On appeal from the Superior Court, Chancery Division, Morris County.
Matthews, Pressler and Petrella. The opinion of the court was delivered by Pressler, J.A.D.
This is a companion appeal to Mahoney v. Mahoney , 182 N.J. Super. 598, decided this day. It raises in a variant context the problems involved when the husband is at the threshold of a professional career, has enjoyed the benefits of his wife's financial support while pursuing that objective, and the divorce takes place before the parties have accumulated significant distributable assets and before the husband's enhanced income potential has been realized.
The parties were married in October 1973. Both were then employed. The wife, Anita Hill, was a social worker and the husband, Robert Hill, was employed by a life insurance company. Their incomes were relatively modest. In September 1974 they moved from Long Island to Albany, New York. The husband continued to work in the insurance industry and the wife enrolled in medical school, from which she chose to withdraw in May 1975. They then moved to New Jersey where the husband entered dental school in June of that year. The wife was unemployed for about a year. In May 1976 she began to work again as an assistant scientist for a commercial laboratory and as a substitute teacher. They separated in October 1978 when the husband was in his last year of dental school. There were no children born of the marriage.
In the summer of 1979 the wife filed a divorce complaint against her husband and then moved to Boston and enrolled in the Boston University Dental School, where she was a second-year student at the time of trial. The husband at that time was completing a residency in oral surgery in Albany, earning an annual salary of $15,500. He expected to enter dental practice upon completion of his residency.
At the time of their separation the parties had accumulated modest personal property, which they divided between them, and some $4,000 of debts for unpaid household and living
expenses.*fn1 During their marriage, the wife apparently made the larger financial contribution. Although the husband apparently supported the wife during her one year of medical school, upon their move to New Jersey their roles were reversed. During the husband's first year of dental school the parties were supported by a combination of educational grants and loans obtained by the husband and a $10,000 inheritance received by the wife. Between the time she started to work in May 1976 and the time of the parties' separation in October 1978 she earned some $36,000, all of which she contributed to their joint living expenses. His educational expenses continued to be paid for by loans and grants, and at the time of trial he had accumulated about $28,000 in unpaid educational loans. His earnings during this period were less than $1,000. Prior to trial the wife had also received an additional $10,000 by way of settlement of a wrongful death action involving her mother. That sum had been consumed, partly for payment of the parties' joint debts and partly for the wife's post-separation expenses.
The wife's expenses as a dental student amount to approximately $22,000 annually. Her tuition is almost $12,000 a year and the balance represents her living costs. She is meeting these expenses by educational loans.
The primary issue at trial was the wife's claim for reimbursement of her contribution to the couple's support between May 1976 and October 1978 while the husband was in dental school. The trial judge found as a fact that the wife had contributed $28,000 to joint support during that period*fn2 and that the husband
had contributed $2,000.*fn3 He, therefore, concluded that her net support contribution had been $26,000. Reasoning that half of this sum had been expended for each, he awarded the wife $13,000, to be paid by the husband in three installments, $3,000 on December 31, 1981 and $5,000 on December 31, 1982 and 1983. The husband appeals.
The judgment herein refers to this award as "equitable distribution." The oral opinion, while not definitively articulating the legal basis for the award, speaks in terms of reimbursement to avoid unjust enrichment, the potential property status of professional ...