OCT. 2, 2017 (Date Decided)
FOR PLAINTIFF: Todd W. Heck (Testa, Heck, Testa & White, P.A., attorneys).
FOR DEFENDANT: Anthony Merlino, Assistant Township Attorney (Kenneth B. Fitzsimmons, Township Attorney, on the briefs).
Plaintiff appealed the judgment of the Ocean County Board of Taxation, denying her application for a veteran’s property tax exemption. Plaintiff was the surviving spouse of a Vietnam War veteran who died from a 100 percent wartime service-connected disability. After plaintiff’s spouse, Peter Pruent, died in 1989 at the age of 41, plaintiff remarried to Charles Stevens, also a veteran, who died four years after their marriage. Subsequently, the VA approved plaintiff for dependency and indemnity compensation benefits retroactive to Pruent’s death, determining that plaintiff’s subsequent remarriage to Stevens was not a permanent bar to eligibility for DIC.
The VA’s determination also rendered Pruent eligible for property tax exemption in New Jersey. Plaintiff then appealed to defendant township for a disabled veteran’s exemption on her residence. The township issued a notice of disallowance, interpreting the property tax exemption statute as barring the exemption for any surviving spouse who remarried. Plaintiff appealed to the board of taxation, which issued a judgment upholding the disallowance.
On appeal, the court reversed the judgment of the board of taxation. The court first held that eligibility for the veteran’s property tax exemption first commenced when the VA determined the veteran’s 100 percent disability from military service. The court further ruled that the phrases “during the surviving spouse’s widowhood” and “has not remarried” did not require suspension or termination of the exemption for a widow or widower’s remarriage. The court rejected the township’s contention that plaintiff’s remarriage to Stevens permanently ended her status as Pruent’s widow, finding that modern interpretations of the term “widow” defined it as the status of having survived one’s spouse, while currently unmarried or regardless of whether or not the widow had remarried. The court held that it was the present, not past, status of the surviving spouse that controlled application of the exemption, and that the term “widow” referred to the person, rather than a marital status. The court held that the legislature could have adopted language explicitly terminating a widow’s eligibility for the veteran’s property tax exemption, and that its failure to do so indicated that the legislature did not intend such a restriction. The court further found no burden on tracking widows’ remarriages and deaths of their subsequent spouses, noting that tax assessors were required to establish exemption eligibility every year.