Two Sides Clash over NJ Alimony Bill
As reported by the DailyJournal.Com, talks over competing alimony reform bills are becoming as heated as the divorce fights they both aim to regulate.
A group proposing to overhaul New Jersey’s alimony laws says legislation proposed by the New Jersey State Bar Association to do the same thing would hamper actual reform needed in the state.
Representatives with New Jersey Alimony Reform and New Jersey Women for Alimony Reform claim their bill, A3909, which would provide guidelines on awarding alimony based on the length of the marriage, has been stalled since the recent introduction of legislation backed by the bar association.
“It (the bar association’s bill) doesn’t go anywhere near as far as where it needs to go. We believe it was a diversionary tactic on their part to try and stall reform in any meaningful way,” said Michael Turner, a lobbyist representing the two alimony reform groups.
The two organizations, which represent about 2,400 members, hope to get their reform passed before the end of the legislative session. They say the competing bill only benefits the bank accounts of divorce attorneys.
But Brian Schwartz, chairman of the bar association’s family law section, said the bill his group supports would reshape alimony while still being fair to both those who pay it and those who receive it. He said the alimony reform groups just don’t want to pay alimony anymore.
He said the bar association legislation, A4525, was written in part by matrimonial attorneys who represent clients on both ends of alimony, he said.
“Our bill is intended to give the reform that’s needed instead of arbitrary guidelines,” Schwartz said.
But the alimony reform groups said the guidelines in their bill are similar to those that are commonplace in other legal situations, such as child support, and help people going through the process know what to expect from the judicial system with a divorce.
Their proposal would provide the spouse with the lower income an economic bridge until that person can live independent of alimony.
Sheila Taylor of Ocean Grove, who is president of NJWAR, compared alimony reform to that of reforms to welfare and unemployment benefits, both of which are cut off after time.
“Why is there a private entitlement system called alimony? You can get it for the rest of your life,” said Taylor, who is ordered to pay her ex-husband $1,250 per month in alimony even though she said he is engaged to and living with another woman.
“There should be some onus on the individual recipient,” Taylor said. “You need to get a job.”
Taylor, whose alimony was based on her former income as a nurse, said she is in arrears because she now is on permanent disability and can’t get a modification despite trying five times. She said legal fees for each attempt range from $5,000 to $7,000, but she’s started representing herself because of the cost.
The alimony reform groups say they have incorporated two parts of the bar association-backed legislation into their proposal:
• The bar association’s bill would give judges better guidance on how to decide when to change alimony if circumstances like a job loss or health issue change for the former spouse who is paying it.
• It sets parameters for changing alimony when the former spouse receiving the payments tries to skirt the law by moving in with, but not actually marrying, a new romantic partner.
But the alimony reform groups disagree with a final provision of the bar association-backed bill, which also would give judges points to consider when the paying spouse wants a reduction in alimony because of retirement.
They said the provision essentially sets up “Divorce Round 2,” causing both sides to once again go into acrimonious proceedings with their former spouse. The presumption, they said, is that alimony should end at retirement.
But Schwartz said that the alimony reform groups’ proposal would “open Pandora’s box” because former spouses could potentially reopen their divorce negotiations to recoup other benefits they waived in exchange for alimony.
“Part of the problem when you have two people who want to fight, they’ll find a way to fight about it,” he said.
DIVORCE – Proposed Bill would set Guidelines for New Jersey Alimony Payments
As reported by Philly.com, A bill sponsored by Assemblyman Charles Mainor (D., Hudson) would set guidelines for alimony, with formulas determining the length of an award based on the length of a marriage. Modeled after a Massachusetts law passed in 2011, the bill includes a provision that would end alimony payments with the payer’s retirement, though a judge could require the payments to be extended under certain circumstances.
New Jersey does not have a formula for deciding the length of alimony, which is not awarded in all divorce cases. Payers now have to petition the court to end awards based on retirement or changed financial circumstances.
Defenders of the state’s current approach, including some family law attorneys and groups representing the interests of women, say judges shouldn’t be bound by formulas to decide individual cases.
The New Jersey Bar Association family law section and state chapter of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers back a bill sponsored by Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt (D., Camden) and Assemblyman Thomas Giblin (D., Passaic) that would make some changes in alimony, including a provision that would specify alimony could be terminated or modified upon the payer’s retirement.
The bill also would change the term permanent alimony to indefinite.
“We shouldn’t make law over one or two exceptions or quirks,” said Brian Schwartz, a family law lawyer in Summit who is chair of the bar’s family law section.
State court statistics show alimony is awarded in 20 percent to 30 percent of divorce cases, Schwartz said. Anecdotally, he said, permanent alimony awards are “rare” – and the number of people jailed for not paying alimony is “infinitesimal.” He petitions courts regularly to get people jailed, “and it never happens,” he said.
Schwartz said that even if New Jersey set alimony guidelines that still allowed judges to exercise discretion, judges would rarely deviate from them, given how infrequently they deviate from child-support guidelines. He also said guidelines could lead women in abusive relationships to stay in marriages longer.
Proponents of Mainor’s bill – who packed a large hearing room for last week’s four-hour hearing before the Assembly Judiciary Committee – say the changes proposed by the bar association in the Giblin and Lampitt bill wouldn’t provide enough certainty for alimony payers.
“Every person should be able to walk out of court knowing that there is an ending point,” Mainor told the committee. He asked lawmakers to “be a part of not allowing New Jersey to be the state where many people that had a divorce are saying, ‘It’s cheaper to keep her.’ ”
Mainor introduced the bill after lobbying by New Jersey Alimony Reform, a group formed in 2011 by Rutgers University biology professor Tom Leustek, who was frustrated by the terms of the alimony he pays.
Leustek said a court agreement after his 2008 divorce required him to pay $2,000 a month in permanent alimony to his former wife, who has a doctorate in psychology but who wasn’t earning much shortly before the divorce, when she started a private practice. The award was based on a snapshot of their income from before the divorce, not the entirety of their 24-year marriage, Leustek said.
“I agreed to it. I settled. But I see it more like coercion,” Leustek said in a phone interview. “If someone comes up to you in an alleyway with a gun and says, ‘Give up your pocketbook,’ would anyone say you agreed to give up your pocketbook? That’s what divorce is like for the person with exposure to lifetime alimony.”
It is not unusual for states to allow indefinite alimony, said Sally Goldfarb, a Rutgers University law professor and expert in family law.
It’s also not unusual to leave the terms of alimony to a judge’s discretion, she said.
“Traditionally, alimony awards have not been subject to a mathematical formula, in New Jersey or anywhere else,” Goldfarb said.
In recent years, however, several states have moved toward formula-based alimony guidelines – spurred by groups like Leustek’s.Family law attorneys are split on alimony guidelines, said Maria Cognetti, a lawyer in central Pennsylvania who is president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers.
“When you don’t have guidelines, you are kind of at the mercy of who is your judge and what is their personal take on alimony,” Cognetti said in a phone interview.
Proponents of alimony reform say current laws reflect an era when women had fewer opportunities.
“When these laws were originally passed, people were dying in their 60s. Now they’re living until their 90s,” said Steve Hitner, who led the effort that prompted Massachusetts to rewrite its alimony laws in 2011.
Hitner said he was ordered to pay his wife of 23 years alimony indefinitely after they divorced in 1999. When sales at his printing business declined, he petitioned the court to reduce the payments. He was unsuccessful, fell into debt, and filed for bankruptcy, he said.
“The same person you couldn’t live with financially while you were married – you’re tied to that person for life,” Hitner said.
Kathleen Savage, 48, a dental hygienist from Sewell, said she knew she would have to pay alimony to her ex-husband, who receives disability for a back injury and who hadn’t worked for 12 years before their divorce in 2010.
She didn’t expect the alimony would be “for the rest of my life or his life, whoever goes first,” Savage said in a phone interview.
Leustek, whose group has several thousand members, said he’d heard “legions of horror stories” from people whose requests to reduce alimony payments have been routinely denied by judges.
He’s not trying to end alimony, he said; “we’re just looking to make it fair.”
But for every alimony payer who believes he or she is paying too much, “you can find a person that says they’re receiving too little,” Goldfarb said.
“Unquestionably, the force behind these changes comes from people paying alimony who would like to pay little or no alimony,” she said. “We are not sufficiently hearing the voices of people on the other side of the debate.”
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