merely
because they stood to inherit from plaintiff, as the inheritance was a contingent
benefit. He found no evidence the children were financially motivated and
rejected the argument the GAL was influenced because plaintiff paid her bills
from marital funds. The daughter's text did not explain how the son, the GAL,
and the divorce attorney failed to protect defendant's interests. Thus, there was
no evidence "the children dictated the scheme to the attorneys and the attorneys
simply presented it to the [c]ourt," or that the children, GAL, and the divorce
attorney were colluding against defendant.
Given the circumstances, the terms of the settlement were not
unconscionable. The judge opined the alimony provision was a product of
negotiation since plaintiff was approaching retirement age. The equitable
distribution amount was nearly equal and mere disagreement with the expert
who valued the assets was not grounds to undo the PSA. The judge noted
defendant's return to competency did not constitute grounds to set aside the
agreement because there was evidence she could relapse.
On appeal, defendant argues:
I. THE TRIAL COURT ERRED IN DENYING
THE DEFENDANT'S NOTICE OF MOTION TO
VACATE THE FJOD PURSUANT TO NEW JERSEY
COURT RULE 4:50-l(F) AS DEFENDANT MADE A
CLEAR SHOWING OF INEQUITY AND
B. THE TRIAL COURT ABUSED ITS
DISCRETION IN FAILING TO GRANT
DEFENDANT RELIEF PURSUANT TO
R[ULE] 4:50-l(F) AS DEFENDANT FILED
HER APPLICATION WITHIN A
C. THE TRIAL COURT ABUSED ITS
DISCRETION IN FAILING TO GRANT
DEFENDANT RELIEF PURSUANT TO
R[ULE] 4:50-l(F) AS DEFENDANT MADE A
SHOWING OF INEQUITY AND
i. DEFENDANT MADE A
SHOWING THAT THE APPOINTMENT
OF THE CHILDREN OF THE
MARRIAGE AS HER CO-GUARDIANS
DURING THE DIVORCE
PROCEEDINGS WAS UNFAIR AND
ii. DEFENDANT MADE A
SHOWING THAT THE PSA WAS
UNFAIR AND INEQUITABLE AS THE
EQUITABLE DISTRIBUTION SCHEME
WAS STRUCTURED BASED ON
NUMBERS PROPOSED BY
PLAINTIFF'S EXPERT WHICH WAS
REBUTTED BY DEFENDANT'S
EXPERT'S INITIAL REPORT.
II. THE TRIAL COURT ERRED IN FAILING TO
FIND THAT DEFENDANT'S RETURN TO
CAPACITY WAS A SUBSTANTIAL CHANGE IN
CIRCUMSTANCES WARRANTING A
MODIFICATION OF THE PARTIES' PSA.
B. THE TRIAL COURT ABUSED ITS
DISCRETION IN DENYING DEFENDANT'S
APPLICATION TO MODIFY THE PSA
WHERE DEFENDANT MADE A PRIMA
FACIE SHOWING OF A CHANGE IN
"Rule 4:50-1 provides for relief from a judgment in six enumerated
circumstances." In re Est. of Schifftner, 385 N.J. Super. 37, 41 (App. Div.
2006). Rule 4:50-1 does not provide "an opportunity for parties to a consent
judgment to change their minds; nor is it a pathway to reopen litigation because
a party either views his [or her] settlement as less advantageous than it had
previously appeared, or rethinks the effectiveness of his [or her] original legal
strategy." DEG, LLC v. Twp. of Fairfield, 198 N.J. 242, 261 (2009). "Rather,
the rule is a carefully crafted vehicle intended to underscore the need for repose
while achieving a just result." Ibid. Thus, the rule "denominates with specificity
the narrow band of triggering events that will warrant relief from judgment if
justice is to be served" and "[o]nly the existence of one of those triggers will
allow a party to challenge the substance of the judgment." Id. at 261-62.
Rule 4:50-1(f) allows a party to petition for relief from a final judgment
or order for "any . . . reason justifying relief . . . ." Relief under the rule "requires
the demonstration of 'exceptional circumstances.'" Schifftner, 385 N.J. Super.
at 41 (quoting Court Inv. Co. v. Perillo, 48 N.J. 334, 341 (1966)). A movant
must show that the enforcement of the judgment "would be unjust, oppressive
or inequitable." Eaton v. Grau, 368 N.J. Super. 215, 222 (App. Div. 2004)
(quoting Harrington v. Harrington, 281 N.J. Super. 39, 48 (App. Div. 1995)).
We review a decision on a Rule 4:50-1 motion for an abuse of discretion.
U.S. Bank Nat'l Ass'n v. Guillaume, 209 N.J. 449, 467 (2012). An abuse of
discretion exists "when a decision is 'made without a rational explanation,
inexplicably departed from established policies, or rested on an impermissible
basis.'" Id. at 467-68 (quoting Iliadis v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 191 N.J. 88, 123
(2007)). However, if a judge makes a discretionary decision but acts under a
misconception of the applicable law or misapplies the law to the facts, we "need
not extend deference." Johnson v. Johnson, 320 N.J. Super. 371, 378 (App. Div.
We do not address at length defendant's claim the motion judge predicated
his decision on her failure to file the Rule 4:50-1(f) motion within a reasonable
time. Although defendant filed her motion nearly two years after the settlement,
the motion was filed eleven months after the Probate Part declared her no longer
incapacitated, which was within a reasonable time. R. 4:50-2. A thorough
reading of the transcript shows the judge reached the merits of the motion and
did not reject it on grounds of timeliness.
Unconscionability exists when there is "overreaching or imposition
resulting from a bargaining disparity between the parties, or such patent
unfairness in the contract that no reasonable person not acting under compulsion
or out of necessity would accept its terms." Howard v. Diolosa, 241 N.J. Super.
222, 230 (App. Div. 1990). The characteristics of unconscionability are: "(1)
unfairness in the formation of the contract; and (2) excessively disproportionate
terms." Est. of Cohen ex rel. Perelman v. Booth Comput., 421 N.J. Super. 134,
157 (App. Div. 2011). Unconscionability contains two elements, procedural and
substantive. Id. at 158. Substantive unconscionability "suggests the exchange
of obligations [is] so one-sided as to shock the court's conscience." Ibid.
(quoting Sitogum Holdings, Inc. v. Ropes, 352 N.J. Super. 555, 564 (Ch. Div.
Defendant asserts she demonstrated the settlement process and the
settlement itself were unfair and unconscionable, thereby meeting the
exceptional circumstances standard to vacate the PSA under Rule 4:50-1(f). She
cites Marsico v. Marsico, 436 N.J. Super. 483, 493 (Ch. Div. 2013), which holds
that a GAL cannot have personal interest in the case, and if so, the interest must
be disclosed. She asserts the same principle applies to the children's
appointment as her guardians because they were not neutral and were under
plaintiff's control. She asserts the daughter had "extremely harsh and negative
feelings" towards her, and for the first time on appeal, she claims the son failed
to provide an accounting of her finances, which proves he could not represent
her best interests. She claims vacating the PSA would not be prejudicial.
Defendant points to the unequal distribution of the business and the notes
receivable, the lump sum alimony, the payout of equitable distribution over time,
and the division of her retirement account as evidence of the PSA's
unconscionability. She argues a more equitable settlement would grant her a
greater interest in the business and notes, continued spousal support, and a one-
time payment to fund the trust.
Rule 4:26-2(a) provides that a "mentally incapacitated
person shall be represented in an action by the guardian
of either the person or the property." When a "mentally
incapacitated person" is not represented by a guardian,
paragraph (a) authorizes the court to appoint "a [GAL]
. . . in accordance with paragraph (b) of this rule." Ibid.
A judicial determination of mental incapacity,
however, must precede the appointment of a guardian.
See R. 4:86-1 to -8; N.J.S.A. 3B:12-24 to -35.
Paragraph (b) of Rule 4:26-2 sets forth the initial
procedure that follows when a person is alleged to be
[S.T. v. 1515 Broad St., LLC, 241 N.J. 257, 277
A GAL's role is to be "an independent factfinder who works to determine
what action is in the ward's best interests and makes that recommendation to the
court." Vill. Apartments of Cherry Hill, N.J. v. Novack, 383 N.J. Super. 574,
579 (App. Div. 2006) (citing In re M.R., 135 N.J. 155, 173-74 (1994)). A
guardian must "determine . . . what action is in the ward's best interest and
advocate for that position" and "serve the court on the ward's behalf." Ibid.
(citing M.R., 135 N.J. at 173-74).
In appointing a guardian, "the court should consider the recommendations
of the court-appointed attorney and the wishes of the incapacitated person, if
expressed. A person who is incapacitated may nonetheless still be able to
express an intelligent view as to his choice of guardian, which view is entitled
to consideration by the court." In re Guardianship of Macak, 377 N.J. Super.
167, 176 (App. Div. 2005). "If there is a significant issue as to the appropriate
choice of guardian, or as to the underlying issue of incapacity, the court may
appoint a [GAL] to advise the court as to the person's best interests." Ibid.
(citing M.R., 135 N.J. at 176-78).
Defendant's reliance on Marsico is misplaced because that case addressed
the role of a GAL, and the children were not court appointed as GALs. Marsico
is not binding on us in any event.
Here, there was no impropriety in the appointment of the children as co-
guardians to warrant vacating the judgment under Rule 4:50-1(f). Following
defendant's breakdown in April 2016, Anderson was appointed as GAL. She
conducted her investigation and filed a complaint for the appointment of the
children as co-guardians, providing the court with the certifications of a
psychologist and physician opining defendant was unable to govern her own
affairs. The GAL testified before the Probate Part judge, who then declared
defendant incapacitated and accepted the GAL's recommendation to appoint the
children as co-guardians in October 2017.
Defendant produced no objective evidence to support her claim the
children, who were emancipated at the time of their appointment, were under
plaintiff's financial control or acted against her interests. Defendant failed to
provide context for the text message from the daughter. Although we cannot
ignore the words used in the text, as the motion judge observed, defendant failed
to show they led to an unjust outcome in settling the divorce. Instead, the
objective evidence in the record shows the children protected defendant by
taking prudent measures to control the costs of the litigation and settling the case
in concert with a GAL who was a competent attorney and with the assistance of
a matrimonial attorney.
Defendant also produced no evidence beyond her self-serving certification
that the children controlled the GAL and the attorney. That defendant's children
were her co-guardians does not persuade us they should not have been
"Equitable distribution of marital property is 'intimately related to
support,' and '[t]he power to distribute property equitably should be exercised to
relieve the strain of total reliance on support payments for financial security. '"
Conforti v. Guliadis, 128 N.J. 318, 324 (1992) (alteration in original) (quoting
Lepis v. Lepis, 83 N.J. 139, 153-54 (1980)).
This demands more than simply "mechanical
division[,]" it requires a "weighing of the many
considerations and circumstances . . . presented in each
case." Stout v. Stout, 155 N.J. Super. 196, 205 (App.
Div. 1977) . . . .
However, an equitable distribution does not
presume an equal distribution. See Rothman [v.
Rothman, 65 N.J. 219, 232 n.6 (1974)]. Rather,
N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23.1, requires an equitable distribution
be "designed to advance the policy of promoting equity
and fair dealing between divorcing spouses." Barr v.
Barr, 418 N.J. Super. 18, 45 (App. Div. 2011).
[M.G. v. S.M., 457 N.J. Super. 286, 294-95 (App. Div.
2018) (first alteration in original).]
Pursuant to these principles, we fail to see the unjust result manifested in
the settlement itself. The fact the parties used the valuation figures presented
by plaintiff's expert to settle the case does not establish the alleged
unconscionability of the PSA and is not unusual in matrimonial cases. See N.H.
v. H.H., 418 N.J. Super. 262, 281, 283-84 (App. Div. 2011) (rejecting appellant's
argument the settlement was unconscionable because there was not "full and
broad discovery in search of comprehensive valuations of all of the parties'
assets" where instead the parties settled the case using the figures from the
expert's "agreed-upon streamlined valuation of the marital property."). Here,
defendant offered no evidence establishing the valuations the parties relied upon
were incorrect other than to argue the guardians should not have terminated her
Nor are we convinced the settlement was unconscionable because the
assets were not divided equally. This is not unusual where, as here, one party
operates a business subject to equitable distribution or retains the risk associated
with an asset; i.e., plaintiff's retention of the loans receivable and the risk
associated with collecting them while paying defendant her share of the asset.
Regardless, defendant received one-half the total value of marital assets.
Moreover, the payout of equitable distribution into a trust was appropriate
considering the context of the settlement, namely, defendant's ongoing
incapacity at the time of settlement.
We are unconvinced the alimony buyout rendered the PSA
unconscionable considering the equitable distribution, the parties' ages, that they
would have to support separate households, and the fact the PSA contemplated
"privately pay[ing] for long-term care, whether at home or in a facility." As the
motion judge noted, the buyout was a product of compromise. Moreover, the
level of pendente lite support does not convince us the alimony should have been
based on that number because the record lacks findings by the pendente lite
motion judge regarding pendente lite support amount or the marital lifestyle.
Further, the parties agreed they could not maintain the marital lifestyle, and the
record supports that conclusion as well.
Defendant argues the motion judge erred by not finding a change in
circumstance warranting a modification of the terms of the settlement; her return
to capacity and the dissolution of the guardianship signifies she does not require
long-term care contemplated by the PSA. Furthermore, she now can manage
her finances. She asserts the psychological assessments used to terminate the
guardianship support her position, and the doctor who expressed concerns she
would relapse was influenced by the daughter who "has been diligently,
willfully, and maliciously attempting to discredit and embarrass" her. On the
other hand, defendant acknowledges that doctor's opinion that safeguards are
necessary to ensure she takes her medications, but asserts she is now compliant
and intends to remain compliant.
Matrimonial agreements are enforceable as contracts, "subject, however,
to Lepis and [Rule] 4:50-1 considerations as well as considerations of
unconscionability, fraud or overreaching." Harrington, 281 N.J. Super. at 46.
When parties seek to modify an alimony award, they must "demonstrate that
changed circumstances have substantially impaired the ability to support
[themselves]." Lepis, 83 N.J. at 157. Whether a changed circumstance "has
endured long enough to warrant modification of a support obligation . . . turn[s]
on the discretionary determinations of Family Part judges, based upon their
experience as applied to all the relevant circumstances presented, which we do
not disturb absent an abuse of discretion." Larbig v. Larbig, 384 N.J. Super. 17,
23 (App. Div. 2006).
The Lepis change in circumstances standard does not apply to equitable
distribution. Rosen v. Rosen, 225 N.J. Super. 33, 35-36 (App. Div. 1988).
Therefore, the motion judge did not err in declining to modify the equitable
distribution provisions of the PSA based on a change in circumstances.
The PSA's alimony clause included an anti-Lepis provision. Parties are
free to enter into agreements departing from the general "need-based" Lepis rule
and establish their own standards by which they agree to be guided in cases
involving "reasonably foreseeable future circumstances . . . ." Morris v. Morris,
263 N.J. Super. 237, 241 (App. Div. 1993). Anti-Lepis provisions, which
purport to waive the right to future modification, are enforceable in certain
circumstances, unless the agreement is "unreasonable" and are modifiable in
"extreme cases." Id. at 246.
The parties' anti-Lepis clause was enforceable given the totality of the
circumstances, including their ages, needs, and the equitable distribution terms.
Moreover, defendant did not establish her ability to support herself was
"substantially impaired," to warrant vacating the anti-Lepis clause. Lepis, 83 N.J. at 157. Indeed, any motion to modify a support obligation requires the
movant to supply the court with both their current and prior CIS. R. 5:5-4(a)(4).
Defendant's motion did not append her current CIS. For these reasons, the
record lacked the evidence necessary to enable the motion judge to invoke the
court's "equitable powers" under Morris, notwithstanding the anti-Lepis
In sum, we hold the appointment of a party's adult child to serve as their
guardian in a divorce proceeding pursuant to Rule 4:26-2(a) does not in itself
render the subsequent settlement of the case unconscionable. The party seeking
to undo the settlement must demonstrate misconduct by the guardian and that it
led to an unconscionable settlement. Because defendant did not meet her burden
in either respect there is no basis to disturb the PSA.