In awarding counsel fees in a divorce case, the court must consider whether the party requesting the fees is in financial need; whether the party against whom the fees are sought has the ability to pay; the good or bad faith of either party in pursuing or defending the action; the nature and extent of the services rendered; and the reasonableness of the fees.
Respondent Brenda Mani filed for a divorce, alleging adultery and extreme cruelty, after she learned that her husband, James Mani, was having an affair. Since Brenda’s assets were substantially greater than that of James’, James sought permanent alimony of over $68,000 per year. The trial court awarded alimony in the amount of $610 weekly, and the appellate court affirmed, holding that the reduction in James’ standard of living was justified by the finding that he was adulterous. James appealed, alleging that the appellate court improperly considered marital fault in reducing the award of alimony payable by Brenda under N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2A:34-23(b) and in denying him counsel fees.
Did the trial court err in considering marital fault when it decided alimony?
The court held that marital fault was irrelevant to alimony under § 2A:34-23(b) unless the fault negatively affected the economic status of the parties or the fault so violated societal norms that continuing the economic bonds between the parties would be unjust. Thus, the New Jersey Supreme Court held that because there was no allegation that James’ fault had any economic consequences or that it was egregious, the appellate court improperly considered fault to justify the alimony award. Further, the Court held that the appellate court also improperly considered fault to justify the denial of counsel fees because marital fault was irrelevant to the question of whether such an award was proper. Thus, the Court reversed the judgment of the appellate court and remanded the matter for reconsideration of the issues of alimony and counsel fees without regard to fault, giving due deference to the trial court's findings and conclusions.