In the wake of the September 10, 2014 amendments to N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23, the legislature clarified the circumstances under which an alimony payor’s obligation can be modified or terminated due to the obligor’s intended or actual retirement.  Under the statute as amended, when faced with an obligor’s application to modify or terminate alimony due to good faith retirement, the Court must consider the question of the alimony recipient’s ability to save for his or her own retirement.  As discussed In the new unpublished (non-precedential) Appellate Division decision Stansbury v. Stansbury, this question is given much greater weight in pre-Amendment cases (i.e. in cases that were decided or agreements that were entered into prior to September 10, 2014).

For post-Amendment cases, there is a rebuttable presumption that if a payor retires at “good faith retirement age” (defined as the age at which (s)he would be entitled to receive full Social Security Retirement benefits), then alimony shall terminate unless the recipient can show by a preponderance of the evidence and for good cause shown that alimony should continue (either in full or in a reduced amount).  In making that determination, the court must consider eleven (11) factors, one of which is the ability of the recipient to have saved adequately for retirement.  See N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23(j)(1).  This factor is listed along with the ten other factors, in no order of importance, with no emphasis whatsoever.

But for pre-Amendment alimony awards (like the Stansburys’), the statute does not just list the obligee’s ability to save for retirement as one of many on a list of factors to be balanced and considered.  Instead, it absolutely mandates and even elevates this criteria first and foremost among the others:

When a retirement application is filed in cases in which there is an existing final alimony order or enforceable written agreement established prior to the effective date of this act, the obligor’s reaching full retirement age as defined in this section shall be deemed a good faith retirement age.  Upon application by the obligor to terminate or modify alimony, both the obligor’s application to the court and the obligee’s response to the application shall be accompanied by current Case Information Statements or other relevant documents as required by the Rules of Court, as well as the Case Information Statements or other documents from the date of entry of the original alimony award and from the date of any subsequent modification.  In making its decision, the court shall consider the ability of the obligee to have saved adequately for retirement as well as the following factors in order to determine whether the obligor, by a preponderance of the evidence, has demonstrated that modification or termination of alimony is appropriate:

(a)  The age and health of the parties at the time of the application;

(b)  The obligor’s field of employment and the generally accepted age of retirement for those in that field;

(c)  The age at which the obligor becomes eligible for retirement at the obligor’s place of employment, including mandatory retirement dates or the dates upon which continued employment would no longer increase retirement benefits;

(d)  The obligor’s motives in retiring, including any pressures to retire applied by the obligor’s employer or incentive plans offered by the obligor’s employer;

(e)  The reasonable expectations of the parties regarding retirement during the marriage or civil union and at the time of the divorce or dissolution;

(f)  The ability of the obligor to maintain support payments following retirement, including whether the obligor will continue to be employed part time or work reduced hours;

(g)  The obligee’s level of financial independence and the financial impact of the obligor’s retirement upon the obligee; and

(f)  Any other relevant factors affecting the parties’ respective financial positions.

N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23(j)(3) (emphasis added).

In Stansbury, the Defendant had a permanent alimony obligation but, at the age of 72 (well past good faith retirement age), he was looking to retire and made the appropriate application, which the Plaintiff opposed.  Eliciting certain facts from the parties’ respective certifications that accompanied their motions (and, reasonably, hoping to avoid the time and expense of a trial for two litigants with modest means and of a senior age), the judge addressed each of the factors listed above, including the question of the Plaintiff’s ability to save for retirement.  She found that – based on what the Plaintiff certified about a recent health issue and about her income and budget set forth on her Case Information Statement – it was “unlikely” that the Plaintiff had been able to save for retirement.  Based on this assumption and on the remaining factors, the trial judge declined to terminate the Defendant’s obligation and instead reduced it.

The Defendant appealed, arguing that – having failed to conduct a hearing – the trial judge did not have sufficient evidence to make the assumption that the Plaintiff did not have the ability to save for retirement.  In fact, on the question of what had happened to the Plaintiff’s share of Defendant’s pension awarded to her in equitable distribution, the trial judge had essentially taken a guess that the Plaintiff had liquidated her share of that marital asset and spent it while she was not working due to her recent illness, or else re-invested it.  There was no testimony in the record from the Plaintiff herself as to what she had done with this money.  The Appellate Division found that the trial judge’s failure to make findings after a hearing as to the issue of the Plaintiff’s ability to save for retirement was an error, and remanded the matter to the trial court, instructing that:

The hearing should require plaintiff to come forward with evidence that she saved for retirement to the extent she was able to do so, and how plaintiff disposed of her share of defendant’s pension.

The case makes clear that for pre-Amendment alimony awards in particular, trial judges not only have to consider this factor, but must give it great weight.   Therefore, litigants opposing retirement applications in pre-Amendment cases should be prepared to address this in great detail.   Additionally, the Appellate Division’s instruction to the trial court quoted above in the Stansbury case certainly suggests that whether an obligee has actually saved for retirement is not the important thing that courts must consider in these applications, but rather whether the recipient COULD HAVE saved for retirement based on his/her income, assets inclusive of equitable distribution, and the alimony received.  In other words, fiscal irresponsibility on the part of the obligee shouldn’t bar the obligor from making a successful application.


headshot_diamond_jessicaJessica C. Diamond is an associate in the firm’s Family Law Practice, resident in the Morristown, NJ, office. You can reach Jessica at (973) 994.7517 or jdiamond@foxrothschild.com.

Last week, I blogged about whether you should settle your retirement alimony case and the ingredients that might go into that decision. To be honest, this “why you should or should not settle” question is only the beginning of what you might be facing when you decide it is time to retire and terminate your alimony obligations. There is, of course, also the “where/when/how” of all of it. And that’s quite a nebulous concept if you’re only now beginning to think about your “whys” and whether or not you should even broach the topic. Below, I’ll give you a run-down of the possible scenarios that will at least address the “wheres” and “whens” of your journey.

In my experience, there are several possible ways in which alimony cases resolve: (1) Immediate settlement; (2) settlement following a motion; and (3) a full Court hearing wherein a judge makes a decision as to your continued alimony obligation. Examining each scenario will allow you to put the concept of “settlement” into the context of your particular situation.

(1)         Immediate Settlement: This is the path of least conflict and resistance if your spouse accepts your offer with an eye toward a termination of support. This will, more often than not, begin with a “feeler” letter to your former spouse. The letter may indicate that you are retiring, the date of your proposed retirement, provide some detail as to your financial circumstances, and ask if a termination of alimony would even be considered. Sometimes, the former spouses may negotiate directly with one another, with guidance from an experienced matrimonial attorney throughout.

If successful, this is the most cost-effective and low conflict resolution. The specifics of any settlement would be memorialized in an Agreement and simply filed with the Court, at which point, it would become an enforceable document.

But don’t be mistaken. This path is not for everyone. If you went through a very high conflict divorce, or know you’re dealing with an unreasonable ex-spouse, you may want to skip this step entirely. In the alternative, you may write a letter and the concept of termination may be rejected immediately.

If settlement at this early stage is not successful for whatever reason, you may decide to pursue litigation. That would bring us to scenarios 2 & 3, described below.

(2)         Filing a Motion: To provide some background, when someone paying alimony experiences a change in circumstances (including retirement, other reduction in income, or they believe their spouse is cohabiting etc.), you file what is known as a “Motion”, which is a formal application to the Court. You would be required to submit your current Case Information Statement, Case Information Statement from the time of your divorce, tax returns and a narrative of events leading up to your motion and describing your circumstances along with the motion.

You further file a legal brief describing the case law, including Lepis v. Lepis, which is the seminal support modification case in the state of New Jersey. Under Lepis, an alimony payor is required to file a Motion and establish what is known as a prima facie change in circumstances. A prima facie showing is simply an initial showing (on its face) that demonstrates that circumstances have permanently and significantly changed such that alimony may ultimately be modified.

Several weeks later, you would proceed to Court. This is a formal court proceeding, with oral argument from counsel, but not testimony of the parties, no formal introduction of evidence, etc. In other words, it is not at the point where the Court would conduct a full trial yet based on what has been submitted.

The Court would then review everything and determine if you meet the burden of a prima facie showing. The Court will then move you past what we call “Lepis 1”, or the initial prima facie showing, and enter an order as to whether you should move to a “Lepis 2” analysis – i.e. whether the change is substantial, continuing and permanent. As part of this analysis, the Court may also consider whether there is sufficient reason to award counsel fees to either party in connection with the motion. Because a supported spouse’s financial circumstances may be more precarious than yours, the Court may be inclined to grant counsel fees to equalize the playing field or to provide her an advance for litigation.

During the discovery phase, you are permitted to do a full examination of the other party’s finances to try and substantiate your claim. This includes written discovery, depositions, subpoenas, etc.

Typically following or during discovery and related proceedings the matter may settle. The parties have exchanged the majority of their discovery and the payee spouse, at some point, realizes alimony will end and that some concessions will need to be made. At that point, the parties will come to the table, make a settlement offer which is negotiated or reach a resolution through mediation (sometimes the Court will order the parties to go to mediation).

(3)         Court Hearing:  The matter can sometimes move toward a more contentious conclusion via a court hearing. In that regard, if all possibilities for settlement are expended and the parties have passed the discovery phase, the matter proceeds to a hearing, and the Court will hear testimony, consider evidence and make a determination based on everything before it. It is akin to a trial.

Keep in mind that neither party is obligated to agree to an out of court settlement. But as you can see, settlement at the early stages of the games provides finality without having to subject yourself to the time and effort of full-blown litigation. You also would avoid the counsel fees that go in to the discovery and litigation phases. Of course, having counsel on your side with experience in retirement alimony case will help you reach a conclusion on your terms.

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Eliana T. Baer is a contributor to the New Jersey Family Legal Blog and a member of the Family Law Practice Group of Fox Rothschild LLP. Eliana practices in Fox Rothschild’s Princeton, New Jersey office and focuses her state-wide practice on representing clients on issues relating to divorce, equitable distribution, support, custody, adoption, domestic violence, premarital agreements and Appellate Practice. You can reach Eliana at (609) 895-3344, or etbaer@foxrothschild.com

There has been much ado about the new alimony statute. Obligors believe they are now in the driver’s seat when it comes to disposing of their alimony obligations. After all, the statute sends a message that alimony should at least be modified upon reaching full retirement age. Doesn’t it?

On the other hand, recipients believe that the nuances within the new statute provide them with a leg-up in terms of maintaining their alimony awards “as is”. After all, the statute provides that both parties should have been able to save for retirement in the years since the divorce. Doesn’t it?

The truth is, both the obligor and the recipient are correct. The new statute does not provide any bright line rule as to what a court must do when the obligor retires. It provides the Court, instead, with factors to consider and weigh when an obligor brings a retirement application.

It helps to think of your retirement case as if there is an imaginary chef baking a cake. The ingredients and proportions will inevitably change your end result. Likewise, every case has different ingredients and produces a different result. Of course, the chef, i.e. the judge, will also bring certain ideas into the case, that could change the result one way or another depending on the “ingredients” the litigants bring before the Court.

So that brings me to my question: should you settle your retirement case? In a word, maybe.

When I become involved in a retirement case, I tell obligors and recipients alike to think of their matter as a business transaction. Typically, most of the hurt that lingered post-divorce has dissipated. Maybe, the parties have moved on with their personal lives. Most people are ready to engage in a pure cost-benefit analysis to determine if settlement is right for them.

In order to do that in a retirement case, although a bit fatalistic, it’s important to consider the health and life-span of the obligor and recipient. For example, if a retirement application is brought when both parties are 80, a settlement would look quite different than an application brought at age 65.

It’s also important to consider the parties’ respective assets so that a lump-sum buyout can be considered and discussed.

Sometimes it bears repeating that it’s important to remember that it probably does not make sense to spend more money litigating a case in Court than you would have continuing to pay or receive alimony. Because, at that end of the day, even if you believe that you have the best ingredients and proportions, you don’t want to burn the house to the ground just to see if you can get the perfect cake in the end.

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Eliana T. Baer is a contributor to the New Jersey Family Legal Blog and a member of the Family Law Practice Group of Fox Rothschild LLP. Eliana practices in Fox Rothschild’s Princeton, New Jersey office and focuses her state-wide practice on representing clients on issues relating to divorce, equitable distribution, support, custody, adoption, domestic violence, premarital agreements and Appellate Practice. You can reach Eliana at (609) 895-3344, or etbaer@foxrothschild.com

Once a parenting time schedule is established, parents’ next concern is the logistics with pick-up and drop-off.   Even with a parenting time schedule memorialized issues arise: lateness, inconvenient locations, interference with children’s activities, etc.   Most times these issues can be resolved amicably without judicial intervention.  But occasionally an application must be filed with the Court to address these issues.

Recently, in the unpublished appellate decision of Devorak v. Devorak, A-4325-16T2,the Appellate Court reviewed such a case.  The defendant in Devorak had filed a post-judgement motion to change the previously agreed upon driving responsibilities for visitation, amongst other issues.  At the time of divorce, both parties resided in the same town and they agreed that they would share alternate weekends for parenting time with the child and the defendant would pick up their daughter after he was done with work on Friday evening and bring her back on Sunday.  Defendant further agreed that he would “be responsible for all transportation for his parenting time, unless other arrangements [were] mutually agreed upon by the parties.”

Plaintiff later moved to New York City, but on November 22, 2013, the parties entered into a consent order where she agreed to relocate to New Jersey, and defendant agreed to temporarily provide transportation to and from his weekend parenting time until plaintiff moved back to New Jersey.  However, the consent order did not address the parties’ driving responsibilities upon plaintiff’s relocation to New Jersey.  Thereafter, plaintiff moved to Roseland, New Jersey and defendant moved to Ewing, New Jersey.  On September 20, 2016, defendant filed a motion seeking an order compelling “[t]he parties to share equally the driving responsibilities regarding parenting time,” amongst other issues.  Plaintiff cross-moved  for an order compelling defendant to “be required to do all the traveling in connection [with] his visitations with the parties’ child . . . ,” amongst other things, and argued that defendant received the benefit of his bargain in that he did not have to pay alimony and paid “modest” child support in return for doing all of the driving.

Despite Plaintiff’s arguments, the Judge determined that “it [was] fair and equitable [for them] to share in the transportation responsibility[,]” and granted defendant’s motion for the parties to “equally share driving responsibilities for parenting time . . . .”  The judge further ordered the parties to “agree [to] a pickup and drop off location equidistant between their current residences” of Ewing and Roseland.  In rendering his decision, the Judge reviewed the history of the parties’ residences from the time of the final judgment of divorce, as well as earlier orders dealing with parenting time.  On appeal, the Appellate Court stated that it agreed with the trial court’s decision for the reasons cited by the trial court judge, while also dismissing the appeal on procedural grounds.

Here is case where the parties bargained for a driving schedule at the time of their divorce, but due to subsequent decisions by the parties, including moving, the Court determined that the drop off logistics should be altered, despite the parties prior agreement. Whether or not you agree with the Court’s decision on this, the lesson to be learned is that these issues must be addressed with clear provisions at the time of negotiation.  Being amicable with a former spouse is certainly the best way to co-parent, however it is smart to also be prepared for future circumstances to the extent they can be planned for.  Driving responsibilities is one of those such issues.

In the midst of our ongoing quest for guidance as to how and when to apply the 2014 cohabitation statute, comes the Appellate Division’s recent unpublished (not precedential) decision in J.S. v. J.M.  While the decision does not reveal much in the way of noteworthy substance beyond what we have already seen in other post-statute decisions, the Appellate Division did opine on a couple of points that this author found interesting, one of which is addressed herein.

Briefly, the parties were divorced in 2010, with a cohabitation provision contained in the subject settlement agreement providing that alimony would “[t]erminate upon [defendant’s] cohabitation . . . with an unrelated male in lieu of remarriage for a period of [thirty] days or more.”  The payor ex-husband moved to terminate in alimony in September 2015 on the basis that the former wife was cohabiting with the payor’s brother.  While somewhat salacious in and of itself, the payor’s request to terminate support was ultimately denied by way of order and decision following a hearing.  Thereafter, the payor filed a motion for reconsideration of the order and decision, as well as an application to set aside same under Rule 4:50-1, each of which was denied.  The payor then only appealed the trial court’s order denying the motions for reconsideration and for relief under 4:50-1 (and not the original order following trial).

The first interesting point in the Appellate Division’s decision focused on the trial judge’s hypothetical question posed during oral argument: “whether it was necessary for [payor] to have filed his motion to terminate [alimony] during [payee’s] relationship with [the alleged cohabitant].”  In other words, from my interpretation of the trial court’s question that was not the central issue on appeal and, thus, not fully fleshed out in the decision, is whether the payor can procure relief if he files his application after the alleged cohabitation comes to an end, rather than during the relationship.  Briefly referencing the Supreme Court of New Jersey’s 2016 decision in Quinn v. Quinn, the Appellate Division here provided:

In Quinn, 225 N.J. at 39, the court held that if a PSA provided for the termination of alimony upon the dependent spouse’s cohabitation, the court should enforce the terms of the agreement and terminate alimony, rather than suspend it during the period of cohabitation.  Again, even if we assume the judge’s question evidenced a palpably wrong understanding of the issue, and we do not think it did, Quinn has no application to this case because the judge found there was no cohabitation.

Does the Appellate Division’s indication, provided as dicta, renew or revive the argument that, but for an agreement calling for the termination of alimony upon cohabitation, an alimony obligation may be suspended during the period of cohabitation and then restored should the relationship come to an end?  Was this argument dead at all, and was Quinn limited to its facts?  For a reminder, the Supreme Court held in Quinn:

In sum, we reiterate today that an agreement to terminate alimony upon cohabitation entered by fully informed parties, represented by independent counsel, and without any evidence of overreaching, fraud, or coercion is enforceable. It is irrelevant that the cohabitation ceased during trial when that relationship had existed for a considerable period of time. Under those circumstances, when a judge finds that the spouse receiving alimony has cohabited, the obligor spouse is entitled to full enforcement of the parties’ agreement. When a court alters an agreement in the absence of a compelling reason, the court eviscerates the certitude the parties thought they had secured, and in the long run undermines this Court’s preference for settlement of all, including marital, disputes. Here, there were no compelling reasons to depart from the clear, unambiguous, and mutually understood terms of the PSA. We therefore reverse the judgment of the Appellate Division.

While this holding primarily focused on the fact that the subject agreement provided that alimony would terminate upon cohabitation (regardless of when the cohabitation occurred), did the Supreme Court more broadly find inconsequential that the cohabitation period ended in determining whether alimony should be reduced?  In other words, can a payee litigant still argue: (1) alimony should only be impacted, if at all, during the period of cohabitation; and (2) the payor has to file the application during the period of alleged cohabitation in order for it to have any merit?

Family law practitioners recently heard one of our State’s most esteemed (and now retired) Appellate Division judges opine that once cohabitation occurs, a modification/termination of support application should be considered even if the cohabitation came to an end, just as it would not matter if a payee remarried and then divorced the new spouse.  It is uncertain whether Quinn closed the door on this issue, and certain arguments perhaps thought dead may still exist, especially since no court has yet to interpret what the word “suspend” truly means in the confines of the cohabitation statute, and whether a suspension of support should be implemented beyond what may be a suspension, or partial suspension during the cohabitation proceeding itself.

In other words, as we await a more definitive interpretation and application of the cohabitation statute, practitioners will continue to creatively and zealously argue on behalf of litigants embroiled in such disputes.

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Robert A. EpsteinRobert Epstein is a partner in Fox Rothschild LLP’s Family Law Practice Group and practices throughout New Jersey.  He can be reached at (973) 994-7526, or repstein@foxrothschild.com.

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As New Jersey law on cohabitation continues to evolve after passage of the 2014 amendment to the alimony statute, a review of cases released since that time provides insight as to several components of the cohabitation discussion.

My new article on this topic in the New Jersey Lawyer’s Family Law issue can be found by clicking on the link below.

http://www.foxrothschild.com/robert-a-epstein/publications/a-review-of-cohabitation-law-in-a-post-amendment-landscape/

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Robert A. EpsteinRobert Epstein is a partner in Fox Rothschild LLP’s Family Law Practice Group and practices throughout New Jersey.  He can be reached at (973) 994-7526, or repstein@foxrothschild.com.

Connect with Robert: Twitter_64 Linkedin

 

While we await guidance from the Appellate Division on how to interpret that portion of the amended alimony statute’s cohabitation provision, N.J.S.A. 2A:32-23n, indicating that alimony may be “suspended or terminated” in the event of a payee former spouse’s cohabitation, and whether the pre-statute “economic benefits” test remains alive and well, we are seeing newer cases that address the issue of cohabitation under the statute, rather than under pre-statute case law.

In Gille, Jr. v. Gille, an unpublished decision from the Appellate Division released in January, the Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s Order denying the payor former spouse’s motion to terminate alimony to his former wife based on her cohabitation.  There, wife was receiving $130,000 in base alimony, subject to an upward adjustment based on whether the husband’s annual income exceeded $500,000 annually.

As to cohabitation, the parties settlement agreement provided that cohabitation would be a basis for modification or termination of the alimony obligation, “governed by the existing law at the time the application is made.”

During a 90-day period from February 9, 2015 to April 4, 2015, the husband paid a private detective to observe the wife’s home.  The detective recorded his observations over 29 days.  On 13 of those occasions, the wife’s boyfriend was present overnight.  He was also observed retrieving mail, assisting with snow removal, and entering the home when the wife or children were not present.  Immediately prior to oral argument on the motion, the husband had not obtained an update of the detective’s report immediately prior to filing his motion.

In denying the husband’s motion to terminate alimony, the trial court made the following findings:

Wife and boyfriend had no intertwined finances, did not share living expenses, and although they were dating, they did not even refer to themselves in conversation as “boyfriend and girlfriend.”  Also, the court found that instances of the boyfriend helping around the home were limited instances of “chivalry” – not the performance of household chores on a continuous basis.  It was ultimately deemed a dating relationship, but “nothing more.”

In analyzing the statutory cohabitation factors on appeal, the Appellate Division deferred to the trial court’s findings that the husband’s evidence did not meet the statutory elements required for him to fulfill his initial (prima facie) burden that would entitle him to relief and/or a future hearing to determine what, if anything, should happen to alimony.  In so affirming, the Appellate Division noted how the husband only managed to demonstrate that the boyfriend spent a limited number of nights at the wife’s home.

Since the husband failed to fulfill even his initial burden based on his limited proofs, the court did not need to address “suspend or terminate” language, or the question of whether the economic benefits test still applies.  Notably, the trial judge also made no mention of the fact that the new statute does not require the cohabitant to live full-time with the payee in order for cohabitation to exist.  These cases are always highly fact-sensitive and could depend, in part, on the judge deciding the issue.  To that end, the Appellate Division interestingly noted how the same trial judge had previously presided over post-Judgment litigation where the husband had engaged in misconduct with respect to his income, the disclosure thereof to the wife, and, in connection therewith, any upward adjustment of alimony.

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Robert A. EpsteinRobert Epstein is a partner in Fox Rothschild LLP’s Family Law Practice Group and practices throughout New Jersey.  He can be reached at (973) 994-7526, or repstein@foxrothschild.com.

Connect with Robert: Twitter_64 Linkedin

 

One of the most common questions posed by clients is – how is alimony determined?  Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to that question, and it is often dependent upon the facts and circumstances of a given matter.  The law does not provide for a formula, even in the final version of the amended alimony statute that passed in late 2014, and requires that trial judges consider each of the factors outlined in New Jersey’s alimony statute (N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23(b)) in rendering an award.

As seminal New Jersey case law provides, the standard of living established during the marriage serves as the “touchstone” for alimony, with, whenever possible, the alimony award to be set at an amount that will “enable each party to live a lifestyle ‘reasonably comparable’ to the marital standard of living.”  The amended alimony statute confirms that both parties are entitled to such a lifestyle, which is often determined based on a review of the parties’ Case Information Statements, testimony and supporting financial documentation.  Experts may even be utilized to prepare what is commonly referred to as a “lifestyle analysis” to help provide a more accurate indicator of what the marital lifestyle actually was, and how expenses were divided between the parties and children, if any.

When negotiating an alimony resolution, however, practitioners often employ a so-called “rule of thumb” whereby the ultimate alimony figure is based on a certain percentage of the difference between the parties real/imputed levels of income.  Debate between practitioners in applying this approach remains alive and well, especially in high income cases where utilizing a formula may undermine the notion of ensuring that the marital lifestyle is taken into consideration.  Additionally, the formulaic approach oftentimes utilized in negotiating an alimony resolution takes into consideration the alimony deduction to be received by the payor on his or her tax returns.  With the new tax law eliminating the deduction for alimony agreements/awards reached after December 31, 2018, even this approach will likely undergo significant changes.

To that end, case law confirms that a trial judge cannot employ an income-based formula when determining an initial alimony award or modifying one previously established (even if the initial alimony award was reached in settlement based on a formula).  This principle was recently affirmed in Waldbaum v. Waldbaum, wherein the Appellate Division reversed a trial judge’s use of a formula in determining alimony in a post-divorce proceeding.  Specifically, despite generally describing the lifestyle as one of “high-class”, and analyzing the alimony factors, the trial court employed a formula utilized in the parties’ settlement agreement when alimony was first agreed upon.  In reversing the trial court, the Appellate Division held that “by setting alimony using a formula the alimony became untethered from the marital lifestyle and defendant’s needs.”  The resulting alimony amounts had “no reasonable correlation to the evidence adduced regarding the marital lifestyle or needs.”

Thus, while reaching an alimony resolution provides parties with great flexibility in determining the award, a trial judge must follow the above-detailed requirements to ensure that the lifestyle is not only taken into consideration, but that all statutory factors are considered in rendering a final decision.

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Robert A. EpsteinRobert Epstein is a partner in Fox Rothschild LLP’s Family Law Practice Group and practices throughout New Jersey.  He can be reached at (973) 994-7526, or repstein@foxrothschild.com.

Connect with Robert: Twitter_64 Linkedin

It’s a story as old as time in the New Jersey courts. Alimony is set based upon the income of parties to a divorce, but then years later, a spouse loses his or her job and is unable to continue to make the agreed upon or ordered payments. What is a Court to do?

61199328 - the word of alimony on wooden cubes

In the old days, prior to the enactment of the new alimony statute, judges had certain checklists, gathered from all the law that they typically used to assess whether to obligor would gain relief. You can find that checklist I compiled in 2013 here.

However, now that the new statute is in effect, the question becomes, how should judges treat on obligor’s loss of employment?

Mills v. Mills, an opinion by Judge Jones of Ocean County, approved for publication, provides some guidance on the issue.
In the Mills case, the parties divorced in 2013 after a 13-year marriage. At the time of the divorce, the parties agreed that the Husband would pay the Wife alimony in the amount of $330 per week for 8 years, as well as child support in the amount of $200 per week. This award was based upon the Husband’s income as a district sales manager for a company selling residential and commercial flooring services, earning $108,000 per year and the wife’s income as a teacher, earning $59,000 per year.

In January 2015, after 12 years of employment at the flooring company, the Husband lost his job. The job loss was involuntary; it stemmed from his employer’s decision to restructure its business plan and eliminate the Husband’s position.

The Husband began searching for a new job immediately. In April, 2015, he received an offer of employment form another flooring company, but at a significantly lower salary of $70,000, with a $6,000 car allowance.

At this point, the Husband was faced with a difficult decision – does he accept the job at a lower rate, or decline the opportunity and look for another job closer to his prior income? Ultimately, he decided to accept the new job.

Initially after accepting the new job, the Husband continued to pay alimony at the rate of $330 per week. He had received severance pay of $35,000 and was able to temporarily supplement his income from there. However, as the year neared its end, the Husband had depleted all reserves.

The Husband filed a motion on November 24, 2015 for a prospective modification and reduction of his support obligations based upon a substantial change in circumstances. In the meantime, he earned a performance bonus of $6,000, bringing his total compensation t $82,000, which still constituted a $26,000 from his prior income.

The Wife opposed the motion, and questioned the circumstances under which the Husband lost his prior employment, and that even if the loss was involuntary, he had not demonstrated that he could no longer earn at least $108,000. She also stated that the loss of support would create economic difficulties for her.

The parties were unable to resolve their differences and the matter proceeded to a contested hearing. The Husband testified that when he began at the flooring company, he was earning $50,000 and gradually worked his way up to a salary of $108,000. The Court found that he testified credibly that he could not simply walk into a new position at a new company and immediately command the same salary.
Interesting, the Court began its legal analysis by expounding upon a “Catch 22” in which many obligors found themselves under the old statute.

…no matter what decision he or she made in accepting or declining a new position at a lower pay, that decision might subsequently be critiqued, criticized and even legally challenged by an ex-spouse who, in resisting a reduction in alimony, might contend that the supporting spouse made an inappropriate choice and therefore should not receive a reduction in his or her support obligation   … when a supporting spouse lost his or her job and then declined an offer to take a lower paying position…and instead kept searching for a higher paying position while seeking a reduction in support, the supported spouse would often argue that the obligor unreasonably bypassed an opportunity to earn at least some income that could have been used to pay some of the ongoing support obligation…

Reciprocally, if a supporting spouse accepted the offer for new employment at a substantially lower salary and then sought a reduction in support, a supported spouse would often argue that the obligor was underemployed because he or she accepted a position at a significantly decreased level of pay or proven “income potential”…

Judge Jones rejected the suggestion that there is a “one-size-fits-all” legal analysis for approaching and analyzing these types of issues. In that regard, he stated “imputation of income was a discretionary matter not always capable of precise or exact determination”.

After citing the amended alimony statute – N.J.S.A. 2:a:34-23(k) – for guidance as to how to analyze this issue. In doing so, he specifically referenced subsection (2), which expressly references that when an obligor loses his or her employment, a judge may consider the obligor’s documented efforts to obtain replacement employment or pursue an alternative occupation, as well as subsection (3) which provides that a court may consider the obligor’s good faith effort to find remunerative employment at any level in any field.

However, the Judge noted that the amended statute does not expressly establish or provide a specific standard for statutory analysis in situations when an obligor actually obtains new employment at a significantly lower pay, then seeks to reduce his or her support obligation over the supported spouse’s objections.

The Court concluded that as a matter of equity, fairness, as well as the most reasonable, consistent and straightforward analysis would be addressed by the following two-step inquiry:

(1) Was the supporting spouse’s choice in accepting a particular replacement employment opportunity objectively reasonable under the totality of the circumstances?
(2) If so, what if any resulting support adjustment should occur that is fair and reasonable to both parties, given their respective situations?

In applying this two-step inquiry, as well as the statutory mandates, the Court concluded that the loss of income was involuntary and that the Husband made legitimate efforts to obtain new employment in the same industry in good faith.

While the salary in the new position was lower, the Court found that the Husband nonetheless made an objectively reasonable decision in responsibly trying to begin at a new place of employment. In fact, the Court found that the Husband was very fortunate in this economy to find replacement work.

Nor did the Court find any objective evidence that the Husband was deliberately underemployed or unreasonably turned down or avoided other job opportunities at higher income levels.
After considering all the evidence, the Court reduced the Husband’s alimony obligation to $250 per week and his child support obligation to $194 per week.

With this decision, Judge Jones clearly articulated what I have personally heard many obligors say to me when deciding whether to move forward with a first, second or even third motion for a reduction in alimony based upon reduced income. Whatever step an obligor took, the supported spouse had a response; and one that was well supported by case law.

Either way, the supported spouse would argue that the reduction in income constituted underemployment and that the Court should impute income consistent with the obligor’s prior income.

Judge Jones’ decision provides a clearer analysis that Court should undertake in this all-too-familiar situation.
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Eliana Baer, Associate, Fox Rothschild LLPEliana T. Baer is a contributor to the New Jersey Family Legal Blog and a member of the Family Law Practice Group of Fox Rothschild LLP. Eliana practices in Fox Rothschild’s Princeton, New Jersey office and focuses her state-wide practice on representing clients on issues relating to divorce, equitable distribution, support, custody, adoption, domestic violence, premarital agreements and Appellate Practice. You can reach Eliana at (609) 895-3344, or etbaer@foxrothschild.com.

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.