Ever since New Jersey’s alimony laws received a major overhaul last year, my New Jersey divorce law firm has been busy filing motions in New Jersey Family Courts seeking to terminate alimony payments to their ex-spouse. Some parties want to have their alimony obligations reduced while others seek to terminate alimony entirely. Our attorneys understand that terminating alimony is much different than modifying alimony. Therefore, we analyze the facts of each particular case in order to provide a legal opinion as to the likelihood of the outcome in the Superior Court of New Jersey. Let’s take for example a case decided December 31, 2014, where the court denied a party’s motion to have his alimony obligations terminated.
In Bechtold v. Clauss, the parties married in 1988 and divorced in 2008. Two children were born of the marriage. The couple agreed that the wife would not work outside of the marital home so she could be home with the young children.When the parties divorced, the wife intended to go back to school to become a registered nurse. Pursuant to the parties’ property settlement agreement, the wife would be able to go to school to pursue a registered nurse degree so that she could begin to financially provide for herself. Furthermore, the agreement provided that the husband would pay $35,000 toward his ex-wife’s schooling from his share of the marital home’s equity.
The property settlement agreement also outlined alimony obligations and scenarios in which alimony could be modified or terminated. Pursuant to the agreement, alimony could only be modified if either of the parties showed that the circumstances had changed. The most obvious changed circumstance that was contemplated in the settlement agreement was the wife’s completion of her education. Specifically, if the wife had successfully obtained her license to be a registered nurse and found employment, it might be possible for the husband to have his alimony obligations modified.
In addition to modification, the settlement agreement discussed the possibility of having alimony terminated entirely. The husband’s alimony obligations would be terminated in the event of either party’s death or his ex-wife’s remarriage. Furthermore, the agreement provided that alimony obligations might terminate when the wife was a working nurse. However, the court would have to look carefully analyze the facts surrounding the situation before granting such a request.
In December 2011, the wife graduated from nursing school and obtained her license to be a registered nurse. She began working in June 2012, earning $66,450 a year to start off. At that point in time, her ex-husband was earning $139,235 per year.
In January 2013, the husband filed a motion to terminate alimony based on changed circumstances. He alleged that he should no longer have to pay alimony to his ex-wife because she was a successful registered nurse. The wife filed a cross-motion opposing the relief her ex-husband sought. The trial court found for the wife. Instead of terminating alimony entirely, the judge reduced the alimony payments to $350 per week. The husband appealed.
On appeal, the husband argued that the trial judge abused his discretion by not terminating alimony. Yet, the Appellate Division affirmed the findings of the lower court. It agreed with the trial court that the husband was not credible in his testimony as to his financial constraints because he was constantly making improvements to his vacation home after the divorce had been finalized. The husband should have been honest with the Court in this regard.
In addition, the Appellate Division looked at the trial court’s analysis of the wife’s lifestyle and cost of living since the divorce. The court looked at the factors set forth in New Jersey’s alimony statute, N.J.S.A. 2A:24-23(b) and found that the wife could not maintain a lifestyle comparable to that enjoyed during her marriage without some amount of alimony. The fact that she had obtained employment as contemplated in the property settlement agreement did not mean that she was fully capable of supporting herself without any help (i.e., alimony).
Had the wife’s starting salary been much higher, the court might have considered terminating alimony. Yet, the facts were not in the husband’s favor for complete termination of his alimony obligation to his ex-wife. The ultimate takeaway from the Bechtold case is that a motion to terminate alimony is rarely easily granted. The court will always look deep into the facts surrounding the case before granting such a request.
For more information on alimony modifications or termination applications to a New Jersey Family Court, please contact my office today.