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Gather Ye Proceeds from a Divorce Judgment While Ye May

Image of lightbulb with divorce written inside

In a cautionary tale on the importance of enforcing your rights under a divorce judgment as soon as possible, an unpublished decision from a New Jersey Appellate Division panel rules that a former husband has lost his right to collect the over-$23,000 he was owed pursuant to a divorce decree after the debt was discharged in bankruptcy. This case is also an example of why finding an experienced, well-recommended attorney to advise you on legal matters is of the utmost importance.

In the case Strunck v. Figueroa, the husband was awarded $23,369 in a qualified domestic relations order by a Pennsylvania court, to be taken from the wife’s Fidelity retirement account. The order was entered on August 31, 2011. Unbeknownst to the court or husband, the wife withdrew all funds from the Fidelity account before the divorce was final. For reasons the court does not enumerate, the husband did not file a claim for theft of funds by the wife when he discovered that the account was empty. He did tell the court that he filed an enforcement motion in December of 2011, but couldn’t produce evidence of having done so. However, with the 20/20 vision of hindsight, it is clear that this would have been the best time to have acted to enforce the judgment.

The husband had yet another missed opportunity to enforce the divorce judgment in December of 2011, when the wife filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 7, listing the $23,369 divorce judgment among her debts, potentially to be forgiven. The husband was notified of this through the bankruptcy court, and spoke with a bankruptcy attorney for advice on how to respond. Unfortunately, the bankruptcy attorney advised the man not to respond at all. The husband followed this advice, which essentially doomed his claim to the $23,369 award. The debt was discharged by the bankruptcy court in March of 2012, having not been contested by the husband.

In July of 2013, the husband filed a lawsuit in New Jersey state court against the wife for conversion (the term used in civil proceedings, rather than criminal, for theft). However, the claim was dismissed. He registered his Pennsylvania divorce in the New Jersey Family Part, and filed a motion to enforce his rights under the divorce decree and compel plaintiff to pay him the $23,369 she owed him. The husband claimed in this motion that the wife had lied in her bankruptcy petition, as she should have said that the $23,369 constituted stolen funds, making the debt not dischargeable. However, the motion was denied at the trial level and by the Appellate Division. In denying the motion, the Appellate Division reasoned that the man should have contested the discharge with the bankruptcy court years before, according to the rules laid out by those courts. The court noted that the husband did not have the option of “utterly ignor[ing] the bankruptcy proceedings” in favor of trying to enforce the original divorce judgment in family court.

The moral of the story is that parties to a divorce must act quickly to enforce a judgment or bring wrongdoing to the attention of the courts, as delay may destroy the opportunity to do so. Taking action to enforce a judgment also requires those litigants to seek out legal counsel whom they trust to offer knowledgeable guidance on the law and diligent representation in court.

If you are in need of trustworthy and diligent legal representation for a matter before the New Jersey Family Part, contact Union family law attorney John B. D’Alessandro for a consultation on your case, at 908-964-0102.

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