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Rothman v. Rothman

Decided: June 5, 1974.


For remandment -- Chief Justice Hughes, and Justices Jacobs, Hall, Mountain, Sullivan, Pashman and Clifford. Opposed -- None. The opinion of the Court was delivered by Mountain, J.


[65 NJ Page 221] The trial court granted plaintiff, Irene Rothman, a divorce on the ground of adultery. The counterclaim

filed by defendant, George Rothman, seeking divorce on the no-fault ground of an 18 month separation with no prospect of reconciliation was dismissed. Thereafter the trial judge took testimony and heard argument on the issues of alimony and equitable distribution of marital assets. His conclusions were set forth in an oral, unreported opinion. Both parties appealed from the ensuing judgment and we granted certification on motion while the case was pending unheard in the Appellate Division. 63 N.J. 505 (1973).

On this appeal we are not asked to review the grant of a divorce to plaintiff or the denial of a divorce to defendant. Solely in issue here are the terms of the judgment below that relate to the allocation of marital assets.

The trial judge found that defendant had a minimum net worth of $4,600,000; plaintiff's assets were valued at $400,000. Defendant's net income after taxes was found to be $190,000. The judgment of the court directed defendant to pay plaintiff $45,000 a year by way of alimony and to turn over to her as an equitable share of the marital assets the sum of $700,000. Of this amount, $100,000 was to take the form of a conveyance of defendant's undivided one-half interest in what had been the marital home in Englewood. Prior to divorce the parties had held title to this real estate as tenants by the entirety and it was determined that the property had a value of $200,000.*fn1 Defendant was given one year within which to tender to the plaintiff assets worth $600,000. The delay was occasioned by the unliquid nature of most of defendant's holdings. Plaintiff was given a security lien upon all of his real estate pending satsifaction of the obligation.

Two issues are presented for disposition. First it is argued by defendant that the grant of power to effect an equitable distribution of marital assets between husband and wife

should be interpreted as having prospective application only.*fn2 Correlatively it is urged that if the statute is interpreted retrospectively, as applying to any property interest acquired before that date, it must be stricken as unconstitutional because it would then deprive the defendant of property without due process of law. Plaintiff opposes these contentions, taking the position that the Legislature intended the statute to apply to all eligible property owned by a husband or wife at the time of the initiation of a divorce action, provided the case was tried on or after September 13, 1971. As so construed, plaintiff urges, the enactment suffers from no constitutional infirmity.

Secondly, both parties vigorously object to the conclusions reached by the trial court as to the net worth of each, and as to the allocation of assets between them as determined by the court.

We consider first the meaning of the statute. It seems clear that the construction urged by plaintiff more accurately reflects legislative intent and certainly would, in practice, be preferable to that for which defendant contends. Momentarily ignoring constitutional compulsions, and viewing the issue simply as one of statutory construction, we find ourselves unable to believe that the Legislature intended its grant of power to undertake an equitable distribution of marital assets to apply solely to property acquired on or after the effective date of the act. Were this construction to be adopted, it would, in each case, become necessary to determine the date of acquisition of each asset acquired during marriage, often a difficult if not impossible task. A further question would arise should the particular property interest under consideration, though acquired after the effective date of the act, have been purchased with, or received in exchange for,

money or other property owned before that date. Moreover, if defendant's contention were adopted, it has been estimated, apparently without exaggeration, that the full effect of the statute would not be felt for at least a generation.*fn3

In support of his position defendant points to a number of cases in this State which stand for the proposition that in construing a statute its terms will not be given retroactive effect "unless they are so clear, strong and imperative that no other meaning can be annexed to them, or unless the intent of the legislature cannot otherwise be satisfied." Kopczynski v. County of Camden, 2 N.J. 419, 424 (1949). See also, LaParre v. Y.M.C.A. of the Oranges, 30 N.J. 225, 229 (1959); In re Glen Rock, 25 N.J. 241, 249 (1957); Nichols v. Board of Education, Jersey City, 9 N.J. 241, 248 (1952). We continue to believe that these statements express a sound rule of statutory interpretation. But it is no more than a rule of statutory interpretation, and all such rules have a single purpose -- to aid the court in its quest for legislative intent. Where, as we find here to be the case, supervening considerations clearly compel a contrary determination, this, like all other rules of statutory construction must give way. We find it impossible to credit the Legislature with the intent urged by defendant. Rather we hold that the statutory provision is intended to apply with respect

to all property acquired during the marriage, whether before or after the effective date of enactment.

As so interpreted, is the legislation unconstitutional? Admittedly the effect of the statute, as so construed, is to make eligible for distribution, property which, prior to the act, could not have been subjected to such treatment. Does this amount to a deprivation of property without due process of law in violation of the Fourteenth ...

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