There has been an alimony reform movement that has been gaining traction throughout the country.  Some of the major concerns appear to be this issue of permanent alimony and the lack of uniformity in alimony awards, both in amount and duration, from case to case.  In the recent past, alimony laws have been reformed in Florida, Massachusetts and Maryland.  Is New Jersey next?

On March 7, 2013, A3909 was introduced in the New Jersey Assembly, which, if passed, would radically change alimony as we know it in New Jersey. 

The following are a highlight of the changes:

  • All references to permanent alimony are deleted from the statute, though, as noted below, for marriages of more than 20 years, an indefinite award of alimony can be be granted
  • The concept of imputing income to someone that is unemployed or underemployed, which already exists in the case law and child support guidelines, would be codified
  • The amount of limited duration alimony should not exceed the recipient’s need or 30 to 35 percent in the difference between the parties gross incomes at the time of the initial award, though a court would have the discretion to deviate.  Some reasons for deviation would be advanced age, chronic illness, unusual health circumstances, whether the payer is providing or ordered to provide health insurance to the recipient, sources and amounts of unearned income not allocated in equitable distribution, the recipient’s inability to become self-supporting based upon the abuse of the payer, and others, including a catch all "any other factors that a court deems relevant and material."


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Alimony is supposed to be decided based upon the statutory factors, right?  There really isn’t a formula to determine alimony, right?  Even if there is this formula that is used to get a ball park figure for a range of alimony, judge’s can’t use it, right?  So what happens when they do? 

We have blogged

In August 2011, I posted an article on this blog entitled "Appellate Court Rejects ‘Rule of Thumb’ Formula to Calculate Alimony – Sort Of."  In that article, I noted that there was a dirty little secret used by judges and lawyers in New Jersey to come up with a "ball park" as to what alimony should be. This "rule of thumb" does not take into account all of the statutory factors. Rather, the formula simply subtracts the lower income (real or imputed) from the and multiplies the difference by a percentage. I have been told that that percentage is 30% or one-third in the northern part of the state and 25% in the southern part.

More importantly, I noted that judges really cannot use this formula and must make findings considering the law and all of the statutory factors.  This post was as a result of a case where the judge seemingly used the formula to determine alimony.  The Appellate Division remanded the matter to the trial court to determine alimony using the alimony factors.

So much to my surprise, a new case came out yesterday emanating from a legal malpractice case filed by a litigant against her divorce attorney.  Lo and behold, the Appellate Division notes that using this "rule of thumb is an appropriate way to calculate alimony. 


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On July 3, 2011, there was on op-ed in the New York Times by Alexandra Harwin entitled Ending the Alimony Guessing Game.

In the piece, she posits that

The unpredictability of alimony rules imposes several costs. Negotiating a settlement deal is much harder when spouses have no idea what they’ll end up with if they take their chances in court. Litigation drags on and the bills pile up when lawyers and experts have to prove their clients deserve any alimony at all. All the while, the emotional costs mount as people awaiting divorce continue in unhappy marriages; some stay married indefinitely because they don’t know if divorce will leave them with enough money to make it on their own. That’s particularly troubling in cases of domestic violence: some wives endure years of abuse because they can’t be sure husbands who control the family finances will be required to give them the money they need to live if they leave. New York’s law minimizes these costs by establishing a mathematical formula to calculate temporary alimony, which one spouse pays the other while the divorce is pending; it also allows judges to adjust those awards up or down under special circumstances.

She also believes that guidelines would make the judges jobs easier and the divorce process fairer.

At first blush, this makes sense – but does it really?  Since all alimony guidelines are income based (and as she points out, they are only for temporary support), they ignore parties’ individual circumstances that are not income related.  In a way, guidelines presume that all peoples expenses are the same, that all people with similar income pay the same amount of taxes, that there are no special circumstances, that some families may be savers while others spend every penny earned (and then some), etc.

In NJ, to the extent possible, the goal of temporary support is to maintain the status quo. Sometimes it seems like or certainly could feel to the support payer to being unfair, especially where the other spouse is not working and the payor is paying for most direct expenses plus some amount for personal expenses on top of that.  The risk with guidelines, however, is that certain bills could never get paid if the personal responsible is not given enough money to pay and the other party is not required to make direct payments. 

On the other hand, does New Jersey have de facto guidelines anyway?  More and more, you hear about the "rule of thumb" – i.e. a mathematical formula where the lower income (or what that person could earn if not employed or working to their capacity) is subtracted from the payor’s income and alimony is fixed at one-third of the difference.  You see lawyers use this all of the time.  You see judges do this, even when they know that they cant, in trying to settle cases or even in decisions after a trial.  They don’t say that they are doing it but you can do the math and see that they are. The rule of thumb may be helpful to get a starting point for review, but if it is the absolute end point, ignoring all other factors, that could be a problem.


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