The marital lifestyle or “standard of living” is essential in the determination of New Jersey alimony awards. Indeed, standard of living often becomes the primary focus of divorce attorneys in a case involving alimony. In fact, the New Jersey Supreme Court has held that it’s only after a divorce court has made a finding concerning the standard of living that it can review the reasonableness and adequacy of the support award. And yet, there is no bright rule or clear-cut outline of how to prove standard of living and what should be included.
The New Jersey Supreme Court stated in its 1971 Khalaf v. Khalaf decision that alimony isn’t fixed solely on the actual needs of the dependent spouse or the actual means of the higher-earning spouse. What also must be considered is the physical condition and social position of the parties, their properties and income. Considering all these factors, the goal is to award a sum that is fixed at “what (dependent spouse) would have the right to expect as support if (the couple still lived together).”
Importance of the Case Information Statement
As our Monmouth County divorce lawyers can explain, the place to start is the Case Information Statement, or CIS, filed pursuant to New Jersey Court Rule 5:5-1. This document, filed within 20 days of the answer or appearance, in part asks parties to detail their “Joint Marital Lifestyle.” If you are seeking or expecting a request for alimony, it is essential that you and your divorce lawyer review this provision together carefully.
The CIS contains a sworn statement regarding the couple’s standard of living. It contains the financial details of your case, with required information including things like:
- Your income.
- Your partner’s/spouse’s income.
- A budget of joint lifestyle expenses.
- Budget of current lifestyle expenses (including that of children).
- A summary of all assets.
This requires a careful review of all checkbooks, charge card statements, business records and any other documents that are going to spell out expenses, income and assets.
This is not the place for guesses or estimations. It’s imperative that this information is accurate because the court will be relying on it and both parties are required to certify that it’s true. (Lies or exaggerations can be met with penalties from the court.) It can and will be used as a basis of proofs in a trial and may come under a great deal of scrutiny. Furthermore, this document needs to be updated if circumstances change. A forensic accountant can be hired to ensure accuracy.
The marital standard of living can completely alter how courts interpret the amount of alimony owed. We saw this in the 2000 New Jersey Supreme Court case of Crews v. Crews. In that case, the wife requested modification of rehabilitative alimony from $800 to $3,500 monthly, with the $3,500 converted to permanent alimony. Lower courts rejected this request, finding the request “excessive” and the existing alimony award in line with the wife’s needs, as reflected in the CIS. The Supreme Court reversed, noting there were two columns in the CIS: One a breakdown of expenses for dependent former wife and her children and the other detailing expenses incurred to support the marital standard of living, which was reflected as lavish (ownership of a pricey vacation home, sailboat, yacht club membership, multiple annual vacations, several hundred dollars monthly spent on dining and entertainment, etc.). Justices ruled that these – as well as the basic needs of the dependent spouse and children – should be reflected in alimony awards. The court’s goal should be to authorize support that will enable both parties to live a lifestyle “reasonably comparable” to the marital standard of living.
The only time trial courts have discretion to approve an alimony claim without an analysis of marital lifestyle is when it deals with a consensual agreement. That means, it’s an uncontested divorce where both parties agree on the terms. But even in that situation, courts are instructed to still capture and preserve information that might be available.
Beyond Dollars and Cents
Standard of living goes beyond simply how much money a couple spent while they were together. It’s much broader than that, detailing how they lived, their life plan and their money spending patterns. It dives into the “ambience” of a couple’s life, people with whom they associated, events they attended, the ways in which they entertained themselves, etc.
We’ll look at where and how often the couple traveled, shopped, dined out, vacationed, etc., and also how that lifestyle was maintained. This can be especially important when making the argument of a fixed monthly alimony payment versus one that may fluctuate depending on the payor’s earnings.
We’ll also want to look carefully at the future. Let’s say, for example, that a couple is married more than two decades and lived frugally and saved wisely during all that time. If the anticipation was that they would retire in some degree of comfort or even luxury together, courts can consider this as well.
If you have questions about establishing standard of living in your New Jersey alimony case, we can help.
Call Rozin|Golinder Law, LLC today at (732) 810-0034 for a free and confidential consultation.