Gnall v. Gnall, A-3582-10T1; Appellate Division; opinion by Lihotz, J.A.D.; decided and approved for publication August 8, 2013. Before Judges Messano, Lihotz and Kennedy. On appeal from the Chancery Division, Family Part, Bergen County, FM-02-2021-08. DDS No. 20-2-0941 [48 pp.]
These matrimonial cross-appeals challenge several provisions in a final judgment of divorce, including the propriety of awarding limited-duration alimony following a15-year marriage.
Plaintiff Elizabeth Gnall holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and a master’s degree in computer science. She has held corporate positions as a software programmer and systems analyst. Each party presented expert testimony addressing her employment prospects.
Defendant is a certified public accountant and chief financial officer for the America Financial Group of Deutsche Bank. His annual compensation, including his fixed annual salary and a discretionary bonus, was $510,000 in 2005 and rose steadily to $2.1 million in 2010.
Evidence of the parties’ expenses and the marital lifestyle was presented.
The trial judge concluded that they enjoyed an upper-middle-class lifestyle that was more modest than what could be afforded on defendant’s more recent remuneration. He fixed the monthly needs of plaintiff and the three children at $18,000. He found the parties’ marriage was not short term but concluded that the parties were not married long enough and are not old enough (both 42 at the time they filed for divorce) for defendant to be responsible to maintain that lifestyle permanently for plaintiff. He therefore concluded, “this is not a permanent alimony case.” He awarded limited-duration alimony for 11 years.
Although acknowledging that plaintiff needed retraining, the judge noted that she had failed to work toward obtaining employment while the case was pending and imputed $65,000 annual income to her, effective immediately. He calculated child support as $997 per week and added a supplemental support award of $1,600 per month per child with the maximum gift tax amount to be deposited into their UGMA accounts. He determined the marital portion of defendant’s 2008 bonus but held plaintiff’s interest was offset by her past receipt of tax-free pendente lite support and other lump-sum payments made during the litigation. Defendant was ordered to maintain $3 million in life insurance during the limited-duration alimony term.
Held: Permanent alimony awards are not reserved solely for marriages of 25 to 30 years. It is not merely the years from the wedding to the separation that dictate the applicability of permanent alimony. However, a 15-year marriage is not short-term, a conclusion that precludes consideration of an award of limited-duration alimony.
As to plaintiff’s principal challenge on appeal — the judge’s award of limited-duration alimony rather than permanent alimony — the panel says N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23b governs whether alimony should be awarded. It demands that the court consider and make specific findings regarding the factors listed therein. The panel emphasizes that judges considering an alimony request must keep in mind that alimony is based on an economic right that arises out of the marital relationship and provides the dependent spouse with a level of support and standard of living generally commensurate with that which existed during the marriage.
Not every dependent spouse should receive a permanent alimony award. Limited-duration alimony is intended to address a dependent spouse’s postdivorce needs following shorter-term marriages where permanent or rehabilitative alimony would be inappropriate or inapplicable but where economic assistance for a limited period of time would be just.
The panel says the trial judge erred in concluding that an award of permanent alimony was obviated by the parties’ relatively young ages and the fact that they were not married long enough. Contrary to his belief, permanent alimony awards are not reserved solely for long-term marriages of 25 or 30 years. There is no per se rule that permanent alimony is unwarranted unless the 20th anniversary is reached. Any attempt to reduce the shared marital experience to a formulaic calculation of compensation based on the number of years in the marriage completely disregards the public policy considerations supporting continuation of economic support beyond the spouses’ joined lives.
Declining to draw specific lines delineating short-term and long-term marriages, the panel declares that a 15-year marriage is not short-term, a conclusion that precludes consideration of an award of limited-duration alimony.
Further, a dependent spouse’s age alone cannot obviate permanent alimony. All facts regarding each marital partnership must be evaluated when considering a claim of economic dependence warranting long-lasting support, including the duration and cause of the claimed economic dependence; sacrifices made to assure the nondependent spouse’s financial success; and whether the dependent spouse’s return to full-time employment causes disruption to the children’s needs.
For more than two-thirds of the marriage, plaintiff was the primary caretaker for the children and homemaker for the family, foregoing any earning capacity and professional success she may have achieved during this period. Under the divorce judgment, she continues to bear the lion’s share of parenting responsibilities. The parenting schedule permits defendant to continue his professional endeavors, substantially free of daily child-rearing concerns. It is unrealistic to assume plaintiff would be able to earn an amount to sustain herself in a manner approaching that which the parties enjoyed during the marriage.
The panel concludes the judge incorrectly evaluated the evidence, primarily rejecting permanent alimony because of his misconception that a 15-year marriage would not support such an award. This legal error permeated his overall consideration of other statutory factors, resulting in an impermissibly conclusory and cursory analysis. The award of limited-duration alimony is reversed and the matter is remanded for an evaluation of an award of permanent alimony.
The panel finds that the judge did not abuse his discretion in averaging the parties’ expenses over several years when computing the marital lifestyle rather than determining the marital standard of living based on the expenses incurred immediately prior to filing for divorce. However, because it cannot discern what findings and conclusions were drawn regarding plaintiff’s requested savings component, the panel remands on this issue.
The panel finds that neither the imputation of income to plaintiff nor the amount was erroneous. However, it remands regarding the effective date of imputation, finding no evidence to support the court’s conclusion that plaintiff could have immediately begun to earn $65,000 per year.
As to the child-support award, plaintiff argues it was too low, and defendant argues it was too high. The panel finds that the lack of meaningful factual findings requires that this issue be re-examined.
The panel declines to alter the judge’s findings regarding the 2008 bonus, inferentially accepting defendant’s testimony that he negotiated this bonus after plaintiff filed for divorce.
The panel finds that the judge did not abuse his discretion by ordering defendant to satisfy the balance of plaintiff’s outstanding attorney fees and costs but determines that a factual error occurred in the review of the life insurance issue, necessitating reversal and remand.
For appellant/cross-respondent — Dale E. Console. For respondent/cross-appellant — Barry L. Baime (Budd Larner; Donald P. Jacobs on the briefs).