April 19, 2011
RACHNA SINGH, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
SANDEEP SAINI, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Middlesex County, Docket No. FM-12-1816-09E.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued Telephonically January 18, 2011
Before Judges Lisa and Alvarez.
Defendant Sandeep Saini appeals from the alimony provisions included in an April 20, 2010 amended judgment of divorce. For the reasons that follow, we affirm in part and reverse in part.
Defendant and plaintiff Rachna Singh married on February 4, 1996; they have two children, ages eleven and five. The complaint for divorce was filed March 31, 2009.
Both parties are college graduates. Defendant, who obtained a Master's Degree in Business Administration from Rutgers University, is employed by Merrill Lynch in information technology. He earns $165,000 annually in base salary, along with yearly bonuses worth approximately $35,000 consisting of cash and restricted stock. Plaintiff is a certified nutritionist who worked full-time until prior to the birth of her second child in June 2006. Thereafter she has worked part-time, between two and four days per week, and earns a current annual salary of approximately $21,000.
The divorce judgment requires defendant to pay plaintiff $49,240 in alimony, and thirty percent of his bonuses, per year, in addition to specified child support. In calculating the award, the trial judge considered the significant disparity in income between the parties and the length of the marriage. He also took into account that because of child care responsibilities, "plaintiff has given up and has sort of stepped back [in] her career, if you will[,] as a result of her obligations at home." The judge expressly noted, however, that given the parties' relative youth, the alimony award would be limited to a term of fourteen years, at which time the parties' youngest child would turn eighteen and begin college.
The judge added the following:
[I] am going to allow the husband to revisit [alimony] as soon as [the youngest child] starts . . . [k]indergarten in 2011. But until that time I'm not going to compel a change in the daily lifestyle. . .
Now, as I said, when [the youngest child] starts school what would be reasonable to expect for working is, it may change, so at that time if the parties can't come to an agreement as to an adjustment at that point, I would permit that the judgment will provide that the defendant can file a motion for change of circumstances based on [the youngest child] starting school. I would indicate I asked the plaintiff whether kindergarten in South Brunswick was full day or part day, and she told me it was full day.
Defendant now appeals, asserting the amount of the trial judge's alimony award and the number of years over which it would be paid was reversible error because the court did not "consider relevant factors and/or failed to support its award with sufficient factual findings and legal conclusions." Defendant also asserts that the judge erred in the factual findings that were made, did not adequately explain the basis for his decision, and did not engage in necessary statutory analysis. See Innes v. Innes, 117 N.J. 496, 504 (1990).
We begin by noting the special deference accorded to the factual findings of a judge of the Family Part. Cesare v. Cesare, 154 N.J. 394, 412-13 (1998). We disturb such determinations only where the trier of fact has not considered applicable statutory standards or judicial precedents implicated by the evidence. Caplan v. Caplan, 182 N.J. 250, 267-71 (2005). Generally, arrangements regarding alimony are left to the sound discretion of the trial court. Larbig v. Larbig, 384 N.J. Super. 17, 21 (App. Div. 2006); Steneken v. Steneken, 367 N.J. Super. 427, 434 (App. Div. 2004), aff'd as modified on other grounds, 183 N.J. 290 (2005).
Pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23(b), a court considers the following factors in establishing an alimony award:
In all actions brought for divorce . . . the court may award one or more of the following types of alimony: permanent alimony; rehabilitative alimony; limited duration alimony or reimbursement alimony to either party. In so doing the court shall consider, but not be limited to, the following factors:
(1) The actual need and ability of the parties to pay;
(2) The duration of the marriage or civil union;
(3) The age, physical and emotional health of the parties;
(4) The standard of living established in the marriage or civil union and the likelihood that each party can maintain a reasonably comparable standard of living;
(5) The earning capacities, educational levels, vocational skills, and employability of the parties;
(6) The length of absence from the job market of the party seeking maintenance;
(7) The parental responsibilities for the children;
(8) The time and expense necessary to acquire sufficient education or training to enable the party seeking maintenance to find appropriate employment, the availability of the training and employment, and the opportunity for future acquisitions of capital assets and income;
(9) The history of the financial or non-financial contributions to the marriage or civil union by each party including contributions to the care and education of the children and interruption of personal careers or educational opportunities;
(10) The equitable distribution of property ordered and any payouts on equitable distribution, directly or indirectly, out of current income, to the extent this consideration is reasonable, just and fair;
(11) The income available to either party through investment of any assets held by that party;
(12) The tax treatment and consequences to both parties of any alimony award, including the designation of all or a portion of the payment as a non-taxable payment; and
(13) Any other factors which the court may deem relevant. [N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23(b).]
In an abbreviated fashion, the trial judge engaged in the requisite statutory analysis in fashioning the alimony order. He established the parties' lifestyle based on defendant's earnings of $165,000 plus bonuses, and plaintiff's part-time wages of $21,000. See Weishaus v. Weishaus, 180 N.J. 131, 142 (2004) (underscoring the "importance of having the marital standard of living established when the information necessary to such determinations was fresh and could be presented readily"). As called for by the statute, the judge reviewed all the personal characteristics of the parties such as their age, earning capabilities, and parental responsibilities. He calculated plaintiff's monthly budget at $4682.67 and took into account, in general terms, the tax consequences to each party.
We recognize that, "[l]imited duration alimony is to be awarded in recognition of a dependent spouse's contributions to a relatively short-term marriage . . . . All other statutory factors being in equipoise, the duration of the marriage marks the defining distinction between whether permanent or limited duration alimony is warranted and awarded." Cox v. Cox, 335 N.J. Super. 465, 483 (App. Div. 2000). Following a mid-term marriage, however, where a relatively young supported spouse has realistic employment prospects that would allow her to achieve financial independence over a period of time, especially at the conclusion of concentrated day-to-day child care obligations, the trial court's finding, after balancing the statutory factors, may include a limited term of spousal support. Here defendant's complaint was not that the court should have awarded permanent alimony, but that the amount and length of the term was excessive. We disagree.
In reaching his determination, the trial judge reiterated that plaintiff set aside her own career trajectory so she could care for the parties' children and that she remains their principal caretaker. Understanding plaintiff's ability for employment may increase concomitant with the parties' youngest child beginning full-day kindergarten in 2011, the court designated that event as a change of circumstances, allowing defendant to file an application seeking to modify alimony.
The judge denied plaintiff's request for permanent alimony, noting her youth, increased availability and future employment prospects mitigated against a permanent award. Additionally, the court actually articulated the triggering events for modification in this rather unique combination of circumstances, as the amount of the awarded limited duration alimony is subject to reduction. N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23; Lepis v. Lepis, 83 N.J. 139, 149 (1980) (observing "[t]he equitable authority of a court to modify support obligations in response to changed circumstances, regardless of their source, cannot be restricted"). He fashioned a practical and equitable solution, in line with the public policy behind the statute. See N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23 (granting courts the authority to fashion orders for alimony and spousal support "as the circumstances of the parties and the nature of the case shall render fit, reasonable and just").
In weighing the statutory factors the court noted the length of the marriage may have supported an award for permanent alimony, however, the age, education, and employability of plaintiff did not. Plaintiff's situation vis-a-vis these young children arguably requires substantial alimony payable by the parent benefiting from the other's investment in time with the children. The judge fairly balanced these factors.
To reiterate, the court stated the outer limit of defendant's alimony obligation was fourteen years from the date of divorce, when the youngest child would begin his college education. But the judge also indicated that a change of circumstances application could be filed when plaintiff increased her employment once the youngest child began full-time kindergarten. Accordingly, we affirm defendant's obligation to pay alimony, as this decision was a sound exercise of the judge's discretion, taking account relevant statutory factors. See N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23(b).
As to the annual bonus, however, although the court's intent is clear, the propriety of the award is not. The judge did not make findings of fact or engage in legal analysis as to the seventy percent-thirty percent distribution. The court did not offer a rationale other than stating it would be considered "additional alimony to the wife." Given that the judge fixed the monthly amount of support based on plaintiff's monthly expenses, on this record plaintiff does not appear to need additional support.
Accordingly, we affirm the monthly payment of alimony, but reverse the allocation of a portion of defendant's future bonus payments as additional alimony. The bonus, however, may be subject to additional child support obligations. On remand, the trial court shall review whether child support would be modified upon receipt of future bonuses.
Affirmed in part, reversed and remanded in part. We do not retain jurisdiction.
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