At a NewsWorks town hall forum in Burlington, N.J., on Wednesday, when we asked what issues affecting South Jersey we should examine on air and online, one topic that came up repeatedly and vociferously was alimony reform.
The group is pushing for an end to lifetime alimony awards and for some restrictions on the discretion of judges who set alimony payments.
Currently in New Jersey, when a divorce judge awards permanent alimony, it’s usually in the case of a long marriage and demonstrable economic need — but it may also be awarded in the case of marriages lasting as little as 10 years.
The law allows for some flexibility in a bad economy — if the paying ex-spouse loses a job, say — but the cost of going to court to petition for an adjustment is often prohibitive. This too often results in financial ruin for the paying ex-spouse, NJAR says.
Tom Leustek, a Rutgers plant biology professor and NJAR president, says New Jersey’s alimony laws are outdated, having been enacted when most women stayed home with the kids and men were considered the principal income earners.
Bills now moving forward in the N.J. Senate and Assembly (S1388 and A685) would change child support and alimony laws to allow for payment adjustments in the event of changes affecting the payer’s income.
It’s different in every state. In Pennsylvania, if the court determines alimony to be reasonable and necessary, the judge has pretty wide discretion as well: the length of time a person pays may be based on the length of the marriage, the time it would take the recipient to get a job, or the timing of a life event like retirement.
In Delaware, alimony payments last no longer than half the length of the marriage, unless the marriage exceeded 20 years, in which case payments may be ordered indefinitely, ending only upon the remarriage or cohabitation of the receiving spouse.
Granting alimony is not automatic in any state. Defenders of the status quo say that, in New Jersey and elsewhere, permanent alimony is the exception, not the rule.
Both sides seem to agree that some form of compensation is acceptable. But when it’s awarded, is it applied fairly and reasonably?