The obligation to pay alimony to one’s former spouse is a long-standing tenet of New Jersey statutory and decisional law. From time to time, various efforts have been made to reform and, in some cases, eliminate alimony which have proven unsuccessful. A new challenge has been mounted by New Jersey Alimony Reform, an organization founded by Thomas Luesek, a biology professor at Rutgers University, who was ordered by a Union County Court to pay permanent (i.e. indefinite duration) alimony to his former wife who he claims is capable of self support and does not need alimony.
Mr. Luesek’s organization seeks no less than the elimination of permanent alimony, a position supported by Assemblyman Sean Kean (R-Monmouth) who has introduced a bill to set up a blue ribbon panel to examine such changes and thereby “bring New Jersey into the 21st century”.
Such efforts will provoke discussion, of which this article is an example, but will likely bear little fruit. Alimony in New Jersey is based upon a myriad of statutory factors which the Court can utilize, balance or deem inapplicable in the circumstances of the case. These factors include need and ability to pay, duration of the marriage, marital standard of living, career interruption and other factors which give discretion to the Judge while imposing a set of guidelines for the Court’s instruction and application as circumstances deem “fit, reasonable and just” under the governing statute.
Contrary to popular assumption, Judges are required by law to utilize these factors and cite them in their decisions, as opposed to employing their personal sense of what is or isn’t “fair”. Coupled with the statutory establishment of multiple forms of alimony such as Limited Duration, Rehabilitative and Reimbursement Alimony, it is, in my, wrong to contend that the elimination of “permanent” alimony serves a legitimate legal or societal goal. This is not to say that every alimony case is decided in a manner acceptable to both parties; however, in my over 30 years of practicing matrimonial law throughout New Jersey, the overwhelming number of alimony awards (or denials) have been appropriate to the circumstances of the case. There also exists an enormous body of reported decisions which are legally precedential with respect to alimony and its variations, as a result of which New Jersey judges and lawyers are very well-informed.
I would be the first to add than an award of alimony is not the answer in every case. In fact, it may be deemed totally unwarranted as I, and other matrimonial attorneys, have learned through courtroom experience. Moreover, “permanent” (indefinite duration) alimony is always subject to modification based upon a substantial change in circumstances unless the parties specifically contract otherwise. Thus, the elimination of this type of alimony unfairly tilts the scales in favor of alimony payers and against alimony payees.
There are an increasing number of legal authors who propose a different look at alimony via the establishment of “alimony guidelines” which would determine the amount and duration of alimony awards on a uniform basis throughout all of New Jersey’s counties. Such guidelines would be rebuttable; that is, they could be demonstrated to be inapplicable in a particular case.
This dialogue should continue as uniformity of alimony awards is a legitimate topic. In contrast, arguments favoring the elimination of one type of alimony are not so framed and, in my opinion, run counter to New Jersey’s distinguished legal history in this important area.