Pocket Guide to Alimony in New Jersey
Alimony comes from the Latin alimonia, which means food or nourishment. It may seem like a modern practice, but the laws regarding alimony are very similar to those set down in the Code of Hammurabi. The basic idea then was that if a husband separated from a wife who had borne children, he should return her dowry and provide the usufruct (use) of his lands so that she could raise the children, and when they came of age, provide her with an equal portion of his estate. The laws today are remarkably similar; the chief differences are that alimony is no longer gendered (either partner can pay alimony to the other) and that children are not a prerequisite.
The central premise – nourishment after a marriage – remains the same. However, the complexities of modern life can make this “nourishment” hard to calculate. (Use of a spouse’s “lands” will not satisfy a New Jersey judge as adequate alimony.) Divorcing parties, mediators, or judges need to consider both the amount and the duration of the alimony; they need to consider the real and imputed or potential income of both parties; and they need to account for special needs or circumstances beyond the standard expectations about the cost of food and shelter.
If you’re seeking alimony or expect to be paying alimony, you need to consult with an experienced divorce attorney to achieve an equitable result. First, you’ll want to learn about some of the most important alimony concerns.
Who’s entitled to alimony?
Not everyone is entitled to alimony. In New Jersey, courts order alimony payments as a sort of safety net, so a spouse that was financially dependent in marriage is not left in jeopardy after a divorce is finalized.
If a spouse has given up a career for a marriage, he or she will have a difficult time finding a job after the divorce. That job search might require going back to school. At the same time, the financially dependent spouse might be caring for children, looking for a new home, or paying property taxes or a mortgage on a home he or she can no longer afford. Alimony payments ensure the financially dependent former spouse can enjoy a certain quality of life after the marriage without worrying about meeting basic needs.
If the spouses were married for a relatively brief time, or if the spouses have similar incomes, then courts may not order alimony.
How to calculate alimony
There is no specific formula or calculation to determine alimony in New Jersey. The amount and duration of alimony is left up to the discretion of the judge, or of the parties in mediation (though many statutes and precedents do establish “soft boundaries” and expectations attorneys will counsel their clients to observe).
At the most basic level, a court will calculate alimony using the income disparity between the two parties, and the duration of the marriage. Most NJ judges will take one fourth to one third of the difference between the parties’ incomes as a starting point.
Generally, New Jersey courts will not order alimony payments for periods exceeding the length of the marriage. In most cases, alimony payments will continue for half the length of the marriage.
If one spouse is much older than the other, or if one is raising children alone, these factors could also influence a court’s decision.
What happens if a spouse stops paying alimony?
When one party fails to abide by the terms of an alimony order, the other party can file a motion with the court seeking enforcement of that order. Penalties for falling behind in alimony payments could include an order of contempt of court, the seizure of assets to pay arrears, suspension of a driver’s or other professional license, and even incarceration.
Alimony is a non-dischargeable debt, which means that the paying party cannot stop payments by declaring bankruptcy. Missed payments are considered arrears, and the negligent party will have to make up for these eventually. Still, a person receiving alimony should not wait to address late or halted alimony payments. If your spouse has stopped making court-ordered alimony payments, contact a lawyer who can help you address the situation quickly in court, and restore the payments, and protect your rights.
How to change an alimony order or agreement.
You can’t simply stop paying alimony, even if you lose a job or suffer some other financial calamity. This is to protect against former spouses who would choose not to limit or end employment to get out of alimony payments. However, if you have lost your job or are in some other legitimate state of financial distress, you can petition the court to modify your alimony agreement. You will need to contact an experienced divorce attorney to do this.
Secure your financial future after divorce
Whether you’re seeking alimony or soon to be paying alimony, you need an experienced divorce attorney to help you obtain a fair agreement or order that protects your rights as well as your finances. Call the Freeman Law Center today to set up a free consultation at our Jersey City office. In the meantime, you can continue to explore our legal resources, including our free eBook Changing Course: Guide to Divorce in New Jersey.