December 5, 2018
appeal from the Tax Court of New Jersey, Docket No.
010172-2016, whose opinion is reported at 30 N.J. Tax 200
Anthony Merlino, Assistant Township Attorney, argued the
cause for appellant (Kenneth B. Fitzsimmons, Township
Attorney, attorney; Anthony Merlino, on the briefs).
W. Heck argued the cause for respondent (Testa Heck Testa
& White, PA, attorneys; Todd W. Heck, on the brief).
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).
Judges Fuentes, Accurso and Moynihan.
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
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
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."
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.
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 in February 2014. Id. at
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 ...