When New Jersey’s alimony laws changed in September of 2014 many people became fixated on the length of the marriage when discussing the term of alimony awarded. The new alimony statute suggests that permanent alimony or “open durational alimony”, as it is now referred to, is reserved for marriages 20 years in length and more. However, this is not always the case, which is the premise of a newly decision entitled Gnall v. Gnall. Following is divorce and family law attorney Elizabeth Rozin-Golinder’s take.
Elizabeth and James Gnall were married for almost fifteen years when their divorce action started. They had met in 1985 while attending college. They became engaged eight years later and were married on June 5, 1993. At the time they married, Elizabeth had a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree. At the beginning of the marriage Elizabeth worked as a computer programmer. James obtained an accounting degree and then earned his CPA license. He began working for Deutsche Bank in 2003 and continues to work there today. After their first child was born Elizabeth continued to work full time. However, the parties mutually decided in 1999 that Elizabeth should stop working and should care for the family full-time. The parties ultimately had three children. At the time of the divorce Elizabeth had been out of the job market for the majority of the marriage while James was earning close to two million dollars per year.
Of course, the parties were unable to agree upon alimony. After a lengthy divorce trial, the trial Judge determined that Elizabeth would receive $18,000 per month in alimony for eleven years. The trial Judge determined that the marriage was not short term but “neither was it a twenty-five to thirty year marriage.”
Elizabeth appealed the award and argued that she was entitled to permanent alimony given the length of the marriage and the fact that she gave up her career to care for the parties’ children. The Appellate Division reversed the case for an award of permanent alimony, stating that a fifteen year marriage was not short term, thus preventing “consideration of an award of limited duration alimony”. The Appellate Division also reversed the trial court because they felt that the trial court failed to make specific findings for all the factors associated with a determination of alimony.
James then appealed to the Supreme Court of New Jersey, who reversed the Appellate Division’s judgment and sent the matter back to the trial court for a new determination. The Supreme Court explained that both the Trial Court and the Appellate division erroneously focused heavily on the length of the parties’ marriage as a determining factor of the type of alimony Elizabeth would be entitled to.
The Supreme Court addressed the alimony factors and at length explained the different types of alimony available to litigants in New Jersey. In conclusion the Supreme Court found that the trial court “did not consider all of the necessary factors required by N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23 in determining that permanent alimony was unwarranted…” The Supreme Court also stated that the trial court determined that permanent alimony awards are reserved solely for long term marriages of twenty-five years or more. The trial court thus excluded consideration of the other factors in the statute and went against the legislative intent of the statute.
The Supreme Court also reversed the Appellate Division decision because they felt the same unintentionally created a bright-line rule with regard to the length of a long term marriage and the requirement of an award of permanent alimony.
Ultimately the Supreme Court held that one must always remember there are 13 factors a Court must look at before deciding a terms and an amount of support. The length of the marriage is but one of those factors and is not always the deciding factor. The 13 factors a Court must look at are:
- The actual need and ability of the parties to pay;
- The duration of the marriage or civil union;
- The age, physical and emotional health of the parties;
- The standard of living established in the marriage or civil union and the likelihood that each party can maintain a reasonably comparable standard of living, with neither party having a greater entitlement to that standard of living than the other;
- The earning capacities, educational levels, vocational skills, and employability of the parties;
- The length of absence from the job market of the party seeking maintenance;
- The parental responsibilities for the children;
- The time and expense necessary to acquire sufficient education or training to enable the party seeking maintenance to find appropriate employment, the availability of the training and employment, and the opportunity for future acquisitions of capital assets and income;
- The history of the financial or non-financial contributions to the marriage or civil union by each party including contributions to the care and education of the children and interruption of personal careers or educational opportunities;
- The equitable distribution of property ordered and any payouts on equitable distribution, directly or indirectly, out of current income, to the extent this consideration is reasonable, just and fair;
- The income available to either party through investment of any assets held by that party;
- The tax treatment and consequences to both parties of any alimony award, including the designation of all or a portion of the payment as a non-taxable payment;
- The nature, amount, and length of pendente lite support paid, if any; and
- Any other factors which the court may deem relevant.
The statute goes on to say that:
For any marriage or civil union less than 20 years in duration, the total duration of alimony shall not, except in exceptional circumstances, exceed the length of the marriage or civil union. Determination of the length and amount of alimony shall be made by the court pursuant to consideration of all of the statutory factors set forth in subsection b. of this section. In addition to those factors, the court shall also consider the practical impact of the parties’ need for separate residences and the attendant increase in living expenses on the ability of both parties to maintain a standard of living reasonably comparable to the standard of living established in the marriage or civil union, to which both parties are entitled, with neither party having a greater entitlement thereto. Exceptional circumstances which may require an adjustment to the duration of alimony include:
- The ages of the parties at the time of the marriage or civil union and at the time of the alimony award;
- The degree and duration of the dependency of one party on the other party during the marriage or civil union;
- Whether a spouse or partner has a chronic illness or unusual health circumstance;
- Whether a spouse or partner has given up a career or a career opportunity or otherwise supported the career of the other spouse or partner;
- Whether a spouse or partner has received a disproportionate share of equitable distribution;
- The impact of the marriage or civil union on either party’s ability to become self-supporting, including but not limited to either party’s responsibility as primary caretaker of a child;
- Tax considerations of either party;
- Any other factors or circumstances that the court deems equitable, relevant and material.
What one must take away from the Gnall case is that there is no “per se” rule regarding permanent alimony as each matter is different and must be determined on a case by case basis. More importantly, all factors in the statute must be considered when determining alimony, so please remember that the length of the marriage is only one factor. If you require assistance regarding alimony please do not hesitate to contact our law office for a consultation.
Elizabeth Rozin-Golinder, Esq., a rising star and a dedicated family law attorney at the Law Offices of Edward R. Weinstein.