Archives: rule of thumb

Yesterday, I blogged on the proposed alimony reform legislation in New Jersey.  At the end of that post, I posited the following questions.  Is this really a radical change, or in many respects, does it simply codify what is often done in practice anyway? Will it really take away advocacy when circumstances so require?

Aside from removing the term "permanent alimony" and perhaps sickening reaction in causes in some people, does the proposed legislation really do more than codify the case law or what was done in practice, in many respects.  Remember, is "permanent alimony" really permanent now anyway?  Can’t people seek to retire already and isn’t retirement a change of circumstances?  Don’t people already negotiate, when appropriate, limited duration alimony when people are divorcing close to retirement age, as opposed to buying a second litigation to occur a few years later? 

The following are some other random thoughts, in no particular order and of no particular importance. 

1)  Is "indefinite alimony" a nicer term for "permanent alimony"

2)  While certainly possible and appropriate in many circumstances under existing law for marriages of less than 20 years, permanent alimony was infrequently given in marriages less than 20 years after the limited duration alimony statute was enacted. In fact, I heard someone on a panel at the State Bar Convention last year state that 20 years was sort of a magic number ensuring permanent alimony.

3)   The concept of imputing income to someone that is unemployed or underemployed essentially  already exists in the case law and child support guidelines, and thus, really is not new.

Continue Reading Random Thoughts Regarding The Proposed Alimony Reform Statute

We have done dozens of posts on this blog about alimony over the last 5 years.  Recent experiences have convinced me that it is time to get basics. Despite all of the cases that say that you can’t use a formula (the rule of thumb we have discussed previously on this blog), more and more, people are espousing a blind adherence to the rule of thumb.  In one recent case with income of a few hundred thousand, an adversary told me that it was the maximum amount of alimony that I can get, despite the fact that it came no where close to meeting my client’s already pared down budget.  In another case, where the income was a few million, one side was arguing that the rule of thumb was a minimum, as if there should be no consideration of any other factors.

Despite the calls for alimony reform and formulas, as we have said many times, courts deciding cases cannot use rules of thumb.  Even when they do, they can’t tell you that they did.  Rather, they have to review the alimony factors set forth in the statute – remember them?  Here, they are again, from N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23(b):

(1) The actual need and ability of the parties to pay;

(2) The duration of the marriage or civil union;

(3) The age, physical and emotional health of the parties;

(4) The standard of living established in the marriage or civil union and the likelihood that each party can maintain a reasonably comparable standard of living;

(5) The earning capacities, educational levels, vocational skills, and employability of the parties;

(6) The length of absence from the job market of the party seeking maintenance;

(7) The parental responsibilities for the children;

(8) The time and expense necessary to acquire sufficient education or training to enable the party seeking maintenance to find appropriate employment, the availability of the training and employment, and the opportunity for future acquisitions of capital assets and income;

(9) The history of the financial or non-financial contributions to the marriage or civil union by each party including contributions to the care and education of the children and interruption of personal careers or educational opportunities;

(10) The equitable distribution of property ordered and any payouts on equitable distribution, directly or indirectly, out of current income, to the extent this consideration is reasonable, just and fair;

(11) The income available to either party through investment of any assets held by that party;

(12) The tax treatment and consequences to both parties of any alimony award, including the designation of all or a portion of the payment as a non-taxable payment; and

(13) Any other factors which the court may deem relevant.

Continue Reading Alimony – Back to Basics

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 on the so called "rule of thumb" several times before.  In fact, we reported on one case last year that specifically said that a formula approach to determine alimony was impermissible.  On the other hand, we also blogged on another case last year where an expert in a legal malpractice case against a divorce lawyer based her opinion that the alimony was too low based upon this formula and the court found this a permissible opinion because the use of a formula was "widely accepted by the members of the matrimonial bar.

The use of the "formula" or "rule of thumb" was disfavored again this month in the case of Eick v. Eick, an unreported (non-precedential) decision from the Appellate Division.  Just as it did last year, the Appellate Division stopped short of saying that the trial judge actually used a formula.  However, the court held:

Plaintiff argues that the remand judge may have used an impermissible formula to determine the amount of alimony, rather than applying the factors required by N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23(b) to the facts shown by the evidence. He contends that the judge subtracted defendant’s annual income of $52,909 from his five-year average income of $94,6322 and then awarded defendant thirty-three percent of the resulting figure. This calculation appears to match the amount of alimony awarded by the judge in this case.

We decline to speculate whether the remand judge used such a formula. Nevertheless, as a general proposition, we agree with plaintiff that use of a percentage formula based only on the parties’ incomes is not authorized by law. Such a formula does not weigh and balance particular factors as listed in the statute and as might affect each individual case.

Just as in the case last year, the court was not precluded from coming to the number that the formula determined, but "… but require additional support in the record for its determination."  So with all of these cases, is the take away that you cannot use a formula, but if a court does, it should make factual findings supporting the amount ordered? 

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Eric Solotoff is the editor of the New Jersey Family Legal Blog and the Co-Chair of the Family Law Practice Group of Fox Rothschild LLP. Certified by the Supreme Court of New Jersey as a Matrimonial Lawyer and a Fellow of the American Academy of Matrimonial Attorneys, Eric practices in Fox Rothschild’s Roseland, New Jersey office though he practices throughout New Jersey. You can reach Eric at (973)994-7501, or esolotoff@foxrothschild.com.
 

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 get one year of alimony for each year of the marriage or you get alimony for half of the length of the marriage?  Is there a rule of thumb (formula)?  In fact, we have recently blogged twice on that issue alone.  In one post, wenoted that the Appellate Division noted unequivocally that a court could not use a formula. In another, we noted that the "rule of thumb" can be used by an expert in a legal malpractice case regarding a divorce to determine if the attorney may have committed malpractice

An unreported (non-precedential) Appellate Division decision released on January 12, 2012 in the case of Newman v. Newman touched on a few of the above issues.  While not boring you with all of the details, the following are the relevant facts.  The marriage was just under 13 years in length and the husband was 51 and the wife 40 at the time of the divorce. There were two children of the marriage.  The Court imputed $122,300 to the husband and $45,000 to the wife for support purposes.  The husband’s actual income was approximately $88,000 but he was provided free housing as an in-kind benefit which accounted for the difference between his cash income and the amount used for support.  The court awarded $27,000 per year in alimony.

Fun facts of this case: (1) the court awarded 10 years of alimony in a marriage of just under 13 years – a result that the Appellate Division deemed "reasonable"; (2) though budgets and factors were analyzed, when you do the math, the alimony was just under 35% of the difference – curiously close to what the so called "rule of thumb" would result in; (3) the court actually quantified an in-kind benefit – this is hardly done often enough though the Child Support Guidelines would seem to require it; (4) the trial judge deemed this 12 1/2 marriage to be "fairly long term"; (5) the husband’s counsel fees alone were more than $100,000 yet he appealed a $5,000 award to the wife’s attorneys.

Clearly, alimony cases are fact sensitive and, if tried, the result could vary from judge to judge.

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Eric Solotoff is the editor of the New Jersey Family Legal Blog and the Co-Chair of the Family Law Practice Group of Fox Rothschild LLP. Certified by the Supreme Court of New Jersey as a Matrimonial Lawyer and a Fellow of the American Academy of Matrimonial Attorneys, Eric practices in Fox Rothschild’s Roseland, New Jersey office though he practices throughout New Jersey. You can reach Eric at (973)994-7501, or esolotoff@foxrothschild.com.

 

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. 

Continue Reading Appellate Court Approves the Use of "Rule of Thumb" Formula to Calculate Alimony – Sort Of

We have previously blogged on the "rule of thumb", 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.  Of course, judges really cannot use this formula and must make findings considering the law and all of the statutory factors which are:

(1) The actual need and ability of the parties to pay;
(2) The duration of the marriage or civil union;
(3) The age, physical and emotional health of the parties;
(4) The standard of living established in the marriage or civil union and the likelihood that each party can maintain a reasonably comparable standard of living;
(5) The earning capacities, educational levels, vocational skills, and employability
of the parties;
(6) The length of absence from the job market of the party seeking maintenance;
(7) The parental responsibilities for the children;
(8) The time and expense necessary to acquire sufficient education or training to
enable the party seeking maintenance to find appropriate employment, the availability of the training and employment, and the opportunity for future acquisitions of capital assets and income;
(9) The history of the financial or nonfinancial contributions to the marriage or
civil union by each party including contributions to the care and education of
the children and interruption of personal careers or educational opportunities;
(10) The equitable distribution of property ordered and any payouts on equitable
distribution, directly or indirectly, out of current income, to the extent this consideration is reasonable, just and fair;
(11) The income available to either party through investment of any assets held by
that party;
(12) The tax treatment and consequences to both parties of any alimony award, including the designation of all or a portion of the payment as a non-taxable payment; and
(13) Any other factors which the court may deem relevant.

While these factors are supposed to be consider and the "rule of thumb" is not, we hear judge’s recommending settlements using this rule of thumb all of the time.

Continue Reading Appellate Court Rejects "Rule of Thumb" Formula to Calculate Alimony – Sort Of

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.

 

Continue Reading A Case Made For Alimony Guidelines – Not in NJ but do we want them?

Earlier today, I blogged about a NY Times article published yesterday about proposed New York legislation to adopt no fault divorce. That articles also noted that there was legislation proposed to set up a standard formula that judges would need to use to determine alimony (known in New York as maintenance).  The article noted that judges would still have discretion to modify those awards, but that the genesis of the proposed legislation is to prevent "widely inconsistent awards." 

While New Jersey child support guidelines to use where the parties’ combined, net after tax income is $187,200 or less, we haves no such guidelines regarding alimony.  Further, I have heard of no proposal to implement them.  There is however, a dirty little secret called a "rule of thumb" that is often used to get a ballpark of what alimony should/could be.   Simply put, you subtract the lower income (or what that person could earn) from the higher income and take one-third of the difference. 

The rule of thumb is very simplistic and does not take into account any special factors other than income or earning capacity. It does not take into account actual taxes paid, lifestyle, sacrifices made, equitable distribution received or any of the other statutory factors.  Moreover, judges cannot use this to calculate alimony if the issue is tried before a judge. 

Do we want something like this in New Jersey?  While it may certainly make things easy and prevent wide deviations you may get from courtroom to courtroom and/or county to county, one size rarely fits all.  Rather, the statutory factors, if fully presented to the Court, and adequately considered Adan implemented by the judge, should result in a fair and reasonable award.  The rule of thumb is a useful sanity check, but no formula will be able to capture all scenarios.