This matter comes before the court upon plaintiff's motion in limine for a declaration that the principles enunciated in Mangone v. Mangone, 202 N.J. Super. 505 (Ch.Div.1985) should be applied in this case with respect to defendant's claim for distribution of premarital property.
The principal issue is whether assets acquired by a party in contemplation of marriage prior to and during a substantial period of cohabitation followed by a marriage are subject to equitable distribution in accordance with N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23. This court must also consider whether such property is otherwise distributable under a variety of equitable remedies.
For the purposes of this motion, the following facts are not in dispute. Plaintiff and defendant began cohabiting in June 1976. They married on November 22, 1983, separated on November 20, 1985 and the complaint for divorce was filed on July 10, 1986. Plaintiff purchased what became the marital domicile in his name only on March 25, 1976 some three months prior to
commencement of cohabitation. Defendant had selected the residence. It was acquired in contemplation of the cohabitation and of marriage. At the time the residence was purchased and thereafter the parties had an express and implied agreement that they would be married in the future and during the cohabitation they would share in the acquisition of property and assets. The residence had to be altered to suit the needs of the parties. They began cohabiting in that property in June 1976 and continued to do so until their separation in November 1985. Defendant continues to reside there.
During the period of cohabitation and prior to the marriage plaintiff acquired in his name other property and business assets. At no time did defendant advance any of her funds for the purchase of these assets. Subsequent to the marriage there were little, if any, assets acquired by either party.
Defendant contends that the marital domicile as well as the assets acquired during cohabitation by plaintiff were acquired in contemplation of the marriage. She alleged that they had entered into a domestic partnership whereby all assets were to be shared and that each made contributions to the relationship during that cohabitation period as if they had, in fact, been married.
Research reveals three New Jersey decisions which have dealt with the issue of distributability of assets acquired by one party during a period of cohabitation followed by a marriage or in contemplation thereof under N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23. A brief analysis of each case is necessary.
In Mangone, supra, the wife sought enforcement of an alleged lifetime support contract and equitable distribution, under N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23, of assets acquired by the husband during a six-year period of cohabitation followed by a short-term marriage. The wife alleged it was her money which sustained the parties during the cohabitation while the husband used his earnings to acquire substantial real and personal property. The court viewed the wife's complaint as an attempt
to expand the concept of the nonmarital palimony contract, found in the cases of Kozlowski v. Kozlowski, 80 N.J. 378 (1979) and Crowe v. DeGioia, 90 N.J. 126 (1982), on principles of equity by seeking an equitable distribution of property legally and beneficially acquired by the husband during a period of cohabitation followed by a marriage. Mangone, 202 N.J. Super. at 507. The Mangone Court rejected this claim, holding that premarital property is immune from equitable distribution because the plain language of that statute makes it clear the property must be acquired during the marriage, not before it. Id. at 508. The court stated that if there is a contract between the parties to share in premarital assets, the wife would be limited to proof of damages for the breach thereof and not to equitable distribution. Ibid. The court deemed the entry into the marriage as the formation of a new contract which superseded any premarital contract and found "when the parties married each other whatever contractual rights existed before the wedding merged into the greater contract of marriage." Id. at 510. Though the court was applying this "merger" doctrine to the wife's claim of a lifetime support contract, it is apparent that under such an analysis, a premarital implied or express contract to share in the assets acquired by one spouse during a cohabitation period would also be deemed merged into and extinguished by the contract of marriage. That intent can be implied from the following:
In Raspa v. Raspa, 207 N.J. Super. 371 (Ch.Div.1985), the husband had purchased a house in his name only four days prior to the marriage. The parties then moved into the house and lived there as husband and wife for 13 years until the filing of the complaint for divorce. The wife had ...