While there are few issues more controversial in New Jersey family law than that of permanent alimony, one circumstance in which courts have been relatively consistent in rendering such an award – where the circumstances may have, without such fact, merited a different result – is where the payee spouse suffers from some form of malady. This was the situation in Waldorf v. Waldorf, a newly unpublished (not precedential) Appellate Division decision where the wife was diagnosed with lupus during the marriage and also suffered from two related autoimmune disorders that caused a deterioration of her physical condition.
Here are some of the more pertinent facts aside from her diagnosis/conditions upon which the trial court relied in awarding permanent alimony:
- The parties were married in 1995 and had one child in 1996. Wife filed a Complaint for Divorce in April, 2007 (less than 12 year marriage at such time).
- Husband regularly earned a six-figure income.
- Wife had a bachelor’s degree in history and psychology and a law degree, but never practiced law.
- Due to her conditions, she began working part-time in 2001 and, in July 2003 stopped working altogether.
- She applied for Social Security disability benefits (SSD) and, in 2003, the Social Security Administration deemed her totally disabled.
- At the time of trial, Wife’s SSD payments totaled $2,044 per month, plus $1,100 per month in derivative benefits for the child. She also received Medicare, which covered 80% of her medical costs (not including prescription drug costs).
- In 2009, Husband was terminated from his position of employment due to a company reorganization. He left the country in January, 2010 and went to live in Guatemala for a short time before returning to New Jersey. He remained unemployed until mid-2010, at which point he began working for a consulting firm.
- In March, 2011, Husband was furloughed, and he was scheduled to start a different job in the same company in July, 2011.
- Husband was regularly behind in support payments (as Ordered by the Court) during the divorce proceeding, and was even incarcerated, as a result in November, 2010, and in early April, 2011 until the end of May, 2011. He filed several applications to reduce his support obligation during the matter.
- After a 15-day trial, the judge found Wife credible and Husband incredible to the point that he concluded that he was “out of touch with logic and reality,” and was “singularly motivated to hurt [Wife] both financially and non-financially.” In its decision, the judge granted Wife sole legal and physical custody of the child and, among other forms of relief, $2,000 per week in permanent alimony through a wage garnishment. A substantial cousnsel fee award was also rendered for the Wife, of approximately $100,000.
While the Appellate Division affirmed the award of permanent alimony, it remanded for a recalculation of the amount. Notably, the Court quoted from Gnall v. Gnall, 432 N.J. Super. 129 (App. Div. 2013), a controversial decision on the issue of permanent alimony that is now before the Supreme Court of New Jersey, providing, “Although ‘[c]ourts must consider the duration of the marriage’ when fixing alimony, ‘the length of the marriage and the proper amount or duration of alimony do not correlate in any mathematical formula.'”
Pertinent to the Wife’s condition here, it also noted in quoting from other well known cases on the issue of alimony that a parties divergent circumstances “at the end of a relatively short marriage” may require the more fortunate spouse to “accept responsibility for the other’s misfortune – the fate of their shared enterprise.” In affirming the permanent alimony award, the Appellate Division noted, “Although twelve years is not an exceptionally long marriage, plaintiff’s ailing health and inability to work created an actual economic dependency on defendant requiring him, as the more fortunate spouse, to accept responsibility for her misfortunes.”
Interestingly, the Court reversed and remanded on the quantum of alimony awarded, noting that “[Husband] was the architect of this flawed alimony award,” rather than the trial judge against whom Husband had accused of bias. Since the trial judge had relied on one of Husband’s incomplete Case Information Statements – which lists out, among other things, a marital and individual monthly lifestyle – it did not account for taxes, medical insurance, life insurance, and the like, as well as, interestingly, the counsel fee award against him.
Since Husband represented himself during the proceeding, the Appellate Division concluded that the trial judge “should have fully questioned defendant about his expenses to reach a more realistic budget,” and that he did not find that the amount allowed Husband to reasonably maintain the marital standard of living (despite the Court affirming the trial court imputing to Husband a higher level of income than that earned at the time of trial, based on a review of his income history and conclusions of voluntary underemployment). Ultimately, the Appellate Division concluded that the amount of the award – when compared to what it would leave Husband with each month – was inequitable.
While some readers of this post and the underlying opinion may question how a 12 year marriage can result in an award of permanent alimony, the Wife’s health condition here left her in a condition where she would never be able to support herself to any degree resembling the lifestyle lived during the marriage. Under this fact-specific scenario, the alimony duration seems both appropriate and equitable for both parties.