The marital standard of living of spouses during the marriage is one of 14 factors considered by courts in calculating an alimony award. Accurately determining what a couple’s spending was during the marriage is crucial because one purpose of alimony is to ensure that both parties can continue to live in a reasonably comparable manner to which he or she grew accustomed during the marriage. As a recent New Jersey Appellate Division case instructs, trial courts are required to carefully examine the income and expenses of both parties and make an explicit numerical finding regarding the marital standard of living. Narrative descriptions of the marital standard of living are not acceptable.
In S.W. v. G.M., the couple’s marital lifestyle included the purchase and renovation of multiple homes, multiple boats, boarding schools for the children, and family vacations costing upwards of $150,000 per year. The Husband was the sole breadwinner and supported an “opulent” lifestyle that consumed the entirety of the parties’ income that had not fallen below $1,000,000 per year. The trial judge awarded $450,000 per year in alimony on a permanent basis. This decision was appealed by the Wife. The Appellate Division reversed and remanded the case back to the trial Court, which revised the alimony amount based on the couple’s current budget rather than the lifestyle during marriage. The Wife again appealed the trial Court’s decision.
On appeal the second time, the New Jersey Appellate Division found that although the trial judge’s descriptive findings regarding the lifestyle were adequate, the judge failed to make a numerical finding of lifestyle and correlate it to the alimony award. As noted by the appellate court, the standard of living during the marriage is the way the couple actually lived, whether they resorted to borrowing and parental support, or limited themselves to their earned income, or chose to accumulate savings. The Appellate Division instructed that once a numerical finding is made concerning the marital standard of living, the trial Court must review the adequacy and reasonableness of the support award against this finding. Remanding the case back to the trial Court for a second time, the Appellate Court ordered the trial Court to not simply explain the characteristics of the marital lifestyle, but to quantify it numerically and then apportion the expenses to each party.
The case of S.W. v. G.M. highlights the importance of ensuring one’s numerical calculation of the marital lifestyle is as accurate as possible. New Jersey trial courts are required to base their alimony determinations not merely on a narrative description of the marital lifestyle, but on a mathematical analysis of the parties’ expenses. The vital document for such a mathematical analysis is the Case Information Statement, which is largely based on each party’s own spending estimates. Incorrectly estimating the marital lifestyle can have expensive consequences.
If you are considering divorce or have questions or concerns about how to calculate your marital standard of living, contact us. Our experienced attorneys will guide you through this process.