How Will Retirement Affect Your Award of Alimony? Well, That All Depends...April 1, 2016
As previously reported, in the Fall of 2014 Governor Christie signed into law an alimony reform bill that substantially amended several provisions of the existing alimony statute, N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23. Among other changes to the law, there is now a rebuttable presumption that alimony terminates once an obligor spouse reaches full retirement age, i.e., 66 years old. N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23(j)(1). This means that in cases where a payor spouse retires and wishes to terminate alimony, the burden is on the recipient spouse to demonstrate that alimony should continue. Previously, it was the payor spouse’s burden to show a change in circumstances warranting a modification or termination of alimony. The statute also expressly provides that the amended law does not apply retroactively. In other words, the law applies only to alimony awards in divorces entered after the effective date of the new statute – September 10, 2014. Unfortunately, this language caused controversy and confusion among matrimonial practitioners, who argued over whether the rebuttal presumption of subsection (j)(1) applied to all matters – including those filed before the statute was amended. A recent reported decision addresses this precise issue.
In Landers v. Landers, the Appellate Division was asked to clarify the application of the newly-enacted amendments in cases where an obligor retires and seeks a termination of alimony. In the Landers case, the parties were divorced in 1991 – long before the alimony reform bill was passed. Defendant-husband was required under the Judgment of Divorce to pay alimony to his ex-spouse, which he faithfully paid for over 20 years. After retiring, the husband filed a motion to terminate alimony. The recipient-wife opposed the application and filed a cross-motion seeking continuation of alimony.
Ruling in favor of the husband, the trial court terminated alimony, finding the wife had failed to overcome the presumption under N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23(j)(1) that alimony terminates when a payor attains full retirement age. The wife appealed, arguing the recent statutory amendments did not affect the terms of their divorce judgment, which was entered before the effective date of the amended statute. The Appellate Division agreed, finding “the particular language used in subsection (j)(3) clarifies the Legislature’s intent to apply (j)(1) only to orders entered after the amendments’ effective date.” In reversing, the Court held:
Unlike other amended provisions of N.J.S.A. 2A:34–23, subsection (j) distinguishes alimony orders executed prior to the amendment’s effective date and those executed afterwards. See N.J.S.A. 2A:34–23(j)(1), (3). Therefore, this unambiguous legislative directive governs a court’s examination of alimony modification requests arising when an obligor retires, depending on the original date alimony is awarded. [. . .]
In sum, the Appellate Division found that based on the date of the parties’ Judgment of Divorce, the trial judge improperly followed the statutory provisions of N.J.S.A. 2A:34–23(j)(1), which incorrectly placed the burden of proof on the recipient-wife, rather than the husband, and also omitted the necessary analysis of important applicable factors.
The Landers decision provides important guidance to trial courts when examining requests to modify alimony in cases of retirement; the analysis all depends on the date alimony was originally awarded. Section (j)(1) applies in cases where alimony was awarded after September 2014. This section establishes a rebuttable presumption that alimony will terminate upon the obligor spouse reaching full retirement age, and places the burden on the recipient spouse to demonstrate why alimony should instead continue. Alimony orders that predate the 2014 amendments are governed by Section (j)(3), which contains a different standard and places the burden on the payor spouse to demonstrate that modification or termination of alimony is appropriate.