State law looks to all relevant factors, a list of factors and the reasonableness of the circumstances.
New Jersey alimony laws are complex, especially since the state did a major overhaul of them in 2014. Even the question of which alimony orders may later be modified is complicated, depending on the kind of alimony awarded and the present circumstances of the parties.
One reason an employed person who pays alimony, called the obligor, might ask the court to modify his or her alimony obligationto his or her ex-spouse is loss of a job or reduction in pay. (There are different standards for a self-employed obligor.)
Factors to consider
The alimony statute provides a list of factors the court shall weigh in this circumstance:
- Reasons for income loss
- If employment has been lost, the obligor’s efforts to become reemployed or to move toward an alternative occupation
- If employment has been lost, whether the obligor is trying in good faith to find any paid position “at any level and in any field”
- The income and circumstances of the recipient, called the obligee, and his or her efforts to get work
- Impact of health on each party’s ability to work
- Severance pay or benefits
- Other changes in the party’s financial circumstances since the divorce
- Reasons for those changes, including either person’s improvement in financial circumstances
- The possibility of a temporary adjustment in the alimony award during unemployment while the unemployed spouse continues to look for a job
- Anything else the court thinks is “relevant to fairly and equitably” decide a modification application
An obligor who has involuntarily lost work is not allowed to file an application with the court for modification of alimony for 90 days from job loss where the person has not been able to get a job at the previous income level for that long. The court is allowed at its discretion to order a modification in this circumstance back to the date of job loss or income reduction.
The court weighs in
New Jersey family laws are supplemented by the interpretations of state courts. In 2016, alimony modification in light of loss of employment was considered in the case of Mills v. Mills by the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part.
In this case, the ex-husband asked the court to reduce his alimony payments because he through company restructuring lost his job that had a $108,000 salary. He then accepted a new one that paid $76,000 plus a possible $6,000 bonus.
The court used a two-part framework for analysis in this situation:
- Was the acceptance of the job at the lower salary “objectively reasonable under the totality of the circumstances?
- If reasonable, what reduction in alimony payments would be fair to both parties?
The court felt that these two questions are consistent with the 10 listed factors and also with the fact that the judge may consider anything relevant to determine fairness and equity in the application for alimony reduction.
In conclusion, the court found the obligor’s acceptance of a significantly lower-paying job was reasonable under the circumstances, noting how hard it can be to lose a long-term position as the primary breadwinner. The court also noted the difficult economy and the high numbers of people competing for jobs, and that getting a “foot in the door” of an employer by taking a lower paying position may be reasonable and responsible. Accordingly, payments were decreased from $330 to $250 weekly.
The lawyers at Morris, Downing & Sherred, LLP, in Newton represent divorce clients across Northern New Jersey.