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Can Irreconcilable Differences be Challenged as Cause for New Jersey Divorce?

Couple Fighting

New Jersey’s no-fault divorce statute involves an assertion of “irreconcilable differences,” as spelled out in NJSA 2A:34-2(i). Causes for divorce can include things like adultery, extreme cruelty, willful desertion, etc. “Irreconcilable differences” was added as an amendment to the statute in 2007. It’s something of a catch-all that isn’t precisely defined - and for good reason, which we’ll explain later.

Despite its relatively recent addition, it’s now the most commonly-cited grounds for divorces in New Jersey. Many spouses prefer that it offers some degree of privacy. Divorce actions - for all they are deeply personal matters - are also a matter of public record. By citing irreconcilable differences, couples can often sidestep unseemly outside interests and keep certain matters more private.

What’s more, irreconcilable differences aren’t often challenged the way other causes of divorce might be. It’s vague and more or less unique to each marriage. However, that’s not to say it can’t be challenged at all.

Steiner v. Steiner

Recently, the nonagenarian former Husband in a high-asset gray divorce challenged a New Jersey family law Court’s finding of irreconcilable differences alleged by his octogenarian former Wife in her quest to end their marriage of 66 years. Although this type of challenge wouldn’t likely be successful in most divorce cases (and it wasn’t here either), it’s worth outlining to explain that a finding of irreconcilable differences isn’t an automatic given and that further examination might be warranted, particularly in cases where the parties are very elderly or medically frail.

In the case of Steiner v. Steiner, the couple married in 1955, amassed a very sizable marital estate (controlled solely by the Husband, who’d earned it as a real estate developer), and had four children together - one boy and three girls. The Wife filed for divorce in 2018, citing irreconcilable differences. The following year, she moved to bifurcate (or separate) issues of her grounds for divorce (which the Husband challenged) and equitable division of their assets. The trial judge granted her request. Trial on the question of irreconcilable differences as grounds for divorce was later held over four days in late 2020. The Court ruled the Wife had sufficiently established those grounds. The Husband appealed, arguing error.

To reach a conclusion of irreconcilable differences, the Court must find there has been a breakdown of the marriage for a period of six months that would make it appear the marriage should be dissolved AND that there’s no reasonable prospect of reconciliation.

Irreconcilable differences are understood to be issues that have caused the breakdown of the marriage for a period of six months or more and which make it appear that the marriage should be dissolved and that there is no reasonable prospect of reconciliation. As our Monmouth County divorce lawyers can explain, there is no further statutory explanation of “irreconcilable differences.” But as the Superior Court of New Jersey Appellate Division noted in this case, what constitutes an irreconcilable difference can vary from couple to couple. It has been left to the Courts to determine what is irreconcilable on a case-by-case basis. Even in granting liberal grounds for people to end their marriages, a “no-fault” divorce still requires more than simply a desire to divorce, the Court said.

In Steiner, the Wife asserted she didn’t like being controlled by her Husband, that it was not a happy marriage, and that she’d never been treated like a partner. She objected to her Husband making financial decisions without her knowledge or input (including giving and forgiving huge loans to friends, giving away properties, bequeathing two-thirds of their estate only to their son and not their daughters, and always requiring her to ask for money). She said she should have divorced him years earlier but was naïve, afraid, and “didn’t feel strong enough.” Since then, she testified, she’d “evolved.” She’d been taking active steps to leave him for months prior to filing, including moving out of their shared bedroom. Meanwhile, her Husband argued that they did NOT have irreconcilable differences (despite admitting to virtually all of her claims about her misgivings - including the fact that they rarely got along). It was his position, though, that one of his daughters was pushing his Wife to pursue a divorce so the daughter would get a bigger share of the estate upon her parents’ deaths. He cited an email conversation his Wife had with a granddaughter, stating “your grandfather and I will love each other and take care of each other until the end of our days.” The Wife responded that these were “white lies” she told to comfort her granddaughter, who was upset upon hearing her grandparents may be separating. She denied her daughter was pushing her toward divorce.

Both the trial Court judge and the Appellate Court agreed that it was “not a harmonious marriage.” They found the Wife to be “competent” and “capable of answering all the questions asked of her with complete understanding,” and therefore agreed she was seeking a divorce of her own volition. That they attended social events together, made joint charitable donations, and continued living together - or even that they slept in the same bed for a time after she filed - did not negate this. The Courts rejected the Husband’s arguments that the foregoing barred Wife’s ability to secure a divorce.

“Under New Jersey law, parties can attempt to reconcile when they’re seeking a divorce, and they aren’t penalized in the proceedings for unsuccessful attempts,” explained New Jersey Divorce Lawyer Elizabeth Rozin-Golinder. “A person can still care about someone or even be involved in their life, yet still have no intention to stay married to them.”

The bottom line here is that, yes, irreconcilable differences as grounds for divorce may be challenged. However, except in rare circumstances, success may be a long shot.

Call Rozin|Golinder Law, LLC today at (732) 810-0034 for a free and confidential consultation.

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