Every family uses its money in different ways. Some families spend every cent they have on everything imaginable, others save every last possible cent for the proverbial “rainy day”, and many families fall somewhere in between. Once a marriage comes to an end, however, will both spouses be able to continue spending or saving in the same way they did during the marriage as part of the lifestyle lived?

New Jersey case law has long held that a trial court may consider a savings component as part of an alimony award to protect a dependent spouse from the potential future loss of income by allowing her to accumulate a post-Judgment safety net. One question that has never been answered until now, however, is whether a history of regular savings during the marriage as part of the marital lifestyle should be considered in setting an initial alimony award even when there is no need to protect the dependent spouse.

According to the Appellate Division in the newly published, precedential decision of Lombardi v. Lombardi, the answer is a resounding yes.

Kid counting money
Copyright: sbworld8 / 123RF Stock Photo

FACTS TO KNOW:

During the parties’ marriage, savings was the largest component of the parties’ lifestyle, but the trial judge rejected inclusion of a savings component when awarding alimony because the payee-wife did not need such funds to protect herself from a potential future loss of alimony. The parties jointly decided to live a comfortable lifestyle during which they saved approximately $70,000 per month, and budgeted most of the earned collective income so that the parties would have no worries about finances when paying for college and entering into retirement. In fact, the parties budgeted so efficiently that the payor-husband could retire at age 45 with an accumulation of $5 million in assets that could generate sufficient income to help fulfill the family’s lifestyle.

THE TRIAL COURT’S DECISION:

At trial, the wife indicated that she needed approximately $16,000 per month for herself and the three children to live a standard of living comparable to that lived during the marriage, exclusive of a savings component that she requested in the monthly amount of $30,000. She also sought $5,000 in monthly child support and for the husband to be responsible for all child-related supplemental expenses.

The trial judge acknowledged the existence of savings component during the marriage, but awarded a monthly permanent alimony payment of $7,600 based on a finding that the parties lived an undisputed “modest middle-class lifestyle” with a monthly budget of $14,516 (excluding savings). The $7,600 was calculated as sufficient to cover the shortfall in the wife’s budget after accounting for child support, monthly after-tax income estimated she could generate by investment of her share of equitable distribution (each party was receiving half of the roughly $5.5 million estate), and her after tax net income from part-time work.

Based on each party’s anticipated share of equitable distribution, the trial court found that each party had a significant opportunity to save and invest, even though the husband’s substantial income provided him with a far greater opportunity than the wife. Specifically, the court noted that the parties monthly average savings of approximately $87,000 was a “component of lifestyle” (whether for an early retirement or to enhance the parties’ economic security), but should be included in an alimony award “only [ ] to the extent it was necessary to ensure a dependent spouse’s economic security in the face of a later modification or cessation of support, which were not issues here.”

Even without a higher amount of alimony (inclusive of a savings component) the court noted that the wife could save (albeit at a lesser extent than that seen during the marriage) when considering:

  1. some “overlap” in the presented alimony and child support budgets;
  2. the wife’s right to claim the children as exemptions for tax purposes; and
  3. her “ability to work and retain earnings to use for savings . . . because of the maturation of the children . . . such that she would have more time to spend working if she chose to do so.”

The court also noted the wife would have no obligation to pay for college or any unreimbursed medical expense, the cost of extracurricular activities was covered by the “above guidelines” child support award, and if she wanted to work more she would be “protected against any claim that her alimony should be reduced or that she has lesser need,” and the alimony would likely never be reduced because of the husband’s income and assets. Summarizing its determination to exclude a savings component, the court held:

The [c]ourt finds that a permissible savings component which it elected not to do or not to include was because there are potentials for [plaintiff] to accumulate, earn, and otherwise be protected from a reduction by virtue of, one, reasons having to do with the current budget and the room in the budget to still save, the ability to work more without worry about a reduction in alimony, the investment opportunity that might enhance the return on the over $2 million that she will receive, the life insurance to protect against the death of the defendant, and the likelihood of a continued appreciation and increase in assets and earnings that . . . would protect her against any arbitrary . . . reduction in alimony based upon early retirement or otherwise.

The wife’s appeal followed.

THE APPELLATE DIVISION WEIGHS IN:

On appeal, the Appellate Division agreed with the wife’s position that the subject award allowed only the husband to maintain the standard of living experienced during the marriage, and that required Case Information Statement form, on its face, suggests that a savings component is a “fundamental element of the family lifestyle” because the savings category was specifically added to the budget portion of the form after its initial issuance.

Reviewing seminal New Jersey alimony law, the Court reminded that each party is entitled post-divorce to live a lifestyle reasonably comparable to that lived during the marriage, with neither party having a greater entitlement to do so than the other (as codified in the 2014 statutory amendments to the alimony law). As a result, the alimony award designed for the supported spouse to achieve such lifestyle that is ultimately the “touchstone for the initial alimony award.”

While noting how case law has long recognized that a savings component in an alimony award can protect a dependent spouse against the potential future termination of alimony, or to provide for future events such as retirement, the Court provided:

The most “appropriate case” in which to include a savings component is where the parties’ lifestyle included regular savings. Because it is the manner in which the parties use their income that is determinative when establishing a marital lifestyle, see Weishaus, supra, 180 N.J. at 145, there is no demonstrable difference between one family’s habitual use of its income to fund savings and another family’s use of its income to regularly purchase luxury cars or enjoy extravagant vacations. The use of family income for either purpose over the course of a long-term marriage requires the court to consider how the money is spent in determining the parties’ lifestyle, regardless of whether it was saved or spent on expensive purchases. The fact that the payment of the support ultimately is protected by life insurance or other financial tools, does not make the consideration of the savings component any less appropriate.

Rejecting the husband’s argument that the court appropriately considering savings through its equitable distribution award, the Appellate Division held:

The argument runs afoul of the rule that “equitable distribution determinations are intended to be in addition to, and not as substitutes for, alimony awards,” which are awarded to provide for the maintenance of the marital lifestyle post-dissolution. Steneken, supra, 183 N.J. at 299. Moreover, it is not equitable to require plaintiff to rely solely on the assets she received through equitable distribution to support the standard of living while defendant is not confronted with the same burden. As expressed under the alimony statute’s current version, the court must recognize that “neither party ha[s] a greater entitlement to that standard of living than the other.” N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23(b)(4).

In finding that its holding went beyond what most other jurisdictions provided regarding the savings component issue, the Court concluded:

We therefore hold that the Family Part must in its assessment of a marital lifestyle give due consideration to evidence of regular savings adhered to by the parties during the marriage, even if there is no concern about protecting an alimony award from future modification or cessation upon the death of the supporting spouse.

The issue of how to treat savings as part of the marital lifestyle under the type of circumstances present in Lombardi has long been discussed amongst family law attorneys without definitive judicial guidance.  Now that such guidance is here, this may not be the last we hear from the Lombardi family as perhaps the Supremes will ultimately weigh in.

 

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