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Gibbons v. Gibbons

Decided: May 12, 1980.


On appeal from the Superior Court, Chancery Division, Mercer County.

Lora, Antell and Pressler. The opinion of the court was delivered by Pressler, J.A.D. Antell, J.A.D. (dissenting).


This appeal from a judgment of divorce raises troublesome problems regarding the equitable distribution of gifts and inheritances received by each of the spouses during the marriage.

The parties, each of whom comes from a wealthy and generous family, were married in 1952, a year following the husband's graduation from Yale University and the wife's graduation from Vassar College. He at that time had already received from his father, who died in 1950, gifts of stock whose 1976 valuation was in excess of $600,000, and she had received from her family stocks having a 1976 value of $135,000. After the marriage both continued to receive from their respective families additional

gifts and distributions from testamentary trusts. The husband also received outright from the wife's mother a substantial stock gift. By the time of the divorce in 1978, the gifts and inheritances received during the marriage by the husband and to which he had retained exclusive title amounted to some $2,167,000. The gifts and inheritances received by the wife during the marriage and separately retained by her totaled some $1,016,000. In addition to these separately maintained assets, the parties had also acquired during the marriage jointly owned assets totaling $421,500, which were primarily paid for by the husband but whose purchase was to some degree contributed to by the wife. These included cash, the proceeds of the sale of their homes in Princeton, New Jersey, and Florence, Italy, land in Rhode Island, an art collection and automobiles.

The disposition of the trial judge in dealing with the equitable distribution question was, essentially, to distribute all of the assets acquired by both or either during the marriage equally between the parties. The mechanics by which this equality was achieved was the equal division between the parties of the jointly owned assets, retention by the wife of the separate estate she had acquired during marriage, and the requirement that the husband pay the wife out of the separate estate he had acquired during the marriage the sum of $575,000. Thus, each party left the marriage with $1,802,250, plus accrued interest and plus the assets each had acquired prior to the marriage.*fn1 We also note that the wife neither sought nor was awarded alimony and that an award of counsel fees which she did seek was denied.

The trial judge's basic reasoning for his ordered equal division of all assets was his conclusion that the marriage, of some 26 years duration, had been in every significant respect characterized

by the parties' equal contribution thereto in the fullest and most salutary sense of equal marriage. Our review of the record satisfies us that this conclusion is well-founded in the record. When the parties were married the wife gave up the graduate study which she was then pursuing in art history at New York University in order to be with her husband, who was then in the Navy and stationed first in California and then overseas. His honorable discharge from the Navy in 1954 was preceded by a period of hospitalization in Philadelphia during which the wife was at his side. The husband apparently had suffered, particularly in the earlier years of the marriage, from recurring acute episodes of depression requiring hospitalizations and extended periods of out-patient care. These problems apparently have more recently, however, been well controlled. The significance of these facts is the committed degree of supportiveness with which the wife responded to these difficult circumstances, having opted because of them to defer for many years her own professional pursuits.

Upon the husband's discharge from the Navy in 1954 the couple took up residence in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he enrolled in the Harvard Law School and she in the Harvard Graduate School of Fine Arts. Following his first year of law school he abandoned his original career objective and enrolled in the Harvard Graduate School of Fine Arts from which he ultimately earned a doctorate degree in art history. The wife completed her master's degree in 1957 but did not then proceed with her doctoral studies because of her perception that her husband's illness made prior claim upon her time and resources. In 1957 the couple's first child was born, and in 1958 the second. Both are now college students, one at Yale and the other at Vassar, and each is the beneficiary of various trusts created for them by the husband and by the wife's family.

During the early period of the marriage the wife herself became physically ill and required several operations. The husband responded to these problems in a fully supportive manner.

It was also during this period that the couple commenced their practice of spending their summers in Italy with the children, a custom initiated because of the husband's professional needs. In 1960 the husband received his first teaching appointment to Princeton University where he is now an associate professor of art history. The family has resided in Princeton since that time and during the ensuing years the wife devoted herself largely to family and charitable concerns. She resumed her doctoral studies in 1972 at Rutgers University and is now an art history instructor at Vassar College. It was apparently the wife's decision to pursue this professional career which contributed substantially to the parties' inability to continue with this marriage despite the efforts which both made to preserve it.

It is perfectly clear that the parties during the marriage enjoyed an affluent life style, hardly commensurate with the husband's earned income but dependent rather on the capital which came to both and particularly to the husband by way of gift and inheritance. It is also clear that while there was substantial disparity in the amount of wealth each received, neither held back from contributing commensurately to the benefit of the family and its life style.

The position taken by the husband is that under the circumstances here equitable distribution should have been limited to, if anything at all, the joint assets. He argues that in view of the amounts of the wife's separate estate, there is no rational basis justifying her sharing in his separate and larger fortune. It is his contention that she does not need any part of it and did not contribute in any way to its acquisition. In our view these arguments are antithetical to the philosophy of equitable distribution as conceived of by the Legislature in its enactment of N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23 and as developed and articulated since that enactment by our Supreme Court.

As we understand the concept of equitable distribution, it is a corollary of the principal concept that marriage is a joint

enterprise whose vitality, success and endurance is dependent upon the conjunction of multiple components, only one of which is financial. The nonremunerated efforts of raising children, making a home, performing a myriad of personal services and providing physical and emotional support are, among other noneconomic ingredients of the marital relationship, at least as essential to its nature and maintenance as are the economic factors, and their worth is consequently entitled to substantial recognition. Thus, the extent to which each of the parties contributes to the marriage is not measurable only by the amount of money contributed to it during the period of its endurance but rather by the whole complex of financial and nonfinancial components contributed. The function of equitable distribution is to recognize that when the marriage ends, each of the spouses, based on the totality of the contribution made to it, has a stake in and right to a share of the family assets accumulated while it endured, not because that share is needed but because those assets represent the capital product of what was essentially a partnership entity. As the Supreme Court expressed the relationship between equitable distribution and the partnership theory of marriage in Rothman v. Rothman , 65 N.J. 219 (1974),

It [equitable distribution] gives recognition to the essential supportive role played by the wife in the home, acknowledging that as homemaker, wife and mother she should clearly be entitled to a share of family assets accumulated during the marriage. Thus the division of property upon divorce is responsive to the concept that marriage is a shared enterprise, a joint undertaking, that in many ways it is akin to a partnership. Only if it is clearly understood that far more than economic factors are involved, will the resulting distribution be equitable within the true intent and meaning of the statute. [At 229]

Articulation of principle is generally a task considerably less formidable than its application, and equitable distribution is no exception to this rule. We are not, however, completely without guidelines in determining, without having to resort to ...

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