Edward R. Weinstein, Esq.Edward R. Weinstein, Esq.

Do I Still Have To Pay Alimony If I Go To Jail?

Probably not, but like most divorce laws, nothing is black and white.  As a seasoned divorce attorney I have filed many motions to terminate or modify alimony. Moreover, the lawyers at my law office would all agree that a person paying alimony who goes to jail should have a “slam dunk” case for termination alimony pursuant to New Jersey divorce and alimony law.  Nevertheless, the family court must view the “totality of the circumstances” as opposed to just shutting of the alimony payments.  The following case is an excellent example of the many hurdles that need to be cleared in order to end alimony in New Jersey.

In Kuron v. Hamilton, disgraced attorney, Donald Hamilton, filed a motion requesting the Superior Court of New Jersey, Family Part of Hunterdon County to modify his child support and alimony obligations because of “changed circumstances.” The change of circumstance in question was his incarceration due to his illegally and dishonorably appropriating his client’s funds. He plead guilty, and was sentenced to nine years in jail. He argued that this incarceration was sufficient grounds to terminate his support obligations.  The New Jersey Appellate Division explained that going to jail is not voluntary conduct that automatically prevents a finding of changed circumstances, or the termination of child support and alimony obligations.  A two-part analysis is required in deciding whether a supporting spouse in prison deserves a suspension or modification of his or her support obligations due to changed circumstances. First, the court must consider the length of the prisoner’s sentence, starting at the earliest possible date. Second, the value of the prisoner’s assets and property.

Donald and his ex-wife, Alwine Kuron, divorced in September of 1996. Their final judgment of divorce included a mutually agreed to property settlement agreement. According to the settlement agreement, Donald would pay Alwine $ 5,500 every month. This amount included both alimony and child support with $ 2,750 being allocated for both obligations. Donald was an attorney when the two got divorced, and earned about $ 200,000 a year. $ 135,000 of this amount came directly from his private practice, while the remainder came from his wages as a corporate counsel for a trucking company. 

In December of 1996, Donald got a notice from the Attorney Ethics Office that one of his clients had filed a complaint against him. As a result, he admitted to misappropriating over $ 500,000 from his client’s trust account from 1989 to 1991. According to Donald this money was deposited into bank accounts owned jointly by his ex-wife and himself, and into a corporate account related to a real estate venture that he and Alwine owned together. He also alleged that when he realized he could never replace this money, he informed his wife of what he had done. Alwine, however, stated that she had no idea that her ex-husband was stealing money from his clients, and only learned about it after the divorce.

In January 1997, the New Jersey Supreme Court entered an order that disbarred him. Even though Donald lost his private practice as a result of the disbarment, he was still able to keep his job with the trucking company, but was now working in an administrative position and earned $ 90,000. As a result of his lowered income, he started paying substantially less for his support obligations, starting in February 1997. He moved the court to modify his support obligations in April 1997, and argued that his disbarment was a change of circumstance that warranted a reduction of his support obligation. The court dismissed his motion on May 30, 1997 and stated that he owed his ex-wife $ 12,000 in child support and alimony. He filed an appeal on in June of 1997. 

Even though the court denied his motion for reduction of support obligations, Donald still refused to pay Alwine the full $ 5,500 a month in child support and alimony that he was legally obligated to. Later on he plead guilty to the criminal charges stemming from his taking money from his client’s trust account, and he was sentenced to nine years in prison on January 16, 1998. While in prison Donald took part in a work-release program that allowed him to earn $ 400 a week. 

On appeal, Donald argued that his disbarment and loss of income was a valid change of circumstance that warranted a modification of the judgment of divorce, and that because his imprisonment left him without a sufficient source of income to satisfy his support obligations, the court should terminate his support obligations while he is in jail. Conversely, Alwine argued that because his disbarment and ensuing jail term were a result of his own voluntary actions, they are not valid reasons for modifying or terminated his support oblgitions.

The New Jersey Appellate Division stated that a modification of support obligations is not necessarily precluded by a loss of income stemming from voluntary actions or “fault”. Instead, the appellate panel explained that numerous factors and fact-specific circumstances should be considered. This includes the motive and intent behind the actions, the timing of the actions, a supporting spouse’s ability to pay the required obligations after the reduction in income, and the supported spouse’s ability to take care of him or herself. Moreover, a trial court should consider how reasonable the supporting spouse’s actions were, and the supported spouse’s reasonable expectations and opportunity to prepare to survive on reduced support. The good faith of the supporting spouse’s actions in regards to the motives, reasonableness, and timing should also be considered. The New Jersey Appellate Division held that trial courts should focus on if the supporting spouse acted with an intent to reduce his support obligations in bad faith. This means that good faith has less to do with the specific conduct in question, and more to do with why the supporting spouse performed that conduct in the first place. Therefore, the effect of voluntary conduct in a case of modification of support, is a fact specific inquiry, and to be decided on a case-by-case basis. 

Furthermore, the New Jersey Appellate Division explained that going to jail is not voluntary conduct that automatically prevents a finding of changed circumstances, or the termination of child support and alimony obligations. In fact, the appellate panel cited the Steinhauer case in which the New Jersey Supreme Court held on the basis of public policy and the specific circumstances that the incarcerated spouse should have his support obligations terminated while he was in jail. In that case the court explained that when someone is in jail, he or she has no choice in how to best use his or her talents. The Court stated that going to jail is more similar to a long term disability that restricts that person from working. In the State of New Jersey, disability may be considered a valid change of circumstance that can warrant a modification of alimony or child support. The New Jersey Supreme Court determined that going to prison should be treated the same way. The Court also stated that in most of the cases where suspension or modification of child support and alimony were denied, the incarcerated spouse had enough money to actually keep paying their obligations. 

According to Steinhauer, a two-part analysis is also required in deciding whether a supporting spouse in prison deserves a suspension or modification of his or her support obligations due to changed circumstances. First, the court must consider the length of the prisoner’s sentence, starting at the earliest possible date. Second, the value of the prisoner’s assets and property. Even though there is no length of time that may automatically qualify a supporting spouse for suspension or modification, trial courts should be more ready to modify or suspend support obligations when the prison sentence is greater than one year. Furthermore, a modification or suspension of alimony or child support should not be given when there are assets available that the supporting spouse can use to pay his or her obligations. 

Public policy is also on the side of suspending child support and alimony if the supporter is in jail and does not own any assets of value. This is because it makes little to no sense for courts to issue orders that cannot be enforced. Orders of this nature weaken the public’s confidence and faith in the judicial system. Furthermore, they waste judicial resources and taxpayer money to try and collect on these obligations. Therefore, where compliance of an order is impossible, that order should not be granted. 

If you are facing an issue with alimony payments, please contact my firm today to learn how we may help you.