What is and how does equitable distribution of property work in New Jersey?
“Equitable distribution” is a method of dividing property in divorce. “Equitable” means fair, so a rule of equitable distribution requires a fair division of property between divorcing spouses. This rule applies in most common law states, including New Jersey. Community property states follow different rules, which generally require an exactly equal division of marital (or “community”) property. In New Jersey, equitable property distributions are usually close to equal, but not necessarily exactly equal. Courts recognize that marriage is a partnership, and non-monetary contributions to property, such as the efforts of a homemaker or a stay-at-home parent, are generally valued equally with monetary contributions.
Equitable distribution in New Jersey applies only to marital assets and marital debts. This means (with limited exceptions) all assets and debts acquired by either or both spouses during the marriage. Individual gifts from people other than the spouse, inherited assets, and assets and debts either spouse brings into a marriage, are generally considered to be separate property and not subject to equitable distribution.
New Jersey judges consider a long list of statutory factors in deciding what constitutes an equitable distribution. These factors include the length of the marriage, the marital standard of living, and each spouse’s age, health, and ability to maintain a reasonably comparable standard of living. If one spouse requires additional education or training to become self-supporting, this will be taken into account. The court will also consider whether or not one spouse deferred career goals for the sake of the marriage or contributed in some way to the education or earning power of the other spouse. Other factors include the overall value of the marital property, whether either spouse has significant separate property or separate debt, and the effects, including any potential tax effects, of the property distribution on each spouse’s overall economic circumstances. If there are dependent children, the court will consider whether or not there is a need to establish trusts for their educational or medical needs, and whether or not a primary parent needs to continue occupying the marital home. If the spouses entered into any prenuptial or post-nuptial agreements, these will also be taken into account.
While this is an extensive list of factors, it is not exclusive. New Jersey judges can consider any factor that is relevant to the circumstances of an individual case. One thing not normally considered relevant is marital fault (such as adultery). There may be an exception, however, if one spouse has clearly wasted or “dissipated” marital assets, or has otherwise engaged in obviously egregious behavior.
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