Mani v. Mani

In a much awaited and major decision, the New Jersey Supreme defined what role fault, even adultery, has on the amount of alimony.

The very difficult dilemma the Court faced was that the New Jersey divorce statutes permit a Court to consider fault in fixing alimony. On the other hand, New Jersey trial courts and divorce attorneys have, for the better part of three decades, refused to consider fault in determining either the entitlement to or amount of alimony. How then could the Court reconcile the statute with common practice?

Justice Virginia Long writing for the majority reasoned that fault should be considered in determining alimony in only two narrow circumstances:

(1) If the fault impacted upon the parities financial status, or
(2) the fault “violates societal norms…and would confound notions of simple justice”

Justice Rivera-Sota in a lengthy dissent, respectfully disagreed with the majority and reasoned that only the Legislature, not the Judiciary, had to right to modify the clear statutory directive to consider fault in awarding alimony. He argued that the High Court was bound by the plain language of the statute and should leave it the counsel and the trial courts to apply the statute fairly on and individual case by case basis.

The decision has been much awaited and much debated by divorce attorneys throughout New Jersey, and is likely to be a continued topic of debate and discussion.

Unanswered in the High Court’s majority decision is what degree of impact on the finances of the parties is necessary to trigger a consideration of fault in fixing the amount of alimony; and, what degree of fault will shock “simple notions of justice”?

Justice Rivera-Sota argues that the determination of such issues will further burden the trial courts with now having to make such determinations; and, Justice Long in her majority opinion reasons that, the Court’s limitation of fault to only 2 circumstances, will result in less burden on the trial courts.

The validity of those two opposing positions remains to be seen. What is certain is that decisive action by the Legislature can and will solve the problem. Do the people of New Jersey, speaking through their elected representatives, feel that the time has come to remove concepts of fault from our divorce code or is the public conscience to the contrary?