On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Warren County, Docket No. FM-21-282-08.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted: October 12, 2010
Before Judges A.A. Rodriguez and C.L. Miniman.
Maryann Schaffer (the wife) appeals from a final judgment of divorce (JOD) entered on June 16, 2009, following a bench trial on all issues. Because we are satisfied that the parties' home was a marital asset that was fairly and equitably distributed between the parties, we affirm.
Plaintiff Gregory Shaffer (the husband) and the wife were married to each other on June 29, 2002. At the time of their marriage, the wife had two children from a previous marriage, which had ended in divorce on February 11, 2002. The wife had brought $228,500 to this marriage as her share of equitable distribution from the dissolution of her first marriage.
Prior to her February 2002 divorce, the wife began looking for a residence for herself, her two children, and her future husband and then entered into a contract to purchase vacant land in May 2002 before the parties were married. On June 10, 2002, the parties began to cohabit in an apartment with the wife's two children and the wife signed a contract on June 20, 2002, for construction of a home on the property she was under contract to purchase. The parties married on June 29, 2002. About three weeks after their marriage, the wife closed title on the vacant land, taking sole title under her former surname, LoCasio. The husband brought no liquid assets to the marriage and conceded that all of the monies utilized to purchase the vacant land belonged solely to the wife. However, the wife admitted that when her first divorce became final, she had already decided to marry the husband and knew that his income would be available in connection with acquiring a new residence.
Construction of the residence was completed on May 9, 2003, at a total contract cost of $180,124.76. Additional costs outside the contract totaled $31,393.98. Thus, the total cost of the new marital home including the land was $285,456.74. Shortly before completion of construction, the wife in her sole name took out a $105,000 construction loan and mortgaged the property. The husband did not know why his name was not on the deed to the property, the construction contract, or the construction loan and mortgage.
The husband trusted his wife to handle the parties' finances. From the beginning of the marriage, he gave his paycheck to her, and she paid the bills. His checks were deposited into a joint checking account. However, he was aware that the wife moved his money into a bank account in her former married name. It was clear that the husband's earned income during the marriage and the wife's remaining separate property from her first marriage were commingled, and the parties used their commingled assets to pay construction costs, the mortgage, and all other expenses of the marriage. The husband used no credit cards during the marriage; the only existing credit cards were issued solely in the wife's former name and used exclusively by her.
On July 31, 2004, the parties jointly borrowed $30,000 on a home equity line of credit. That money was used in part to build a swimming pool, put up a fence, pave the driveway, and take a trip to Virginia. In 2005, the parties jointly signed a new mortgage in the amount of $140,000 which paid off the construction mortgage in the wife's name and the home equity loan in joint names. This new loan was a negative-amortization mortgage, the import of which neither party understood.
The marriage began to falter when the wife had an extramarital affair; the husband filed for divorce. Several months later, and without the husband's knowledge, the wife took out a new loan in her name only in the amount of $205,000 to pay off the first mortgage, which by then had a balance of $154,891.26, and provide the wife with a fund of $50,108.74.
The matter was tried on February 24 and March 16, 2009. The wife claimed that the property was not purchased in contemplation of marriage because it was located one mile from her former home; she used the same construction company; and she purchased the same furniture that she previously owned. She further testified that she never referred to the marital home as "our house." The ...