In order to achieve a reduction of an alimony obligation, a payor must demonstrate that there has been a “changed circumstance.” If there truly has been a “changed circumstance”, then, sometimes, a modification may be accomplished through negotiations with the former spouse. If, however, the former spouse is not open to negotiating the alimony obligation or the “changed circumstance” is less apparent, a motion must be filed with the court requesting a plenary hearing to determine whether the Property Settlement Agreement (“PSA”) or Judgment of Divorce warrants modification. While this is a fairly common motion for experienced family law practitioners, the results are fact specific. Family Part judges have considerable discretion in determining whether a changed circumstance warrants an alimony modification. Larbig v Larbig, 384 N.J. Super. 17, 23 (App. Div. 2006) This discretion turns on a Family Part judge's "experience as applied to all the relevant circumstances presented[.]"
In the unpublished appellate decision of Grier v. Grier, the court considered such a motion that had been denied by the trial court judge. In Grier, the Appellate Court affirmed that “[t]he trial judge correctly explained that, when a party seeks to modify any support obligation under a PSA, the party must demonstrate "changed circumstances" supporting such a modification. J.B. v. W.B., 215 N.J. 30, 327 (citing Lepis v. Lepis, 83 N.J. 139, 146-48 (1980)). A party seeking modification has the burden of demonstrating such changed circumstances as would warrant relief from his or her obligation. Importantly, when a supporting spouse brings an application for a downward modification, the central focus is on the supporting spouse's ability to pay. Miller v. Miller, 160 N.J. 408, 420 (1999). A reduced income is one event that may qualify as "changed circumstances." Reese v. Weis, 430 N.J. Super. 552, 569-70 (App. Div. 2013) (citing Lepis, supra, 83 N.J. at 146). In order to prove changed circumstances, however, the changed circumstances must be permanent. (citing Lepis, supra, 83 N.J. at 157).
The trial court judge in Grier noted the payor's reduced income. However, the court also noted that the reduced reported income did not appear to be a permanent circumstance. Payor asserted that his current income was lower now because of the loss of a client. However, the trial court found that payor failed to demonstrate that the decline in business was permanent and inhibited his ability to earn, especially since the initial alimony had been based on the supporting spouse’s three year average income The motion judge concluded that these facts did not evidence a showing of permanent changed circumstances and that there was no basis upon which the trial court judge should have held a plenary hearing.
As we are reminded in Grier, even when there has been a reduction in income, the court will consider all the relevant circumstances presented. So to answer the initial question of “Can I reduce my alimony obligation?” – the answer is YES... if based on all the relevant circumstances presented it can be demonstrated that there has been a “changed circumstance.”
Sandra C. Fava is the editor of the Riker Danzig Family Law Blog and heads the Family Law Practice Group of Riker Danzig Scherer Hyland & Perretti LLP. Sandra is resident in Riker Danzig's Morristown, New Jersey office though she practices throughout New Jersey. You can reach Sandra at (973) 451-8453, or email@example.com.