In spite of the word “final”, many divorce judgments go through changes due to various circumstances in the lives of the former spouses and their children. Financial support such as alimony and child support, for example, may be terminated or modified based on changing needs or reduced/ increased economic circumstances. What do you do, however, when you were too quick to sign off on an unfavorable settlement? This is an unfortunate outcome for many spouses who struggle with the emotional and financial expense of divorce, especially when they've been ready to leave the marriage long before the filing of the divorce complaint. Such spouses typically do nothing once the complaint is filed, thereby allowing a default judgment to be entered. Or, some of them agree to sign off on anything, thereby allowing them to leave as soon as possible, even if it means walking away with nothing but what they brought into the marriage.
Rectifying a raw deal is, of course, completely different than modifying terms due to a change in circumstance. It's also much more difficult, and generally requires evidence of fraud, newly discovered facts or procedural errors during the course of the trial. Other reasons include the satisfaction, release or discharge of a prior order, or if it is deemed that the order is no longer equitable based on its prospective application. In addition, an application to vacate a divorce judgment based on fraud, mistakes or newly discovered evidence must be filed within a year from the date of the original judgment. As you can see, this process requires advanced knowledge of the laws and court procedures in order to ensure correct and timely filing, so it's important to work with an experienced attorney.
As a general rule, the courts are reluctant to reverse a final judgment, considering the work and expense that goes into a standard litigation. However, default divorce judgments do have a better chance of being set aside than most other types of judgments. Most divorces, after all, involve complex personal and property issues, thus default judgments are “not favored in divorce suits”, according to the Appellate Division in the ruling of Curry v. Curry. Still, it would be a mistake to think that any request to set aside a judgment is easy, since the burden of proof is on the applicant. This is particularly difficult in subjective cases where one is trying to prove that a judgment is oppressive or inequitable. Such cases require a compelling presentation of personal circumstances, along with the facts. At the end of the day, it's best to retain legal counsel and take the time you need before agreeing to, or outright ignoring a divorce complaint. If, however, there are circumstances that were unforeseeable at the time of your divorce, you should consult an attorney about your rights and legal options. For more information on vacating a divorce judgment in New Jersey, please speak with the family law attorneys of Villani & DeLuca, P.C.