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New Jersey legislature could overhaul the state's alimony system

In many states, alimony is a highly debated topic. This holds true in New Jersey, where judges decide whether alimony should be awarded in a divorce, and if so, how much is paid and for how long. After lobbying by advocates on both sides of the issue, soon these decisions may no longer be up to the judge.

On one side, there are those in favor of limiting judicial discretion in alimony decisions because they argue that long-term awards can discourage ex-spouses from earning. On the other, there are some alimony recipients who say judges have caused financial hardship for families due to their unjust denials of reasonable payments. In response to the debate over alimony, the Assembly unanimously passed a bill to create a commission to study the state's alimony law. The commission has not started work yet, as the Senate has not yet acted on the bill.

New Jersey recognizes four types of alimony: permanent alimony, rehabilitative alimony, limited duration alimony and reimbursement alimony. Permanent alimony is awarded in cases involving long-term marriages where one spouse passed up occupational or educational opportunities in order to support the family. Rehabilitative alimony awards last for a set period of time and are designed to help a spouse re-enter the job market. Limited duration alimony, another fixed-period award, can be awarded when courts determine that a permanent award is not needed. Reimbursement alimony may be awarded in cases where one spouse supported the other through his or her education.

These different types of alimony may be combined to arrive at a plan that is fair to both parties. Absent restrictions in a marital settlement agreement, parties may request alimony modification at any time. Modification of an alimony obligation requires a permanent and substantial change in circumstances. Such changes could be a decrease or increase in income, a change in the health of a party, disability or remarriage.

If the panel makes the changes some advocates are suggesting, it could have big consequences for divorce in the state. Whether the proposed changes go forward or not, alimony will almost certainly be a thorny issue for many couples for many years to come.

Source: Philadelphia Inquirer, "New Jersey struggles with the knotty issue of alimony reform," Joelle Farrell, Aug. 19, 2012

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