Destruction of Personal Items in New Jersey Divorces: Is There a Remedy?
One of the issues that often comes up in a New Jersey divorce case is one spouse’s disposal of personal items which belong to the other spouse.
When our client is still living with his/her spouse at the time that my firm is retained, we advise the client to secure and/or remove all personal items, in order to minimize the chance that his/her spouse will take them.
When our client is already separated from his/her spouse, but some of the client’s personal items remain at the spouse’s residence, we advise the client to go to the spouse’s residence and remove them. If the spouse will not allow that, we advise the client to make a list of the personal items and take photographs of them so that the spouse cannot later deny their existence.
Sometimes, however, despite a client’s best efforts, the spouse disposes of some of those items. What is the remedy—especially when the items have little tangible value but a lot of sentimental value to the client?
That question was recently answered by one New Jersey Family Court judge, in a case where a wife had intentionally disposed of family photographs and videos from the parties’ marriage, even though she had signed a Marital Settlement Agreement in which she had agreed that her husband had the right to share in those photos and videos and the parties were supposed to arrange a time to go through everything together.
The judge began the analysis by pointing out that in divorce proceedings, each party has an implicit duty of good faith and fair dealing, and that the wife had violated that duty.
The New Jersey family court judge ruled that there is a three-part test to determine the legitimacy of a damage claim related to destruction of sentimental property. The aggrieved party must demonstrate that:
- the other party actually did take, damage or destroy the property, in violation of the aggrieved party’s rights;
- the aggrieved party genuinely wanted the items in question; and
- the other party knew or should have known that the aggrieved party wanted the property, and that such property had a significant personal value to the aggrieved party.
The judge found that the husband had demonstrated all of those things. Therefore, even though the amount of damages could not be quantified, the New Jersey family court judge ordered the wife to pay $5,000 to the husband.
As we point out to our clients, litigation over personal property is generally not a wise expenditure, because the cost of such litigation almost always exceeds the value of the personal property.
However, where as in this case the violation of one party’s rights is clear, the creation of a remedy will hopefully avoid similar violations in future divorce cases.
Salvaggio Law Group devotes its entire practice to New Jersey Divorce and Family Law matters, including those in which the disposal of personal property is a genuine issue. If you want to talk, please call us at 973-455-1220 or fill out the Contact Form on our firm’s website.