When laws get changed, the preamble to the statute and/or the legistlative history often tells you the perceived need for the change.  As an example, when the palimony law, which we have blogged on numerous times before, changed a few years ago, the preamble of the amendment to the statute mentioned several palimony cases that the law sought to overturn.  We have also blogged on the possible alimony reform movement.  If the reform now passes, I would not be surprised if it is response to Gnall v. Gnall, a published (precedential) Appellate Division opinion decided on August 8, 2013.

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Gnall is interesting for a lot of reasons and we will blog about some of the other reasons later on.  That said, the greatest significance of Gnall is that some will now argue that the new black letter law is that a 15 year marriage automatically requires permanent alimony.  I am not sure that it actually means that but the fact is that many people will be advancing that proposition.

In this case, the parties were married for 15 years (obviously) and had 3 children.  The parties were about 41 at the date of Complaint and both 42 at the time of trial.  The wife worked outside of the home for the first 6 or so years of the marriage, earning more than $100,000, and then “principally cared [sic]” for the children for the remainder of the marriage.  The husband’s income grew from about $500,000 to about $1 million at the date of Complaint to about $1.8 million in the year of the trial to over $2 million thereafter.

As noted by the Appellate Division, when analyzing the statutory factors. the trial judge found:

.. the parties’ fifteen-year marital relationship was “not short term[.]” Nevertheless, when he weighed the “relatively young” age of the parties, and their good health and education, which allowed them to obtain employment “at good salaries” and thereby support “excellent lifestyles for themselves and their children[,]” the judge concluded “the parties were not married long enough and  are not old enough for [defendant] to be responsible to maintain that lifestyle permanently for [plaintiff].” He therefore concluded, “this is not a permanent alimony case.”  (Emphasis added).

The Appellate Division disagreed and reversed.  The analysis given reiterated the purpose of alimony:

We nevertheless emphasize that judges considering an alimony request must always keep in mind the primary “purpose of awarding alimony to a spouse 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 the quality of economic life that existed during the marriage.'” Clark v. Clark, 429 N.J. Super. 61, 72-73 (App. Div. 2012) (quoting Mani v. Mani, 183 N.J. 70, 80 (2005) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted)). The economic dependence created as a result of the marital relationship is a crucial finding necessary to impose the ongoing financial entanglement of an alimony award. The law attributes a party’s individual success to have been achieved by virtue of the joint union — “a shared enterprise, a joint undertaking, that in many ways . . . is akin to a partnership.” (some citiation omitted)

The Court then turned to the basis for why limited duration alimony was added to the alimony stated about 15 ago, noting that it was “… a remedy was to address a dependent spouse’s post-divorce needs following “‘”shorter-term marriages where permanent or rehabilitative alimony would be inappropriate or inapplicable but where, nonetheless, economic assistance for a limited period of time would be just.” (Emphasis added).

Now, the analysis turned to whether the Gnall’s marriage, 3 months shy of 15 years, qualified for permanent alimony.  The Court noted:

Assessing the facts here, the trial judge correctly identified this marriage’s length as “not short-term.” He further acknowledged plaintiff would be unable “to maintain the marital lifestyle without alimony now and probably not for some time[.]” Nevertheless, he concluded, consideration of an award of permanent alimony was obviated by the parties’ relatively young ages and the fact that they were not married long enough — commenting theirs was not a twenty-five to thirty-year relationship. This conclusion was error and must be reversed.

What?  Did the Appellate Division just disregard or devalue the ages of the parties as a factor or imply that that when the parties’ ages are in equipoise with duration of the marriage, we defer to duration?  But as said earlier, did the court mean to draw a line in the sand or a bright line rule?  Maybe not, as they then said:

We do not intend to draw specific lines delineating “short-term” and “long-term” marriages in an effort to define those cases warranting only limited duration rather than permanent alimony. We also underscore it is not merely the years from the wedding to the parties’ separation or commencement of divorce that dictates the applicability or inapplicability of permanent alimony. Nevertheless, we do not hesitate to declare a fifteen-year marriage is not short-term, a conclusion which precludes consideration of an award of limited duration alimony.

A dependent spouse’s age alone also cannot obviate permanent alimony….

Aha.  So the court does not intend to draw absolute bright lines but 15 years seems like it might be one.  What about 14 years, 13 years, 12 years.  The Hughes v. Hughes case decided before the limited duration alimony statute said that a 10 year marriage was long-term. What does that mean now, when read with Gnall?

What does this mean in this case?  If neither party dies and plaintiff does not remarry, the alimony in this case can go on for almost twice the length of the marriage (assuming Mr. Gnall some day gets to retire and stop paying – not assured under the current law – and given his income, he may very well be able to continue paying long after his retirement if his success continues).  Does this preclude Ms. Grall from seeking a new spouse for fear of loosing permanent alimony?  As noted above, it would seem to me that this case is the type of case that may give fuel to the raging alimony reform debate so stay tuned on that front too.

There are other issues of interest in Gnall including those relating to imputation, lifestyle, and others that I will blog on in the coming days.

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Eric Solotoff is the editor of the New Jersey Family Legal Blog and the Co-Chair of the Family Law Practice Group of Fox Rothschild LLP. Certified by the Supreme Court of New Jersey as a Matrimonial Lawyer and a Fellow of the American Academy of Matrimonial Attorneys, Eric practices in Fox Rothschild’s Roseland and Morristown, New Jersey offices though he practices throughout New Jersey. You can reach Eric at (973)994-7501, or esolotoff@foxrothschild.com.