Way back in the day before I started practicing law, there was no such thing as equitable distribution of property when a New Jersey couple got divorced. Property in one person’s name – usually the husband – remained their separate property post-divorce. The non-property owner – usually the wife – was compensated through alimony. Back then the only options were alimony or no alimony, and fault played a large role in determining that issue.

The societal changes that have occurred since then have been nothing less than seismic, and have affected family law accordingly: no-fault divorce, equitable distribution and different forms of alimony were devised in order to address those changes. No-fault grounds made it easier to file for divorce, but the complexities of resolving how to distribute a divorcing couple’s property “equitably”, and what kind of alimony may be appropriate to their circumstances, have spawned numerous studies, commissions and scholarly articles. The law has adapted to changing times.

The law with respect to alimony has developed dramatically. It has recognized that change is constant, so what may have been fair when an agreement was reached or a trial was decided may be manifestly unfair now. I tell clients that equitable distribution is pretty much written in stone, but support is written in sand…and the tide may be coming in soon. Significant changed financial circumstances for either party of an on-going nature, i.e. not temporary, can trigger a review.

The law also developed to recognize the myriad of life choices that a now-divorcing couple made while still married. Limited duration alimony was enacted to deal with marriages of relatively short duration, recognizing that the recipient isn’t necessarily entitled to a lifetime of support, but shouldn’t be left with nothing post-divorce. Rehabilitative alimony is similar, but covers situations where the recipient requires training to re-enter the work force. Reimbursement alimony can be appropriate where one spouse supported the other while s/he was getting advanced training or attending graduate school to become a doctor or lawyer, for example, but would not otherwise be able to enjoy the fruits of those labors if divorced soon after graduation.

The new alimony law in effect since last year abolished what was left of permanent alimony, replacing it with “open durational” alimony stating further, “For any marriage or civil union less than 20 years in duration, the total duration of alimony shall not, except in exceptional circumstances, exceed the length of the marriage or civil union”. This is what we used to call Lehrer’s Law, named for Judge Al Lehrer who opined, “Thou shalt not pay alimony for longer than thou wast married.” Ironically, what is now the law of the State of New Jersey was castigated by the Appellate Division years ago when one of his cases imposing Lehrer’s Law was appealed successfully.

See http://www.njleg.state.nj.us/2014/Bills/PL14/42_.PDF for the full text of this new alimony law. Although it has been in effect for a relatively short period of time, we stand ready to assist our clients in dealing with all the varieties of alimony issues, whether by negotiation, collaboration, mediation, litigation or arbitration.

Pamela M. Copeland

Pamela M. Copeland is a New Jersey Supreme Court Certified Matrimonial Attorney, Mediator, and Collaborative Professional committed to providing you with the highest quality family law legal services at a reasonable cost.
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