Alimony law has never been a hotter topic in New Jersey than now, with waves of reform laws contested and clarified in the past couple of years.
Under the Alimony Reform Act of 2014 (“Act”), spouses receiving alimony could have their payments reduced or terminated if it was found that they were “cohabitating” with another partner-and the ex-spouse did not necessarily have to be living full-time with the new partner. Since the law was passed, Courts have been deciding some of its less than clear details, including when it should apply and how it should be enforced.
Earlier this month, the New Jersey Supreme Court took on questions about enforcing divorce settlement agreements under the Act in the case Quinn v. Quinn. In that case, the two sides agreed in their 2006 property settlement agreement that if the wife cohabits, all alimony would stop. The lower court decided that the agreement was enforceable, but said that the alimony payments would be suspended rather than terminated, since the judge concluded that the wife ended cohabitation at the time of the ex-husband’s application lawsuit and there was a great income disparity between the former husband and wife.
The Supreme Court reversed that decision. The high court decided that the best interests of the public requires that mutual agreements be enforced, especially when it’s clear that both sides understood the agreement and freely signed it.
The Court also said that property settlement agreements should be enforced unless they are grossly unfair and one-sided. Unlike child support, the terms of alimony can be negotiated between adult and informed people who do so voluntarily.
Finally, the Court finally decided that property settlement agreements which specify the terms for alimony termination should be enforced (short of gross unfairness) and that the courts do not have the power to change their terms. In this case, it was irrelevant that the wife had stopped cohabitating, since she broken the condition of the agreement that upon cohabitation, alimony would stop. Two judges dissented from the decision, claiming that a court’s inability to change alimony terms based on economic factors goes against the public interest.
Spouses considering settlement agreements that deal with alimony should be aware of any financial rights they may be preemptively giving away, and know that they likely cannot seek sympathy from a courts later. In these situations, it can’t hurt to be very careful – it’s likely that alimony law, and the many issues that stem from it, will continue to be hotly debated by our courts. Loree Varella, Rutgers School of Law Newark candidate for a JD degree in May 2016 collaborated with me on this blog. She is Associate Editor of the Rutgers Computer and Technology Law Journal and Managing Research Editor of that publication.