Pruent-Stevens v. Toms River Twp., DOCKET NO. A-1264-17T2

Decision Date01 April 2019
Docket NumberDOCKET NO. A-1264-17T2
Parties Rosanna PRUENT-STEVENS, Plaintiff-Respondent, v. TOMS RIVER TOWNSHIP, Defendant-Appellant.
CourtNew Jersey Superior Court — Appellate Division

Anthony Merlino, Assistant Township Attorney, argued the cause for appellant (Kenneth B. Fitzsimmons, Township Attorney, attorney; Anthony Merlino, on the briefs).

Todd W. Heck, Vineland, argued the cause for respondent (Testa Heck Testa & White, PA, attorneys; Todd W. Heck, on the brief).

Jamie M. Zug, Deputy Attorney General, argued the cause for amicus curiae Director, Division of Taxation (Gurbir S. Grewal, Attorney General, attorney; Melissa H. Raksa, Assistant Attorney General, of counsel; Steven J. Colby, Deputy Attorney General, on the brief).

Before Judges Fuentes, Accurso and Moynihan.

The opinion of the court was delivered by


Defendant Township of Toms River appeals from the Tax Court's final judgment conferring upon plaintiff Rosanna Pruent-Stevens a military veteran's property tax exemption, for the tax year 2016, as the surviving spouse of her first husband – an honorably discharged, decorated Vietnam veteran who contracted a service-related disability as a result of his exposure to Agent Orange – who qualified for an exemption pursuant to N.J.S.A. 54:4-3.30(b)(2). Pruent-Stevens v. Twp. of Toms River, 30 N.J. Tax 200 (Tax 2017). We reverse. 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.

N.J.S.A. 54:4-3.30(b)(2) provides:

The surviving spouse of any citizen and resident of this State who was honorably discharged and, after the citizen and resident's death, is declared to have suffered a service-connected disability as provided in subsection a. of this section, shall be entitled, on proper claim made therefor, to the same exemption the deceased would have become eligible for. The exemption shall continue during the surviving spouse's widowhood or widowerhood, as the case may be, and while a resident of this State, for the time that the surviving spouse is the legal owner thereof and actually occupies the dwelling house or any other dwelling house thereafter acquired.

The Tax Court considered the permutations to N.J. Const. art. VIII, § 1, ¶ 3 and N.J.S.A. 54:4-3.30 since its enactment in 1948, as well as N.J.S.A. 54:4-3.31 which sets forth the exemption-claim-application procedures. 30 N.J. Tax at 209-11, 216. Those procedures require the surviving spouse to file a "writing under oath" with the tax assessor establishing, among other criteria, "that the claimant is a resident of this State and has not remarried." N.J.S.A. 54:4-3.31.

The Tax Court rejected the Township's interpretation of the statute, that plaintiff's remarriage extinguished her entitlement to the exemption, and observed that "there is sufficient ambiguity as to whether [‘has not remarried’] indicates a present marital status or an event that has occurred in the past." 30 N.J. Tax at 224-25. The court concluded the phrase, "has not remarried," referred to plaintiff's "current marital status during ‘widowhood,’ " id. at 202, and "[a]ccordingly, the surviving spouse's exemption is available only during periods when the surviving spouse is not married," id. at 225. It also found "the term ‘widow’ ... defines a person and not the continued marital status of the person." Id. at 202.

The court reasoned "that fundamental fairness and reasonableness require that consideration of a surviving spouse's marital status should not commence until the [United States Veteran's Administration (VA) ] has determined the veteran's 100% disability." Id. at 225. The Tax Court thus held that plaintiff – whose second husband passed away in 1997 – met the statutory eligibility requirements for the exemption because she was unmarried when she first applied for the exemption after the VA posthumously declared her first husband had a service-connected disability1 in February 2014. Id. at 204-206.

Our review of a Tax Court decision is ordinarily deferential, Estate of Taylor v. Dir., Div. of Taxation, 422 N.J. Super. 336, 341, 28 A.3d 852 (App. Div. 2011), because "judges presiding in the Tax Court have special expertise," Glenpointe Assocs. v. Twp. of Teaneck, 241 N.J. Super. 37, 46, 574 A.2d 459 (App. Div. 1990). Our review of a Tax Court's legal determinations, however, is de novo. United Parcel Serv. Gen. Servs. Co. v. Dir., Div. of Taxation, 430 N.J. Super. 1, 8, 61 A.3d 160 (App. Div. 2013), aff'd, 220 N.J. 90, 103 A.3d 260 (2014). "Statutory interpretation involves the examination of legal issues and is, therefore, a question of law subject to de novo review." Saccone v. Bd. of Trs., of Police & Firemen's Ret. Sys., 219 N.J. 369, 380, 98 A.3d 1158 (2014) ; see also Twp. of Holmdel v. N.J. Highway Auth., 190 N.J. 74, 86, 918 A.2d 603 (2007).

We begin our interpretation, recognizing our Supreme Court's declaration that "[a]ll real property within New Jersey is subject to taxation unless expressly exempted by the Legislature." Twp. of Holmdel, 190 N.J. at 87, 918 A.2d 603 (citation omitted). The 1947 New Jersey Constitution mandated exemptions from real property taxes for veterans of the United States armed forces and for

[t]he widow of any citizen and resident of this State who has met or shall meet his death on active duty in time of war in any such service shall be entitled, during her widowhood, to the exemption in this paragraph provided for honorably discharged veterans and to such further exemption as from time to time may be provided by law.
[ N.J. Const. art. VIII, § 1, ¶ 3.]

In partial recognition of that provision the New Jersey Legislature enacted N.J.S.A. 54:4-3.30 which provides for the exemption.

We must look first to the plain language of the statute "to accomplish our goal of determining and effectuating the Legislature's intent." In re Middlesex Reg'l Educ. Servs. Comm'n Name Change Request, 453 N.J. Super. 243, 251, 180 A.3d 1190 (App. Div. 2018) ; see also Bosland v. Warnock Dodge, Inc., 197 N.J. 543, 553-54, 964 A.2d 741 (2009). We seek "further guidance only to the extent that the Legislature's intent cannot be derived from the words that it has chosen." Pizzullo v. N.J. Mfrs. Ins. Co., 196 N.J. 251, 264, 952 A.2d 1077 (2008).

N.J.S.A. 54:4-3.30(b)(2) grants a surviving spouse's entitlement, "on proper claim made therefor, to the same exemption the deceased [veteran] would have become eligible for. The exemption shall continue during the surviving spouse's widowhood or widowerhood." Although several tax exemption provisions include a "definitions" section, see, e.g., N.J.S.A. 54:4-3.6i ; -3.49; -3.60; -3.130; -3.140; -3.152, N.J.S.A. 54:4-3.30 does not. Nor does the Tax Code otherwise contain a definition of "widowhood" or "widowerhood."2

We must therefore "read and construe[ ]" the words "with their context" and, unless another or different meaning is specified, give them "their generally accepted meaning, according to the approved usage of the language. Technical words and phrases, and words and phrases having a special or accepted meaning in the law, shall be construed in accordance with such technical or special and accepted meaning." N.J.S.A. 1:1-1 ; see also Pub. Serv. Elec. & Gas Co. v. Twp. of Woodbridge, 73 N.J. 474, 478, 375 A.2d 1165 (1977) ; In re Plan for the Abolition of the Council on Affordable Housing, 214 N.J. 444, 467-68, 70 A.3d 559 (2013).

While we found no definition of "widowhood" in consulted law dictionaries, Black's Law Dictionary 1832 (10th ed. 2014) defines a "widow" as, "[a] woman whose husband has died and who has not remarried." Ballentine's Law Dictionary 1368 (3d ed. 1969) provides an almost identical definition but adds, "There is authority which holds that the term, as used in some statutes, may be applied to a woman in respect of her deceased husband, although she has remarried since his death." Merriam-Webster defines "widowhood" as "the fact or state of being a widow" and "the period during which a woman remains a widow," Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary 1431 (11th ed. 2014), and defines "widow," in pertinent part, as "a woman who has lost her husband by death and usu[ally] has not remarried,"ibid.

New Jersey case law has generally followed the majority of dictionary definitions: "The word ‘widow,’ ‘the meaning of which is familiar, well fixed, and certain, and which popularly and legally means a woman who has lost her husband by death and has not taken another; the surviving lawful wife of a decedent.’ " Montclair Tr. Co. v. Reynolds, 141 N.J. Eq. 276, 279, 56 A.2d 904 (Ch. 1948) (quoting 68 C.J. 263 (1934) ).

Plaintiff cites Hansen v. Brann & Stewart Co., 90 N.J.L. 444, 448, 103 A. 696 (Sup. Ct. 1917), contending the court "determined that a widow's status continued notwithstanding her remarriage." We are not persuaded the court's holding is apposite. In Hansen, petitioner's husband was killed in the course of his employment, thus entitling her, as a dependent, to three-hundred weekly payments under the Workmen's Compensation Act of 1911. Id. at 446, 103 A. 696. The Legislature amended the act in 1913 to provide "that, if the widow of a deceased employe[e] remarr[ies] during the period covered by weekly payments, the right of the widow ‘under the section shall cease.’ " Id. at 445, 103 A. 696. The petitioner remarried one year after the amendment. Id. at 446, 103 A. 696. The court, interpreting the statute, stated, "If, under the [1911] act, the petitioner, upon the death of her husband, was entitled to compensation during [three-hundred] weeks, she acquired a vested right, which could not be legally abridged by subsequent [1913] legislation." Ibid. Thus, the court found the addition of the remarriage disqualification provision to the act did not retroactively bar...

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