My colleagues have previously written a number of posts regarding both the Appellate Division decision in the Gnall v. Gnall case, as well as the issuance of legislation that significantly changed the alimony statute in the State of New Jersey as of September 2014. Recently, on July 29, 2015, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued its decision in Gnall v. Gnall, after having granted certification to review the matter. Given the elimination of the term “permanent alimony” from the alimony statute, effective September 2014, this decision by the New Jersey Supreme Court could very well end up being the last published decision regarding permanent alimony in the State of New Jersey. With that said, there is still plenty to consider and take away from this decision.
In Gnall, the only issue raised on Appeal and in the Supreme Court had to do with the husband’s alimony obligation owed to the wife after their nearly fifteen (15) year marriage and therefore the issue was very specific and straightforward. The trial court entered an award for limited duration alimony, in the amount of $18,000 per month, for a period of 11 years. The trial court based its determination on the following basis: (1) the parties were relatively young; (2) the parties each had similar educational levels; and (3) the duration of the marriage “certainly was not short-term, but neither [was it] a twenty-five to thirty year marriage.” Ultimately, the Appellate Division ruled that the trial court had erred by entering an award of limited duration alimony and therefore reversed and remanded the case to the trial court for an award of permanent alimony. The Appellate Division based its determination on the following basis: A fifteen year marriage is “not short-term,” and therefore limited duration alimony was precluded as an option.
The Supreme Court ruled that the Appellate Division had improperly created a bright line rule that a fifteen (15) year marriage required the entry of a permanent alimony obligation and therefore reversed and remanded the matter to the trial court for new findings of fact and a new determination as to the husband’s alimony obligation owed to the wife. The Supreme Court further opined that the trial court had not considered or weighed all of the necessary factors set forth in N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23(b)(2) when making its determination. In other words, the Supreme Court held that the trial court had improperly created a bright line rule that permanent alimony was only appropriate in marriages that lasted twenty-five (25) years or longer. In each case, the Supreme Court ultimately observed and concluded that each of the lower courts had improperly removed the analysis of the other twelve (12) factors set forth in the alimony statute. As the Supreme Court notes, the alimony statute (N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23) was modified as of September 10, 2014. The relevant portion of that modification, as it relates to the Gnall case, is that permanent alimony has been removed and replaced with the term open duration alimony. Accordingly, this current decision, will likely be the last New Jersey decision discussing permanent alimony.
The important takeaway from the Supreme Court’s decision, as specifically delineated in the new alimony statute, is that when an alimony obligation is being considered, the trial court is required to equally analyze each and every factor set forth therein. While trial courts are not precluded from weighing factors differently, they are required to set forth (a) that they are doing so; and (b) provide a detailed explanation and basis as to why they are doing so. It is worth noting that under the new alimony statute, “any marriage or civil union less than 20 years in duration, the total duration of alimony shall not, except in exceptional circumstances, exceed the length of the marriage or civil union….” The new alimony statute further defines exceptional circumstances as well.
As previously stated, although this decision may not ultimately have too much impact on future litigation, due to the elimination of permanent alimony, it is still quite illustrative as to how an alimony obligation should be determined by a trial court. Accordingly, for those reasons, there is plenty to take away from this decision. The attorneys at James P. Yudes, P.C., are willing and able to discuss any and all issues that one may have with regards to alimony, whether under the old alimony statute or the new alimony statute.