SARAH BENTON f/k/a SARAH DALEY, Plaintiff–Appellant, v. MARVIN DALEY, Defendant–Respondent.
In this post-divorce matrimonial case, plaintiff appeals from an order denying her motion to compel defendant to make a lump-sum child support payment pursuant to the parties' Property Settlement Agreement (PSA). We affirm.
The parties were married in 1998 and had two children.1 In July 2011, the parties obtained a judgment of divorce (JOD) and entered into a PSA. Paragraphs C(i) and (ii) of the PSA provide in pertinent part that:
The parties recognize and acknowledge that in addition to his base salary ․ Husband is currently eligible to receive the following non-guaranteed additional compensation through his employment with TD Waterhouse Canada [“TD Waterhouse”]: (i) a restricted share unit cash award [RSU], which, if received, is paid to Husband during the month of December; and (ii) an annual cash incentive [ACI] award, which if received, is paid to Husband during the month of January. As such, for the mutual promises and covenants contained therein, Husband has agreed to pay, and Wife has agreed to accept, the following as additional support for the children:
(i) Thirty percent (30%) of the net after tax [RSU] cash award, or its equivalent, received by Husband, in an amount not to exceed 12,000 CDN $ per year to Wife․
(ii) Thirty percent (30%) of the net after tax [ACI] award, or its equivalent, received by Husband, in an amount not to exceed 18,000 CDN $ per year to Wife.
[ (Second and fourth emphasis added).]
Approximately one week after the entry of the JOD, TD Waterhouse informed defendant that his employment would be terminated effective December 2011, and that TD Waterhouse was providing him with a severance package of $287,200.2 In accordance with the PSA, in 2011, defendant paid plaintiff $30,000 as additional child support.
For tax reasons, defendant elected to receive his severance payment in two installments: $200,000 in 2011 and the remaining $87,200 in 2012. As a result, in November 2012, plaintiff filed a motion to compel defendant to pay an additional $30,000 from the deferred 2012 severance payment of $87,200.
In February 2013, the judge conducted oral argument, denied plaintiff's motion, and stated that
clearly when the property settlement agreement was entered, it was based upon [defendant's] employment at TD Waterhouse ․ and that has changed. I think that the language in the [PSA] ․ was specific with respect to the child support will be increased based upon his [RSU] cash award and his [ACI] award as an employee of TD Waterhouse in Canada, specifically.
To say that the severance that he got when he stopped working for TD Waterhouse in Canada is as though it was a bonus[,] like the [RSU] and the [ACI] award. I'm rejecting that argument. I don't think it was.
[The PSA] wasn't clear as to what ․ would be equivalent in terms of income. It's not defined in the [PSA], so it's up to me to decide whether or not this severance is the equivalent to the ACI and RSU awards, and I find that it is not.
On appeal, plaintiff argues that although defendant already paid plaintiff $30,000 in 2011, the judge erred by denying her motion because plaintiff is additionally entitled to a $30,000 share of the remainder of defendant's severance that was deferred to 2012. Plaintiff contends that this $87,200 is an RSU cash award, an ACI award, or is “equivalent to” these awards under the PSA.
This court gives great deference to the family courts because of their “ ‘special jurisdiction and expertise in family matters.’ ” Milne v. Goldenberg, 428 N.J.Super. 184, 197 (App.Div.2012) (quoting Cesare v. Cesare, 154 N.J. 394, 413 (1998)). We may vacate an award if the “trial court clearly abused its discretion or failed to consider all of the controlling legal principles, or ․ the findings were mistaken or ․ the determination could not reasonably have been reached on sufficient[,] credible evidence present in the record.” Gonzalez–Posse v. Ricciardulli, 410 N.J.Super. 340, 354 (App.Div.2009). We owe no special deference to the trial judge's “interpretation of the law and the legal consequences that flow from established facts.” Manalapan Realty, L.P. v. Twp. Comm. of Manalapan, 140 N.J. 366, 378 (1995).
“[T]he contractual nature of [marital] agreements has long been recognized.” Massar v. Massar, 279 N.J.Super. 89, 93 (App.Div.1995). The New Jersey Supreme Court has noted that “[t]he law grants particular leniency to agreements made in the domestic arena,” and allows “judges greater discretion when interpreting such agreements.” Pacifico v. Pacifico, 190 N.J. 258, 266 (2007) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). “As a general rule, courts should enforce contracts as the parties intended.” Sachau v. Sachau, 206 N.J. 1, 5 (2011). “Similarly, it is a basic rule of contractual interpretation that a court must discern and implement the common intention of the parties.” Ibid. “A court's role is to consider what is written in the context of the circumstances at the time of drafting and to apply a rational meaning in keeping with the expressed general purpose.” Id. at 5–6. (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).
Given our standard of review, we agree with the judge's conclusion that defendant's severance from TD Waterhouse was not an RCI cash award, an ACI award, or “equivalent to” either of these awards. The judge rationally concluded that the PSA's additional support provision did not reflect an expressed purpose to include defendant's severance package. The PSA anticipated plaintiff's continued employment at TD Waterhouse and required defendant to pay a share of amounts received “in addition to” his base salary. Defendant's severance payment was not additional income but instead based upon his termination after approximately eleven years of service.
Nevertheless, we note that defendant already transferred the maximum supplemental child support of $30,000 to plaintiff in 2011. Plaintiff is not entitled to an additional $30,000 of defendant's severance on the basis that defendant elected to partially defer the severance payment until 2012.
1. FN1. The children were born in 2001 and 2003.
2. FN2. This amount and all amounts hereinafter represent Canadian dollars.