Can Alimony Be Increased?
Yes. Pursuant to New Jersey alimony law, alimony may be increased (or decreased) under certain circumstances. The lawyers at our office often handle cases involving modification of alimony payments that almost always commence after the Final Judgment of Divorce has been entered. While alimony modification cases are always challenging for even an experienced divorce attorney, if your lawyer can show a change of circumstances (along with the required evidence) alimony payments can be increased in the state of New Jersey.
In Bermeo v. Bermeo, the parties were married in 1986 and had two children before their divorce in 2015. At the time the final judgment was entered for their divorce, both of their children were emancipated. A settlement was reached prior to the trial determining alimony to be paid to the Wife as well as additional supplemental payments to the Wife. The settlement stated that the Husband would make payments of $4,000 a month to the Wife based on his annual gross income of $160,000 a year, as well as a percentage of any gross income he received over $160,000. The PSA also provided, essentially, that “neither party shall be able to maintain a similar lifestyle to that which was enjoyed during the marriage.” The settlement also included the following statement: “The parties freely and voluntarily waive determination of the joint marital lifestyle at this time.”
The Wife then filed a motion to modify the settlement and increase her alimony. She claims that she should receive a heightened alimony of $6,000 a month based on the Husband’s new “imputed annual income” of $220,000. She further claims that the Husband is voluntarily underemployed and that she reasonably believed that she would receive further alimony from the Husband’s supplemental income. The Wife further states that she is no longer able to maintain the upper-middle class lifestyle that she had enjoyed during her marriage, that she has a lower income because she was a stay-at-home mother, and that an analysis should have been conducted of their marital lifestyle before the alimony payment was determined.
The Husband responded by arguing that the settlement agreement clearly stated that neither party would be able to maintain a similar lifestyle to that which was enjoyed during the marriage and that he was already paying a heightened alimony in comparison to his annual income. After hearing the oral arguments that followed, the judge denied the Wife’s motion to modify the settlement agreement and increase her alimony.
On appeal, the Wife raises three arguments. First, that the trial court was incorrect in denying her alimony modification because the court should have determined that substantially changed circumstances called for a modification of the base alimony when the supplemental alimony payments were not received. Second, the Wife argues that the trial court should have established the ‘marital lifestyle’ after the motion for modification had been filed, regardless of the fact that alimony had already been established in the settlement agreement. Third, the Wife states that the court was incorrect in not taking into account the fact that the Husband abandoned “stable, lucrative employment during the divorce” for a significantly lower paying job.
The Appellate Division found no merit in the Wife’s arguments. First, no evidence was offered by the Wife to show that the Husband was voluntarily underemployed or that he was making an effort to hide his true income from her. The Appellate Division points to the fact that the Wife voluntarily entered into the settlement agreement and was aware of the Husband’s decreased income and chose not to dispute it at the time. Further, there was no reason to conduct a ‘marital lifestyle’ evaluation, because the parties signed a settlement stating that they waived determination of the joint marital lifestyle, so the trial court was under no obligation to conduct that analysis.
Ultimately, the Appellate Division determined that the Wife had provided no evidence to support any of her claims and that there were no substantially changed circumstances that would warrant an increase in her alimony. She was aware of the Husband’s income when she signed the settlement agreement, and chose not to dispute it. Since that time, no new evidence or circumstances had surfaced that would justify modifying the settlement agreement. Courts have the power and discretion to manage divorce agreements and to modify them when circumstances require. These circumstances only arise when the failure to modify the agreement would result in “unfair, unjust and inequitable” outcomes. The Appellate Division determined that here, no such action was warranted.