On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Somerset County.
Petrella and Baime. The opinion of the court was delivered by Baime, J.A.D.
Plaintiff appeals from the financial aspects of a judgment of divorce entered by the Superior Court, Chancery Division. In her appeal, plaintiff contends that the trial judge abused his discretion by mechanistically dividing the marital assets equally. She further claims that the court mistakenly refused to exempt $20,000 in premarital assets. Lastly, she argues that the trial judge erred when he denied her application to compel defendant to cooperate in filing joint income tax returns. Defendant cross-appeals. He claims that the trial judge erroneously excluded from the marital assets subject to distribution the increase in value of a securities account which had been gifted to plaintiff by her family. The principal thrust of defendant's argument is that the enhanced value of the account was partially attributable to his efforts. Defendant also contends that the trial judge's division of the value of the marital residence constituted an abuse of discretion. He further asserts that the court improperly denied him a share of the accretion of value of this property between the date of the filing of the complaint and the time of the proposed distribution. Defendant's final contention is that the trial judge incorrectly reduced the value of his share of the residence by allowing a credit for a hypothetical real estate commission and legal fees.
The essential facts are not in dispute and need not be recounted at length. The parties were married in 1971 and separated approximately ten years later. No children were born during the marriage. Throughout the entire period of the marriage, plaintiff was employed and earned a substantial salary. Defendant worked as a surveyor until 1980 when he resigned his position to pursue a career as a financial planner.
Apparently, defendant was not successful and subsequently suffered from some undisclosed emotional illness. At the time of trial, however, defendant's health had improved significantly and his earning ability was characterized as excellent. During the marriage, plaintiff was exclusively responsible for housekeeping chores. On the other hand, defendant managed the finances and made investment decisions.
It is undisputed that plaintiff had acquired approximately $20,000 through savings, gifts and inheritances prior to the marriage. Although this amount was commingled over the years, defendant candidly acknowledged that it was the result of his wife's efforts and that it would be returned to her family. In recognition of this understanding, defendant executed a will which provided that in the event of a common disaster or simultaneous death the $20,000 would be paid to plaintiff's brother prior to distribution of the residuary estate.
It is also undisputed that plaintiff's parents maintained a securities account (the CJL Security Account) for her benefit during the marriage. Plaintiff's father managed the account. Although substantial profits were earned, nothing was ever withdrawn from the account. Nevertheless, both parties shared in paying the taxes emanating out of these earnings.
Following a plenary hearing, the trial judge granted a judgment of divorce. In a bench opinion, the court determined that the $20,000 in savings, gifts and inheritances which predated the marriage was, nonetheless, part of the marital estate available for distribution. In that regard, the trial judge found that the money had been commingled during the parties' cohabitation and had been used to make joint purchases. However, he also concluded that the CJL Security Account constituted a gift solely to plaintiff and was, thus, immune from distribution. So too, he determined that the enhanced value of the account was attributable to the efforts of plaintiff's father and was not subject to allocation. The trial judge carefully considered the factors and criteria set forth in Painter v. Painter, 65 N.J. 196, 211-212
(1974) and decided to divide the parties' personal property equally. Different considerations were said to apply to the marital residence which was allocated on an uneven basis, 55% to plaintiff and 45% to defendant. The court decided that the date of the filing of the complaint was to be used in determining the value of the residence and that the outstanding mortgage and legal fees and a hypothetical brokerage commission were to be deducted.
Initially, we reject plaintiff's claim that the trial judge abused his discretion in deciding to allocate the parties' personal property on an equal basis. At the outset, we emphasize the narrow contours of appellate review pertaining to the division of marital assets. It can fairly be said that articulation of the standards and criteria which are to be taken into account in determining an equitable distribution of property is generally a task considerably less formidable than applying them. "[W]e rely heavily, as we must, on the discretion of the trial judge in making these delicate and difficult judgments." Gibbons v. Gibbons, 174 N.J. Super. 107, 114 (App.Div.1980), rev'd on other grounds 86 N.J. 515 (1981). Thus, the ultimate question before us is whether the trial judge mistakenly exercised his broad authority by equally dividing the parties' personal property. Ibid. See also Borodinsky v. Borodinsky, 162 N.J. Super. 437, 444 (App.Div.1978); Esposito v. Esposito, 158 N.J. Super. 285, 291 (App.Div.1978); Salmon v. Salmon, 88 N.J. Super. 291, 310 (App.Div.1965). Of course, we recognize that a trial judge "does not fulfill his heavy judgmental obligation by routinely or mechanistically dividing the marital assets equally." Gibbons v. Gibbons, supra, 174 N.J. Super. at ...