Alimony Reform in New Jersey

alimony reform njOn September 10, 2014, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie signed into law an update to the state’s alimony law. The bill was a result of years of work by alimony reformers in NJ who aimed to alter existing alimony guidelines to address what were seen by them as unfair burdens on the higher earning spouse. 

While proponents of alimony reform didn’t feel the bill went far enough to address issues, the bill resulted in a marked change in how alimony is awarded. Opponents of the reform bill say the revised law goes too far by imposing limits on the initial award that may not be fair based on the facts surrounding the marriage.

The History of Alimony in NJ

Prior to the revision of the law, the NJ family court used alimony as a way to compensate the lessor-earning spouse for their non-economic contributions during the marriage. The guiding principle was that alimony should have the end result of allowing the lower earning spouse to maintain the standard of living they had become accustomed to. 

Alimony was awarded in addition to a division of assets and was sometimes structured as a permanent payment that the lower earning spouse would receive for life. This structure evolved from a time where few women worked outside of the home and where women were largely dependent on the income of their spouses for survival. 

NJ alimony reformers had several issues with the way alimony was structured and awarded:

  • Marriages that were relatively short in duration could result in a permanent alimony award.
  • Higher earning spouses had difficulty having alimony payments adjusted due to changes in economic conditions, including significant decreases in income. This includes individuals who reached retirement age, but were forced to stay in the workforce to maintain their alimony payments.
  • Retirement assets were “double dipped” as the accounts were divided as a part of the financial settlement, then required to be used as a source of income for continued alimony payments after retirement.
  • There were no adjustments for living expenses even if the lower earning spouse lived with a significant other, as long as the two did not get married.

The bill that was passed and signed into law in September addressed some, but not all of these issues.

Changes to Alimony in NJ

The bill made several updates to how alimony is calculated and the duration of alimony payments. The goal of legislators was to transform alimony payments into a way for individuals to transition into being self-sufficient through their own employment. The largest change was altering the view on duration of alimony payments.  Rather than presuming that alimony awards will be permanent, the length of time of alimony payments directly correlated with the length of the marriage.

Changes in alimony law include:

  • If a marriage was less than 20 years in duration, the term for alimony payments would be limited to the length of the marriage.  
  • Judges would have the ability to alter or stop alimony payments in the event that the lesser earning spouse lives with a significant other – even if the two individuals did not marry.
  • Withdrawal of the assumption that alimony awards should be permanent.
  • The spouse paying alimony can now petition the court after 90 days of unemployment for a reduction or temporary suspension of alimony payments.
  • The reformed law now has a “rebuttable presumption” that alimony payments will stop once the payer reaches the age of full retirement (as defined by the social security rules.) If the payer retires earlier, they must demonstrate to the court that their change of employment status was reasonable.

Application of Alimony Law Revision in NJ

The newly signed law only applies to new divorces and alimony awards. For the most part, those with existing alimony agreements will not be effected by the change. The exceptions are:

  • The new law put in place a “rebuttable presumption” that alimony payments shall cease once the higher earning spouse reaches 67, the age of full retirement.
  • Payees can petition the court after 90 days of a reduction or cessation of income.