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Reiss v. Reiss

Decided: January 23, 1984.


Imbriani, J.s.c.


"Reimbursement alimony" received the approbation of the Supreme Court in a trilogy of cases including Mahoney v. Mahoney, 91 N.J. 488 (1982) which recognized the inequities arising when one spouse finances the education of the other, and then shortly after a professional degree is received, the parties divorce. When this occurs, Mahoney stated:

there will be circumstances where a supporting spouse should be reimbursed for the financial contributions he or she made to the spouse's successful professional training. [at 501]

Remaining to be resolved is precisely what expenses are to be reimbursed and how should they be calculated, appreciating as we must, that since the expenses were incurred many years earlier, records of actual expenses will generally be attenuated or unavailable.

Dr. & Mrs. Reiss met while both were freshman in college, got "pinned" in their sophomore year and married immediately following graduation. While in college they agreed to do everything possible to obtain a medical degree for the husband. She received a degree in mathematics, with a minor in computer sciences, and after graduation she postponed graduate school to become the sole wage earner while he devoted full time to his medical studies in Madrid, Spain, where they lived from September 1973 until he graduated in July 1978 when they returned to the United States.

In Spain they lived modestly in a one bedroom apartment in the center of town. In addition to the normal amenities of life they were able to attend movies and ballets, occasionally dine out and generally took two European trips each year to ski or sightsee. Once they went on a lengthy trip to Greece which

cost $2,000. In Spain the wife earned $3,500 in 1973, $11,000 in 1974, $14,000 in 1975, $16,000 in 1976, $20,000 in 1977 and $19,829 for the partial year 1978, or a total income of $84,329. During this entire period the husband earned nothing, although his father did send some money that was used to pay some of the tuition bills. They returned to the United States with no savings and minimal personal property.

Upon returning to the United States the wife began taking evening courses to obtain a Masters-in-Business-Administration (MBA) degree which she still has not received. She testified that in her opinion, without an MBA, she will be unable to advance further in her profession.

The husband completed his residency requirements, then became associated with a hospital medical group and recently entered into private practice. His earnings in 1978 were only $4,426, but increased substantially thereafter and will approximate $70,000 in 1983. The marriage which was a happy one in Spain, began to deteriorate after they returned to the United States and finally ruptured in June 1982 when they separated -- which coincidentally was the day after the husband completed his residency. There were no children.

The wife seeks: 1. reimbursement alimony of $80,829, which represents her full income in Spain less $3,500 used for vacations; 2. rehabilitative alimony to enable her to obtain an MBA degree; and 3. permanent alimony because she believes he is now and will continue generating greater income than she.

She now has an excellent position as a staff manager at American Telephone and Telegraph Co. (AT & T) at an annual salary of $46,500. And it remains unclear whether she will continue evening courses or leave her employment to attend classes full time. In the latter event, even she admitted, it would be extremely difficult to match her present position and salary. She appeared very reluctant to resign and the court is satisfied that not only would it be unwise for her to do, but also highly unlikely that she would.

Rehabilitative alimony which was sanctioned by Turner v. Turner, 158 N.J. Super. 313 (Ch.Div.1978) and Lepis v. Lepis, 83 N.J. 139, 155, n. 9 (1980) is not applicable here. A spouse who earns $46,500 per year which enables her to live comparably, if not higher, than the standard of living to which she became accustomed during coverture does not need rehabilitation. While she is entitled to receive funds from the marital assets before distribution to enable her to complete her education, this does not constitute rehabilitative alimony. The two philosophies are dissimilar. The husband used marital assets to educate and advance himself and she is entitled to do likewise. While she would be entitled to rehabilitative alimony if she left AT & T to attend college full time (which would be in addition to the marital assets given to her to finance the costs thereof), since it is unlikely that ...

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