New Jersey struggles with the knotty issue of alimony reform

Posted: August 19, 2012

Like most states, New Jersey lets its judges decide whether alimony should be awarded in a divorce. Judges also determine how much is paid and for how long.

Now, some advocates want the Legislature to limit judicial discretion in alimony decisions, arguing that long-term awards can discourage ex-spouses from earning.

On the flip side, some alimony recipients say judges have unjustly denied them reasonable payments, causing financial hardship for a family that suddenly loses its breadwinner.

Family-law experts admit that New Jersey's system isn't perfect. But creating an alimony formula for judges may prove difficult, as marriage circumstances vary widely.

"Typically everyone comes out of a divorce feeling shortchanged," said Sally Goldfarb, a Rutgers-Camden professor who specializes in family law. "For every [alimony payer's] horror story that you're hearing, you could hear stories about a person receiving too little" alimony.

In June, the Assembly unanimously passed a bill to create a commission to study the state's alimony law. The bill awaits action in the Senate.

The debate over alimony comes as many are struggling to find work and as reform advocate groups are popping up in several states, including Florida, where a measure to substantially alter that state's alimony laws passed the House but stalled in the Senate this year. Massachusetts last year revamped its law, creating a mathematical formula to determine alimony awards similar to one used to calculate child-support obligations there as well as in New Jersey.

Local alimony "horror stories" include a Pemberton Township plumber who says he has been jailed twice for failing to make his $450 weekly alimony payment to his former wife. Work has slowed, the 47-year-old man said, but the judge has not allowed even a temporary stop to his nearly $2,000 monthly obligation.

"I'm a fourth-generation plumber; that doesn't mean I'm Roto-Rooter: It's just me," said the man, who was married for 26 years. "I make between $40,000 and $60,000 in salary. Right now, I'm doing odd jobs, like painting bathrooms, other little jobs to make ends meet."

A 58-year-old Marlton teacher said she was required to pay her ex-husband $200 a week. The husband never held a steady job, she said, so the court required her to pay him from her $92,000 salary beginning in July 2010. When she retires, he is entitled to half her pension, and he has already taken half her additional retirement savings, she said.

"My lawyer said, 'Don't go to trial; it's a waste of your money; you're going to end up paying this anyway . . . and then you'll have to pay his lawyer fees, too,' " she said.

A 58-year-old emergency-department physician said his ex-wife, a computer programmer, has not worked since their 2004 divorce. The former Moorestown resident pays $5,000 a month in alimony, $1,770 a month in child support, and additional payments for their three children. The payments, along with what he called an unfair split of the marital assets, has strained his $250,000 annual income. He's living in a Center City apartment and travels to Maryland on occasion to work 24-hour shifts at a short-staffed emergency room to make additional money, he said.

"Before I can buy a cup of coffee, the first $100,000 is already gone," he said. "That doesn't mean that I'm in a lower tax bracket. Expenses can be high. I also have to maintain disability insurance that costs $12,000 a year, life insurance. That's $6,500 a year."

NJ Alimony Reform, a group of 1,200 divorced people and their second families that has lobbied legislators, wants the state to limit "permanent" alimony, which requires payments for an indefinite period unless there is a significant change of financial circumstance on the part of the payer. Judges sometimes consider job loss a temporary situation, advocates for change said, denying them temporary relief.

Assemblyman Sean T. Kean (R., Monmouth), a lawyer who has pushed for alimony reform since 2008, said he had received an increasing number of calls from people in financial or legal trouble because of alimony requirements.

"It just doesn't make sense to bind people to an amount when they no longer have the ability to pay," he said.

New Jersey Assemblyman Troy Singleton (D., Burlington), a freshman member who cosponsored the bill, said the process warranted further study.

"There's some merit to having a limit to how long someone should have to pay alimony," he said. "I've heard of people paying alimony longer than the marriage."

Although alimony is awarded in 15 to 17 percent of divorce cases, Goldfarb said, permanent alimony is not unusual in the state.

"In long-term marriages, where there is a significant disparity of income, permanent alimony is the norm," said Patrick Judge Jr., chairman of the New Jersey Bar Association's family-law section.

The bar association supports the study commission, defined currently as a panel of 11 to include at least two family-law experts and a retired family-law judge. The group has one year to examine the state's laws, compare them with other states', and produce a report, including recommendations, to the Legislature and governor.

"I'm not saying that the system shouldn't get a review; I'm saying it should be a fair review and an unbiased review," Judge said. "There are a lot of people who have support obligations who have been hurt by the economy, but you also have the flip side of the recipients as well. There has to be a balance."

One recipient who said she had been treated unfairly in court is a 36-year-old mother awarded $1,100 a month in alimony after her husband, who works on Wall Street, filed for divorce in December. The woman gave up work as an event planner and photographer to raise the couple's 3-year-old son.

The former Long Branch resident says her husband hid his assets and reduced his income for a year in preparation for the divorce. He had made as much as $500,000 a year, she said.

He's living in the marital home and removed her name from their credit cards, she said. She moved in with her mother in Brooklyn. She's borrowed nearly $100,000 from friends and family to stay afloat and pay attorney's fees for the divorce.

"Men come in with this unfounded sob story that they're having a bad year," she said. "This allows judges to really screw women out of marital assets. . . . We're not talking about lifetime alimony here. This is an overcorrection of the system."

Efforts to find an "alimony formula" in Pennsylvania have failed in recent years, said Harry Byrnes, a Bala Cynwyd lawyer and former chairman of the Pennsylvania Bar Association Family Law Section.

"I have confidence, generally, in the judges," he said, adding he would rather leave the matter up to the court and not lawmakers.

Tom Leustek president of NJ Alimony Reform, said he wasn't opposed to alimony, even permanent alimony. But he wants stakeholders to have a frank discussion about it.

"I would argue that if even one person is treated unfairly, we should reconsider the law," he said.


Contact Joelle Farrell

at 856-779-3237, jfarrell@phillynews.com, or @joellefarrell on Twitter.

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