Hashing out finances could get easier for divorcing couples in New Jersey if a bundle of alimony reform measures gets signed into law.
Assembly Bill 845, touted by its authors as a melding of several viewpoints on the issue, passed by overwhelming majorities in the Senate and Assembly in June and is pending Gov. Chris Christie’s signature.
“We want to be fair to both those who receive alimony and those who pay alimony,” said Assemblyman Troy Singleton, D-7th of Palmyra, one of the primary sponsors.
Those who pay alimony will be happy to know that the bill emphasizes “open durational” payments versus permanent terms. Under the bill, the alimony duration in marriages shorter than 20 years cannot exceed the length of the union.
Those who receive alimony would favor the duration rule’s exception, which allows for longer terms in the event of extreme circumstances like a debilitating illness.
The bill also modifies factors that determine cohabitation and permits suspension or termination based on those factors. For example, living together full time is no longer necessarily required to establish cohabitation.
Retirement, the point of relief for alimony payers, was another issue that warranted provisions. The new law no longer ties retirement to age 67, when Social Security benefits begin, and allows the payee to argue for a “good faith” early retirement. The aim is to strike a balance between uniform guidelines that allow predictability and planning yet avoid a “cookie-cutter” approach to what often are complex individual situations, according to attorney Amy Goldstein, chairwoman of the family law division at Capehart Scatchard in Mount Laurel.
Goldstein was enlisted by Singleton to help draft the bill. Noting the inconsistency in case outcomes across the state, she considers the old system akin to “the Wild West.”
“Before this bill, alimony (judgments) were primarily driven by case law,” said Goldstein, who described the task of trying to fit a client into a fact pattern as “torturous.”
“There was a statute, but it was rather vague. How do you figure out the duration of alimony? The type, the length? What do you do if a party wants to retire? What if a party cohabitates but is still collecting alimony from a former spouse?” said Goldstein, who testified in favor of the bill before a Senate committee in June.
The legislation evolved from versions drafted by Singleton, Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt, D-6th of Voorhees; and Assemblyman Charles Mainor, D-31st of Jersey City. The other primary sponsors are Sean T. Kean, R-30th of Wall; Thomas P. Giblin, D-34th of Clifton; Angelica M. Jiminez, D-32nd of West New York; and Craig J. Coughlin, D-19th of Woodbridge.
The final version resulted from lengthy meetings with stakeholders, including members of the Rahway, Union County-based New Jersey Alimony Reform and the New Jersey State Bar Association. In a statement of support for the bill, the bar association calls the measure “the best possible approach to address the issues raised by a broad coalition of organizations from across the state about New Jersey’s alimony laws.”
Previous alimony reform bills proposed by the Senate and Assembly drew backlash from the New Jersey chapter of the National Organization of Women. NOW-NJ was “vehemently opposed” to Mainor’s original version but gives the new measure “lukewarm support,” said the group’s acting president, Deb Huber.
“We’re relieved we didn’t get the Draconian reforms that had been proposed,” Huber said.