Last month the Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey affirmed a trial court’s decision to reduce alimony and adjust child support in a post-divorce modification. The appeal was pursued by the ex-husband, who was not satisfied with the trial court’s decision, even though the judge reduced the amount of alimony he had to pay. The ex-husband had instead wanted the judge to terminate alimony altogether, or to apply the reduction retroactively to an earlier date. The ex-husband also had wanted the judge to add his daughter’s babysitter earnings to the ex-wife’s income for the purpose of calculating child support.
The couple in the case, Bechtold v. Clauss, had divorced after 20 years of marriage. Early in the marriage, the wife had quit her career as a professional ballet dancer in order to be home with the kids. In the divorce, the wife agreed to pursue a registered nursing degree with the understanding that her income would offset the husband’s alimony obligation. The husband paid $35,000 toward this schooling, which cost $90,000 overall.
In upholding the trial court’s decision, the appeals court noted that a family law judge has wide discretion in deciding whether to allocate alimony, what kind of alimony to award (open durational, rehabilitative, limited duration, reimbursement), and how much to award. While the trial judge did reduce the ex-husband’s monthly obligation, he chose not to terminate it, finding the husband was more capable than the wife of enjoying a standard of living comparable to what the couple had during the marriage.
The judge found the ex-wife’s evidence and testimony more credible than that of the ex-husband, who made considerably more money than the ex-wife and continued to fund improvements on his vacation home while arguing for a reduction in spousal and child support. The appeals court also found that the trial judge did a thorough job of considering every statutory factor required in the determination of alimony. Those factors are:
The actual need and ability of the parties to pay;
The duration of the marriage or civil union;
The age, physical and emotional health of the parties;
The standard of living established in the marriage or civil union and the likelihood that each party can maintain a reasonably comparable standard of living, with neither party having a greater entitlement to that standard of living than the other;
The earning capacities, educational levels, vocational skills, and employability of the parties;
The length of absence from the job market of the party seeking maintenance;
The parental responsibilities for the children;
The time and expense necessary to acquire sufficient education or training to enable the party seeking maintenance to find appropriate employment, the availability of the training and employment, and the opportunity for future acquisitions of capital assets and income;
The history of the financial or non-financial contributions to the marriage or civil union by each party including contributions to the care and education of the children and interruption of personal careers or educational opportunities;
The equitable distribution of property ordered and any payouts on equitable distribution, directly or indirectly, out of current income, to the extent this consideration is reasonable, just, and fair;
The income available to either party through investment of any assets held by that party;
The tax treatment and consequences to both parties of any alimony award, including the designation of all or a portion of the payment as a non-taxable payment;
The nature, amount, and length of pendente lite support paid if any; and
Any other factors which the court may deem relevant.
Seek Experienced Legal Representation for a Modification of Alimony in New Jersey
Given the wide discretion vested with the family law judge and the appellate court’s reluctance to meddle with the trial court’s decision, it is very important to be well-represented at trial, whether arguing for or against a change in alimony. The evidence presented to the judge is critical in the decision whether to modify or terminate alimony. If you are seeking or challenging a post-divorce modification of alimony or other New Jersey family court order, contact Herbert & Weiss at our offices in Englewood.