A New Jersey Family Court Balances the Equities When Handling a Motion for a Reduction of Alimony
As I recently discussed in my piece, “When May My New Jersey Alimony Be Terminated As Opposed To Just Being Lowered,” the alimony laws in this state were dramatically changed in 2014. As a result, my law firm has been busy filing motions on behalf of our clients to either have their alimony obligations reduced or eliminated altogether. Pursuant to the paramount case of Lepis v. Lepis the New Jersey family courts will only grant a modification or termination if a party can show that his or her circumstances have significantly changed. However, in my experience as a divorce attorney, even if the court recognizes that a party is not financially capable of paying a lot of alimony, it will take into consideration principles of equity and fairness. That was the case in the recent 2015 decision of Lodge v. Lodge. Let’s explore.
In the case, the parties were married in 1972 and the husband filed for divorce in 2001. Two children were born of the marriage, one in 1979 and the other in 1983. The parties owned a home together in Toms River, New Jersey where the husband continued to live after he filed for the divorce.
The husband worked as a communications technician for the Associated Press. As of 1999, his income was approximately $68,000 per year. In 2001 his income increased by $2000 to $70,000 annually. Yet in the following two years, his income declined to $58,000 and $54,000 respectively. However, the husband had always refused to work overtime, insisting that he had court appearances, doctors’ appointments and vacation time to tend to. Because of this, the court believed that his reported income figures were artificially low and should be higher for purposes of determining his ability to pay alimony.
On the other hand, the wife was a stay at home mom for most of her marital life. She hadn’t worked since 1990 and wasn’t making more than $4,500 a year when she did work part-time. Additionally, the court found that the wife really wasn’t even capable of working in the first place. She was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, along with chronic migraines, back and neck pain, and depression. Furthermore in 1995, the wife had surgery on her knee, which caused her to move around slowly during the recovery period. She had been denied social security disability benefits from the government initially; however, if anything were to ever change she was responsible to tell her ex-husband.
After the trial judge looked at the totality of the circumstances, he awarded the wife $394 per week in alimony. That amount resulted in her and her ex each having enough income to cover 61% of their respective needs. Additionally, the judge awarded the wife pendente lite support of $645 based on her and her unemancipated daughter’s needs. However, by 2003 that amount was reduced to $600 since the husband’s income had significantly decreased as well. The judge determined that it was only fair to retroactively reduce the pendente lite support to 2002 to correspond with the date on which the daughter would be emancipated.
In 2009, the husband was fired from his job at the Associated Press. While he did receive eight weeks severance, he was unable to find another job due to the economic state of the country. Additionally, the husband became physically disabled. In November 2011, he filed a motion to terminate or modify his alimony obligations based on his changed circumstances. After taking everything into consideration, the court temporarily reduced the husband’s alimony obligations to $100 per week. In March 2014 his alimony obligations were reduced yet again to $81 per week since his ex-wife was then eligible to collect social security benefits.
Still, the husband wanted his alimony obligations either further reduced or eliminated entirely. Yet, the court held that it would be unfair and inequitable to completely eliminate the alimony award to his ex-wife. The court decided to reduce his outstanding arrears instead as a different form of relief. However, that still was not good enough for the husband so he appealed. On appeal, he argued that his involuntary change in circumstances warranted termination of his alimony obligations. The New Jersey Appellate Division found his argument to be without merit though, and upheld the decision of the trial court.
In no way did the trial court abuse its discretion, especially since it had significantly relieved the husband from his financial obligations in the first place. Since alimony continues to be a red-hot topic in our state, it is a top priority at my firm to stay on top of any and all new and recent developments.
In light of the major overhaul to New Jersey's alimony laws, if you or a loved one face an alimony (or potential alimony) situation, it is essential to have an attorney who focuses solely on divorce law in this state. Therefore, please feel free to contact my office today.