Is A Disability An “Exceptional Circumstances” For Alimony In New Jersey?
Yes. The key is that one must prove to a court that your disability has been documented with clear proof that it adversely affects your ability to earn what you could if you were healthy. The best way for the lawyers at our divorce law firm in East Brunswick, New Jersey to prove exceptional circumstances is to provide a judge of the is evidence that our client has qualified for permanent social security disability insurance (SSDI).
In Friel v. Braun-Friel, the parties were married in October 2010. The husband obtained a Bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and worked as a police lieutenant, earning $106,483 per year, or $3,961.97 per week. The husband’s pay was deducted by child support obligations for his two children from a previous marriage as well as union dues and work benefits. The wife had a high school degree and was enrolled in the Philadelphia Restaurant School for five months. The wife suffered from reflex sympathetic dystrophy, which was diagnosed approximately ten years before the parties met. The wife was attending physical therapy, taking various medications and receiving Ketamine infusions. The wife had her trachea removed in August 2008 after a tumor was discovered. In 2010, the wife had a mass removed from her pelvis and tore her patella, which was surgically repaired after the parties were married. The wife worked at a children’s rehabilitation center and earned approximately $33,550 per year. The wife also worked a second job and earned $21,050 per year. However, after the parties married, the wife was unable to continue working due to her declining health.
The parties separated almost three years later in September 2013. The husband filed for divorce with the Superior Court of New Jersey Family Part in November 2014. The parties had no children born of the marriage and equitable distribution was not at issue. The main issue the parties disputed was alimony. After the parties separated, the husband’s mortgage was $2123 per month. The husband also paid for his cell phone, Internet, cable, and other utilities as well as a car and car insurance. The husband was also ordered to pay half of his children’s college tuitions after the divorce from his first wife. The husband had approximately $59,000 in a savings account from before his second marriage. At the time of the hearing in February 2016, the husband’s account balance was about $13,000. The husband stated that he took about $1114 a month from the account in order to pay his financial obligations. The wife, on the other hand, was paying approximately $1,000 per month in rent. In April 2015, the wife ordered a paternity test for her son and the court ordered the son’s father biological father to pay child support. The wife also paid for cell phones for her and her son as well as utilities, cable, and Internet. Although the husband was paying for the wife’s car and car insurance, the wife suspected she would need to begin paying those expenses after the divorce. The wife also had to pay for food, clothing, and medical costs for her and her son. The wife’s monthly budget was about $5,000 a month, and she anticipated that she would be receiving social security payments.
On June 6, 2016, the court entered a final judgment of divorce. The trial court ordered the husband to pay the wife limited duration alimony in the amount of $130 per week for two years. Limited durational alimony is alimony awarded for a specific number of years when the spouse receiving the alimony needs it for a period of time to maintain the marital standard of living and the parties were married for less than twenty years. The trial court considered the fact that the husband was paying temporary alimony to the wife during the litigation in the amount of $258 per week, as well as car and insurance payments, totaling about $1625 per month. After making the necessary adjustments for the costs the husband pays and the child support payments the wife was receiving, the court found the wife’s monthly need to be about $2,757. The court then deducted monthly social security payments from the total and determined the wife’s monthly need to be $1,157. The trial court then considered the alimony factors found in N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23(b). The court weighed all the factors, but primarily considered the parties’ ability to pay, the length of the marriage, the age and health of the parties, and the parties’ education and earning abilities. The court also considered the factors under exceptional circumstances, which would allow for a modification in the duration of the alimony payments. The court focused on the level of the wife’s dependency on the husband during the marriage and the wife’s illness. The trial court stated that both parties contributed financially to the marriage, despite the fact the wife had not worked since 2013. The trial court also lowered the wife’s monthly medical expenses, stating that $550 per month seemed high since she was obtaining social security and would be eligible for Medicaid.
On appeal, the wife claimed that she met the requirements for exceptional circumstances, which are found in N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23(c). The wife argued that the trial court was, therefore, wrong to limit alimony to the duration of the marriage, and that she was entitled to open durational alimony, which would allow her to receive alimony until the court terminates alimony or the parties agree to terminate it. Similarly, the wife argued that the court was wrong to grant alimony at only $130 per month since the husband was able to pay more per month. The New Jersey Appellate Division stated that, on appeal, it must consider the factors set out in the alimony statute, N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23(b). The Appellate Division must also consider the factors for exceptional circumstances, which include: the ages of the parties; the level of dependency of one spouse on the other during the marriage; any chronic or unusual illnesses; whether one spouse gave up employment and was supported by the other spouse; equitable distribution; the impact the marriage may have had on one party’s ability to support oneself; tax implications; and any other relevant factors.
The Appellate Division stated that it refers to the trial court’s fact-finding abilities since the trial court has special expertise in the area. Additionally, a trial court’s decision should not be overturned when it is supported by credible and substantial evidence. The Appellate Division stated that the trial court was unclear on three issues. First, the Appellate Division explained that the trial court determined that the wife contributed financially to the parties’ marriage, but the wife had only worked five months during the marriage due to health considerations. The Appellate Division found that the trial court gave great weight to this factor, but was unclear as to why or how it came to that determination. Second, the Appellate Division stated that the trial court calculated the wife’s monthly budget as if she had already been awarded social security, which was not the case. The Appellate Division found that the trial court did not provide any support for this determination. Lastly, the Appellate Division stated that the trial court did not explain why it did not adjust the alimony award even though it found exceptional circumstances applied. The Appellate Division stated that it was unable to determine why the trial court did not adjust alimony because the trial court did not provide its’ reasoning, which it was required to do.
Ultimately, the Appellate Division found that the trial court needed to explain its reasoning further. The court was unable to determine if the trial court abused its discretion; therefore, the Appellate Division remanded the matter and sent it back to the trial court to address those specific issues.
Please contact the attorneys at our law firm if you have questions about alimony law in the state of New Jersey.