As a marital law attorney for three decades, Tom Jenkins thought he figured out the unwritten rules of thumb for awarding alimony.
The rough, inconsistent formula wasn’t something to count on. But for New Jersey divorce lawyers and their clients, it is better than a blind guess.
A bill on Gov. Chris Christie’s desk proposes more specific guidelines for Family Court judges in determining payment amount and duration of alimony. The bill ends permanent alimony and takes into consideration the paying spouse’s retirement and an unexpected loss of income.
“It gives a little more guidance to judges,” said Jenkins, a partner with Trace Jenkins in Woodbury.
Courts now have complete discretion when deciding alimony cases, according to attorney Amy Goldstein, who worked with Assemblyman Troy Singleton on one version of the bill.
“One of the goals of this bill was to try to make it more predictable so when people get divorced, they can plan for the future and it reduces the cost of going through a divorce,” Goldstein said.
“It’s hard to look at a client and say, ‘I have absolutely no idea.’ ”
Goldstein and Singleton began drafting Bill A971 in 2012. Like a marriage, its final version (A845) is a compromise, a composite of three bills sponsored in the Assembly by Singleton in Burlington County, Pamela Lampitt in Camden County and Charles Manor of Hudson County.
A845 passed the state Senate and Assembly in June.
“Neither side is kicking their heels up in glee,” noted Jeralyn Lawrence, family law expert for the New Jersey Bar Association.
It’s not a perfect bill, but it’s better, she added.
“It’s definitely a lot of compromise. You didn’t get everything you wanted, but you got what you can live with.”
In spite of a Rutgers University Eagleton Institute poll that showed New Jerseyans in favor of ending lifetime alimony, lobbying organizations remain split.
According to the 2013 poll’s results, 65 percent of respondents believe alimony is for “financial support until the former spouse becomes financially independent.”
About 47 percent of respondents believe alimony should be an amount that provides for basic needs, while 34 percent said alimony should be set so both parties maintain the same standard of living.
The New Jersey Alimony Reform group was created with a primary goal of eliminating permanent spousal support. Tom Leustek, NJAR’s leader, believes his group was victorious.
He joined the alimony reform battle during his own divorce.
“I don’t think anyone intended for the current alimony law to be unfair,” Leustek noted, calling standing laws “oppressive” and “harsh.”
“It was written a long time ago ... women were generally homemakers.”
Leustek was married for 24 years. His ex-wife had a Ph.D and earned more than he did early in the marriage. She attempted to open a private practice, but it didn’t work out, claimed Leustek, a Rutgers University professor.
“A few years go by. I find myself in a divorce and I’m told I’m going to be paying permanent alimony,” he recalled.
The bill removes permanent alimony and adds durational limits. For marriages shorter than 20 years, alimony could not exceed the length of the marriage. Judges still have some leeway in deciding how much a spouse should pay.
Lifetime alimony, though, continues to be a sticking point for The Displaced Homemakers of New Jersey, a group advocating for women who left the workforce to care for children.
Permanent alimony “remains a necessity for many of the women we serve,” according to Cathi Rendfrey, who heads the group.
When a long-term marriage ends, women who left the work force could have outdated skills, face age discrimination and often have a much lower earning potential, she argued.
While Displaced Homemakers reluctantly endorsed the compromised bill, it believes “lifetime alimony should be assessed on a case-by-case basis,” Rendfrey added.
“For some, not to get alimony after a long-term marriage could make her homeless or just about — always struggling.”
But Leustek argued permanent alimony could bankrupt the payer, particularly in retirement. Retirees on a limited income have a big slice of Social Security garnered for alimony payments, he said.
“No party has a greater right to a certain lifestyle than the other,” Leustek added. He believes the bill accomplishes a balance.
One of its provisions would allow alimony payers at maximum retirement age to apply for a judge’s review of the alimony settlement.
If Christie signs the bill, it would not be retroactive, but retirement provisions would apply.
While Goldstein is hopeful the governor will sign the bill this month, Leustek said a “significant number” of alimony reformers remain unhappy with the final version.
“They’re sending letters, asking the governor to veto it,” he noted. “I knew going into this I wasn’t going to make everyone happy.”
Jenkins sees the bill as “a step in the right direction.” Lawrence hopes Christie agrees.
“I’m not sure why he wouldn’t, knowing there’s strong bipartisan support,” she explained. “I’m hoping he would act sooner than later because my practice is in limbo.
“You don’t know how to settle a case right now because you don’t know what law applies.”