NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE
APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
This opinion shall not "constitute precedent or be binding upon any court ." Although it is posted on the
internet, this opinion is binding only on the parties in the case and its use in other cases is limited. R. 1:36-3.
SUPERIOR COURT OF NEW JERSEY
DOCKET NO. A-0961-20
MICHAEL A. MORONEY,
BARBARA F. MORONEY,
Argued January 11, 2022 – Decided February 2, 2022
Before Judges Messano and Enright.
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey,
Chancery Division, Family Part, Morris County,
Docket No. FM-14-0852-18.
Michael J. Confusione argued the cause for appellant
(Hegge & Confusione, LLC, attorneys; Michael J.
Confusione, of counsel and on the briefs).
Alina Habba argued the cause for respondent (Habba
Madaio & Associates LLP, attorneys; Michael T.
Madaio, of counsel and on the brief).
In this post-judgment matrimonial matter, plaintiff Michael A. Moroney
appeals from orders entered on June 16 and October 19, 2020.1 We affirm.
Plaintiff and defendant Barbara F. Moroney were married in 1989 and
have three adult children. On May 14, 2019, the parties executed a Marital
Settlement Agreement (MSA), and incorporated the agreement into a May 20,
2019 Judgment of Divorce.
Pursuant to Paragraph 5.3 of the MSA, the parties agreed to equitably
distribute three retirement accounts which were deemed "assets of the marriage."
Two of the accounts, a JPMorgan Chase 401K worth about $219,000, and a John
Hancock IRA, valued at roughly $63,000 were held in plaintiff's name. The
third account, a W. Grace 401K account worth roughly $14,000, was held in
defendant's name. The parties agreed to liquidate the John Hancock IRA, as
well as defendant's 40lK, and share in the proceeds as directed in Paragraph 5.3.
As for the JPMorgan Chase 401K, the parties agreed to the following, as outlined
in Paragraphs 5.4 and 5.5 of the MSA:
5.4. [Plaintiff] shall liquidate his JPMorgan Chase
401K and use those funds to pay off [the parties' son's]
Although plaintiff's civil case information statement reflects that he also
challenges an August 24, 2020 order, he did not address this order in his
appellate brief. Therefore, we deem his appeal from this order abandoned. See
State v. Shangzhen Huang, 461 N.J. Super. 119, 125 (App. Div. 2018); see also
Pressler & Verniero, Current N.J. Court Rules, cmt. 5 on R. 2:6-2 (2022).
currently outstanding medical expenses [and] the
parties' [Internal Revenue Service (IRS)] taxes for the
[following] tax years and estimated amounts:
2015 Federal $48,465.00
2016 Federal $75,890.00
2017 Federal $23,900.00
Illinois State Taxes $1[,]657.00
New York State Taxes $6[,]468.00
New Jersey [State Taxes] $8,700.00
[Plaintiff] will provide [defendant] with a complete
accounting of his liquidation of the JPMorgan Chase
401K and payment of taxes and medical bills as
referenced in this paragraph.
5.5. Following the liquidation of the JPMorgan Chase
401K, [plaintiff] shall pay all joint tax debt, including
the tax debt as listed above. If there are any additional
monies left after the payment of taxes, the parties shall
then pay off any outstanding medical bills for the[ir]
son. If there are any funds remaining after the
payment of taxes and medical bills for [their son], the
parties shall equally divide any monies remaining.
The parties also stipulated under Paragraph 8.1 of the MSA:
If either party defaults in the performance of any
provision of this agreement, and if the other party shall
institute and prevail in legal proceedings to enforce the
performance of such provisions by the defaulting party,
then the defaulting party shall pay to the other party,
the necessary and reasonable court costs and attorney's
fees incurred by the prevailing party in connection with
such legal proceedings.
Additionally, per Paragraph 17.2 of the MSA, the parties agreed to "attend
at least one . . . mediation session to resolve any post-judgment dispute before
filing a Notice of Motion."
In November 2019, defendant received a notice from the IRS, advising
her that no payments had been made toward the 2015 tax liability. Her attorney
contacted plaintiff, also an attorney, and asked him to confirm that he would
satisfy the tax debt as set forth in the MSA. In February 2020, plaintiff notified
defendant's counsel that he was "accepting the installment payment plan offered
to [him] by the IRS" and that defendant would "need to make her own
arrangement with the IRS, based upon her own financial situation." He also
forwarded an itemization of debts he paid from the JPMorgan Chase 401K funds,
along with a check made payable to defendant in the sum of $42,834.47,
purportedly representing "exactly half of the remaining proceeds from the
distribution of the JPMorgan Chase [40lK] after paying the past due state taxes
and [their son's] uninsured medical expenses." (Emphasis added). The
itemization showed that by February 2020, plaintiff had used almost $5,300
from the JPMorgan Chase account to satisfy various medical expenses for the
In February 2020, defendant moved to enforce the MSA. She certified
she had yet to receive a complete accounting from plaintiff "evidencing the
liquidation of the JPMorgan Chase 401K account and payment of the
outstanding tax amounts and medical bills, as required under the [MSA.]" In a
separate certification, her attorney requested that the judge order plaintiff to
"immediately pay all amounts owed to the IRS on [d]efendant's behalf" for tax
years 2015 through 2017, and compel plaintiff to pay defendant's counsel fees
and costs, due to his "failure to abide by the terms of the [MSA]."
Plaintiff opposed the motion, certifying he "received an installment
payment plan from the IRS in which the IRS . . . calculated the maximum amount
the IRS believes [he] can afford to pay on a monthly basis, based upon [his]
financial situation, until such time as the debt is satisfied." Further, he attached
copies of two emails sent to defendant's counsel in June 2019, wherein he
admitted "[t]he federal taxes have not been satisfied yet" but that he paid "in
full" the state taxes owed to New Jersey, New York, and Illinois, and by then,
had paid "in full" two medical providers who were owed over $3,500 for their
son's surgery. Plaintiff did not explain in his certification why he prioritized the
payment of certain medical bills over the payment of the parties' IRS debt, nor
did he address defendant's counsel fee request.
On June 16, 2020, the judge issued a comprehensive, cogent written
opinion, accompanied by an order: (1) compelling plaintiff to liquidate the
JPMorgan Chase 401K account to the extent not already done; (2) directing him
to remit payment to the IRS "in full satisfaction of . . . outstanding tax debts for
the tax years 2015, 2016 and 2017 . . . and any interest accrued and owing . . .
within ten . . . days"; (3) noting an enforcement hearing would be "immediately
schedule[d,]" "exposing [p]laintiff to both fine and incarceration" upon
defendant providing a "certification of [plaintiff's] non-compliance" with the
June 16 order; and (4) awarding defendant counsel fees and costs in the sum of
$4,615, based on plaintiff's "disregard of his obligations pursuant to the clear
language of the parties' MSA [which] necessitated the filing of [defendant's]
application and the counsel fees incurred by [her]." 2
Plaintiff moved for reconsideration of the June 16 order, arguing it was
improvidently entered because defendant failed to pursue mediation before
seeking enforcement of the MSA, contrary to Paragraph 17.2 of the agreement.
During argument on the motion, the judge questioned why plaintiff waited until
after the entry of the June 16 order to seek enforcement of the mediation
2 Although the June 16 order included other provisions, we do not address them
as they are irrelevant to the instant appeal.
provision in the MSA. Plaintiff responded that his belated argument regarding
Paragraph 17.2 was attributable to his "inadvertence." The judge found the plain
language of the MSA compelled the parties to submit to mediation before
resorting to motion practice, so on August 24, 2020, he entered an order,
granting plaintiff's reconsideration motion and staying the June 16 order pending
During a virtual hearing in October 2020, the parties apprised the judge
they were unable to resolve their differences in mediation. Therefore, on
October 19, 2020, the judge lifted the stay imposed under the August 24 order
and reinstated the June 16 order. But he allowed plaintiff an additional thirty
days to remit payment to the IRS in full satisfaction of the debts owed for tax
years 2015 through 2017, and an additional thirty days to satisfy the counsel
fees awarded under the June 16 order. Plaintiff unsuccessfully moved to stay
the October 19 order.
On appeal, plaintiff raises the following contentions:
THE FAMILY COURT ERRED IN FINDING THAT
PLAINTIFF BREACHED THE PARTIES' MSA BY
FAILING TO PAY IN FULL, BY HIMSELF, AND
IMMEDIATELY, THE ENTIRE MARITAL TAX
DEBT OWED TO THE IRS.
A. The family court misconstrued the plain language
of the parties' MSA.
B. The family court at least erred by not holding an
evidentiary hearing to determine what the parties'
common intention was for Sections 5.4 and 5.5 of their
C. Even if plaintiff is solely responsible for paying the
entire mar[it]al tax debt owed to the IRS, nothing in the
MSA requires plaintiff to pay this debt in full and
immediately as the family court ruled.
D. The family court erred in awarding $4,615 in
attorney’s fees to defendant.
"Appellate courts accord particular deference to the Family Part because
of its 'special jurisdiction and expertise' in family matters." Harte v. Hand, 433 N.J. Super. 457, 461 (App. Div. 2013) (quoting Cesare v. Cesare, 154 N.J. 394,
412 (1998)). "Only when the trial court's conclusions are so 'clearly mistaken'
or 'wide of the mark' should we interfere[.]" Gnall v. Gnall, 222 N.J. 414, 428
(2015) (quoting N.J. Div. of Youth & Fam. Servs. v. E.P., 196 N.J. 88, 104
(2008)). "We will reverse only if we find the trial judge clearly abused his or
her discretion[.]" Clark v. Clark, 429 N.J. Super. 61, 72 (App. Div.
2012). However, "all legal issues are reviewed de novo." Ricci v. Ricci, 448 N.J. Super. 546, 565 (App. Div. 2017) (citing Reese v. Weis, 430 N.J. Super.
552, 568 (App. Div. 2013)).
It also is well established that matrimonial settlement agreements are
"'entitled to considerable weight with respect to their validity and enforceability'
in equity, provided they are fair and just" because they are "essentially
consensual and voluntary in character[.]" Dolce v. Dolce, 383 N.J. Super. 11,
20 (App. Div. 2006) (quoting Petersen v. Petersen, 85 N.J. 638, 642 (1981)).
However, courts retain the equitable power to modify support provisions at any
time. Lepis v. Lepis, 83 N.J. 139, 145 (1980).
Regarding plaintiff's Points I, IA and IB, we note that our courts
treat marital settlement agreements as contracts and interpret them
accordingly. Pacifico v. Pacifico, 190 N.J. 258, 265 (2007). "[T]he judicial
interpretive function is to consider what was written in the context of the
circumstances under which it was written, and accord to the language a rational
meaning in keeping with the expressed general purpose." Owens v. Press Publ'g
Co., 20 N.J. 537, 543 (1956). "Where the 'principal purpose' of the parties is
found, 'further interpretation of the words of contract should be such as to attain
that purpose, if reasonably possible[.]'" Ibid. (quoting Corbin on Contracts, §
Here, the judge found that the language of the MSA is clear, and that the
"MSA remain[ed] equitable and fair and thus, . . . must be enforced." We agree.
Accordingly, we are satisfied no plenary hearing was necessary. See Segal v.
Lynch, 211 N.J. 230, 264-65 (2012) ("[A] plenary hearing is only required if
there is a genuine, material and legitimate factual dispute."). Indeed, Paragraph
5.5 of the MSA plainly states that "[f]ollowing the liquidation of the JPMorgan
Chase 401K, [plaintiff] shall pay all joint tax debt, including the tax debt as
listed above [in Paragraph 5.4]." Given this explicit language, and considering
that Paragraph 5.3 of the MSA made clear the JPMorgan Chase 401K was one
of three marital retirement accounts to be equitably distributed, we disagree with
plaintiff's contention that he was mistakenly ordered to use these 401K funds to
pay the tax debt to the IRS "by himself."
Similarly, we are not persuaded by the argument raised in Point IC. While
we acknowledge the MSA included no specific date by which plaintiff was to
pay the parties' joint tax debt, we note Paragraph 5.5. of the agreement explicitly
provided for plaintiff to satisfy "all tax joint tax debt, including the tax debt as
listed" in the preceding paragraph "[f]ollowing the liquidation of the JPMorgan
Chase 401K." As plaintiff contends this 401K "account was liquidated and
closed on May 31, 2019," we are not convinced it was error for the judge to give
him thirty days after entry of the October 19 order to satisfy a joint tax debt that
remained outstanding almost a year-and-a-half after plaintiff received the
proceeds from this 40lK account (not to mention additional funds from two other
retirement accounts). This is particularly true, given his representation to the
judge in October 2020 that there were monies still "remaining from the
liquidation of" the JPMorgan Chase 401K, which he was prepared to turn over
to the IRS.
Further, while plaintiff advised the court in October 2020 that the IRS had
completed "a thorough forensic analysis of [his] finances and determined that
[he did not] have the ability to pay [the debt] in time and that's why they put
[him] on the repayment plan," the record reflects he failed to submit proofs at
that hearing to document his inability at that time to satisfy the joint tax debt
consistent with the terms of the MSA. Moreover, the record demonstrates that
although the judge afforded plaintiff an additional thirty days to come into
compliance with the MSA, he also preserved plaintiff's right to argue at any
forthcoming enforcement hearing why he was unable to satisfy the IRS debt.
Under these circumstances, we decline to conclude the judge erred in directing
plaintiff to satisfy the IRS debt within thirty days.
Finally, regarding Point ID, we are cognizant that "[a]n allowance for
counsel fees is permitted to any party in a divorce action, R[ule] 5:3-5(c), subject
to the provisions of Rule 4:42-9." Slutsky v. Slutsky, 451 N.J. Super. 332, 366
(App. Div. 2017). "An award of counsel fees and costs in a matrimonial action
rests in the [sound] discretion of the trial court." Guglielmo v. Guglielmo, 253 N.J. Super. 531, 544-45 (App. Div. 1992) (citing Salch v. Salch, 240 N.J. Super.
441, 443 (App. Div. 1990)). Additionally, "where a party acts in bad faith[,] the
purpose of the counsel fee award is to protect the innocent party from [the]
unnecessary costs and to punish the guilty party." Welch v. Welch, 401 N.J.
Super. 438, 448 (Ch. Div. 2008) (citing Yueh v. Yueh, 329 N.J. Super. 447, 461
(App. Div. 2000)). Moreover, as we have previously observed, a trial court's
failure to give effect to a provision in an agreement regarding counsel
fees constitutes an abuse of discretion. Strahan v. Strahan, 402 N.J. Super. 298,
317 (App. Div. 2008).
As a threshold matter, we note that plaintiff failed to contest defendant's
request for counsel fees and costs when she first moved for enforcement of the
MSA. Further, as discussed, Paragraphs 5.4 and 5.5 of the MSA compelled
plaintiff to use proceeds from the JPMorgan Chase 401K account to "pay off the
parties' IRS taxes for the tax years [listed]," and only "[i]f there [were] any
additional monies left after the payment of taxes," were the outstanding medical
bills for the parties' son to be paid. Yet plaintiff's own submissions to the trial
court confirm he used some of the 401K proceeds to satisfy over $5,000 in
medical expenses for the parties' son by February 2020, rather than apply those
funds to the outstanding marital IRS debt. Given these facts and considering
that Paragraph 8.1 of the MSA permits a counsel fee award against a defaulting
party, we perceive no basis to disturb the modest counsel fee award granted to
To the extent we have not specifically addressed plaintiff's remaining
arguments, it is because we find them to be without sufficient merit to warrant
discussion in a written opinion. R. 2:11-3(e)(1)(E).