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Pruent-Stevens v. Toms River Township

Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division

April 1, 2019

ROSANNA PRUENT-STEVENS, Plaintiff-Respondent,
TOMS RIVER TOWNSHIP, Defendant-Appellant.

          Argued December 5, 2018

          On appeal from the Tax Court of New Jersey, Docket No. 010172-2016, whose opinion is reported at 30 N.J. Tax 200 (Tax 2017).

          Anthony Merlino, Assistant Township Attorney, argued the cause for appellant (Kenneth B. Fitzsimmons, Township Attorney, attorney; Anthony Merlino, on the briefs).

          Todd W. Heck argued the cause for respondent (Testa Heck Testa & White, PA, attorneys; Todd W. Heck, on the brief).

          Jamie M. Zug, Deputy Attorney General, argued the cause for amicus curiae Director, Division of Taxation (Gurbir S. Grewal, Attorney General, attorney; Melissa H. Raksa, Assistant Attorney General, of counsel; Steven J. Colby, Deputy Attorney General, on the brief).

          Before Judges Fuentes, Accurso and Moynihan.


          MOYNIHAN, J.A.D.

         Defendant Township of Toms River appeals from the Tax Court's final judgment conferring upon plaintiff Rosanna Pruent-Stevens a military veteran's property tax exemption, for the tax year 2016, as the surviving spouse of her first husband - an honorably discharged, decorated Vietnam veteran who contracted a service-related disability as a result of his exposure to Agent Orange - who qualified for an exemption pursuant to N.J.S.A. 54:4-3.30(b)(2). Pruent-Stevens v. Twp. of Toms River, 30 N.J. Tax 200 (Tax 2017). We reverse. Plaintiff's right to the exemption continued only during her widowhood correlated to the qualifying veteran - her first husband - and was extinguished, per the terms of the statute, when she remarried after the death of that veteran.

         N.J.S.A. 54:4-3.30(b)(2) provides:

The surviving spouse of any citizen and resident of this State who was honorably discharged and, after the citizen and resident's death, is declared to have suffered a service-connected disability as provided in subsection a. of this section, shall be entitled, on proper claim made therefor, to the same exemption the deceased would have become eligible for. The exemption shall continue during the surviving spouse's widowhood or widowerhood, as the case may be, and while a resident of this State, for the time that the surviving spouse is the legal owner thereof and actually occupies the dwelling house or any other dwelling house thereafter acquired.

         The Tax Court considered the permutations to N.J. Const. art. VIII, § 1, ¶ 3 and N.J.S.A. 54:4-3.30 since its enactment in 1948, as well as N.J.S.A. 54:4-3.31 which sets forth the exemption-claim-application procedures. 30 N.J. Tax at 209-11, 16. Those procedures require the surviving spouse to file a "writing under oath" with the tax assessor establishing, among other criteria, "that the claimant is a resident of this State and has not remarried." N.J.S.A. 54:4-3.31.

         The Tax Court rejected the Township's interpretation of the statute, that plaintiff's remarriage extinguished her entitlement to the exemption, and observed that "there is sufficient ambiguity as to whether ['has not remarried'] indicates a present marital status or an event that has occurred in the past." 30 N.J. Tax at 224-25. The court concluded the phrase, "has not remarried," referred to plaintiff's "current marital status during 'widowhood, '" id. at 202, and "[a]ccordingly, the surviving spouse's exemption is available only during periods when the surviving spouse is not married," id. at 225. It also found "the term 'widow' . . . defines a person and not the continued marital status of the person." Id. at 202.

         The court reasoned "that fundamental fairness and reasonableness require that consideration of a surviving spouse's marital status should not commence until the [United States Veteran's Administration (VA)] has determined the veteran's 100% disability." Id. at 225. The Tax Court thus held that plaintiff - whose second husband passed away in 1997 - met the statutory eligibility requirements for the exemption because she was unmarried when she first applied for the exemption after the VA posthumously declared her first husband had a service-connected disability[1] in February 2014. Id. at 204-206.

         Our review of a Tax Court decision is ordinarily deferential, Estate of Taylor v. Dir., Div. of Taxation, 422 N.J.Super. 336, 341 (App. Div. 2011), because "judges presiding in the Tax Court have special expertise," Glenpointe Assocs. v. Twp. of Teaneck, 241 N.J.Super. 37, 46 (App. Div. 1990). Our review of a Tax Court's legal determinations, however, is de novo. United Parcel Serv. Gen. Servs. Co. v. Dir., Div. of Taxation, 430 N.J.Super. 1, 8 (App. Div. 2013), aff'd, 220 N.J. 90 (2014). "Statutory interpretation involves the examination of legal issues and is, therefore, a question of law subject to de novo review." Saccone ...

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