TRENTON - Following the lead of Massachusetts and a handful of other states, activists are pushing legislation that would dramatically revise New Jersey alimony laws.
The proposal, which has bipartisan support, would end the concept of permanent alimony and set new limits on the size and duration of alimony awards. Modeled after a Massachusetts law that took effect last year, the measure also would permit former spouses to return to court to seek revision of alimony orders entered before any change was enacted.
"The time has come. Other states have done it, and that shouldn't necessarily be important to us, but we can get guidance from other states," said Assemblyman Sean Kean (R., Monmouth), a municipal lawyer and prosecutor who is a primary sponsor of the measure. "A lot of practitioners [matrimonial lawyers] have contacted me and said there is room for change."
Driving the legislation are advocacy groups such as New Jersey Alimony Reform, comprising former spouses who say they have been unfairly saddled with steep alimony payments they can't afford. They contend that because of New Jersey courts' historic presumption in favor of permanent alimony for spouses married a decade or more, they can't escape those payments, even when they suffer a major loss of income.
"I was hoping through this movement to get some kind of fairness," said Thomas Leustek, head of New Jersey Alimony Reform. "As it stands right now, I don't think the system is able to police itself. This is a system that trounces people. People crawl into a hole" after being subject to some alimony awards. "Now people are coming out of the woodwork to talk about their horror stories."
Leustek, a Rutgers University professor of molecular genetics, said that after the dissolution of his 24-year marriage in 2008, a judge awarded his wife $3,000 a month for life, although she has a doctorate in psychology and once earned a high income.
Leustek planned to challenge the award in court but decided against it after his lawyer told him that it likely would cost hundreds of thousands in legal fees and that he risked losing.
The couple settled on a reduced payment of $2,000 a month.
The New Jersey State Bar Association opposes the bill, arguing that by rigidly prescribing alimony terms, it would take away the ability of judges to respond to the unique patterns that emerge in divorces.
"We understand that alimony is not perfect, and there has to be some review of it," said Brian Schwartz, a Summit family law lawyer and chair of the family law section of the state bar association. "We do know that we are against any strict guidelines." Christian Badali, a partner at Weber, Gallagher, Simpson, Stapleton, Fires & Newby in Center City, said the potential negative of the legislation was that it limited options for judges.
"Reforms like this, while they may not be bad, to think that you are putting it in the hands of the Legislature and everything will be better is a reach," Badali said. "Divorce cases are always case by case."
Kean and other supporters of the changes contend the reason the state bar association opposes the bill is that it would reduce expensive litigation - and lawyers' income. Schwartz denies that. He asserts that the bill increases the potential for courtroom disputes and higher legal fees. In New Jersey, Senate and Assembly leaders were noncommittal about the chances of passage.
Either way, it appears the battle lines have been drawn.
The bills introduced in the Senate and Assembly match, to a great degree, legislation signed in 2011 by Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, a Democrat. The New Jersey proposal would end the concept of permanent alimony and establish strict guidelines for the duration of alimony payments based on the length of marriages.
In broad brushstrokes, the measure would limit the duration of alimony to half the length of a marriage that lasted up to five years, and would gradually increase that time to 16 years for marriages of up to 20 years. Judges would have the option of ordering alimony for an "indefinite length of time" for marriages that lasted longer.
Similarly, alimony payments would be limited to no more than 35 percent of the income of a spouse, and payments would automatically come to an end when payers reached full retirement age. The bill also provides that alimony payments would cease if a payer could show that an ex-spouse was living with someone else. Judges would be permitted to deviate from the limits if it was "in the interests of justice."
Oregon, Connecticut, and Colorado are considering comparable legislation. A similar bill passed both houses of the Florida legislature this year but was vetoed by Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican.
What has fueled movement for change in those states as well as New Jersey are the stories of alimony payers.
Sheila Taylor, head of New Jersey Women for Alimony Reform, said her husband had stopped working during their marriage and left her a few years after that. She remained employed, and, as part of the divorce, was saddled with $1,250 in monthly alimony payments. Later, because of medical disabilities, she became unemployed, too. But because she spent her $74,000 in savings on litigation over the divorce, she says she now can't afford to pay a lawyer to try to get the alimony award changed.
Taylor, 63, has stopped making the alimony payments.
"I live in fear," she said, "that I will be arrested."