Editor’s Note: The following article by Sheryl Seiden was published as part of New Jersey Family Lawyer Vol. 39, No. 2, which is distributed to members of the Family Law Section. To learn more about joining a section of the New Jersey State Bar Association, email us at [email protected].
I was honored and privileged to have been sworn in as the chair of the Family Law Section of the New Jersey State Bar Association on May 16. It has been a long journey to reach this milestone, and I am so thankful to all the wonderful colleagues, friends, and family who helped me achieve this goal. There have been some incredible lawyers and retired judges who have previously served as chairs of the Family Law Section and, having learned from their leadership, I look forward to following in their footsteps.
Before I begin to tell you about me and my goals for the year, I must commend Michael Weinberg, the immediate past chair of our section, for his dedication and leadership over the last year. He worked hard, never once complained, and made it look so easy to run our section.
A Little Bit About Me
So who am I and why am I a family lawyer? A nice Jewish girl, I was born in Philadelphia in a Catholic hospital while my dad was finishing dental school. I then moved to Biloxi, Mississippi, where my dad served as a dentist in the United States Air Force. We then relocated back to the Tristate area, living in Staten Island where my dad, together with my mother, built a successful dental practice. After graduating fifth grade, we moved to Marlboro, New Jersey.
After graduating from Marlboro High School, I attended The American University, where I studied in the School of Public Affairs and majored in justice. I interned for the United States Attorneys’ Office, where I became inspired to become an assistant prosecutor. I then attended New York Law School, where I was the managing editor of the New York Law School Law Review.
While in law school, I changed course. I was convinced I would become a bankruptcy attorney, not an assistant prosecutor, and certainly not a family lawyer.
Truth be told, family law was not even a thought for me in those early days. I did not even complete a family law class in law school; in fact, it was the only class I dropped during my three years in law school. I started my legal career as a summer associate in a large New York City law firm, Thacher, Proffitt & Wood, which was located in Two World Trade Center, where I later became a first-year associate in the litigation department, specializing in maritime law. I then ventured to another large New York City law firm, Paul Hastings, where I practiced intellectual property litigation. I was then contacted by a recruiter who helped find me what turned out to be my dream job—working for Eleanor Alter and Helen Brezinsky at a law firm previously known as Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman, practicing family law.
Why Eleanor? Why Helen? Why family law? Well, having watched my parents go through a terrible divorce in New Jersey (which started when I graduated college and ended two years after I graduated from law school) I decided that I no longer wanted to work for big corporations. I wanted to help people during the most difficult time in their lives. Eleanor and Helen were both incredible role models for me in my career, teaching me the ropes of family law in high-net worth and high-profile cases, and I thank them for their guidance of me as a young lawyer.
After several years learning the ropes of family law in New York City, Helen and I had a New Jersey case, in Essex County, before Judge Convery, against our now Tischler recipient, Francis Donohue. As expected, Frank commanded the courtroom and took complete control of the case. I remember Judge Convery ordering Helen and I to subpoena the documents that Frank wanted if our client could not provide them. Recognizing that we needed local counsel to help level the playing field, we brought in Cary Cheifetz as local counsel to assist us in litigating this very difficult case. We settled the case before Judge Convery. But for Cary’s impressive mediation skills, we might still be trying the case today.
After that case, having become tired of commuting, and with a toddler at home, I was persuaded by Cary to come to New Jersey and join the ranks of New Jersey’s family lawyers. In July 2003, I joined Ceconi & Cheifetz, where I practiced family law for 13 years. Lizanne Ceconi encouraged me to get involved with the Family Law Executive Committee and, in 2008, I served as Young Lawyer Subcommittee co-chair, together with Carrie Schultz, under the leadership of our former chair, Edward O’Donnell.
On Oct. 1, 2016, I opened my own law firm, Seiden Family Law. A wonderful new legal assistant, Kristen Reynolds, agreed to take a chance with me, and together we began to build the firm. We then added our first associate, Shari Genser, and then added our next lawyer, Donald Schumacher. Before long, we added Christine Fitzgerald and Christine Tangredi. In two and one half years, Seiden Family Law has tripled in size. What an adventure it has been, and I thank each and every one of my team members for joining my firm, and helping to grow the firm.
What Does it Mean to be a Family Lawyer?
What does it mean to be a family lawyer? Well for starters, it is one of the hardest areas of the law to practice in. Half of our job is to navigate clients through the legal aspects of family law and the other half of our job is to counsel clients through the emotionally and financially difficult process. I chose to leave the world of litigation representing corporations to help people during some of the most challenging times in their lives.
Having watched my parents’ contentious divorce, I wanted to give back. I thought I could really make a difference in people’s lives. I will never forget the day I learned my parents were getting divorced. I was graduating from college and my mom showed up to pick me up from college without my father, breaking the news to me that my parents had separated. It was truly one of the worst days of my life. No child ever wants to hear that their family is breaking apart. Going through that process taught me how to be resilient, lead a family in a time of need, and become stronger as a person. Most importantly, it served as the basis for me to become a family lawyer and continue to practice family law exclusively today. What better way to heal the pain than to embrace the world that caused it?
Despite the fears we hear from our clients about their children, I am here to tell you that children of divorce will be okay. I am okay. In fact, I am more than okay; each one of my three siblings are more than okay, as each one of us is more successful than the next.
My Initiatives for My Term as Chair
This year I have several goals that I hope you will help me achieve. First, I want to focus on the children of divorce. We need more resources to help guide children during these difficult times in their lives. We also need to find a way to assist the courts in making custody determinations in those cases where parents cannot afford to pay for a full custody evaluation. It is my hope that we can work with our forensic psychologists to create a program to help the judges make these custody and parenting time decisions. I will be continuing our Children’s Rights Committee on the Family Law Executive Committee, which will be tasked with addressing these issues.
A second goal for the coming year is to propose legislation that provides guidance and consistency for our courts in addressing how to handle parents’ requests to relocate within the state of New Jersey. Without consent of the other spouse or a court order, a parent cannot relocate from Bergen County to New York City because it is an interstate relocation: however, that same parent can relocate from Bergen County to Cape May County without consent or court order. Michael Weinberg started this initiative by forming a committee that has reviewed the intrastate relocation laws in all states within the United States. We now have a data bank of research on this issue that I hope we can use to craft law in our state. This issue will be part of our Family Law Symposium on Jan. 25, 2020.
A third area of our law that we need to mend is the black hole that exists in the crossover between the elective share statute and the laws of equitable distribution. The elective share statute, which provides a spouse with one-third of the deceased spouse’s augmented estate, does not apply to a spouse who was living separate and apart from the deceased spouse at the time of the divorce where there was grounds for a divorce at the time of the spouse’s death. This law was created when New Jersey was still a fault state. Now that we are a no-fault state, this exclusion can apply to any marriage where the spouses were living separate and apart at the time of death. Moreover, the equitable distribution laws no longer apply once a spouse dies. For a spouse who does not have remedies under the elective share statute and does not have remedies under the equitable distribution statute, this has created what we refer to as the black hole in our law. Together with the New Jersey Law Revision Commission, the Family Law Section is working on proposed legislation that can mend this black hole. This initiative was launched by Jeralyn Lawrence during her year as chair and continued by Stephanie Hagan and Michael Weinberg. It takes years to make these changes, and I plan to continue with their initiatives.
My fourth goal is to find a way to help the Judiciary move cases. Whether it is to add more blue-ribbon blitz panels or mediators to the roster, we need to work together so we can really ensure best practices are met and people in our state are timely divorced.
My fifth goal is to elevate our young lawyers. The young lawyers are the future of our section. Last year, the Family Law Executive Committee created a mentoring program under the guidance of Derek Freed. We will continue this program during my term and continue to provide support to our young lawyers. This year, our Young Lawyer Subcommittee (YLS) is co-chaired by Rotem Peretz and Elissa Perkins. We will have three groups functioning under the subcommittee: social/sponsorship, led by Jayde Wiener and Alexandra Rigden; technology/ education, led by Vito Colasurdo Jr. and Daniel Burton; and silent audition/holiday party, led by Kaitlyn Lapi and Shari Genser. Any young lawyers who would like to be a part of YLS should reach out to Rotem and Elissa. YLS will be responsible for educating the Family Law Executive Committee about the new developments in our case law and provide us with technology updates. They held their first meet and greet on June 25 at Stuff Yer Face in New Brunswick. The YLS kickoff party is planned for Sept. 19. Two mentoring workshops are planned for YLS on Nov. 12 and Feb. 11.
And finally, I want to encourage each of you to get out of your comfort zone and do something you have never done. You can mentor a young lawyer, volunteer for a blue-ribbon panel, speak at a seminar, volunteer to take a pro bono case, or attend the Family Law Retreat for the first time. It is important to give back, and I promise you will feel good about doing so in the process. As Darius Rucker, one of my favorite country music artists, says, “When Was The Last Time You Did Something For The First Time.” I welcome each of you to do something for the first time this year, and let me know what you decided to do; I want to hear from each of you!
The Annual Meeting and the Year Ahead
The Family Law Section sponsored/co-sponsored nine seminars on family law-related topics at the NJSBA Annual Meeting in May. We presented the Serpentelli Award, which is awarded to a retired judge who has dedicated him or herself to the Family Law Section, to the Honorable Marie Lihotz J.A.D. (Ret.). At the NJSBA Annual Meeting, we were privileged to have three Family Law Section members sworn in as leaders of the state bar. Evelyn Padin is now the first Latina sworn in as the president of the NJSBA, Jeralyn Lawrence was sworn in as second vice president, and Timothy McGoughran was sworn in as treasurer. We are very lucky to have family lawyers representing the state bar, and I hope you will join me in thanking them for their dedication and service to the section and the NJSBA.
Please save the date for some great upcoming events:
- The Hot Tips Seminar, with a focus on ethical issues in family law will be held on Nov.11.
- An open meeting of the Family Law Executive Committee will be held on Nov. 12.
- The Family Law Section Holiday Party is scheduled for Dec. 12, at Galloping Hill Park and Golf Course in Kenilworth.
- The Family Law Symposium will be held on Jan. 24 and Jan. 25, 2020, at the Hyatt Regency New Brunswick.
- The Family Law Retreat will be held from March 25 to March 29, 2020, in Nashville, Tennessee.
In closing, I thank each of you for putting your trust in me to lead our section for the next year. I thank each of you for being a part of this section, and I thank each of you for providing me with this opportunity. I encourage you to come forward to make a difference. It takes a village to run this section. I cannot do it alone. I am looking forward to a great year serving with you.