New Jersey law generally presumes that spousal support or alimony payments should be terminated when the person making the payments retires. This general presumption is rebuttable, however. As the state’s Superior Court recently explained, courts will not use the presumption to undo or modify an agreement between former spouses about how they will handle alimony.
Husband and Wife divorced in 2001, following a 25-year marriage in which they had two kids. As part of a settlement agreement, Husband pledged to pay Wife $250 per week in “permanent, non-modifiable” spousal support. The agreement specifically stated that the alimony payments could not be changed as a result of either spouse’s inability to find work, or an illness, incapacity, or inability to work for any other reason.
Husband sought to terminate the payments in 2014, explaining that he had been forced to retire early because of an illness. He was more than $5,000 in arrears at the time. Husband was bringing in a little more than $45,000 per year in retirement benefits, according to the family court that heard his request to terminate the payments. The court declined that request, noting that the agreement expressly stated that the alimony wasn’t modifiable. The trial judge also noted that Husband’s salary more than doubled in the 10 years following the divorce and before his retirement. Nevertheless, his payments to Wife did not increase accordingly.
Affirming the decision on appeal, the Superior Court said it would give substantial deference to the family court’s ruling because of the court’s “special expertise” in this area of the law. “This expertise extends to alimony or child support actions, divorce or nullity actions, custody suits, actions to appoint a guardian ad litem, actions for adoption or termination of parental rights, and domestic violence complaints,” the Court said, citing the state Supreme Court’s 1998 decision in Cesare v. Cesare.
The court also said there was ample evidence supporting the family court’s decision. It acknowledged that the state alimony law was amended after the couple divorced. Among the changes, the new law created the rebuttable presumption that spousal support payments should terminate when the person making the payments retires. However, the Court said the law is not meant to alter any alimony arrangements agreed upon by divorcing spouses. “The parties made clear in their agreement that they intended a fixed alimony of $250 per week to continue permanently, regardless of defendant’s ‘loss of employment . . . for whatever reason,’” the Superior Court said. As a result, the Court affirmed the family court’s decision.
It is vital that a person considering a divorce or grappling with spousal support and other issues seek the counsel and advice of a seasoned family law attorney. The New Jersey divorce lawyers at Helfand & Associates have more than 100 years of combined experience representing clients in a wide range of divorce, child custody, and support cases. Our lawyers work diligently to ease the stress on clients in what can be a trying process by building the strongest possible cases for the people whom we represent.
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