New Jersey Alimony Reform Act of 2014 Q&A
A great deal of inaccurate information is being reported in the media about the New Jersey Alimony Reform Act of 2014 and how it works. While we are not lawyers and we urge you to discuss your specific situation with a qualified attorney, we felt it important to let our members know our answers to the questions that have most frequently been posed to us since the Act was passed on September 10th.
THIS Q AND A IS NOT LEGAL ADVICE. Everyone's circumstances differ and the outcome of a court action is case-specific. It is up to you to determine whether the provisions of the Act apply to your situation. You must consult with an attorney who has read and understands the Act to advise you of your rights and alternatives and the most appropriate action for you to take. If you are acting pro se, there is no substitute for your reading and understanding the Act. But we urge everyone who has an interest in alimony in New Jersey to read the Act. Whether or not you are represented, unless you know what the law says it is impossible to make an educated decision about the advice of your legal counsel or how the law may impact your individual circumstances. We hope that you will find the Q and A of help in understanding and interpreting the new law.
Q: The newspapers have been saying that the Alimony Reform Act of 2014 is not retroactive. Is this true? Does this mean that none of it applies to me?
A: Not true.The Act applies to anyone not yet divorced by a Final Judgment of Divorce. It applies to you if you are in the middle of a divorce but not yet divorced. It also applies if you are already divorced and have legitimate reasons under the new Act to modify your alimony (such as retirement, cohabitation by your ex-spouse or loss of your income) but only if your Final Judgment of Divorce or Settlement Agreement do not have specific provisions as to how these issues would be addressed in the future should they arise.
Q: I have been paying alimony for longer than I was married. The Act says that alimony generally cannot last longer than the years of the marriage for marriages of less than 20 years absent special circumstances. Can I end my alimony now?
A: No. The alimony caps on the duration of alimony apply only to future alimony payers.
Q: I am approaching retirement age and want to retire. Will the Act help me to end my alimony?
A: The Act has specific retirement provisions for alimony payers who were divorced prior to enactment of alimony reform. If you have reached full retirement age under the Social Security Act, you actually retire and your Final Judgment of Divorce or Marital Settlement Agreement does not contain specific retirement provisions, the Act requires a Judge to presume that you are doing so "in good faith." That means that contrary to the past a Judge cannot deny your application because you are healthy and can continue working. Now the Judge must advance proceedings to the next step, which is an investigative hearing called a Plenary Hearing where the recipient has the burden of proof to show why alimony should not end due to retirement.
Q: If I need to retire at retirement age or before, when can I apply for alimony elimination or modification?
A: Under the new law you can apply for termination or modification of your alimony prospectively, meaning before you actually retire. This provision allows all alimony payers to plan for retirement. Prior to the new law it was often necessary to actually retire before a change in alimony could be requested.
Q: Are there any other advantages in the new law to help me retire?
A: Prior to enactment of alimony reform it was up to the payer to prove that they could not afford to pay because income had declined after retirement and that the recipient no longer needed the alimony. Proving that the recipient no longer needed alimony was nearly impossible because there was no burden of proof on the part of the recipient. Under the new law the judge is required to consider whether the alimony recipient should have been able to save for their own retirement. In addition, whereas under the prior law the recipient had the right to be maintained in the marital lifestyle, under the new law, neither party has a greater right to the marital lifestyle than the other.
Q: Can a judge use their discretion and simply dismiss my application for terminating or modifying alimony when I retire?
A: No. The new law specifically requires a judge to produce written findings of fact and conclusions of law when ruling on any application for alimony or alimony modification. This is an important provision.
Q: So the only way to end alimony at retirement is through a court proceeding?
A: Unfortunately, yes. However, we feel that the new law should help many alimony payers reach a settled agreement with their ex-spouse. Because the new law brings the power between the parties closer into balance, we believe that it will be easier to reach a settlement on alimony after retirement, rather than risk having a judge determine the outcome. Some payers may be able to use the new law, in combination with willingness to compromise, to end their alimony and live freely after they reach full retirement age as defined by the Social Security Act.
Q: How can a law that doesn't require a judge to follow specific guidelines change anything?
A: Think of statutes in the area of family law as a public policy statement and a guiding light for judges. The 2014 Act is a sea-change in alimony public policy in New Jersey so we think it will change how the family courts make decisions. Until the enactment of reform on September 10th, the public policy was for Permanent Alimony to be considered first. Permanent Alimony is defined as alimony for life or until there is a material change of circumstance. After enactment of alimony reform, the public policy changed completely. Permanent alimony was eliminated, and two limits on the duration of alimony were introduced, (1) no longer than the duration of the marriage, and (2) an end at retirement. This is a major change. Alimony went from a lifetime obligation to a durational obligation. The definition of duration is a period of specific length. Of course we have to wait and see how Judges interpret the Act, but that is the reason why we need to vigilantly monitor the outcomes of family court proceedings.
Q: If I have a change of circumstance like job loss or illness how will the new law help me?
A: The new law will help in several very important ways. First, prior to the new law it was possible for a judge to deny an application for alimony modification simply by saying that not enough time had passed to establish a long-term change of circumstances that would compel a modification of alimony. Under the new law, the judge is required to investigate whether there is a change of circumstances after 90 days of unemployment. The new law also defines what a change of circumstance is by listing factors for a judge to consider. Previously, it was up to the judge to decide what constituted a change. The new law also provides the judge with the option of temporarily modifying alimony, which gives judges greater flexibility in helping an alimony payer in need. Last, but not least, judges are now required to produce written findings of fact and conclusions of law explaining their decision. All together, these provisions rebalance the power in a post-divorce relationship.
Q: What if my ex enters into a supportive relationship with another person? Can I apply for alimony termination?
A: Yes. In fact, the new law defines cohabitation by listing factors for a judge to consider. These factors differ from prior law in a way that makes it easier to prove cohabitation. For example, it is no longer necessary for the two people to be living together in order for them to be considered cohabiting.
Q: How long will I have to wait? I heard that there is a waiting period before the law takes effect.
A: Wrong. The law took effect immediately after Governor Christie signed it on September 10th. The Act has been the law of our state since that date.
We have been receiving a large volume of phone calls and messages from people wanting to know how the Alimony Reform Act of 2014 affects them. The number of calls has been to high to respond to everyone immediately. If you don't get a response please try again and hopefully we'll be able to answer.
We are not a legal advice agency and we are not matrimonial attorney's so we cannot answer specific questions about your case. We are only able to answer general questions about the provisions of the Act.
A number of different groups, including attorney's and law firms are planning to hold information seminars about the Act. If you would like to attend one of these events please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we may be able to direct you to one of these informational events.
The next phase of implementing the new law will require people to make applications to the family court based on the Act. Please let us know the outcome of your application. We are interested in knowing how the Act is being applied. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Nicholas Scutari was quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying "the law will be revisited in a year to be sure it is having the intended effect." Therefore, we have one year to gather evidence.