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Berrie v. Berrie

Decided: December 31, 1991.


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Bergen County.

Dreier, Gruccio and Brochin. The opinion of the court was delivered by Dreier, J.A.D.


Plaintiff, Uni Berrie, appeals by leave granted from interlocutory rulings in favor of her husband, Russell Berrie, by two trial judges. The orders were entered on December 20, 1990 and January 31, 1991. In response to defendant's successful in limine motion, the initial trial judge ruled in the December 20, 1990 order:

This court rules in limine that a premarital period of cohabitation does not extend coverture for equitable distribution purposes, and, any increase in the value of defendant's stock in Russ Berrie & Company, Inc. during any premarital period of cohabitation is not subject to equitable distribution.

This court rules in limine that defendant's stock in Russ Berrie & Company, Inc. is a passive premarital asset and is not subject to equitable distribution. This court further rules that any increase in value of that stock from the date of the marriage until the date of filing of the complaint is not subject to equitable distribution.

No evaluation of Russ Berrie & Company, Inc. is necessary to this litigation.

The order continued, stating that plaintiff was denied funds to retain an expert to value the corporate stock, and that no court-appointed expert would be designated to value the stock.*fn1

The judge explained his reasoning in a nine page letter opinion dated October 3, 1990, which he incorporated by reference into the December order. In this opinion the judge traced the origin and growth of defendant's business. Defendant founded the business in 1963, twenty years prior to the parties' marriage. It was initially a one-man operation producing "impulse gift products" (stuffed animals and other small items marketed through card shops). After incorporation in 1966, the business grew and defendant developed his own product line, expanding in personnel and producing more income. By the time the parties met in 1979, while both were married to other individuals, the company, in the trial judge's words,

was a multinational, multimillion dollar corporation. It had decentralized into separate autonomous departments which were located in several areas within this country and also in other areas of the world including the Far East. The various departments included sales, distribution, product development, administration and finance. The company's basic product line had been fully established and the company had over 1,000 employees and over 100 managers.

The parties met by chance on a flight from Hong Kong to Seoul. Plaintiff is Korean by birth, but at that time she was a United States citizen who was separated from her first husband. After sporadic contacts during the initial months of their relationship, defendant requested that plaintiff leave her home and family in Korea and come to United States with him. Plaintiff alleges that there had been premarital promises made to her by defendant. In the words of the amended complaint:

defendant promised and declared to plaintiff that he would take care of her and support her for the rest of her life, that he would provide for her future financial security and that she would share in all the assets and property that was accumulated.

At the end of 1979 defendant purchased what was to be the marital home in Englewood. Some time between early 1980 and mid-1981 they lived together in the home. According to plaintiff, defendant insisted that plaintiff seek no financial settlement from her former husband and defendant retained the attorney and supervised the securing of her initial divorce.

Plaintiff was divorced from her former husband on December 3, 1981; defendant was divorced from his former wife on December 10, 1983. The parties were married on December 29, 1983. At that time they already had a daughter who was nearly two years old. Their premarital relationship can be expressed by quoting defendant's own words, taken from a certification dated April 7, 1983 filed in connection with his divorce from his former wife:

The defendant [Kathy Berrie, Russell Berrie's former wife] refers to my single 'girlfriend'. The fact of the matter is that this girlfriend is the woman whom I love, who is the mother of my child, whom I respect and to whom I am married morally and spiritually, and with whom I shall be married legally as soon as the litigation [defendant's divorce from Kathy Berrie] is terminated. We have lived together for the past three years, and she not only has been emotionally supportive of me, but has helped me in my work. Her assistance in my business has been tremendous, since we import a great deal of our merchandise from Korea, and her understanding of Korean commercial customs, as well as her fluency in that language, have been tremendous assets to me.

[M]y present relationship is a significant one, . . . in which we are the parents of a lovely child and which brings to us all the joys of honorable married life.

I am, in every sense of the word, happily married to another woman and joyfully engaged in a truly honorable married life. . . .

[M]y relationship with the woman I love is one which does not depend on material things for joy. We work together, shoulder to shoulder, both in the home and in our business, with a deep and ...

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