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Scalingi v. Scalingi

Decided: June 5, 1974.


For affirmance -- Chief Justice Hughes, and Justices Hall, Mountain, Sullivan, Pashman and Clifford. For reversal -- None.

Per Curiam

On October 4, 1971 plaintiff filed suit for divorce against defendant. The suit, charging defendant with extreme cruelty, was brought under the amended Divorce Act, L. 1971, c. 212, N.J.S.A. 2A:34-1 et seq. Defendant filed a written appearance under R. 4:79-3 requesting to be heard on the issues of support for plaintiff, equitable distribution of all property and payment of counsel fees and costs. However, at the trial defendant's counsel stated that he was present "to also see that the plaintiff proves her cause of action." Thereafter, for all practical purposes, the matter proceeded as a contested case on all issues.

Following a plenary hearing, plaintiff was granted a divorce on the ground of extreme cruelty. The court also ordered an equitable distribution of property acquired during the 35-year marriage, support for plaintiff and allowed her attorney a counsel fee payable by defendant.

Defendant appealed and this Court granted certification on its own motion while the matter was pending unheard in the Appellate Division since one of the issues raised by defendant involves the constitutionality of the equitable distribution of property provisions of the amended statute, N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23, as they affect marriages and separate estates created prior to September 13, 1971, the effective date of the amendment.

The judgment awarding plaintiff a divorce is challenged on the grounds that: (1) her proofs were inadequate to establish the fact of extreme cruelty and (2) there was

lacking corroboration of any specific alleged act of extreme cruelty. These contentions are without merit. Although the extreme cruelty shown antedated the effective date of the amended Act, plaintiff's cause of action was controlled by the statute in effect when her complaint was filed.

Prior to the 1971 amendment, extreme cruelty was considered to be that degree of cruelty, either actually inflicted or reasonably inferred, which endangered the life or health of the aggrieved party, or rendered his or her life one of such extreme discomfort and wretchedness as to incapacitate him or her physically or mentally from discharging the marital duties. 11 New Jersey Practice (3d ed. Herr-Lodge), ยง 1265, pp. 496-497 (1963).

The 1971 amendment not only embraces the foregoing, but also includes physical or mental cruelty which makes it improper or unreasonable to expect the plaintiff to continue to cohabit with the defendant. N.J.S.A. 2A:34-2(c). This latter provision substantially broadens the concept of extreme cruelty as it existed under the earlier statute. See Note, "The 1971 New Jersey Divorce Law," 25 Rutgers L. Rev. 476, 489 (1971).

It is unnecessary to detail the relevant evidence. The record reflects constant marital friction, defendant's physical and mental abuse of plaintiff and intense bickering over relatively trivial matters. The final episode,*fn1 an argument over plaintiff's having withdrawn money from a joint bank account, ended in an admitted assault on plaintiff by defendant which caused her to leave the house for good. We must defer to the trial judge who was in a better position to determine whether or not it was reasonable to expect plaintiff to continue to cohabit with defendant. His finding that plaintiff had proved a case of extreme cruelty is amply supported by the record.

The trial judge also was satisfied that plaintiff had sufficiently corroborated her testimony of defendant's extreme cruelty. Our review of the record leads to the same conclusion. Where, as here, the testimony of plaintiff made out a case of extreme cruelty, "* * * the rule of corroboration only requires that belief in its truthfulness must find support in the testimony of others, or of surrounding established circumstances." Feybusch v. Feybusch, 110 N.J. Eq. 358, 359-360 (E. & A. 1932).

Defendant contends that the order requiring him to pay $75 per week for plaintiff's support was improper or at least excessive in the light of the equal distribution of the marital assets.*fn2 Since it was undisputed that plaintiff had wage income of her own (approximately ...

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