At the time of divorce proceedings, many of my clients ask if they can “lock” the other party to whatever support amount is rendered. If the person asking is going to be paying support, they are asking because they do not want to have to pay more in the future. If the person asking is going to be receiving the support, they are asking because they intend to rely upon the amount indefinitely. My response in most circumstances is that it can be done but it should only be done with great caution and only done by way of agreement. For example, while a litigant’s intent may be to “lock” the support amount because they are anticipating earning more in the future and do not wish to pay more in the future, once locked and the litigant is faced with unanticipated detrimental financial circumstances, they may be unable to obtain a decrease of their support obligation. In other words, it goes both ways – being bound to a specific number regardless of changed circumstances can be very beneficial in some circumstances and in other circumstances very disastrous.
N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23 recognizes the equitable power of the Courts of the State of New Jersey to modify alimony and support orders at any time. Specifically, N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23 states:
Pending any matrimonial action brought in this State or elsewhere, or after judgment of divorce or maintenance, whether obtained in this State or elsewhere, the Court may make such order as to the alimony or maintenance of the parties . . . as the circumstances of the parties and the nature of the case shall render fit, reasonable and just, and require reasonable security for the due observance of such orders. . . . Orders so made may be revised and altered by the court from time to time as circumstances may require.
Based upon the mandates of the statute, “alimony and support orders define only the present obligations of the former spouses.” Lepis v. Lepis, 83 N.J. 139, 146 (1980). Alimony and support obligations are always subject to judicial review and modification upon a showing of a change in circumstances. Id. A type of “‘changed circumstance” that warrants modification of a support order is an increase or decrease in the supporting spouse’s income.” Innes v. Innes, 117 N.J. 496, 504 (1990). However, what happens when the parties agree at the time of the divorce that the support provisions cannot be modified?
The Appellate Division decision discussed whether or not a non-modifiable clause (also called an “anti-Lepis” clause) is enforceable in the decision of Morris v. Morris, 263 N.J. Super. 237 (App.Div. 1993). The Morris Court did find that an anti-Lepis clause could be found unenforceable in some circumstances, although the particular anti-Lepis clause in Morriswas upheld. In Morris, the defendant husband sought a reduction in alimony payments despite an anti-Lepis clause in the alimony agreement stating that the agreement was not modifiable for any reason except for the husband’s physical disability. The husband based his request for reduction on a claim that the his annual income was $49,000 while his annual alimony payment was $35,000. The wife argued that husband kept all of the assets pursuant to the parties agreement and in exchanged for non-modifiable alimony, she agreed to a support amount of much less than the amount needed to sustain the marital standard of living. In holding that the husband was not entitled to a reduction in alimony payments, the court addressed a conflict between two chancery court decisions. In Smith v. Smith, 261 N.J. Super. 198, 199-200 (Ch. Div. 1992), the court determined that “an ‘anti- Lepis’ clause, which seeks to preclude the exercise of [the] Court’s equitable responsibility to review and, if warranted, to modify support obligations in response to changed circumstances, is contrary to the public policy of this State as reflected in its Legislative Acts and its judicial decisions.” In Finckin v. Finckin, 240 N.J. Super. 204, 206 (Ch. Div. 1990), the court concluded that public policy did not prohibit the use of an anti- Lepis clause.
In an attempt to reconcile the two decisions, the Morris court stated the following:
We must give an equivocal answer to the question of whether an anti- Lepis clause is enforceable. It is both yes and no. Smith is correct when it states that the parties cannot bargain away the court’s equitable powers. Finckin is also correct when it states that the parties can establish their own standards, and that these standards, where not unwarranted under the circumstances, will be enforced by the court irrespective of the need-based guidelines of Lepis, which are applied when there are no such standards. If circumstances have made the parties’ standards unreasonable, they can in extreme cases be modified. In less extreme cases, as here, the payments can be accrued with enforcement conditioned upon the payment of reasonable periodic payments. In short, the court should endeavor to carry out the agreement of the parties on a reasonable basis. (Emphasis supplied.) Morris, 263 N.J. Super. at 245-46.
Although the court held that the anti-Lepis clause rendered a determination of the Morris wife’s needs irrelevant since the alimony was not negotiated on the basis of her needs, the following example of an “extraordinary case” was provided in a footnote by the Appellate Division: “[T]he wife’s needs might be relevant if, for example, there is little economic need on the part of the wife and the husband’s countervailing needs warrant his being permitted to retain a higher percentage of his income. (Examples that come to mind are a sick child from a second marriage, an impending loss of his business, or the like).” Id. at 245 n. 5 (emphasis added). Finally, the court held that “defendant’s failure to pay can result in his incarceration only if such failure is willful, given his then-existing means.” Id.
Interestingly, there are not to many decisions that deal with an anti-Lepis clause. I surmise this to be the case because very few people would agree to be locked into a number that they are required to pay or entitled to receive regardless any change in circumstances. Of course there are situations in which it makes sense to agree to non-modifiable support; however, all facts should be considered with an attorney and the litigant should be prepared to take a significant risk. If on the other hand, your agreement already contains a non-modifiability or anti-Lepis clause and you have encountered significant changed circumstances, it is imperative that at the least you consult an attorney to determine if your circumstances are such that a Court could find the clause to be unreasonable to warrant a modification.