Length of Marriage is Not Alone Dispositive as to Alimony

Gnall v. Gnall, 222 N.J. 414 (2015).  N.J.S.A. 2A:14-23(b) lists twelve factors, plus a “catch-all” thirteenth factor, that are to be considered in determining whether to award alimony.  One of those factors is “[t]he duration of the marriage or civil union.”  In this case, the couple had been married for fifteen years.  The Family Part ruled that due to the parties’ relatively young ages, their educational levels, and the fifteen-year length of their marriage (the court contrasted that length of time with a twenty-five or thirty year marriage), permanent alimony for the wife was not appropriate.  Instead, the judge awarded her limited duration alimony.

The wife appealed, and the Appellate Division reversed.  The panel stated that a fifteen-year marriage is “not short-term,” thereby precluding “consideration of an award of limited duration alimony.”  The Appellate Division concluded that permanent alimony should have been awarded.  The Supreme Court granted husband’s request for review and reversed in an opinion by Justice Fernandez-Vina.

The Court reiterated the familiar, deferential standard of review in Family Part cases.  The Court’s substantive ruling was fairly simple.  Though the Appellate Division disclaimed any intent to create an ironclad rule as to how many years together makes a union “long-term,” the effect of its opinion was to do just that, “inadvertently creat[ing] a bright-line rule requiring an award of permanent alimony.”  The Appellate Division should have clarified that its statement about a fifteen-year marriage not being “short-term” “reflected only the fifteen-year marriage in this particular case.”  The panel also “remove[d] the other twelve factors from consideration for alimony awards once a marriage reaches the fifteen-year mark.”  That was error.

Still, the Family Part judge did not analyze the issue correctly either.  Justice Fernandez-Vina stated that “the trial court improperly weighed duration over the other statutorily defined factors in determining a long-term marriage must be twenty-five years or more.”

This opinion is valuable in at least two ways.  First, it clarifies that, as the statute intended, no one factor is dispositive in alimony.  Second, Justice Fernandez-Vina provided a comprehensive discussion of the four types of alimony: permanent alimony, rehabilitative alimony, limited duration alimony, and reimbursement alimony.  Anyone who handles family matters involving alimony will benefit from reading this opinion.