In December 2015, a Hopatcong woman Diane Wagner made national headlines when she was sued by her ex-husband for "intentionally inflicting emotional distress" through a series of memo notes on his alimony checks. The check memos include unflattering terminology such as "bum", "loser" and "alimony/ adult child support". Such passive-aggressive tactics are not in good taste , but Diane's bitterness stems from the fact that she must continue to support her husband while she is terminally ill with cancer. Her ex, Francis J. Wagner, was awarded alimony in the amount of $744 a month for a period of six years because of his inability to work due to cancer and a heart condition.
Even though she could have fought for a lower amount or shorter duration, Diane agreed to his demands because she didn't want to go through an expensive divorce trial. When she was diagnosed with cancer, she filed a reduction request with the family court, which was denied. As for the check memos, she feels that she did nothing wrong, as the notes are technically notations to herself. There's no legal statute addressing this issue, but it's true that payers are generally free to write whatever they'd like on the memo line. Diane also pointed out that she always pays in full in a timely manner, which is her only legal obligation under the law.
Diane is certainly not guilty of committing any crimes, but it will be interesting to see if the courts interpret the memo notes to be "harsh and extreme abuse", as alleged in the lawsuit. On the one hand, there's no standard of etiquette that one has to follow in the issuance of domestic support payments. On the other hand, it's pretty clear that the memos, especially ones like "bum" and "loser" are directed at her ex-husband. The courts will need to determine whether such language is harassment, and if so, whether such harassment has led Frank to suffer from "severe emotional distress". The suit claims that the emotional distress has exacerbated Frank's poor health, for which is he is seeking compensation. Regardless of the court's decision, Diane has no shortage of supporters who sympathize with her plight, in addition to questioning the ethics of the law firm representing this case. Frank, however, also has supporters who argue that such language would be seen as abusive if it was the husband who was writing out the checks.
There are no easy answers to the moral, ethical and legal dilemmas brought up in this case. It is, however, a clear reminder on the importance of legal representation. It's understandable Diane wanted to avoid the cost and hassle of going to court, but agreeing to a settlement just to get things over with has had detrimental effects of her finances, as well her psychological well-being. Regardless of where you are in your divorce, please consider finding out about your rights and legal options from the experienced divorce attorneys of Villani & DeLuca, P.C.
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