One of the more vexing issues in a divorce case involves determining an appropriate level of alimony or child support. If the parties’ incomes are not disputed, the task is easier, but if one or both parties are unemployed or “underemployed,” the issue of determining a fair and reasonable level of potential income arises. To assist attorneys and judges, reference is often made to the New Jersey Department of Labor statistics, which track income information over a wide job spectrum and thereby allow courts to determine imputed, as opposed to actual, income for support calculation purposes.
In the recent case of Maine v. Maine, Superior Court Judge Lawrence Jones (Ocean County) had to determine a party’s potential earning capacity in the context of a divorce action. Although the court found that Ms. Maine had recently received training to become a medical assistant and that the Department of Labor’s average income for medical assistants was $32,400 per year, it was unreasonable to immediately impute such a level of income to her. Instead, the court gave Ms. Maine a four month grace period to make a documented search for employment as a medical assistant at the conclusion of which the matter would be reheard. In the interim, the court attributed a lower level of imputed income to Ms. Maine by extrapolating her part-time earnings into a forty hour workweek.
Judge Jones’ findings admirably balanced the legal and practical issues by not leaning too hard in either direction but fashioning a result which fit the situation. While imputing income remains an important tool for lawyers, the case stands for the proposition that such an approach should be tempered with the realities of the marketplace.