On September 27, 2013, in a landmark case for the state, Garden State Equality v. Dow, New Jersey Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson ruled that the state must allow same-sex couples to marry. While Governor Chris Christie immediately stated that his administration would be appealing the ruling, he eventually withdrew his appeal, and the first same-sex marriages in the state were performed just after midnight on October 21, 2013. Prior to this date, same-sex couples were only allowed to enter into civil unions in the state, which were not recognized by the federal government.
Same-sex couples in New Jersey now have the same rights as opposite-sex couples. These rights are most frequently recognized during the divorce process; namely with regards to the equitable distribution of assets acquired during the marriage and alimony that may be paid to the dependent spouse. Both of these concepts are dealt with by the court and determined through application of a variety of factors. One of the most important factors at issue with same-sex divorces is the length of the marriage. Obviously, same-sex marriages are likely to be shorter in duration than heterosexual marriages simply because same-sex couples were not legally allowed to marry until almost two years ago, and were only permitted to enter into civil unions since 2007 when The Civil Union Act was signed into law by then-Governor Jon Corzine.
However, because same-sex marriage is a relatively new concept in New Jersey, there have been significantly fewer same-sex divorces in the state and, therefore, case law addressing the award of alimony and equitable distribution in same-sex divorces are in infancy and not yet developed.
N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23(b) provides for different forms of alimony and requires the court to consider a variety of factors, one of which is the duration of the marriage, in awarding alimony to one party. However, this is the exact scenario in which same-sex couples are more disadvantaged then heterosexual couples because they only received the right to marry.
Consider a hypothetical situation in which a couple is divorcing in 2015. They have been together as if they were a married couple since 2008, but were only officially married in 2014. How should the court address the “length” of the couple’s marriage? In reality, they have only been married for a year, but the relationship itself has lasted much longer. If the court took the “length of marriage” factor literally, construing it from the day of actual marriage (one year ago), the dependent spouse could be awarded a comparatively minimal amount of alimony, considering the relationship has existed longer than just one year. The dependent spouse could potentially argue that they should be awarded a greater alimony award because the court should consider the fact that they were not legally allowed to get married and this is why the marriage is technically so short. Again, same-sex marriage and thus, same-sex divorce, is in its infancy in the Garden State, so it is impossible to know precisely how a court will rule in a scenario like this.
Another issue is cohabitation. Same-sex couples in New Jersey have had no other option but to live together without legal recognition. While there have not been cases that have addressed pre-marital cohabitation in regards to same-sex couples, this issue has been addressed for the purposes of alimony as it relates to heterosexual couples. In McGee v. McGee, the New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division held that the “extent of actual economic dependency, not one’s status as a spouse, must determine the duration of support.” Therefore, because pre-marital cohabitation may be considered for the purposes of alimony in an opposite-sex divorce, it is likely that such cohabitation, especially for individuals who could not get married, will be a factor in same-sex divorces.
The argument regarding the “length” of a same-sex marriage in New Jersey is further complicated by the fact that civil unions have existed in New Jersey since 2007. In Lewis v. Harris, the New Jersey Supreme Court held that the State must provide the same rights and benefits of marriage to committed same-sex couples that were given to opposite-sex couples. The reason why this complicates the equitable distribution of assets and the award of alimony in same-sex marriages is because it weakens the dependent spouse’s argument that the marriage would have been longer had New Jersey permitted same-sex marriage to be performed. The supporting spouse could argue that marriage-like status (civil union) was available to the couple and they did not take advantage of the civil union because they did not have a desire to and, therefore, the “length of marriage” should be calculated from the date of the actual marriage, rather than the beginning of the relationship.
Just like the calculation of alimony, the equitable distribution of assets attained while in a same-sex relationship is also analyzed considering a factor of “length of marriage.”
Overall, alimony and equitable distribution in same-sex marriages is new territory in New Jersey. Because there is no case law on point explaining whether same-sex marriages will be calculated based on the length of the relationship, or the definite day of marriage, careful review of the specific facts of each case will be necessary to accomplish and fair and reasonable outcome for the divorcing parties. That is why it is recommended that you speak with an attorney to discuss the specifics of your case.