In Pruent-Stevens v. Township of Toms River, the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court addressed the eligibility for the veteran’s property tax exemption under N.J.S.A. 54:4-3.30. The appeals court reversed the New Jersey Tax Court in holding that once a widow/widower remarries they permanentlylose their eligibility for the disabled veterans property tax exemption.
Facts of the Case
Plaintiff Rosanna Pruent-Stevens appealed the judgment of the Ocean County Board of Taxation that denied her application for a veteran’s property tax exemption. Plaintiff was the surviving spouse of a Vietnam War veteran who died from a 100 percent wartime service-connected disability.
The Plaintiff married Sgt. Peter J. Pruent in 1973. Ten years later, after the birth of the couple’s second daughter, Sgt. Pruent’s health slowly and progressively began to deteriorate. On August 31, 1989, Sgt. Pruent died at the age of 41. Beginning in 1990, Plaintiff filed her first of numerous applications to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for Dependency and Indemnity Compensation benefits. Concerned about health insurance and financial stability for herself and her daughters, Plaintiff married Charles J. Stevens in 1993. Twenty-three years her elder, and also a veteran, Mr. Stevens died in 1997 after only four years of marriage.
On February 12, 2014, almost 25 years after his death, the VA finally determined that Sgt. Pruent’s premature death was “presumptively connected” to his military service in Vietnam. The VA approved DIC benefits retroactive to Sgt. Pruent’s date of death. When issuing its decision, the VA was fully aware of Plaintiff’s marriage to Mr. Stevens in 1993, as evidenced by the decision’s reference to “Death certificate of claimant’s second husband, Charles Stevens, received January 16, 2014.” Nevertheless, the VA termed Plaintiff “the un-remarried surviving spouse of Peter J. Pruent.”
Once the VA made its determination, Sgt. Pruent posthumously became a veteran who met the qualifications for property tax exemption in New Jersey. Plaintiff subsequently applied to defendant, Township of Toms River, for a 100% disabled veteran’s exemption on her residence. On August 4, 2015, the Municipality’s Tax Assessor issued Plaintiff a Notice of Disallowance of Claim for Veteran’s Exemption/Deduction. It stated that the application was denied based on N.J.S.A. 54:4-3.30,et seq.,which the assessor interpreted as terminating the exemption to surviving spouses who have at any time remarried. The Ocean County Board of Taxation upheld the disallowance.
In 2017, the New Jersey Tax Court held that the Plaintiff met the statutory requirements for a veteran’s property tax exemption on her residence for tax year 2016. The court reasoned that the Legislature’s use of the qualifying phrase “has not remarried” is meant to reflect current marital status during “widowhood” or “widowerhood.” In so ruling, it rejected the Municipality’s argument that the Plaintiff’s marriage to Mr. Stevens permanently severed her status as Sgt. Pruent’s widow.
In further support of its decision, the Tax Court also cited other state statutes entitling widows to benefits. “Had the Legislature wished to permanently extinguish a surviving spouse’s right to benefits upon remarriage it could have employed language expressly effecting such a result, as it did in N.J.S.A. 18A:66-2 and N.J.S.A. 43:6A-3t,” the Tax Court wrote. “Thus the refusal to employ such language in N.J.S.A. 54:4-3.30(b)(2) convinces the court that the Legislature did not intend such restrictions under the Exemption Statute.”
Appellate Division’s Decision
The Appellate Division reversed the Tax Court’s decision. It held that “Plaintiff’s right to the exemption continued only during her widowhood correlated to the qualifying veteran – her first husband – and was extinguished, per the terms of the statute, when she remarried after the death of that veteran.”
In reaching its decision, the Appellate Division noted that New Jersey law has traditionally followed the generally accepted dictionary definition of a “widow” followed in New Jersey case law, which defines the term as a woman who had a deceased husband and who had not remarried. It also rejected the argument that a widow’s status could continue or resume notwithstanding a subsequent remarriage.
In further support of its decision, the Appellate Division emphasized that the cases on which the Plaintiff relied specifically held that legislative disqualification for remarriage could not apply to a widow with an already-vested right. In the Plaintiff’s case, she did not have a vested right when she remarried because she was not yet eligible for the property tax exemption. The Appellate Division further concluded that the death of her second spouse did not nullify her remarriage and return her “widow” status.
Finally, the court noted that property tax exemptions must be narrowly construed. It explained:
Our conclusion that the Legislature’s intent to end a veteran’s property tax exemption for a surviving spouse upon remarriage is consistent with both the language and intent of the legislation. While we do not perceive any ambiguity in the language and intent, we note that “all doubts are resolved against those seeking the benefit of a statutory exemption.” Twp. of Teaneck v. Lutheran Bible Inst., 20 N.J. 86, 90 (1955). It is not our intent to deny a tax exemption to the widow of a disabled combat-veteran. But it is not our role to amend statutes to ordain what we may deem laudable. We construe statutes in accordance with long-standing principles, including the “fundamental legal tenet that a statute granting exemption from property taxation . . . is subject to strict construction.” Int’l Schs. Servs., Inc. v. W. Windsor Twp., 207 N.J. 3, 15 (2011).
Key Takeaway for New Jersey Municipalities
Under the Appellate Division’s decision, once a widow/widower remarries, the second marriage completely eliminates their eligibility for the disabled veterans’ property tax exemption, even if the surviving spouse is later unmarried.
For more information about the court’s decision in Pruent-Stevens v. Township of Toms Riveror the legal issues involved, we encourage you to contact a member of Scarinci Hollenbeck’s Government Law Group.