Alimony Reform in New Jersey
Divorce is one of the biggest hurdles of life. Children, parents, extended families, finances and futures are thrown into disarray. According to lawmakers in New Jersey it is time to lessen the financial blow. Last week, the state Assembly voted 77-0 to approve a proposed bill to alter the alimony system in New Jersey. Earlier this week the bill passed the state Senate 32-2. The final step is to gain Governor Christie's approval before being signed into law.
What exactly will the proposed alimony reform bill mean?
The bill will primarily affect future divorces, including cases which have not yet been finalized. This reality is causing debate as many individuals feel it should be retroactive and help alleviate the financial burden many alimony payers are faced with as a result of prior divorce settlements. Many lawmakers believe the bill is a step in the right direction but is not extreme enough to institute the type of change that the New Jersey alimony system needs. Of course, this is a two sided issue as there are many individuals who feel that their alimony payments are essential to their livelihood and without them they would struggle to survive financially. On the other hand those individuals paying alimony feel they are forced into financial hardship because of their alimony obligations. This new bill is intended to equalize the burden and ensure that no party is more entitled to a certain standard of living than the other. The bottom line is the finances of divorce are not black and white issues. Any time money is involved one or both parties will feel they are left without enough to support themselves after a divorce. As mentioned by lawmakers for the past two and a half years since alimony reform was introduced, once a couple decides to divorce they must understand that their financial situation in one way or another will be drastically altered. Mathematically it is impossible for both parties to maintain the standard of living and financial position they were in prior to a divorce. This is a harsh reality that must be well thought out, acknowledged and accepted by both parties. The reformed law attempts to alleviate this reality by making the following changes:
- If a marriage or civil union lasts for 20 years or less, the length of alimony may not exceed the length of the marriage. For example for a marriage lasting 7 years, the maximum number of years one spouse may be required to pay alimony to the other is 7 years, unless the Court finds there are "exceptional circumstances" that require continued alimony support.
- A judge may end or suspend alimony payments if the receiving party is cohabitating with another individual, even if said individual is not remarried. This may serve to be one of the more interesting additions to the bill. The proposed bill extends the definition of cohabitation to include a "mutually supportive, intimate personal relationship in which a couple has undertaken duties and privileges that are commonly associated with a marriage or civil union." The new bill mentions duties such as sharing household chores and being recognized as a couple in social circles and among extended family. The bill specifically states that cohabitation does not necessarily mean living together on a full time basis.
- A judge may decrease or suspend alimony payments if the party paying support has been out of work for 90 days. Once an individual has been unemployed for 90 days they may petition the court for a decrease or suspension of alimony payments.
- The term permanent alimony will no longer be referenced or recognized in divorce proceeding in New Jersey. This term will be replaced by "open durational alimony."
- The "rebuttable presumption" with regards to retirement age maintains that once the party paying alimony reaches the federal retirement age of 67, all alimony obligations will cease unless there are extenuating circumstances. A judge may order payments to continue if they feel these circumstances (disability, hardship, etc.) warrant a continued obligation. Additionally if a person reaches the age of 67 and does not retire, a judge is able to modify or terminate the obligation based on the individual facts of the case. If a person wishes to retire before 67 and petitions the court to modify or terminate alimony payments at that time, the burden is on the individual to present a "reasonable and good faith" case as to why the court should order termination or modification.
New Jersey lawmakers feel these reforms will reflect the change of circumstances in society as well as progressing case law in New Jersey. Lawmakers and advocates of policy reform feel the current alimony system is outdated and does not reflect the financial, social, educational and occupational development of today's society. The idea that women are more likely to leave the home for employment and the reality of a two income household has lead policy makers and advocates to believe that the need for long-term "permanent" alimony is less likely than in the past. Certain circumstances including the role the payee played in the family dynamic, the level of dependence on the payer during the time of the marriage, and any mental, physical or developmental disabilities said individual may have limiting their ability to enter the workforce and provide for themselves after the dissolution of the marriage are considered when determining the length of alimony. The law infers that alimony should be used to help the payee get back on their feet and progress towards independence after a divorce instead of simply providing life-long financial support after two individuals no longer have a relationship.
A divorce changes everything. The reality is each party must completely reconstruct their lifestyle. No one party is more entitled than the other to live a certain lifestyle. Both parties must make drastic changes, financially, occupationally and most importantly emotionally. In an ideal world, a divorce is equal and fair however that is not always the case. This bill will hopefully be a step in the right direction. However, it is not yet the euphoric legislation lawmakers, divorcees, attorneys and the New Jersey Bar Association dream of.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Darren C. O'Toole, Esq. is a Partner and Family Law Attorney at the Law Offices of O'Toole & Gunteski, LLC. Focusing primarily on family law, Darren's practice includes dissolution of marriage, child custody, child support, adoption, spousal support, domestic violence trials, relocation, shared parenting time arrangements, mediation, collaborative divorce. He can be reached by phone 732-223-1400, or or View our website
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