West Windsor lawyer Grace Dennigan has seen men and women come into her office during a difficult divorce with hopes of leaving with a settlement that gives them the financial support they need.
But proposed legislation that is currently awaiting Gov. Christie’s signature could deny many people that hope, she said, as the new law would reduce the length of time that New Jersey residents who get divorced will have to pay alimony.
“If the new statute forms, the alimony cannot last beyond the length of the marriage. So what would you do in an exceptional circumstance?” said Dennigan, a family lawyer for Dennigan Cahill Smith law firm.
Proponents of the legal change contend that it would greatly benefit those who have been affected by the current law — a law they say is unjust and unreasonable.
Dean Dobkin, who went through a divorce in Burlington County, is one of many throughout the state paying permanent alimony, despite having a marriage that lasted less than 20 years.
Prior to his divorce, Dobkin was an emergency medical physician with a wife and three children. They lived comfortably in a nice home in Moorestown. But he said that in 2006, when his divorce was finalized, he moved into what he described as a tiny apartment while his ex-wife moved into a $400,000 townhome. Dobkin said he had to furnish it with used furniture that was in poor condition because he couldn’t afford better.
Eight years later, Dobkin said he pays his ex-wife $5,000 a month in alimony, even though he has been out of work since November due to a back injury, and he’ll continue to pay alimony indefinitely.
“My own experience is that it’s been punitive,” said Dobkin, who lives in Philadelphia. “It’s been unreasonably hard, it’s been unforgiving and it’s been unfair.”
Under the proposed legislation, which was recently passed by both the state Assembly and Senate, the term “permanent alimony” could be eliminated.
“The bill is the result of conversations between the Alimony Reform Movement and the state law administration,” said Amy Goldstein, a family law attorney for Capehart Scatchard Family Law Practice in Mount Laurel. “The bill changes the alimony statute in a number of ways, primarily when it comes to the length of the alimony.”
The bill states that if a marriage or civil union is less than 20 years in length, the number of years of alimony cannot exceed the length of the marriage, Goldstein said. The bill also proposes that an alimony payer can apply for modification or termination of the alimony once he or she reaches the federal retirement age of 67.
The proposed New Jersey Alimony Reform Bill has been in the works for about 2½ years, said Thomas Leustek, who founded the reform movement.
Leustek, a plant biology professor at Rutgers University, said he was affected by state’s current alimony laws.
Although Leustek’s ex-wife was a successful psychologist with a thriving practice who didn’t need additional money from him, Leustek said, a judge ordered him to pay her $3,000 a month indefinitely.
“The greatest problem is that the laws that were written were quite vague — everything was left entirely up to a judge,” Leustek said. “So what ends up happening is when you get divorced you don’t know what to expect, you don’t know what the outcome is going to be. You’re very dependent upon getting the right lawyer, getting the right judge, what county you live in.”
Dennigan said the proposed statute may appear to simplify divorce settlements, but in reality it reduces the process of dividing marital assets to a “cookie-cutter” approach, which she said doesn’t necessarily lead to the best outcome for her clients.
“All this (would) benefit the person who’s paying the alimony, but it really doesn’t look very hard at what that does to the circumstance of the person who needs to receive the alimony,” she said. “The reforms have nothing to do with the rights or the interests of the people who need to receive the alimony.”
Maria Imbalzano, a divorce lawyer for the Stark & Stark firm in Lawrence who supports the proposed bill, there are currently 13 statutory factors the court is supposed to consider when determining the amount of alimony a person gets, including age, physical and mental health, ability of the spouse to pay and standard of living during the marriage or civil union.
Leustek said New Jersey is far more generous with alimony payments than either New York or Pennsylvania. In New York, people typically pay alimony for half the length of a marriage, and in Pennsylvania they typically pay for a third of the length.
Anything beyond that can be decided by a judge, Leustek said, but in New Jersey, “permanent” is the norm, he said.
Rich Tambor, of Morristown, got divorced when he was 37, and his ex-wife was granted permanent alimony. Now 52, Tambor, who works in financial services, has been paying alimony for 15 years, which was the length of his marriage.
“It’s completely unfair to people who have to pay forever because they were once married to somebody. There’s no justification for that,” said Tambor, who said his ex-wife is a millionaire and lives in a 4,000-square-foot house in Short Hills.
According to Imbalzano, the new bill would not affect those who are already paying permanent alimony. However, a current alimony payer may attempt to terminate the alimony once he or she reaches federal retirement age, but there is no guarantee.
In Tambor’s case, this means he could potentially stop paying alimony once he’s 67 — at which point he will have been paying alimony for 30 years for a 15-year marriage — but he’ll still have to go back to court, and even then, it’s possible he could still end up paying alimony for life.
“I think alimony should be set up to enable a reasonable period of transition for both parties to become financially independent. I think that would be fair,” Tambor said. “But for that period to be forever or for longer than the period you were married is just unreasonable.”
Imbalzano said she is expecting Christie to sign the bill, despite the controversy. She believes lengthy or permanent alimony payments are too generous where an ex-spouse has the ability and qualifications to earn a living but won’t. As of now, she says, judges don’t have the flexibility to rule appropriately in those cases.
“There are so many circumstances that need to be looked at in a marriage. You can’t just put everyone into one box,” she said. “Everyone’s divorce and marriage is different.”