Divorce courting: Competing bills seek alimony reform

TRENTON – Advocates of two competing alimony reform bills squared off this week in committee.

It is questionable whether an amicable settlement will be attainable.

While both sides seek to update a system that has been outpaced by changing times and evolving societal roles, a key point of contention seems to be where the control should reside: within confines of a formula or within a judge’s discretion.

One bill, A3909, sponsored by Assemblyman Charles Mainor, (D-31), Jersey City, and others, would eliminate permanent alimony and establish guidelines for alimony duration based on a marriage’s length.

The other, A4525, sponsored by Assembly members Thomas Giblin, (D-34), Clifton, and Pamela Lampitt, (D-6), Voorhees, also would end permanent alimony and codify some grounds for modification including job loss or retirement.

“It’s a battle between our grass-roots group and the Bar Association,’’ says Michael Turner of Burton Trent Public Affairs LLC in regards to groups N.J. Alimony Reform and N.J. Women for Alimony Reform.

He sees the bills in stark terms.

They prefer the Mainor bill with its guidelines.

And the Giblin/Lampitt proposal, which the N.J. Bar Association supports?

“Their legislation is more about protecting the status quo, and ours is more about real reform,’’ Turner says.

“They say alimony should be left to professional lawyers who are trained in dealing with this.”

The other side sees the debate just as starkly.

Brian Schwartz, who chairs the family law section at the N.J. Bar, disputes that this is about lawyers protecting lucrative turf.

“We represent both sides, payors and payees, so we have to sort of be intellectually honest about these issues,’’ he says.

“We don’t have an ax to grind, and we can never really support guidelines, because alimony guidelines ignore what really happened during the marriage.”

Turner says that in the Mainor bill, there are provisions for a judge to deviate from the formula when there is demonstrated need to do so. The Bar Association fears those deviations would become an exception a judge would rarely use.

Under the Mainor bill, for a marriage of five years or less, alimony would be equal to one half of the number of months; for a marriage of five to 10 years, alimony would be 60 percent of the total months; for 10 to 15 years, 70 percent; for 15 to 20 years, 80 percent.

For a marriage that lasted beyond 20 years, the judge would have discretion to award alimony for an indefinite period.

Under this bill, the court could deviate from this formula “in the interests of justice.’’

Under the Giblin/Lampitt bill, instead of a years/percentage schedule, alimony instead could be changed for certain conditions such as when someone loses a job, has their pay reduced, or retires, and it would use instead of “permanent” alimony the phrase “alimony of indefinite term.’’

There are other aspects of the bills that reflect issues such as what to do when an ex-spouse is living with someone else.

The societal changes – from full-time, home-based housewives to marriages in which a wife can out-earn her spouse – necessitate a rethinking of alimony, which several other states are in various stages of doing, say advocates of each bill.

The Mainor guidelines bill is similar to one passed in Massachusetts, which Turner says is the model they prefer to follow.

“For the Bar to say ‘you can always go in for modification,’ you can, at substantial legal fees,” Turner says. “What our members are saying is, ‘I don’t have the ability to continue paying lawyers.’

“It’s an access to justice issue.’’

Schwartz counters that the Mainor bill has a rigidity that will not serve individuals well.

“We’re not allowing a person to tell their story,’’ Schwartz said. “Every story has a little bit of a different quirk that needs to be accounted for.

“In replacing discretion with predictability we left out fairness,’’ he warns will be the consequence if the Mainor bill passes.

Sponsors defend bills

For Mainor’s part, what is unfair is the current system.

He said he has an open door policy, sees room for possible compromise and would like reach out to stakeholders – including the Bar Association – and have a give-and-take roundtable and see if accommodation between the bills is doable.

He believes some elements of the Giblin/Lampitt bill already are accounted for in his legislation.

“Our bill is about giving people an end date,’’ he said. “I don’t believe anyone should be paying alimony for life. It’s unfair. They should be able to walk out (of court) knowing when it’s over.’’

However, Lampitt said that Mainor’s bill will put too much constriction on judges and courts.

“There’s basically no two situations that are alike,” she said, adding that the bill she and Giblin have sponsored introduces better terminology and allows each case to be handled individually.

She said that the next step probably is to confer with the commitee chair and decide on the next course of action.