The Times, They are a Changin‘: Establishing Changed Circumstances in New Jersey

Title:
The Times, They are a Changin‘: Establishing Changed Circumstances in New Jersey
Publication:
Town Topics of Princeton, March 7, 2012
Practice:

What happens with respect to a supporting spouse’s alimony obligation after divorce? Under what circumstances is that obligation subject to change, if at all? Many spouses have questions such as these after they divorce. In New Jersey, a specific body of law governs the answers to those questions. A general analysis of that law follows.

In New Jersey, a supporting spouse can modify his or her alimony obligation to the supported spouse in two possible ways: by agreement of the parties, or by making an application to the Court to modify the obligation. New Jersey recognizes a strong public policy that promotes negotiated settlements, so former spouses are always free to modify an alimony obligation between themselves. However, what happens if the parties do not agree on a new support amount?

The supporting spouse would need to file a Motion in the Family Part, and explain to the Family Part Judge why a modification of his or her alimony obligation is justified under New Jersey law. Specifically, the supporting spouse must show that he or she has suffered “changed circumstances” that warrant a modification. Common examples of changed circumstances include: 1) an increase in the cost of living; 2) an increase or decrease in the supporting spouse’s income; 3) illness, disability, or infirmity arising after the original judgment; 4) the supported spouse’s loss of a house or apartment; 5) the supported spouse’s cohabitation with another; 6) subsequent employment by the supported spouse; and 7) changes in the federal income tax laws.

The party filing for a modification of his or her alimony obligation has several other hurdles to meet. The change which is the basis for the application cannot be a temporary change. For example, New Jersey courts have rejected applications that are made a very short period after the divorce. In addition, the change must be substantial and material. It cannot be inconsequential to the supporting spouse’s ability to pay the support contemplated at divorce.

In the context of an application made after a supporting spouse has lost his or her job, New Jersey courts carefully scrutinize these applications for proof of “remedial efforts” made by the supporting spouse. In other words, New Jersey courts have made clear that supporting spouses must show efforts to change their circumstances prior to seeking to modify the alimony obligation. New Jersey courts have rejected applications made by a supporting spouse when the supporting spouse has not made a meaningful effort to obtain employment in his or her field, or alternate employment outside of his or her field. 

Last, New Jersey courts examine carefully how the supporting spouse has used his or her income and assets since the divorce. As a court of equity, the Family Part often rejects applications for a downward modification of an alimony obligation when the supporting spouse has lived a high lifestyle at the supported spouse’s expense.

In the event that a supporting spouse has met these hurdles, the court will order a hearing, or trial, to determine to what extent the court will modify the alimony obligation. The court will require that both parties disclose their financial information, to assist the court in determining the supported spouse’s needs and the supporting spouse’s ability to meet those needs. In addition, the court will consider the marital standard of living as the benchmark for the standard of living to which each party is presumably entitled to live. After a trial, the court may set a new alimony obligation of the supported spouse. The court could also find that the alimony obligation should not be modified at all. Notably, the same standard of “changed” circumstances applies, whether the alimony obligation is permanent or of limited duration. A trial court only has the authority to extend a term of limited duration alimony upon a showing of “unusual circumstances,” which is a very high standard.

If you have a question about how to modify your support obligation, or if you are the supported spouse whose former spouse is seeking to change the alimony paid to you, please contact Riker Danzig’s Family Law Group.