Ending “Lifetime Alimony”

Imagine this: your divorce ends with you being told that you have to pay alimony to your ex. You don’t like it, but you do it. Then you lose your job. You can’t afford anything for yourself, let alone payment of anything to someone else. The only way you can get your alimony payments lowered or suspended is to go to court, where you now have to prove that your financial situation has seriously changed. You’re told that you haven’t been unemployed long enough to show that your circumstances have changed. Now you’re forced to wait around and prove that you’re unemployed, racking up more and more debt every month. Additionally, you’ve also had to spend money on a lawyer to try to prove that you have no money.

Some people are working to get New Jersey law changed so that alimony payments can automatically be suspended if you become unemployed, suffer some kind of disability that makes it difficult to earn money, or if the person who is receiving support has a change in relationship that you believe means he or she no longer requires support. Massachusetts passed a similar law in September 2011.

In addition to the process just taking too long, advocates for a change complain that the alimony law is outdated in a world where the majority of women can earn their own income. Moreover, arguments over alimony payments keep a couple entangled in something like a lifetime of divorce proceedings.

Those who are against changing the law argue that having to discuss changes to alimony in court is better because it gives the judge discretion to examine the facts on a case by case basis and make more sensible adjustments that fit a particular family’s situation, rather than apply a law that does not allow for flexibility. They also point out that sometimes child support is wrapped into alimony payments, so that makes putting an automatic stop to alimony much more complicated. The problem isn’t the law, but the inability of people to find lawyers they can afford when they are in trouble.

Advocates for keeping the law as it is note that this isn’t as big an issue as it seems–most divorces do not end with alimony being awarded. Decisions about alimony are derived from factors such as  the length of the marriage, the potential income one party sacrificed to allow the other to pursue a career, age and health factors, and one spouse’s ability to pay vs. the other’s need for support. In other words, “permanent alimony” isn’t a widespread problem where one poor ex spouse is shackled to paying a lifetime of support to a laughing, champagne-swilling millionaire ex spouse.

The best solution, as always may lie somewhere in between. Perhaps there can be some kind of addition to the law that can allow for an emergency stop or reduction in alimony for a person who really is in financial trouble. Hammering out something like that, though, would no doubt be its own bloody process.

Of course, to avoid alimony disputes, get a prenuptial agreement, however distasteful it may seem in the blush of romance–but don’t go crazy about it.