The headlines yesterday shouted the news from up on high: “GOVERNOR CHRIS CHRISTIE SIGNS BILL ENDING LIFETIME ALIMONY!!!” After literally two and a half years of contentious debate, lobbying, negotiation, and especially consternation, New Jersey did indeed see passage of a fairly sweeping and genuinely ambitious alimony reform package. But in reality, what does the new language say? And in practical terms, what does alimony reform mean for those who say they need it—or fear it—the most?
There’s Good News and Bad News…
Let’s start with the most depressing part of the reform, shall we? No, this legislation does not once and for all end the threat (or benefit) of permanent alimony and no, this legislation does not give any court any “magic formula” to use when setting the amount of alimony someone should pay or be paid in moving forward. (You can read the text for yourself here: http://www.njleg.state.nj.us/2014/Bills/A1000/845_S2.HTM)
Goodbye Permanent Alimony, Hello Open Durational Alimony?
While the phrase “permanent alimony” may no longer be utilized in moving forward, the term “open durational alimony” would seem to suffice nicely in its place. (And we’re not going to even address the fact that once you label a given alimony award as “rehabilitative,” there will be NO modification possible for any reason, that issue is better served in a separate discussion.)
The pertinent language of the legislation states:
“For any marriage or civil union less than 20 years in duration, the total duration of alimony shall not, except in exceptional circumstances, exceed the length of the marriage or civil union.”
So if you have been in a marriage or civil union for less than twenty (20) years, there would indeed seem to be a rebuttable presumption that the alimony award in your divorce should not go beyond the length of the marriage, notwithstanding exceptional circumstances.
Of course, if your marriage did in fact last longer than twenty years, even the new language seems to leave room for an award of alimony exceeding twenty years and which, may indeed, [although labelled as “open durational”] come to be what we would think of as a permanent alimony. So, no, permanent alimony has not completely been erased in New Jersey, regardless of what terms we use to label or reference it.
So, What Is The Good News?
But that’s the bad news! The good news is that there was genuine thought and effort put into this reform, and some serious goals were achieved. A large goal for many people currently belaboring under a permanent alimony award was clear change to the issue of terminating alimony at retirement age. The new legislation makes plain that there is now a rebuttable legal presumption that permanent or open durational alimony shall “terminate” upon the payor’s having reached “full retirement age.” This age is defined within the legislation as “the age at which a person is eligible to receive full retirement benefits under section 216 of the federal Social Security Act (42 U.S.C. §416).” Right now, that age stands at 66. While that may not seem like much to many, it is enormous relief to many payors who can now seek an end date.
Of course, on the other side of the courtroom this chnage is a legal battle just waiting to happen for those former spouses who depend upon the nature of “permanent” alimony payments. Because, as you might have already guessed, this presumption of termination at retirement may of course be “rebutted” by the former spouse who wishes to retain his or her alimony award at that time. Perfect, no. Better? We’ll see.
Business Owners Take Note
In a related development, even business owners—who have been perhaps the hardest hit by permanent alimony awards in New Jersey—now have a clear process of evaluation and decision when it comes to their retirement and alimony obligations, something that was quite literally next to impossible for them to achieve prior to this legislation for many business owners and self-employed persons.
Implications re: Unemployment
Another important item included in the reform legislation is the new provision setting a firm timetable guiding those who are involuntarily unemployed when seeking reduction or termination or suspension of their support obligation. As the rules now provide, they are permitted to file and seek reduction, suspension, or termination of their obligation ninety (90) days after they lose employment, but not sooner. Although ninety (90) days may sound like a long time, it is certainly better than the “six months or so” that courts across New Jersey had routinely required before deciding an issue involving such a request. During this time, payors were routinely required to make very, very tough decisions when it came to what bills they would pay and not pay, due to the serious reduction of their income while attempting to maintain existing bills, including alimony payments.
Although this change in legislation does not guarantee anyone relief, it at least allows a litigant to apply for relief far earlier than the system had previously allowed. Refreshing for some, I’m sure.
Welcome: Common Sense.
Lastly, perhaps the biggest thing to come from this reform is the inclusion of a great deal of language designed to bring common sense and true equity to the alimony process in New Jersey. Factors must be clearly addressed on the record in moving forward in a way they might not have been previously. The court no longer first needs to find and state “on the record” its reasons for not awarding permanent alimony before it moves on to some other type of award. Those already paying what is termed “permanent alimony” get a light at the end of the tunnel now at retirement age, something they probably did not have before. The unemployed get a more rapid relief process and the self-employed finally have a potential lifeline. It’s far too early for many individuals to know how this legislation is going to affect their case, especially if your divorce was finalized years ago. But there is a good amount of change here and in the immediate future we should see some of these changes bring relief—and surely disappointment and perhaps difficulty—to many divorced persons in New Jersey. Here at Simoni Law Office, LLC, we offer free family law consultations, which include alimony issues. We’d be happy to meet with you for a no-hassle, confidential consultation to discuss the legalities of your alimony award or your potential alimony award. Call Simoni Law Office at 856 208-1787.
Jeffrey Kerstetter, Esquire
Of Counsel to Simoni Law Office, LLC