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Arbitration in Family Law Disputes

Oct 11, 2017

New Jersey’s 2014 Alimony Reform

On behalf of
The state enacted some reforms being debated nationally in the context of spousal support.

Jumping on the national alimony reform bandwagon that has caught on in some states, notably Massachusetts, New Jersey enacted significant alimony reforms that took effect in September 2014. Major changes curtail long-term and lifetime awards, including upon obligor retirement, allow obligors to request suspension or termination when recipient ex-spouses cohabit with new partners and more.

These changes occurred in an ongoing debate in the state (and nation) about the fairness of lifelong awards with no relief if the obligor loses income or retires, especially in light of social and workplace changes that have made women more economically independent. People with these views tend to favor reigning in judges’ wide discretion to craft alimony awards.

Those wary of curtailing judicial discretion raise concerns that ex-spouses could fall through the cracks without financial support when they have special needs such as disability, responsibility for children or family with disabilities, advanced age without job skills and so on, unless courts keep power to create alimony orders based on individual circumstances.

New Jersey’s reforms fall somewhere in the middle of these views. While the changes place limits on judicial discretion, especially concerning award duration, but on most issues, judges still can exercise discretion in extraordinary or specific circumstances.

Here are some major changes:

  • Permanent alimony changed to open durational alimony: Permanent alimony with no end date is now called “open durational,” semantically suggesting that it could potentially end.
  • Retirement triggers the right of an obligor to request modification: A paying ex-spouse at actual or prospective retirement can ask a judge to consider ending or modifying the obligation. The recipient must overcome a rebuttable presumption that alimony termination shall end at full retirement age (67 under Social Security law). The judge may find the presumption rebutted for good cause and after examining several factors set out in the law as well as anything else relevant to the question. At that point, the court can either modify or terminate after examining the ex-spouses’ circumstances in light of specific and other relevant factors. An obligor planning to retire before full retirement age must show the retirement is reasonable and in good faith.
  • Alimony duration limited in marriages under 20 years: In another new provision, if a marriage (or civil union) lasted less than 20 years, the alimony may not exceed the length of the marriage, unless the judge finds exceptional circumstances based on specific factors laid out in the law as well as anything else the judge thinks is “equitable, relevant and material.”
  • Specific factors enacted for alimony modification requests made by an obligor who has (or lost) a job or is self employed: The judge is directed, for example, to look at why an employed obligor has lost income and whether he or she has tried to find a new job or career; at the financial and vocational circumstances of the obligee; at both of their health conditions; and more.
  • Enhanced guidelines for obligee cohabitation: When the alimony recipient cohabits with another partner, the new law adds direction to the judge about what to consider. For example, cohabitation is defined as a “mutually supportive, intimate personal relationship … with duties and privileges … associated with marriage … ” but not necessarily with a “single common household.” The obligor is eligible for suspension or termination if cohabitation is established.

From offices in Morristown and Hackensack, the family lawyers of Townsend, Tomaio & Newmark, L.L.C., represent those facing alimony issues in divorce as well as those seeking or challenging later modification of alimony awards.

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