Alimony

TRENTON — After advocates for years argued that New Jersey’s alimony laws were outdated, Gov. Chris Christie signed a bill Wednesday to revise the system.

“It’s an amazing first step to bring alimony laws in 21st century,” said Thomas Leustek, founder of New Jersey Alimony Reform, a group that lobbied for the changes.

Here are five things you need to know about the new law:

1. No more “permanent” alimony

Advocates said the concept behind alimony dates to a time when many women were financially dependent on their husbands because men were the breadwinners. That, they said, left many men and a growing number of women having to make payments for decades. Last year, about 22,000 ex-spouses received alimony under court supervision in New Jersey.

But the new law does away with lifetime — or “permanent” — alimony. Instead, ex-spouses making the payments can apply in most cases to have them end or be modified when they reach the federal retirement age of 67, unless a judge says otherwise. “Alimony is no longer forever,” Leustek said. “Recipients needs to take measures to make sure they secure their future.”

The law also stipulates that in marriages lasting fewer than 20 years, the length of payments now cannot exceed the length of the marriage — unless a judge decides there are “exceptional circumstances.” Thus, if you were married for seven years, you are not obligated to pay more than seven years of alimony.

2. It doesn’t benefit everyone

Most of the law’s changes apply only to couples that get divorced in the future — not to anyone who is currently paying alimony. “This does not change contractual obligations,” said Paris Eliades, president of the New Jersey State Bar Association.

But, experts note, the retirement age stipulation does benefit those people. That means even those paying lifetime alimony can apply to end it when they retire.

3. There are stricter rules about living with someone new

Under the old law, payments were supposed to end once the ex-spouse receiving them begins living with a new partner, even if they’re not married. But people would often “play games,” Eliades said. “They’d get a small studio apartment or a room at a boarding house, though they were living at their partner’s house. Other addresses were sometimes used as an escape mechanism.”

Under the new law, there are more specific guidelines.

4. It’s easier to reduce payments if you are out of work

Experts said there was an unwritten rule under New Jersey’s old alimony system: You can reduce your payment if you’re unemployed, but usually judges said you needed to be out of work for a year.

Under the new law, you can ask the court to lower payments if you’re unemployed for three months. “If you lost your job and you had to continue making $3,000 payments but had no money coming in, that’s a pretty frightening prospect,” Leustek said.

5. The calls for change aren’t over

Advocates say while the new law is a step in the right direction, it doesn’t go far enough. They wished it would extend to those currently paying alimony and be more in line with neighboring Pennsylvania and New York, which have stricter limits on payment duration.

But Laurence Cutler, a Morristown attorney, said the changes may lead to new lawsuits. “This new law clarifies a lot of things,” said Cutler, a co-founder of the Matrimonial Lawyers Alliance. “But with any lawsuit that clarifies anything, it raises new questions. We’re going to be litigating for the next 10 years or so as to what this all means.”