- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 11, 2014

New Jersey has joined a small but growing number of states that have updated alimony laws that critics say reflected outdated models of work, longevity, relationships and gender participation in the workforce.

The legislation, signed late Wednesday by Gov. Chris Christie, clarifies that alimony should be limited to the number of years of wedlock for couples who married less than 20 years. New Jersey’s old statute was considered one of the most draconian and inflexible in the nation.

It also gives judges clearer guidance about how to handle issues of cohabiting, retirement and unemployment.

The bill “is as good as we can get,” said Thomas Leustek, president of New Jersey Alimony Reform.

It’s “pretty fair, pretty balanced,” said John S. Eory, co-chairman of the divorce group at Stark & Stark law firm in Princeton. The law is a compromise between those who said the law had to be “radically reformed” and those who thought the law was “perfectly fine,” he said.

Alimony reformers in other states are likely to study the New Jersey experience, as well as efforts in Massachusetts — where a reform passed in 2011 — and Florida, where Gov. Rick Scott vetoed a bill to alter alimony requirements.

Outdated alimony laws need to be fixed “throughout the country,” said Stephen Hitner, the lead advocate for Massachusetts’ alimony reform who is now a divorce mediator and consultant in Marlborough, Massachusetts.

After Massachusetts passed it into law, the attorney said that an 80-year-old, alimony-paying man wrote him to say, “Thank you. I can finally retire,” and a couple were free to marry because now the second spouse’s income would not be included in the alimony calculus.

Historically, alimony has been used to ensure that one spouse isn’t left financially bereft after divorce. However, paying “permanent” spousal support — as has been the case in New Jersey — meant one thing during years when people were lucky to live into their 50s, and something else now, when people often live into their 90s, Mr. Hitner said.

States to watch for alimony reform, he added, include California, Connecticut, Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina and Virginia. A national conference on family law reforms, hosted by Divorce Corp., is scheduled for November in Northern Virginia.

The New Jersey law passed by wide margins in the Democrat-dominated state legislature and reflected the input of divorce lawyers and private groups representing people who have chafed under old alimony laws.

Paris P. Eliades, president of the New Jersey State Bar Association, likened the bill to any divorce resolution — an agreement “where not everyone has gotten what they wanted.”

The new law, which is effective immediately, does not disturb established alimony orders. However, it should play a role when people seek modification of their alimony order.

Judges should now expect that alimony will end when the paying ex-spouse reaches full retirement age, which is the mid-60s, and that anyone married less than 20 years should not pay alimony for longer than the marriage, except in “exceptional circumstances.”

Alimony will be seen as transitional support with “an end date,” said Mr. Leustek. Ex-spouses should make plans to support themselves, he said, because it’s not going to be “a free ride” anymore.

Alimony orders can also be contested in court if a recipient cohabits with a romantic partner, or if the alimony payer is unemployed for 90 days or longer.

• Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at cwetzstein@washingtontimes.com.

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