New Jersey, along with several states across the nation, currently faces a movement to reform its alimony laws. A recent article in The New York Times detailed the reform effort, which has been spearheaded by alimony payers who hope that, among other things, a revised law will curtail permanent alimony and ease the financial burdens which they believe that alimony imposes on them.
The primary goals of the movement, led by the group named New Jersey Alimony Reform, are twofold. First, it wants to revise the “outdated” alimony laws currently in place and second, it wants to “inform the public” about the current system. The objectives include making alimony proportional to the length of the marriage, providing consistent treatment in all cases and creating a category of “unique circumstances.”
The suggestion to make alimony proportional to the length of the marriage is often viewed as an attempt to create a “formula” for alimony. Imposing a compulsory formula in an area where judges have previously enjoyed virtually unfettered discretion is a controversial issue. Randall Kessler, chair of the Family Law Section of the American Bar Association says that “alimony victims are lobbying to get rid of alimony, when they should be lobbying to get rid of a particular judge.”
Under the present New Jersey alimony laws, courts must consider no less than 13 different “factors” when determining alimony. Some proponents of alimony reform advocate replacing those with a simple formula, which would eliminate the discretion that New Jersey judges have in deciding alimony awards. New Jersey Family Court Judges are now permitted to take into account both financial contributions (like income), and non-financial contributions (like raising the children). Revising the current laws could restrict a judge’s ability to take into account the unique circumstances of each case.
Another major goal is the elimination of permanent alimony. Reformers feel that permanent alimony is an obsolete concept which harkens back to a period where divorced women were incapable of supporting themselves after separation. They point to statistics which show the increasing equality among dual income couples, noting that nearly 40% of working wives make more money than their husbands.
Many in the reform movement view lifetime alimony as a “prison sentence” for the paying spouse, a sentence that rarely gets reduced or commuted and one that is increasingly expensive to appeal. One New Jersey State Senator echoed this sentiment, stating that revisiting an alimony ruling “doesn’t happen with great regularity and that process of revisiting is expensive, and a burden many applicants can’t handle procedurally or economically.”
In a recent article, Susan A. Feeney, the President of the New Jersey State Bar Association, expressed the need for caution with alimony reform. Calling the current call for reform “misguided,” Ms. Feeney notes that New Jersey currently has one of the most comprehensive alimony laws in the nation. She cautions that any reform to alimony should examine all of the issues at stake and the potential impact that reform will have on the lives of both spouses.
A joint resolution recently introduced in the New Jersey State Legislature will create a Blue Ribbon Commission to Study Alimony Reform. The Commission will consider many different factors pertaining to alimony, including a comparison of New Jersey alimony laws to those of other states.