For years divorcing couples have heard that New Jersey courts do not consider fault when it comes to determining whether alimony should be awarded. This is true. In most cases marital fault is irrelevant to a determination of alimony. However, as the New Jersey Supreme Court stated in the case of Mani v. Mani, 183 N.J. 70 (2005), in a case where the spouse claiming the right to alimony engages in fault which affects the parties’ economic life, the fault may be considered in the calculation of alimony. As well, where the marital fault is so egregious that it violates societal norms alimony that would otherwise have been awarded may be denied in its entirety.
Facts of the Mani Case
The Mani’s were married in 1973 and over the course of their marriage they enjoyed a high standard of living, financed almost entirely by income from the wife’s father’s business and investments. As the marriage progressed Mr. Mani not only dropped out of full-time work, but when the parties retired he began to have an affair with the couples’ mutual friend. Mrs. Mani soon filed for divorce, and because the parties couldn’t settle their case a trial took place.
The trial judge awarded Mr. Mani alimony in the amount of $610 per week which Mr. Mani felt was insufficient to meet his post-divorce needs. Mrs. Mani felt that the judge had erred and that her ex-husband wasn’t entitled to any alimony at all. Both parties appealed the judges alimony ruling. The Appellate Division found that evidence of the husband’s marital indiscretions and significant adultery should be taken into account in determining whether alimony should be paid to him at all. The Appellate Division also ruled that, even if the husband was entitled to alimony, his actions could effect the amount of alimony that he was entitled to receive. Mr. Mani appealed the Appellate Division ruling to the New Jersey Supreme Court.
In their decision the Supreme Court laid down rules that could be applied in future cases with regard to the question of whether there was any level of marital fault which could lead to a reduction or denial of alimony. After conducting a detailed review of the history and impact of marital fault in alimony cases, and the evolution of no-fault alimony as the law in New Jersey, the Supreme Court ruled that there are two instances in which marital fault can affect alimony in New Jersey: (1) If the marital misconduct affects the economic status quo of the parties it may be taken into consideration in the calculation of alimony; and (2) If one of the parties engages in “egregious conduct” or in “egregious fault” that party may be denied alimony which they would otherwise be entitled to.
With regard to marital misconduct which affects the parties economic circumstances, the court gave the example of a situation where one spouse gambles away marital retirement assets and there are no remaining assets to offset the loss. With regard to conduct which is so egregious that it can lead to a total loss of alimony, the court gave examples of one spouse’s attempt to murder the other spouse, and one spouses deliberate infection of the other spouse with a loathsome disease. The court found that in the Mani case, Mr. Mani’s conduct violated neither prong of marital misconduct. The court found that his misconduct (significant adultery and marital indiscretions) did not have an effect on the party’s economic status quo. It also found that his adultery and indiscretions were not so egregious as to violate the social contract and therefore alimony could be awarded to him.
Lessons Learned from the Mani Case
The take away from the Mani case is that for better or worse, in New Jersey, marital fault such as repeated adulteries, infidelities, habitual drunkenness etc., will not have an effect on alimony unless the conduct has a serious effect on the party’s financial circumstances, and the harm caused cannot be otherwise rectified through distribution of other marital assets. The second takeaway from the Mani case is that the husband or wife will only lose their right to alimony if their misconduct is borderline criminal – e.g. attempted murder, intentional transmission of an incurable, vile and loathsome disease, or such other equally heinous acts.
If you have questions about marital fault and its effects on alimony in New Jersey do not hesitate to call me at 201-731-3086 (toll-free at 844-431-3380). You can also email me using the e-mail contact form. I have been representing clients in family law cases in northern New Jersey for over 20 years. My clients are drawn primarily from Bergen, Hudson, Essex, Passaic, Union and Middlesex counties. Whether you contact me by telephone or email your initial consultation is free of charge.