TRENTON — New Jersey judges must consider more than how long a marriage lasted when determining the duration of alimony payments in the wake of a divorce, the state Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.
New Jersey’s highest court voted unanimously that both a trial court and appellate panel erred when they focused on the length of a Bergen County couple’s marriage when they ruled on what type of alimony the husband would have to pay.
Elizabeth and James Gnall of Ridgewood were married for nearly 15 years when Elizabeth filed for divorce in 2008, according to court papers. The couple had three children, the papers said.
Elizabeth had left her job as a computer programmer with Goldman Sachs to care for the kids, while James, the sole wage earner, made more than $1 million a year as the chief financial officer of Deutsch Bank, the documents said.
A trial judge found that permanent alimony was not appropriate because of the “relatively young” age of the couples, their educational levels, and the duration of their marriage.
The judge also noted that while the marriage was not short-term, it was also not 25 to 30 years long, and thus they were not married long enough to warrant permanent alimony.
Instead, the judge ruled that James must pay Elizabeth $18,000 a month for 11 years.
Elizabeth appealed, saying she deserved permanent alimony based on the length of the marriage and because her ability to be employed was diminished because she had been caring for their children since 1999.
Saying that a 15-year marriage is not short-term, an appellate panel reversed the decision and called for a lower court to re-evaluate whether she should be awarded permanent alimony.
The state Supreme Court said Wednesday that judges must consider all factors listed under state law when determining alimony payments.
“The duration of the marriage is only one such factor,” Justice Faustino Fernandez-Vina wrote for the court.
Fernandez-Vina wrote the appellate panel “erroneously created a bright-line rule” that a 15-year marriage requires permanent alimony, “contrary to the need to consider all of the statutory factors.”
And he wrote that the trial court also “improperly relied upon the duration of the marriage over the other statutory factors” in determining that permanent alimony was not required because the marriage was not 25 to 30 years long.
“Permanent alimony is intended to allow the dependent spouse to live the same lifestyle to which he or she became accustomed during the marriage,” Fernandez-Vina wrote. “The court has broad discretion when awarding permanent alimony because no two cases are alike. When determining the amount of an award, the court must evaluate the actual needs of the dependent party and the actual means of the other party.”
The court remanded the matter back to trial court to determine a new alimony payment.
Paris Eliades, the former president of the New Jersey Bar Association, said the court “has reaffirmed the long-standing public policy that no two marriages are the same and that all 13 statutory factors are to be considered and weighed against the relevant facts.”
Gov. Chris Christie signed a law last September that overhauls New Jersey’s alimony system. Most notably, it eliminates permanent alimony, allowing ex-spouses making the payments to apply to discontinue them after hitting the retirement age of 67. It also says in marriages lasting fewer than 20 years, the length of payments cannot exceed the length of the marriage, unless a judge decides there are “exceptional circumstances.”
But the Supreme Court noted that the alimony in the Gnalls’ case is governed under the old law. The overhaul applies only to divorces filed after the new law was signed.
Thus, Dale Console, James Gnall’s attorney, said Wednesday’s ruling”really has no significant effect on the law.”
“Which is unfortunate,” the Kingston-based lawyer said. “It was an opportunity for (the justices) to give some guidelines.”
Elizabeth Gnall’s attorney did not immediately return a message seeking comment.