When laws get changed, the preamble to the statute and/or the legistlative history often tells you the perceived need for the change. As an example, when the palimony law, which we have blogged on numerous times before, changed a few years ago, the preamble of the amendment to the statute mentioned several palimony cases
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."
As a continuation to my alimony-themed posts, the particular issue that is the subject of this blog post may come as a surprise to some supporting spouses; namely, the fact that the term and amount of a limited duration alimony obligation can be lengthened in some rare circumstances.
New Jersey Courts do have authority to modify the amount and term limited duration alimony. In the case of modifications of limited duration alimony, the alimony statute, N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23(c), provides as follows:
An award of alimony for a limited duration may be modified based either upon changed circumstances, or upon the nonoccurrence of circumstances that the court found would occur at the time of the award. The court may modify the amount of such an award, but shall not modify the length of the term except in unusual circumstances.
Rothfeld v. Rothfeld (App. Div. 2008), while unpublished, is just one example of this portion of the statute in action. In Rothfeld, the parties divorced after an approximately seven (7) year marriage. They had two (2) children: Jonathan, who was born on September 19, 1996; and Martin, who was born on September 15, 1998. Both parties were members of the New Jersey Bar and the husband had an active private practice. The wife had not returned to active practice, however, as a result of her parenting obligations with respect to the children, particularly Jonathan, which had prevented her from doing so.
In reaching their divorce settlement, the parties agreed upon “limited duration alimony” in the amount of $500 per week for four years, effective April 1, 2003. According to the wife, at the time the PSA was negotiated, “it was assumed that [she] would be able to obtain per diem work in the law field.”
As we know, limited duration alimony ("LDA") is alimony for a definite period of time. Unlike rehabilitative alimony where there is a goal in mind to be reached by the end of the rehabilitation period and which can possibly be extended of the goal has not been reached, per the statute, the term of LDA is not supposed to be able to be modified except for "unusual circumstances." Of course, even limited duration alimony is subject to modification based upon "changed circumstances." Of note, however, is that retirement has been recognized as a possible change of circumstances sufficient to seek a modification.
The issue of whether early retirement could be used by an alimony payor in order to terminate his LDA obligation was recently addressed in the case of Hendrickson v. Hendrickson, an unreported (non-precedential) opinion released on November 5, 2012. In that case, the parties agreed to an 8 year term of LDA at the time of the divorce in 2006, in the amount of $265 per week, that actually was reduced to $145 per week to take into account that the wife’s child support obligation because the husband had custody of the children.
The husband had been working at Fort Monmouth for more than 30 years when it closed in 2011. The husband asserted that though he had been offered a position in Aberdeen, Maryland, the net effect of the transfer would have resulted in a reduction of income and increased expenses. Moreover, he was able to retire for health reasons and collect his retirement benefits. As a result of a claimed inability to pay, the husband filed a motion to terminate his LDA obligation.
The trial court denied the request finding that the early retirement was not a change of circumstances. An unsuccessful motion for reconsideration was denied, as well. The Appellate Division affirmed the decision, but for different reasons.
This being a family law blog, we talk about alimony a lot. One reason is that, because there are no guidelines, only factors to consider, alimony is one of the more difficult issues to resolve. How many years should it be for? When is it permanent? What does permanent really mean? Is there a rule that you…
Many marital settlement agreements provide that a payee spouse shall receive what is legally classified as “limited duration alimony” from the other spouse. While not “permanent”, alimony of a limited duration is designed for a situation where the payee spouse contributed to a generally short-term marriage where the marriage itself displayed indicia of a marital partnership, and the payee spouse has skills and education enabling him or her to return to the workforce. LDA is oftentimes distinguished from other forms of alimony known as “reimbursement alimony” and “rehabilitative alimony,” which are more tailored to facilitating the payee spouse’s ability to earn or to make that spouse whole for sacrifices made during the marriage.
The question then becomes, for the purpose of this blog entry, can LDA be extended, especially where the term was agreed to in a settlement agreement. N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23(c) allows for modification of the amount of LDA, but it also prohibits modification of the term of payment except in the case of the broadly termed “unusual circumstances.” The Appellate Division recently took up this issue in the unpublished (not precedential) decision of Rothfeld v. Rothfeld. There, the parties entered into a settlement agreement providing the Wife with four years of LDA, at $500 per week. Also contained in the settlement agreement was the Wife’s representation that she would be able to continue the standard of living that she enjoyed during the marriage because, in addition to her alimony payments and assets received via equitable distribution, she was able to earn income.
When parties resolve their divorce via a settlement agreement, can they agree that neither party will seek to modify the agreed upon terms of alimony and child support? In New Jersey, a court may generally modify a support obligation at any point in time to achieve equity inherent in this State’s alimony law. For instance, as detailed countless times on this blog, a party must establish that they have experienced a substantial and continuing change in circumstances under the seminal case of Lepis v. Lepis, 83 N.J. 139 (1980), in order to merit some form of support modification.
An "anti"-Lepis clause, however, attempts to limit the court’s ability to modify via a waiver by the parties to seek such modification. To be enforceable, the clause must fulfill several conditions. First, the parties must include such language in the settlement agreement "with full knowledge of all present and reasonably foreseeable future circumstances," and second, "must bargain for a fixed payment or establish the criteria for payment to the dependent spouse, irrespective of circumstances that in the usual case would give rise to Lepis modifications of their agreement."
However, consistent with my assertion above that such clauses are enforceable – until they are not enforceable – the overriding legal principle in New Jersey is that "If circumstances have made the parties’ standards unreasonable, they can in extreme cases be modified. In less extreme cases . . . the payments can be accrued with enforcement conditioned upon the payment of reasonable periodic payments."
I tell virtually every client I work with that the Case Information Statement which must be completed by anyone going through the formal divorce process in NJ is one of the most important documents to be completed – arguably, the most important document.
The recent unpublished decision of Raesky v. Brody, A-6148-08T1, decided May 26, 2010, reinforces my mantra. When completing a Case Information Statement it is important to be honest (it’s a document signed under oath with the risk of penalty for perjury), realistic, and thorough. The budget, assets and liabilities listed on this document will assist a judge in determining the issues of spousal support and the division of assets. These statements are the maps which judges follow to lead them to a final determination of these issues.
By over inflating your budget, you give the other side the ability to poke holes at your credibility. Sometimes the thinking that the higher my budget the more money I can get may backfire, as it appears to have done for Ms. Brody. Also, in the case where the budget is artificially low, the payor spouse’s credibility will be questioned. If it is the payee spouse with an inaccurately low budget, they run the risk of receiving inadequate support and thus they’re unable to meet their needs let alone maintain even a semblance of the marital standard of living.
A common misconception in New Jersey is that both spouses can use the same attorney for their divorce. My local paper recently had an article about divorces in the current economy. One attorney was quoted as intimating that this was true; the attorney was speaking of uncontested divorces in which the parties agree on issues and the seek the dissolution of their marriage. While I am certain that the attorney’s comments were taken out of context, as one of the points in the article was a concern about legal fees, this is a question that comes to me often. A client will ask me if I can represent both spouses, even if they have an agreement. The answer is a resounding, no.
The ethics rules in our state are very clear that one attorney cannot represent both spouses in a divorce. Simply, it is a conflict of interest. The New Jersey Supreme Court has said on many occasions, that “one of the most basic responsibilities incumbent on a lawyer is the duty of loyalty to his or her clients. From that duty issues the prohibition against representing clients with conflicting interests."( In re Opinion No. 653 of the Advisory Comm. on Prof’l Ethics, 132 N.J. 124, 129 (1993)). Our state has a very strong policy in which there should not be even an “appearance” of a possible conflict of interest. This is to protect the clients.
Imagine a scenario in which one spouse has been home raising children, and the other has been working throughout a twenty year marriage. This is a situation in which alimony will be an issue. Certainly, the non working spouse and the working spouse may have differing positions about the amount and term of alimony. Most people agree that in these circumstances, the parties will want to have their own attorneys. But what about the situations where both parties are working, and they have a house and a couple of retirement accounts. Many people believe that in this situation, they do not need two attorneys and both use the same lawyer. Well, they can’t.
In an interesting unreported decision released yesterday in the case of Christopher v. Christopher, the Appellate Division reversed a trial court opinion granting the wife permanent alimony.
The parties were married 2006 and the Complaint for Divorce was filed in December 2004. Interestingly, the trial court found and the Appellate Division affirmed the tacking…