United States: Gnall v. Gnall – What Started With A Bang Ended With A Whimper

Last Updated: July 30 2015
Article by Eric S. Solotoff

As noted yesterday, the long awaited decision in the Gnall case was released today.  Previously, we have blogged about the Gnall v. Gnall case.  In this case, the Appellate Division deemed a 15 year marriage to be "long term" and remanded the matter for consideration of permanent alimony.  This case exploded onto the scene because it seemed to create a bright line that 15 years of marriage merited permanent alimony.

However,  this case was decided before the new alimony reform statute had passed.  As I noted on this blog previously, there was a thought that the amendments to the alimony statute might render this much ado about nothing.  At the end of the day, it was much ado about nothing, but not because of the new statute, which was given very short shrift in the opinion.

Rather, the Justices, in a unanimous opinion, reiterated that all of the factors in the alimony statute must be considered, and no one factor can be elevated in importance.  One might say, "tell us something we don't know."

What was fascinating is the Supreme Court seemed to take both the trial court and the Appellate Division to task for focusing on one factor – duration of the marriage – to the exclusion of the others.  The Supreme Court noted:

... We find that the trial court did not consider and weigh all of the necessary factors required by N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23 in determining that permanent alimony was unwarranted but, instead, based its decision solely on N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23(b)(2). We further conclude that in reversing the Appellate Division inadvertently created a bright-line rule requiring an award of permanent alimony.

The Court went on to note that:

While the trial court identified the marriage as "not short-term," it ultimately concluded that consideration of an award of permanent alimony was obviated by the parties' relatively young ages and the fact that they were not married for twenty-five or thirty-years. The trial court therefore, in effect, determined that permanent alimony awards are reserved solely for long-term marriages of twenty-five years or more, excluding consideration of the other factors. No per se rule exists indicating that permanent alimony is unwarranted unless the twenty-fifth year anniversary has been reached. Therefore, we find 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.

We further conclude that in its disposition of this appeal the Appellate Division inadvertently created a bright-line rule for distinguishing between a short-term and long-term marriage as it pertains to an award of permanent alimony. Although the Appellate Division stated "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," a fair reading of the opinion may lead to such a conclusion. By not clarifying that the statement reflected only the fifteen-year marriage in this particular case, the Appellate Division made a generally applicable declaration.

The Court further noted that in using the language that was used by the Appellate Division, consideration of the other alimony factors was functionally eliminated.  The Court held:

Moreover, we note that the final clause of the sentence affirms that the "not short-term" nature of a fifteen-year marriage mandates that it cannot be considered for limited duration alimony. Such a holding removes the other twelve factors from consideration for alimony awards once a marriage reaches the fifteen-year mark. Our cases have consistently held that all thirteen factors must be considered and given due weight, and the duration of marriage is only one factor to be considered. (Emphasis added).

There you have it – courts have to consider all of the factors.  Put another way, there can be long term marriages where permanent alimony was not appropriate when all of the other factors were considered, and short term marriages that may have required permanent alimony, all other things considered.

As noted above, the new statute was barely mentioned.  Essentially, the new statute was dismissed in a footnote which said:

N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23(c) was amended on September 10, 2014 to specify that "[f]or 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 amendment is not applicable to this case.

Clearly, on the remand, that means that the court will have to decide alimony based upon the old statute.  Query, however, what this means to cases settled or decided before the Amendment which have to go back to court for some reasons.  I suppose that some may use the footnote to argue that the old law should apply if it helps their client's case.

I was fortunate to be one of the authors of the amicus brief filed by the New Jersey Chapter of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (AAML).  Even though the end result was somewhat anticlimactic, being involved in the process was still rewarding.

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