Wednesday, January 9, 2008
The New Jersey Court of Appeals details a "classic palimony" case this week -- a thirty-year relationship between Rosemary Connell and Edward Diehl. Diehl had told Connell that they did not need to get married because they would simply tell everyone they were married, he would buy her a ring, and they would be together "always." They did so and few people knew that they were not legally married. Connell was disabled due to functional blindness, but contributed her disability checks and an inheritance to the family. Diehl made various investments in his own name, raised Connell's son (claiming him as a dependent on his taxes), and made estate plans leaving the majority of his estate to Connell. When the relationship soured, Connell was left destitute.
The court had no difficulty in finding the prerequisites for a palimony suit here. On the question of damages, the court recited the elements for determination of a lump-sum palimony award: "First, the judge was required to determine the reasonable future support Diehl promised to provide. That amount is to be calculated on a weekly or monthly basis. Second, the judge was required to determine the duration of future support. Third, the judge was required to reduce that period of annual future support to a present value lump sum."
The court of appeals reversed the trial court's determination of damages noting several errors:
First, the trial court had based the damages on Diehl's life expectancy rather than Connell's.
Second, the trial court did not explain its findings regarding the amount of Connell's support expenses and deducted from the damages, the value of Connell's food stamps. The court of appeals noted that any palimony award "should provide her with her minimal needs and prevent the necessity of her seeking public welfare."
Finally, as to the division of property, the trial court erred by concluding that no division of property could be made in a palimony suit. While equitable division is not proper, the trial court may divide property based on a theory of joint venture. Specifically, regarding the family home (which was in Diehl's name only but towards which Connell had contributed her $70,000 inheritance), the court of appeals directed the trial court to consider whether the facts supported a finding of a joint venture regarding that house. "If the judge finds that a joint venture existed, he must partition the home. If he concludes otherwise, a mere return of Connell's investment is not equitable. The judge must determine the present value of $ 70,000 as though it had been invested in some reasonable manner, such as certificates of deposit. Alternatively, he may determine its present value based on the appreciation in the value of the family home since it was remodeled. Otherwise, Diehl will have enjoyed the use of Connell's money without recompense. This rationale applies equally to division of the personal property in the family home. At the very least, Connell is entitled to the return of personal property she purchased with her inheritance."
Connell v. Diehl, (January 8, 2008)
Opinion online (last visited January 9, 2008 bgf)