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A legal battle over alimony reform is brewing

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Sheila Taylor says there is no greater injustice than writing out an alimony check payable to her ex-husband every month.

He abused her physically and verbally during their 25-year marriage, she said, and getting away from him cost her $73,000 in legal fees — and that's not even including the ongoing insult of alimony.

The legal fees alone constituted several years take-home pay for Taylor, a nurse now on permanent disability. So when she talks about the attorneys who oppose pending legislation that would overhaul the state's alimony system, she chocks it up to a bunch of power players looking to preserve a lucrative business model.

"This is big business that these guys do not want to lose," Taylor said.

Attorneys disagree.

"To me, I find that funny because if this bill went through, this would be job security for the rest of lawyers' lives," said Jeralyn Lawrence, an attorney specializing in matrimonial law at Norris McLaughlin & Marcus in Bridgewater. "We would line our pocketbooks by letting the statute go through."

Welcome to the world of alimony reform — a he-said, she-said war of words that can be as contentious and distrustful as the divorce process itself.

Right now, there are two bills in the state legislature — one in the Assembly and one in the Senate — proposing significant changes to the way the state awards alimony in divorce cases. In general, the pending legislation would largely eliminate the concept of permanent alimony. Instead, it would institute guidelines that would award alimony based on the duration of a marriage.

Those guidelines are expressly spelled out in the legislation, determing alimony payments by the length of the marriage.

The legislation also has a retroactive component, which would allow permanent alimony arrangements that predate the legislation to be converted to limited-duration alimony awards.

That retroactive piece is what could earn divorce attorneys all that money, Lawrence said, with the possibility of dragging a slew of old cases back through the court system as details of new arrangements are hashed out.

"This has nothing to do with lawyers trying to protect our own financial interests," Lawrence said. "Because we could have a lot of fun with this statute."

And make a lot of money.

Lawrence insists that's not the goal.

"I have to believe that we are in this, divorce lawyers are in this, because we care about women, children and families, and we are a court of equity, and we're really trying to do what's fair," she said.

But what constitutes fairness when it comes to alimony?

It depends on whom you ask.


Alimony payers have a certain stereotype: rich men who have left their lesser-earning spouses out in the cold.

But Taylor, a woman, is quick to point out that's "an old paradigm."

"I'm a lifetime alimony payer to a man who was not a good husband, and he left me for someone else," she said.

Taylor was a nurse earning as much as $84,000 at the height of her career. She has since gone on permanent disability, and the courts have consistently denied her request to amend her alimony obligation.

And Taylor is not alone. She founded New Jersey Women for Alimony Reform in 2012 and has since learned of many other stories like hers.

"Divorce is not pretty, but divorce means a division, a separation, and you should not be financially bound if there is no fault in the divorce process," Taylor said. "Men can pay; women can pay. Should anybody have a right not to move on with their life?"

Assemblyman Sean Kean, a Republican and one of the primary sponsors of the legislation in the Assembly, said stories like that are the reason he took up the cause of alimony reform in the first place.

"It's an antiquated system. That's the bottom line, and it's something that we really need to look at," Kean said.

In addition, Kean clarified that the proposed legislation wouldn't eliminate permanent alimony. Instead, it would leave it up to a judge to determine if special circumstances warranted such an allocation.

And for many cases, Kean said, limited-duration alimony makes sense.

"Anybody knows that when two people are together, the expenses are shared," he continued. "So then, when two people are separated under the law with a divorce, why should you expect to live the same lifestyle you were living?"

"It's just mathematically incongruous," he said.


Of course not everyone agrees with Kean.

The Family Law Section of the New Jersey State Bar Association is one detractor. The group has gone on the record opposing the legislation.

Those attorneys liken the pending legislation and its proposed alimony guidelines to a doctor giving every patient with the same height and weight the same medication, without considering each patient's unique issues.

"A 'one-size-fits-all' approach to alimony promotes predictability, while sacrificing fairness and equity — two tenets that represent the heart of the family court and which justify the significant discretion awarded to family part judges," members of the section wrote in a position paper.

Parts of the legislation do suggest that judges would be able to deviate from those guidelines in awarding alimony, but members of the state bar worry that deviation is proposed only as "an extraordinary exception to the rule."

The fear is that could leave the women with a greater need for long-term alimony out in the cold.

Take, for example, a woman named Carol, who asked that her last name not be used to protect her privacy.

Carol's marriage ended shockingly after nearly 26 years, when her husband just didn't come home. He had chosen a mistress over his longtime wife.

"I had no clue that he was not coming home or that he was even thinking about not coming home," Carol said.

She's now 52 years old. For nearly two decades, she's stayed at home, raising her children and taking care of her home. She sustained a traumatic brain injury during a car crash several years ago and has struggled with short-term memory loss.

So over and over again, when she considers the prospect of finding a job good enough to allow her to provide for her and her children, she repeats the same word: "frightening."

"I am definitely someone who would need permanent alimony because it's very frightening for me to think about my future," Carol said. "Child support is never enough, so it really does come into that alimony."


Now that the election has passed, the lame duck period will determine what becomes of alimony reform.

Kean said the legislation has gained fans across both sides of the political divide, and Gov. Chris Christie has expressed his broad support for alimony reform. So Kean is hopeful, though not confident, that the legislation will pass.

The opposition, too, is thinking about next steps.

The state bar is open to the prospect of some kind of reform — just not the kind that is laid out in the current legislation.

To that end, the state bar supports the creation of a commission to study alimony and come up with a better option, said Lawrence, the attorney from Norris McLaughlin and chair-elect of the state bar's Family Law Section.

"I'm not saying alimony is perfect in New Jersey," Lawrence said. "Is it great? Yes. Is it way above many other states? Yes. But do we welcome the opportunity to sit down on a fair and balanced commission and say, 'We'd like to see some change in the alimony law?' Absolutely. Let's sit down and talk about it."

E-mail to: maryj@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @mjohns422

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