The Future of Permanent Alimony and the Gnall Case

What impact does Gnall have on future awards of permanent alimony?

The Gnall case is about whether an economically dependent spouse qualifies for an award of permanent alimony after the dissolution of her almost 15 year marriage, where both former spouses were 42 years-old, well-educated, and in relatively good health at the time of divorce? The trial court concluded that this was not a case for permanent alimony. The appellate division reversed that portion of the trial court’s opinion and remanded the matter for further consideration on the issue of permanent alimony:

Following our review, we conclude that the judge, however, incorrectly evaluated the evidence, primarily rejecting permanent alimony because of the misconception that a fifteen year marriage would not support a permanent alimony award. This legal error permeated his overall consideration of other statutory factors, resulting in an impermissibly conclusory and cursory analysis. See Carter v. Carter, 318 N.J. Super.34, 42 (App. Div. 1999)(criticizing trial judge’s failure to adhere to statutory mandate of N.J.S.A.2A: 34-23b).”

Key take aways from the appellate division decision in the language of the appeals panel:

  • 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.’”
  • 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.” Rothman v. Rothman, 65 N.J. 219, 229 (1974). See also Guglielmo v. Guglielmo, 253 N.J. Super. 531, 543 (App. Div. 1992) (“We are entirely satisfied that a spouse who maintains the home while her husband’s career advances should share in the rewards of their combined efforts.”
  • In examining any alimony request, the court begins its analysis by considering whether permanent alimony should be awarded.5 N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23c. Not every dependent spouse should receive a permanent alimony award. “If the court determines that an award of permanent alimony is not warranted, the court shall make specific findings on the evidence setting out the reasons therefor.” Ibid. Only then must the court “make specific findings” on the applicability of the three remaining authorized alimony awards — limited duration, rehabilitative, and reimbursement — to discern which one or any combination of the three is “warranted by the circumstances of the parties and the nature of the case.” N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23f.
  • 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.
  • Contrary to the judge’s belief, permanent alimony awards are not reserved solely for long-term marriages of twenty-five to thirty years. While marital relationships of such duration, when coupled with a created economic dependence by one party, typically result in permanent alimony awards, there is no per se rule that permanent alimony is unwarranted unless the twentieth anniversary milestone is reached. Moreover, any attempt to reduce the shared marital experience to a formulaic calculation of compensation based on the number of years “in the marriage,” completely disregards the public policy considerations supporting continuation of economic support beyond the spouses’ joined personal lives.
  • 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.
  • All facts regarding each unique marital partnership must be evaluated when considering evidence regarding a claim of economic dependence warranting long-lasting support
  • In this matter, facts relevant to plaintiff’s request for permanent alimony are many. A significant relevant fact is her monthly budget, representing the marital standard of living of $18,000 per month, or $216,000 per year. This amount was found to represent an “upper-middle-class” marital standard of living, which was more modest than current earnings would be able to maintain. Nevertheless it is an amount plaintiff cannot achieve independent of defendant’s support.

Commentary

This blog has published a number of articles on the issue of permanent alimony. This blogger  favors the elimination of permanent alimony.  It is time for the N.J. legislature to eliminate the penalty of life time economic imprisonment for the crime of divorce.

With that said, what impact does Gnall have on future awards of permanent alimony? In my opinion, it reaffirms the court’s obsession with jumping through hoops to reward the dependent spouse with the same lifestyle they enjoyed during marriage. Courts have equated marriage as an economic partnership with both parties enjoying partnership benefits. Yet, other types of partnerships end, assets are distributed, and partners move on with their lives.  In the case of a marriage partnership, economic benefits may continue indefinitely, well beyond the life of the partnership.

There are so many tools available to a family court judge to effect a fair and equitable distribution of marital assets at the time of divorce, without resorting to the draconian penalty of permanent alimony. The court in Gnall essentially said the length of marriage and age of spouses are no longer reasons, standing alone, to justify the denial of permanent alimony. Why is the appellate court creating a defacto presumption in favor of permanent alimony? That makes no sense.

Why is either spouse entitled to the same lifestyle enjoyed during marriage? There are no fault divorce laws that allow either spouse to obtain a divorce by simply stating, “I split with thee…I spit with thee,” and a short time later, poof, no more marriage.

Gnall muddies the permanent alimony waters giving a judge the ability to justify an award of permanent alimony based upon whatever factors that judge deems useful. All the judge has to do is take the time to spell out his or her honor’s rationale and make sure it aligns with the statute. This process is as unpredictable as the results are inconsistent.

Marriage is not forever. I don’t recall marital vows including a lifetime endowment.

Remarkable resources…

  • N.J. Law Journal, “Gnall vs. Gnall.”
  • N.J. Family Law Blog, “Does a 15 year marriage automatically mean permanent alimony?” (This is a super blog on family law and well worth reading)
  • Gnall v. Gnall,A-3582-10T1; Appellate Division; opinion by Lihotz, J.A.D.; decided and approved for publication August 8, 2013. Before Judges Messano, Lihotz and Kennedy. On appeal from the Chancery Division, Family Part, Bergen County, FM-02-2021-08. DDS No. 20-2-0941 [48 pp.]

  1. Thank you, Larry, for this commentary. I am disappointed with the appeals court who has put another nail in the coffin of permanent alimony. You think they would have taken a closer look at the situation and ruled with some thought. I hope their sons and daughters are paying attention and do not feel above the law. However, they would have access to some of the finest legal representation available. Failed marriages are punishable with a lifetime sentence to the one who earned the keep for the marital home. Dependency is encouraged. it is rewarded, and you are never expected to be anything more than a dependent ex-spouse. No wonder people are running wildly scared over the thought of eliminating permanent alimony. Because of entitlement as promoted by a lopsided law, nothing was expected of them, and they disappointed no one with their idle time. Does anyone else remember the story “The Grasshopper and the Ant” ?

  2. I guess the important point is just that the length of the marriage is not a valid reason to deny permanent alimony.

    But, it’s still very disturbing on the whole, with its references to public policy supporting “an economic right that arises out of the…” entrails of a dead marriage. In this case, the spouse cannot generate $218K per year, so one partner must pay the other for life to top up the living standard.

    I actually don’t believe that it is really good public policy. It’s hard to see, but this causes many forms of tragedy — it engenders a feelings of entitlement, continuing antipathy, and so forth, that just becomes more and more toxic over time.

    Anyway, it all seems somehow illegal. How did the State derive the right to pin such duties on someone just because they were once married? If it were really public policy to support people at such a high standard of living, then we would be taxing the rich hard and distributing massive amounts of wealth. If the State has to pay support itself, it puts the public policy amount somewhere in the less than $2K per month range. It’s just too easy to put this duty on the poor sucker who got married.

    The whole thing depresses me. My own case is at the Appeals court. I have not had a dime of income in four years, because everything I earn goes to my ex-wife. Now, I have an even lower expectation that I will get a fair outcome.

    • Always great to hear from you, Mr. Beacon.
      Very thoughtful and thought provoking comment.
      Never, ever lose hope…Someday NJ will wake up and put an end to this lifetime tax on divorce.
      Always look forward to your participation in the conversation.
      Best,
      Larry

  3. Sir,

    In this ruling the appellate court also stated that ordering one party to pay alimony was not meant as a “punishment”. Alas, but when the state gives a court the authority to inflict a debt on one party that is impossible to pay off, especially when no crime has been committed, that is not only a punishment but it is a cruel and unusual punishment. It is time to tighten up the laws.

    • Cora,
      Good morning.
      Great observation…Totally right on.
      The legislature imposes a tax on divorce (permanent alimony), the court system fixes the amount, and the sheriff’s office enforces collection.
      This is draconian and better suited for the late 19th Century and early 20th Century…
      Thanks for sharing your view.
      Best,
      Larry

  4. One thing I don’t understand. Is it actually law that an ex-spouse has to be maintained at the marital standard of living — even if the supporting spouse falls far below that? Or is this just something that the court, with exceptional bias and cruelty, has decided to impose? (i.e. case law).

    • Good morning, SB
      Great question.
      No, it’s not the law. But, the judge is attempting to award alimony so that both spouses can maintain the marital standard of living.
      The math may work on paper, but it doesn’t work in real life. There are always unanticipated expenses, and adjustments a married couple may make.
      For example, they may put off purchasing a car in order to take a vacation; or food may be more expensive one month… But, in divorce the amount of alimony is fixed (subject to a change of circumstance and court proceeding), no adjustments.
      Best,
      Larry