As avid readers of this blog know, New Jersey’s recently amended alimony statute has been the inspiration for many blogs posts as cases interpreting same are coming down the pike. Under the amended statute, a party may seek to terminate or modify his or her spousal support obligation based upon an actual or “prospective” retirement. While this was seemingly good news for those seeking to retire, the question many practitioners had was what does “prospective” actually mean?
In the case of Mueller v. Mueller, Judge Lawrence Jones provides some insight as to this very question. The facts in Mueller are simple. The parties were married for twenty (20) years, divorcing in 2006. Under the parties’ Marital Settlement Agreement, the obligor was to pay $300.00 per week in permanent alimony and their agreement did not expressly address retirement or its relationship to the alimony obligation.
The obligor filed a post-judgment motion, under New Jersey’s amended alimony law, seeking a determination that his alimony would end in five (5) years. At the time of the hearing, the obligor was 57 years old. In five years, he would be 62 and entitled to receive his full employment-related pension benefit. The obligor asserted that if his alimony does not end at that time, that he will be unable to retirement at that age.
Judge Jones provides a thorough analysis of the obligor’s claim, specifically discussing the distinction of a pre-September 2014 agreement modification/termination analysis (where the burden is on the obligor to demonstrate why alimony should terminate) vs. a post-September agreement modification/termination analysis (where there is a rebuttable presumption of termination with the burden on the recipient).
He also notes that the amended statute covers the situation where an obligor wishes to retire earlier than “full retirement age” as defined by the receipt of full social security benefits”, which in this particular case would be 66 years and 8 months for the obligor. The rationale behind this provision is to avoid the proverbial “Catch-22” financial situation.
Specifically, if an obligor is considering the possibility of retirement in the near future, he or she logically benefits from knowing in advance, before making the decision to actually leave the workforce, whether the existing alimony obligation will or will not change following retirement. Otherwise, if the obligor first retires and unilaterally terminates his or her primary significant stream of income before knowing whether the alimony obligation will end or change, then the obligor may find him/herself in a precarious financial position following such voluntary departure from employment if the court does not terminate or significantly reduce the existing alimony obligation.
When applying the new law to the facts of the Mueller case, Judge Jones held:
• The spirit of the statute inherently contemplates that the prospective retirement will take effect within reasonable proximity to the application itself, rather than several years in advance.
o Thus, in this specific case, the request for an order prospectively terminating alimony five (5) years in advance does not lend itself to the Court being able to reasonably analyze and consider all relevant information. The Court warns about how an application too far in advance of prospective retirement could in essence be nothing more than an attempt to summarily change the terms of an alimony settlement agreement.
• An order for prospective termination or modification of alimony based upon reaching a certain retirement age inherently contemplates that the obligor not only reaches retirement age, but actually retires at that point. If the obligor reaches the age, but does not actually retire, the “retirement age” provisions do not trigger until such time as the obligor actually retires or submits an application regarding a prospective retirement in the future.
o Here, the obligor did not provide a specific plan but merely stated a desire to potentially retire in five (5) years, without anything more. While this case does not create a bright-line for when such applications should be brought, Judge Jones notes that a prospective retirement application brought, 12-18 months before prospective retirement, may be more appropriate.
The takeaway from this case is that while the amended alimony statute permits a degree of reasonable prospective adjudication by the court for a prospective rather than actual retirement, an attempt to engage in the necessary statutory analysis several years in advance of such retirement would likely be replete with long-term guesswork. Any such effort would essentially ignore the practical reality that the parties’ economic situations, health and other relevant factors may radically change over such a lengthy period of time, before an actual retirement ever takes place. If you are paying alimony and are within 12-18 months of retirement, you should think about consulting with an experienced professional to discuss your options regarding the termination or modification of your alimony obligation.