Right before the Thanksgiving holiday the NJ Appellate Court came out with an unpublished decision yet again reminding trial courts when permanent alimony should be permanent and not something else.  While there is no bright line, black and white rule written about the magic number of years that would entitle a spouse to permanent alimony, there are certainly some general facts that assist attorneys and judges alike in determining when a case is appropriate for permanent alimony.  This decision reminds us of those.

In the matter of Happold v. Happold, A-2792-10T1, decided November 21, 2011, the Appellate Court reversed and remanded (to a new judge in the trial court) a decision, which awarded the Wife 10 years of limited duration alimony instead of permanent alimony.  The relevant facts are as follows:

1. The parties were married for 21 years at the time the Complaint for Divorce was filed.

2. The parties were ages 42 and 43 at the time of the Complaint.

3. Three children were born of the marriage, one was emancipated before the trial.

4. The Wife became pregnant with the parties’ first child at the age of 16, when she was in the 10th grade.  Husband was in 11th grade at the time.  Wife dropped out of high school only completing a 9th grade level of education.  Husband continued in school and graduated.

5. One year after their first child’s birth, Wife moved into Husband’s parents’ home with Husband.  Wife never worked outside the home during this time.  Husband completed high school and began working.

6. The parties’ two other children were born in 1993 and 1995.  While Husband worked outside the home and his career continually advanced, Wife remained at home as the sole caretaker for the children and the home.

7. During the marriage, Husband controlled the parties’ finances except for a jointly held savings account intended to give Wife immediate access to money if Husband died.

8. At the time of the trial and during the last year of the marriage, Husband’s income was $238,500 and $215,000 respectively.

Wife testified that during the marriage, Husband prohibited her from working and being involved in the finances claiming she was “too stupid to handle the bills”.  While their lifestyle expenses differed on their Case Information Statements, Wife testified that she was unaware of what and how much their expenses were because Husband controlled these items.

After trial, the court rendered a decision on the validity of a prenuptial agreement, Wife’s request for alimony, and Wife’s request for counsel fees.

The court held the prenuptial agreement was unenforceable. This ruling remains unchanged.

The Court reversed the award of ten years of limited duration alimony stating it “ignores well settled precedent that absent exceptional circumstances not present here, permanent alimony is appropriate in the case of a long-term marriage like that of the parties.”  In it’s opinion, the Court supported this decision by holding that the Wife’s economic dependency on the Husband pre-existed the marriage by 5 years.  Also, the lower court’s findings on the statutory factors, which guide courts in awarding the type and length of alimony “was conclusory and cursory”.  The Court went on to add a footnote specifically addressing that high school drop-outs, especially those beyond their mid-twenties, face the highest rate of unemployment in our society.

In its lengthy critique of the trial court’s decision, the Appellate Court also noted that the lower court failed to give adequate recognition to the Wife’s “extreme dependence” on the Husband.  The relatively young age of the parties at the time of trial did not outweigh the duration of the marriage and other relevant factors, which support an award of permanent alimony in this case.

Lastly, the Appellate Court vacated the trial court’s decision to award the Wife only $5,000 in additional counsel fees based upon a finding that the Wife “maintained unreasonable positions at trial and declined to settle the case along lines similar to the court’s ultimate judgment”.  The Court held that the trial court deviated from Rule 5:3-5 and failed to address the specific factors outlined therein.  More importantly, the award was reversed because of the trial court’s “mistaken rejection of [the Wife’s] permanent alimony claim tainted its assessment of “the reasonableness and good faith of the positions advanced by the parties,” and the “results obtained”.”

Lesson learned: Limited duration alimony was not appropriate in a case with these facts.  Assess your situation in light of all the statutory factors and the precedent set by the relevant case law.  At least in this case, the other lesson is that the length of economic dependency trumped the relatively young ages of the parties at the time of the divorce.

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Sandra Fava is a contributor to the New Jersey Family Legal Blog and a member of Fox Rothschild’s Family Law Practice Group. Sandra practices throughout New Jersey in all areas of family law and family law litigation. You can reach Sandra at (973) 994-7564, or sfava@foxrothschild.com.

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