If you haven’t already figured it out, New Jersey family law has its share of catchphrases. You might already have some inkling about the significance of your marital standard of living. However, when does it come into play? More importantly, what determines how you lived as a couple?
Establishing a marital standard of living is a critical factor in many cases involving child support or alimony (spousal support.) Truth be told, it is extremely relevant in high net-worth divorce cases – particularly when one of the parties earns more than the other.
NJSA 2A:34-23 specifically mentions the significance of determining the marital standard of living in a few places. For one, the standard of living and economic circumstances of each parent is a component of deciding child support obligations.
When it comes to alimony payments, the couple’s marital standard of living factors into allowances for spousal support. According to the statutory language, consideration is given as to reasonably providing for the parties to maintain comparable lifestyles. Neither spouse is entitled to a greater standard of living than the other.
Establishing Your Marital Standard of Living
In order to establish your marital standard of living, you will need to provide your attorney with as much documentation as possible. More than likely, the easiest way to begin the process is completing a draft copy of a Family Part Case Information Statement (CIS).
There’s no doubt that assembling the requisite financial details will be cumbersome. After all, it’s not as simple as calculating respective incomes. You’ll need to supply information concerning your current expenditures as well. How much do you spend on entertainment? Are you accustomed to dining out? Where is your home located and what is its value?
Unfortunately, there’s often the concern that neither of the parties will be able to continue to enjoy the same standard of living. That said, the expectation is that there should be a sense inequity. In determining alimony payments, the court is expected to make a determination concerning the marital standard of living. This is done by review of the financials and other proofs submitted by the parties.
Husbands and wives often enter into settlement agreements to avoid the time and expense of trial. If the court finds that the couple has come to a satisfactory arrangement, the judge may incorporate the agreement into the Final Judgment of Divorce (FJOD). However, situations do not always remain the same. A change of circumstances may warrant an application seeking modification of an order granting spousal support.
Modification of Support Order
On May 11, 2018, the New Jersey Appellate Division submitted an unpublished opinion in the matter of R.S. v. T.B. The case is not considered precedential law as the decision only applies to the named parties. Their names have been masked with initials to protect their identities.
R.S. and T.B. married in 1983 and had two children together. During the course of their marriage, T.B., the wife had a number of jobs. The couple signed a settlement agreement in conjunction with their divorce in 2005. Notably, T.B.’s income was listed as $10,000; R.S. showed gross earnings of $580,000 in 2003.
The parties themselves admitted to a lavish lifestyle during their marriage. In his own CIS submittal, R.S. listed combined monthly expenses in excess of $32K. Meanwhile, T.B. marked her personal expenses at $12.5K. The property settlement agreement (PSA) took these numbers into account, as well as the couple’s assets and liabilities.
Although the couple came to an agreement regarding issues pertaining to their divorce, the judge still needed to approve the PSA. That said, a critical concern was absent from the document. For one, the agreement did not establish the marital standard of living. In fact, it only showed “the imputed incomes of the parties at the time, and made no representations about the parties' ability to maintain any specific lifestyle.”
One other thing. The judge who executed the final divorce order made an important statement on the record. More particularly, he noted that he “"took no testimony regarding the issue of support, custody and other matters except as to the issue of divorce" and did not make any findings regarding these issues.”
In 2015, T.B. submitted a motion for modification of the alimony award. She cited a substantial change in circumstances and her inability to maintain the marital lifestyle retroactively. T.B. offered that her change in circumstances involved her inability to work due to injuries she suffered in a car accident. In the meantime, R.S.’s career had skyrocketed even further.
At the lower court level, T.B.’s modification motion was denied. The court found that T.B. had not provided documentation concerning how her injuries precluded her from finding employment. (Notably, T.B. receives total disability payments.) The court entertained a motion for reconsideration but subsequently denied the application for an increase in spousal support.
Marital Standard of Living Hearing
T.B. appealed the denial and submitted that discovery should have been ordered. Additionally, the original order was decided on the papers – without the benefit of a plenary hearing.
Upon review, the Appellate Division found that the original PSA did not contain language concerning the marital standard of living. The fact that the judge did not make any findings regarding the issues was problematic.
Meanwhile, the same was true for the modification application. There were no hearings determining the marital standard of living. The Appellate Division remanded the matter to Family Court for a hearing establishing the “marital standard of living and whether changed circumstances warrant modification of plaintiff's support obligations.”