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Valente v. Valente

January 27, 2009


On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Morris County, FM-14-1471-04.

Per curiam.


Argued March 10, 2008

Before Judges A.A. Rodríguez, Collester and C.S. Fisher.

Defendant Ralph Valente appeals from portions of the amended final judgment of divorce awarding plaintiff Teresa Valente permanent alimony, child support, and counsel fees. We reverse the award of permanent alimony and remand for determination of a proper term of limited duration alimony.

The parties were married on September 18, 1992. Three children were born of the marriage: a son, born March 23, 1993, and twins, born April 10, 1996. Plaintiff filed her complaint for divorce on June 2, 2004, eleven years and nine months after the date of their marriage. At that time plaintiff was forty years old and defendant forty-two.

Prior to trial, the parties entered into an agreement regarding equitable distribution issues including defendant's insurance business and the marital home, which was awarded to plaintiff without a mortgage. The issues at trial were the division of certain bank accounts and personalty, alimony, child support, parenting time, and counsel fees. Following a ten-day bench trial, the trial judge issued a written opinion awarding plaintiff permanent alimony of $10,000 per month, child support of $700 per week (to be reduced to $625 when defendant had overnight parenting), and a counsel fee of $60,000 with credit to defendant for $25,000 for earlier counsel fee awards paid.

We first deal with a procedural issue. Plaintiff argues that the defendant's appeal must be dismissed for failure to comply with the requirement of Rule 2:4-1(a) that appeals from final judgments shall be taken within forty-five days of entry. The record shows that on June 20, 2006, the same date as his written opinion, the trial judge signed an order prepared by the court simply dissolving the marriage without setting forth the court's rulings on the economic issues. An amended judgment was subsequently signed by the judge on October 19, 2006, setting forth the findings and conclusions contained in his written opinion. Defendant's notice of appeal was filed on November 17, 2006. We denied an earlier motion by plaintiff to dismiss the appeal on August 7, 2007. We adhere to our prior order and hold that defendant's appeal was filed within the time prescribed by Rule 2:4-1(a).

We next address the major issue on appeal, which is the award of permanent alimony.*fn1 In reviewing a judgment of the Family Part, we accord special deference to the trial court's fact-finding because of the judge's expertise in the field of domestic relations. Cesare v. Cesare, 154 N.J. 394, 412 (1998). Moreover, we will not disturb an alimony award absent a clear abuse of discretion, failure to consider controlling legal principles, or findings made that were unsupported by substantial credible evidence in the record as a whole. Cox v. Cox, 335 N.J. Super. 465, 473 (App. Div. 2000); Reid v. Reid, 310 N.J. Super. 12, 22 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 154 N.J. 608 (1998); Heinl v. Heinl, 287 N.J. Super. 337, 339 (App. Div. 1996). The goal of an alimony award is "to assist the supported spouse in achieving a lifestyle that is reasonably comparable to the one enjoyed while living with the supporting spouse during the marriage." Crews v. Crews, 164 N.J. 11, 16 (2000). In making such an award, the trial judge must consider and make specific findings as to the pertinent statutory factors in N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23(b).*fn2 Id. at 25.

N.J.S.A. 2A:35-23(b) provides for four types of alimony: rehabilitative, reimbursement, limited duration, and permanent.

Rehabilitative alimony is designed to enable the supported spouse to "complete the preparation necessary for economic self-sufficiency," Hill v. Hill, 91 N.J. 506, 509 (1982). Payments cease once the dependent spouse has attained the ability to support oneself. Hughes v. Hughes, 301 N.J. Super. 15, 31 (App. Div. 1998). Rehabilitative alimony may be awarded when "the marriage is relatively short and the recipient spouse is capable of full employment based on experience, additional training or further education." Heinl, supra, 287 N.J. Super. at 348; Finelli v. Finelli, 263 N.J. Super. 403, 406 (Ch. Div. 1992). Reimbursement alimony is appropriate when one spouse supported the other through an advanced education, "anticipating participation in the fruits of the earning capacity generated by that education." N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23(e). Such an award is restricted to repaying the financial benefits provided by the supported spouse in the expectation that the couple would enjoy an enhanced standard of living. Mahoney v. Mahoney, 91 N.J. 488, 502-03 (1982). Like rehabilitative alimony, reimbursement alimony is discontinued once its purpose is accomplished. Cox, supra, 335 N.J. Super. at 479.

The issue in the instant case is whether the alimony award to plaintiff should be of limited duration or permanent. Limited duration alimony, like permanent alimony, reflects "the important policy of recognizing that marriage is an adaptive economic and social partnership, and an award of either validates that principle." Ibid. Limited duration alimony gives recognition to a dependent spouse's contributions and sacrifice to a marriage of relatively short-term duration where he or she possesses the ability to return to the workforce and achieve a "reasonably comparable lifestyle." Crews, supra, 164 N.J. at 16. In this regard age, education and work experience are important factors for consideration. See Heinl, supra, 287 N.J. Super. at 346.

Limited duration alimony is intended to cover cases in which either a denial of alimony or an award of permanent alimony would constitute an injustice. Cox, supra, 335 N.J. Super. at 480. See also Frank Louis, Limited Duration Alimony, 11 Fam. Law 133, 137 (1991). But, it would also be an injustice if limited duration alimony was misused in circumstances where it cannot reasonably be found that a supported spouse was capable of assuming his or her proper standard of living at the end of the temporary alimony award. See Cox, supra, 335 N.J. Super. at 482.

The statute specifies the procedure to be followed by a trial judge in determining the form ...

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