An Important Anniversary in Matrimonial Law

On this date in 1980, a unanimous Supreme Court decided Lepis v. Lepis, 83 N.J. 139 (1980).  In an opinion by Justice Pashman, the Court addressed “the standards and procedures for modifying support and maintenance arrangements after a final judgment of divorce.”  The Court recognized that “changed circumstances” are at the core of the inquiry in such cases.  Since the parties had differing views of what constituted changed circumstances, the Court offered a detailed analysis of a number of factors that can constitute changed circumstances so as to warrant a modification of support and maintenance. 

The Court also found it “appropriate to explain procedures to be followed in the postjudgment setting,” again since the parties disagreed as to what procedures were proper for modification motions.  Among other things, the Court held that the party seeking modification has the burden of showing changed circumstances that would warrant a modification.  “A prima facie showing of changed circumstances must be made before a court will order discovery of an ex-spouse’s financial condition.”  Only after such a prima facie showing has been made should the respondent’s ability to pay become a factor for consideration.  At that point, “tax returns or other financial information should be ordered.”  But where the ex-spouse has remarried and filed joint returns with the new spouse, or the financial information of others besides the ex-spouse is otherwise involved, “the trial judge should examine the tax return in camera and excise irrelevant matters before giving the return to the plaintiff.”

A hearing, as opposed to a decision on the papers, is required only when a party clearly demonstrates the existence of a genuine issue of material fact.  “The application of the equitable principles we have outlined does not require elaborate procedures in every case.  Courts should be free to exercise their discretion to prevent unnecessary duplcation of proofs and arguments.  The volume of postjudgment litigation provides additional, practical support for this approach.”

The “Lepis factors” continue to be important in matrimonial cases over 30 years after the case was decided.  According to WestlawNext, the case has been cited over 800 times, including in nearly 700 judicial opinions.  In 2012 alone, several dozen cases have cited Lepis.  This is indeed a red-letter day in the area of matrimonial law.