Alimony & Spousal Support

Length Of Marriage Is Only One Of The Factors To Consider In Making Alimony Award

In the family law, alimony case of Gnall v. Gnall, A-52, September Term, 2015, Elizabeth and defendant James Gnall were married for almost 15 years when Elizabeth filed for divorce. Elizabeth, who held a master’s degree in computer science, was a stay-at-home mother to the parties’ three children. James, a certified public accountant, was chief financial officer at Deutsche Bank and earned over $1 million annually.

Regarding spousal support, the trial court considered the factors in N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23(b) and made factual findings for each. It concluded that permanent alimony was not appropriate due to parties’ relatively young ages, their educational levels, and the duration of the marriage. The court said the marriage was not short-term but neither was it a 25- to 30-year marriage and that it was not long enough to hold James responsible for Elizabeth’s ability to maintain their marital lifestyle. The court awarded limited duration alimony for 11 years.

The Appellate Division reversed and remanded for an award of permanent alimony, reasoning that a 15-year marriage was not short-term, therefore precluding consideration of limited duration alimony.

The Supreme Court reversed and remanded for a new determination of alimony.

The court observed that whether alimony should be awarded was governed by objective standards set forth in N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23(b) and that 2A:34-23(c) required a court to make specific findings regarding each factor. Permanent alimony was to be assessed first and only if it was determined to be unwarranted could a court consider the other types of alimony.

The court found that the trial court had based its decision solely on 2A:34-23(b)(2), the marriage’s duration, in effect determining that permanent alimony awards were reserved solely for long-term marriages of 25 years or more, excluding consideration of the other factors. The Supreme Court said no per se rule existed indicating that permanent alimony was unwarranted unless the 25th anniversary had been reached. It said the trial court improperly weighed duration over the other statutory factors in determining that a long-term marriage had to be 25 years or more.

Further, the Supreme Court held that the appellate panel inadvertently created a bright-line rule that 15-year marriages required permanent alimony, contrary to the intent underlying N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23. It said that case law had consistently held that all 13 statutory factors had to be considered and given due weight and that the duration of the marriage was only one factor to be considered.

Reference: Case & Analysis, New Jersey Law Journal, 221 N.J.L.J.469 (July 29, 2015)

Filed Under: Alimony; Permanent Alimony; Marriage Duration

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