On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.
For limited remandment -- Chief Justice Wilentz and Justices Clifford, Schreiber, Handler, Pollock, O'Hern and Garibaldi. Opposed -- None.
In this matrimonial dispute the sole issue projected by defendant-husband's petition for certification, which we granted, 97 N.J. 619 (1984), is the following: when a trial court determines it will not follow a stipulation entered into by the parties as to the value of certain property for equitable distribution purposes, should not the court afford the parties a hearing on the value of the subject property before it announces its determination? We hold that such a hearing is required; and because defendant was deprived of the opportunity
to present proof as to the value of the property in question, we remand to the trial court for determination of that issue.
It is important to note at the outset what this appeal is not about, to the end that we can confine our decision to what is really in dispute. Defendant does not question the authority of a trial court to override a stipulation in certain circumstances, nor do the parties focus on the issue of what standards should guide a trial court in determining whether the circumstances are such that a stipulation must be honored. That question, provocative as it is, has not been fully briefed and argued and can well await resolution in an appeal in which it is directly presented. The issue that is ripe for determination is: assuming, without deciding, that the trial court was on sound ground in going behind the stipulation, what procedure should it have followed?
At an early stage of this lengthy trial the parties entered into a stipulation that the assets of Antique Silver Limited (ASL), a concern that was part of the disputants' silver business interest, would become the property of plaintiff-wife, by way of equitable distribution. It was further agreed that the ASL assets would carry a value of $49,065. Both parties acknowledged in open court that they understood and agreed to the stipulation. Defendant, in reliance on the stipulation, presented no evidence during the trial as to the value of the ASL silver, although there was testimony concerning other items of silver -- some 8500 ounces in all (the parties had started out as collectors, learned the intricacies of the silver market, and ended up as full-time silver traders).
The issue concerning the effect of the stipulation arose when the trial court delivered its opinion at the conclusion of the trial. The trial court dismissed plaintiff's claim for divorce based on
extreme cruelty and granted defendant's counterclaim for divorce predicated on desertion. It awarded plaintiff alimony of $100. per week for one year to enable her to obtain employment. It also found that the assets subject to equitable distribution should be divided equally, and that their total value was $219,954.
In making that computation the court disregarded the parties' stipulation and valued the silver inventory held by ASL at $11,128 rather than $49,065, a difference of some $38,000. Defendant's attorney directed the court's attention to the stipulation, but the trial court decided that the silver inventory "ha[d] that value even though [a different value had been] stipulated by the parties." The Appellate Division affirmed, holding that a trial court may ...