Governor Chris Christie signed a bill Wednesday ending lifetime alimony in New Jersey, a compromise measure widely supported by lawmakers.
The Democratic-controlled legislature sent the Republican governor a bill that in most future cases will limit payments to the length of any marriage that lasts less than 20 years, and end most support once a payer retires. The measure, which passed the assembly unanimously and drew only three dissenting Senate votes, also sets guidelines for judges to evaluate payers’ changed circumstances.
States from Massachusetts to Colorado have revised divorce laws that originated when most women didn’t work and husbands were breadwinners. While New Jersey’s bill doesn’t let already divorced people go back and change alimony agreements, it allows for reductions when payers lose their jobs or retire, said Tom Leustek, founder of New Jersey Alimony Reform, a grassroots group that has pushed for changes for 2 1/2 years.
“It’s a fantastic first step,” said Leustek, a professor of plant biology at Rutgers University in New Brunswick who is paying alimony for life. “This law encourages independence and self-sufficiency, and provides payers with a light at the end of the tunnel.”
The bill will do little to help Ron Reed, 53, who was divorced in 2000 after seven years of marriage and lives in New Providence with his second wife and three children, including one from his first marriage. He said his ex-wife hasn’t worked since the divorce.
A technology worker in the New York financial industry, Reed said he pays his ex-wife $2,200 a month in alimony, which has left little room to save. He said he expects to work well beyond normal retirement age.
“Right now, on the 15th of the month I still have to make those payments,” Reed said. “I’m still in the same boat I was in two or three days ago. This does nothing for me.”
The New Jersey State Bar Association, in a June statement after the bill passed an assembly committee, called the measure a “smart, realistic and balanced approach.”
Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for the 52-year-old governor, didn’t respond to a telephone call and e-mail requesting comment on the bill.
Last year, about 22,000 former spouses were receiving alimony under court supervision in New Jersey, with child support also going to about 60 percent of them. An unknown number receive maintenance under private settlements that couples reach before going to family court.
Women account for 47 percent of the labor force, compared with 30 percent in 1950, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says. Dual-income couples accounted for 59 percent of married households with children under 18 in 2011. About a third of women earned more than their husbands in 2011, compared with 18 percent in 1987.
“The state’s alimony laws were out of touch with today’s society where both partners in a marriage often have careers,” Senator Robert Singer, a Republican sponsor of the bill, said in a statement. “The courts will no longer be operating with an assumption that either spouse will be dependent on the other for the rest of their lives after a divorce.”
The American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers in 2007 recommended restricting alimony amounts and duration. The proposal became the basis for Massachusetts’s alimony laws in 2011. Those statutes eliminated permanent alimony and gave judges guidelines for calculating amounts.
New Jersey’s overhaul replaces the legal term “permanent alimony” with “open durational alimony,” allows modifications after 90 days of unemployment and says if a recipient moves in with a new partner that could also be a cause to end payments. The law says that alimony may be modified or end when the payer retires unless a judge decides it should continue.
Leustek said he will continue to push for more changes, including making the income of the alimony payer’s new spouse irrelevant during modification hearings.
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