In September of 2014, alimony reform laws took effect in New Jersey after many years of debate in the legislature and beyond. Mostly, the new legislation is applied to alimony cases brought after the laws went into effect (i.e., initial alimony awards decided post-September 2014). Alimony reform laws are intended to make alimony determinations more fair. But the scope and impact of these changes still remain uncertain. This remains an ever-evolving area of the law in New Jersey, as courts continue to hear cases brought by individuals affected by the changes. Here is a look at how alimony reform was achieved, and how it has been shaped and refined by recent court cases.
Before Alimony Reform in New Jersey
Before Governor Christie signed New Jersey’s alimony reform bill into law on September 9, 2014, there were four types of alimony that a New Jersey judge could award in a final judgment of divorce: permanent, durational, rehabilitative, and reimbursement.
Permanent alimony awards were infrequent, and were not truly “permanent,” since they could always be modified due to changes in circumstances. Still, many people paying permanent alimony were unhappy with the fact that judges had so much discretion over when to award this lifetime type alimony, how much to award, and under what circumstances to allow modifications. Guidelines that developed through case law tended to be difficult to apply; two different judges could reach completely different results in cases with very similar fact patterns. Proponents of the revised law are hoping that the more specific guidelines will increase fairness and predictability in the courts.
In brief, the news is this: On September 10, 2014, Governor Christie signed New Jersey alimony reform into law when he approved Bill A-845, a legislative measure that changes and clarifies some of the rules concerning how and when spousal support is awarded in the state. The new laws take effect immediately.
To find out more about how the revised alimony laws might affect you and your spousal support concerns, see this easy-to-follow slideshow presentation about what you need to know about alimony reform in New Jersey as of September 10, 2014 from Weinberger Divorce & Family Law Group:
The following is a time-line showing the status of some of the important developments over the years that have marked the fight for alimony reform in New Jersey:
August 2011: Encouraged by alimony reform movements gaining traction in states like Massachusetts and Florida, Tom Leustek co-founds New Jersey Alimony Reform and begins rallying others to join in efforts to reform alimony in New Jersey.
February 16, 2012: The New Jersey Senate Judiciary Committee approves a bill (S-1388/A-685) which would ease the modification process for payers of child support or alimony who have experienced job loss, temporary disability, or other similar circumstance for more than six months. The debate over alimony reform in New Jersey heats up.
March 1, 2012: Effective date of the Massachusetts Alimony Reform Act of 2011.
March 7, 2013: The first version of a New Jersey bill (S2750/A-3909) modeled after the Massachusetts Alimony Reform Act is introduced in the New Jersey Assembly. Among other things, this bill eliminated all reference to permanent alimony and set maximum time limits on durational alimony according to years of marriage, as follows: After a marriage of five years or less, half the number of months of the marriage; after a marriage of 5-10 years, 60 percent of the number of months; 10-15 years, 70 percent; and 15-20 years, 80 percent. After a marriage of more than 20 years, the term could be indefinite. The bill also generally limited alimony amounts to no more than 30 to 35 percent of the difference between the parties’ gross incomes established at the time of the initial award. Payments would terminate when a payer reached full retirement age, and a judge could terminate or suspend payments when a payee lived in an economically beneficial cohabitation relationship for more than three months. Courts retained discretion to vary from the guidelines in the interests of justice after specifying reasons.
November 25, 2013: A competing bill (A4525) is introduced in the New Jersey Assembly, supported by opponents of A3909 and the family law section of the New Jersey Bar Association. This bill changed the term “permanent alimony” to “alimony of indefinite duration.” It included no durational or amount limits, but did include modification guidelines allowing payer’s suffering involuntary reductions in income for more than 90 days to seek potentially retroactive reductions, as well as guidelines clarifying requirements for modification upon a payer’s retirement or a recipient’s cohabitation relationship.
January 6, 2014: A compromise bill (A845/971/1649) is introduced and referred to the Assembly Judiciary Committee. In this bill, the term “permanent alimony” is replaced with “open durational alimony.” The bill includes durational limits broader than those in S2750/A-3909, providing that absent exceptional circumstances, after a marriage of fewer than 20 years, alimony cannot exceed the length of the marriage. The bill allows judges to suspend or terminate limited-duration alimony during a recipient’s cohabitation relationship, depending on the existence of certain facts. Judges can also lower alimony payments if a payer has been out of work for 90 days. Alimony payments are presumed to end once a payer reaches the “full retirement age” of 67. The bill lists additional factors for consideration in each of these situations and also requires judges to issue a written analysis of relevant factors explaining the basis for the decision whenever alimony is requested.
February 11, 2014: Assembly Judiciary Committee approves a new Blue Ribbon commission to study alimony reform.
June 26, 2014: A845/971/1649 is approved by the Assembly Judiciary Committee and passed by the Assembly.
June 30, 2013: A845/971/1649 is received in the Senate, referred to Senate Judiciary Committee, and passed by the Senate on the same day.
August 23, 2014: New Jersey Alimony reform endorses A845/971/1649 as a “first step, not an endpoint.”
September 9, 2014: Governor Christie signs A845/971/649 into law (P.L.2014, c.42). Read more about the highlights of this new legislation and the potential impact these new alimony laws have on your own divorce in our article: What Does NJ Alimony Reform Mean for your Divorce?
Important Court Decisions Since Alimony Reform
Gnall v. Gnall (July 2015:) New Jersey Supreme Court case where the court was asked to decide if an award of permanent alimony for a stay-at-home mom was appropriate. Under the new law, permanent alimony no longer exists. But, this case was brought to the courts before the new reform went into effect. Because the law only applied to cases after the new legislation, the court did not apply the new law.
Quinn v. Quinn (May 2016): This New Jersey Supreme Court case discusses cohabitation and alimony. When the Quinns divorced, the new law was not yet enacted and so did not apply to this case. There really was no question that Ms. Quinn’s relationship was “cohabitation” even though her boyfriend maintained his own house. Under the new act, however, “alimony may be suspended or terminated if the payee cohabits with another person.” So, under the act, Mr. Quinn’s alimony could have been merely suspended. But, because the Act didn’t exist at the time of their agreement, only termination of the alimony payments for Ms. Quinn’s cohabiting with her boyfriend.
Robitzski v. Robitzski (May 2016) This is an unpublished Appellate Division case that also talks about cohabitation, but it establishes that, in order to have alimony suspended or terminated, there must be clear proof of cohabitation, such as financial interdependency, comingling of funds or a promise by the new paramour to support Ms. Robitzsky.
Mills v. Mills (October 2016) This case discusses making changes to an alimony award when there is a loss of income or employment. The new statute sets for a list of 10 factors to consider when attempting to change an existing order for alimony. The court noted in Mills that the new law does not specifically discuss a situation where the paying spouse takes a new job at a significantly reduced salary, so they came up with a two-prong test: Was the paying spouse’s decision in accepting the lower paying job reasonable? And, if accepting the new job was reasonable, what, if any change to the alimony payment would be just and reasonable to both ex-spouses?
Mueller v. Mueller (April 2016) This case addressed alimony and retirement. Under the reformed law, alimony can stop “upon the prospective or actual retirement” of the ex-spouse paying alimony. In Mueller, the court determined that the new law would allow a court to order prospective termination of alimony based on a future date of retirement. However, there must be a detailed plan including an actual date of retirement and details as to the paying ex-spouse’s plan for self-support after retirement. Further, applications for future termination of alimony cannot be too far into the future, as many changes could happen in the lives of both ex-spouses.
As the New Jersey courts continue to hear cases based upon the 2014 Alimony Reform Law and are faced with the task of interpreting the changes in the law as it applies to new cases, developments will naturally continue. Staying informed about the status of the law and any relevant cases is key.
If you have questions about your alimony award or if you are wondering how the amendments to the New Jersey alimony statutes apply to you, call our office to discuss your case with one of our experienced and compassionate family law attorney. Secure your financial future.