On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Union County, Docket No. FM-20-0673-09B.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Fuentes and Ashrafi.
Defendant Charlene Falkowski appeals from equitable distribution provisions in a final judgment of divorce by which the court awarded a greater percentage of marital property to plaintiff Frank Falkowski than to her. We affirm.
The parties were married in 1982. At the time of the divorce in 2009, the marital property subject to equitable distribution was valued at about $1.5 million. After a seven-day trial, the court determined by oral decision that the marital property would be divided equally except for two jointly-owned homes. The marital home in Clark, which was appraised at $430,000, was distributed fifty-five percent to husband and forty-five percent to wife.*fn1 The parties' Manahawkin vacation home, which had stipulated equity of $342,000 and which husband would continue to occupy, was distributed sixty-five percent to husband and thirty-five percent to wife. The court justified the unequal allocation of the two homes because of husband's personal labor in renovating both homes during the marriage, which the judge referred to as "sweat equity."
On other financial matters, the judge ruled that the parties would share equally in the college costs of their daughter, and that husband would pay wife rehabilitative alimony of $3,000 per year for two years in addition to permanent alimony of $33,000 per year.
The court entered a dual final judgment of divorce on March 17, 2010, incorporating its financial rulings. Wife filed a motion for reconsideration of the unequal distributions of the two homes. The trial judge denied the motion by order dated April 30, 2010. This appeal followed.
The evidence at trial showed the following facts relevant to equitable distribution of the two homes. At the time of the divorce, husband was sixty years old and wife was fifty-six. They had been married for twenty-six years. The marriage was the husband's second. After his prior divorce, husband purchased his ex-wife's share of their marital home located in Stanhope, but he still owed her for that purchase at the time of his second marriage. The parties in this case lived in the Stanhope home when they first married, and wife used part of her employment income to help pay the debt owed to husband's first wife. In addition, wife's income helped to pay for renovations to that first marital home. At some point, wife's name was added to the title.
In 1986, the parties sold the Stanhope home and used the proceeds toward the purchase of their Clark marital home. The Clark home was "very dated" with "a lot of work to be done." According to husband's testimony, to which wife's attorney objected on discovery grounds, husband essentially "gutted the . . . house and replaced everything" over the course of about three years. Husband claimed that wife did not do any of the renovation work. Wife testified that many people were involved in the renovations, including husband, herself, and a relative.
When the parties' daughter was born in 1991, wife quit her seventeen-year job from which she was earning an estimated $50,000 per year. She took care of the day-to-day duties of maintaining the marital home and caring for the child. After the child began school, wife took a job as a substitute school secretary and later worked part-time in a school library. She also volunteered at a dance studio. Throughout that time, husband continued his full-time job. At home, husband also performed household chores including laundry, cooking, cleaning, and grocery shopping.
In 2001, the parties bought their second home in Manahawkin, which also needed a great deal of rehabilitation work. Husband testified as follows regarding his personal undertaking in renovating that home:
That one I gutted right down to the beams throughout the whole house, that you could see from one end through the other and moved walls. Ripped up the floors down to the plywood. There was no ceiling, so I put two-by-sixes, insulation, sheet rock. All new walls. I did all the spackling. Gutted the bathroom, kitchen, moved everything around.
Husband went to Manahawkin on his days off to work on the renovations. If the weather and his schedule permitted, he would stay there overnight and continue working the next morning. With the exception of a few friends who helped him put sheetrock on the ceiling, he performed the work himself.
Wife estimated that the renovations to the Manahawkin house took approximately five years to complete. She testified that she "wasn't involved in [the renovations] as much as Clark" because she was at home with their daughter. She claimed, however, that she was involved in "jacking up the corner of the house and rebuilding [the child's] room."
The parties separated in September 2008. Wife remained in the Clark home and husband moved into the Manahawkin house. Husband continued his employment, earning a base salary of $116,000 per year plus bonuses at the time of the parties' separation. Wife was not working ...