New Jersey lawmaker looks to update alimony rules after advocacy group claims lifetime punishment

Fairness must be put back into divorce court, an advocacy group in New Jersey is arguing, pushing legislation to update what it says are antiquated alimony laws that disproportionately favor the recipients of alimony, regardless of changing circumstances.

"Lifetime alimony and the family court system in New Jersey are driving real people to the brink," Tom Leustek, president and founder of New Jersey Alimony Reform, told FoxNews.com. "My own divorce resulted in a lifetime alimony order in 2008. I remember during one of the court hearings, the judge saying to me, 'It's not fair, but it's the law.'"

Alimony, or spousal support, is an amount of money paid by one spouse after a divorce to enable the lower-income spouse to cover living expenses. 

Leustek, a professor at a local university, contends that many of his state's alimony laws are slanted because they were established in the 1940s and 1950s when women were largely stay-at-home mothers and men were considered the principal income earner.

Leustak has won the ear of Republican state Sen. Sean Kean, who is sponsoring legislation that seeks a plan to overhaul Garden State alimony laws like lifetime payments.

"In New Jersey, an individual divorced 30 years ago could still be required to make payments to his or her spouse while in retirement, irrespective of changes in income or other life events," Kean said. "The existing law doesn't set adequate limits on the length and amount of alimony payments or provide for adjustments as a result of changed life circumstances.”

Kean introduced a bill on Tuesday, the first day of the new legislative session, that would set up a panel to study reforms. The senator noted that the issue of child support will not be part of the panel's investigation or resulting legislation.

Under New Jersey law, a judge may award lifetime alimony in a divorce judgment for marriages lasting as few as 10 years. Unless the spouse required to make payments successfully petitions the court, there is no legal provision for adjustments in the event of a loss of employment or earnings or a financially burdensome medical condition.

Thirteen factors currently influence New Jersey alimony judgments. They include: the need and ability of both parties; duration of the union; age and health of both parties; the standard of living and earning capacity of both parties; and the distribution of property. The state does not take into account fault for the break up of a marriage, over-spending or financial irresponsibility, credit card abuse or unwillingness to work.

Leustek formed the grassroots organization after closely watching sweeping changes in Massachusetts. Late last year, the Massachusetts Assembly unanimously voted to abolish lifetime spousal support in most cases; alimony now generally ends when a payer hits retirement or the person receiving spousal support begins living with a romantic partner. In addition, a new formula was established for alimony based on the length of the marriage. For example, after a 15-year marriage, alimony would generally last no longer than 10.5 years.

Several other states are considering similar changes.

The Florida Legislature recently introduced similar bills that if passed, would limit alimony amounts and duration; ease the burden of alimony payers permanently supporting ex-spouses and their live-in partners; and provide the right to renegotiate alimony based on a new law -- a key aspect of the Massachusetts law, which ensures equal treatment of both parties.

Opponents, however, say the changes may particularly harm women who did not work during their marriage, some of whom stayed at home at their husband's request.

Jonathan Wolfe, a matrimonial lawyer with the New Jersey firm, Skoloff & Wolfe, says if permanent alimony is eliminated, it will take away one of the important tools a judge has and the discretion to apply it. 

"Divorce cases are so fact-specific that trying to come up with one set of rules for every marital situation is nearly impossible."

Wolfe said anytime a substantial change of circumstance takes place, divorced partners absolutely have the right to go back to court and get their alimony judgment changed.

Senator Kean disagreed, saying some judges are philosophically opposed to revisiting the judgment. "It doesn’t happen with great regularity and that process of revisiting is expensive, and a burden many applicants can't handle procedurally or economically."

The problem isn't just one of ex-husbands who must pay ex-wives. Linda Zampino, a long-time employee of a New Jersey pharmaceutical company, says she tried three times unsuccessfully to change her lifetime alimony order. 

"The judge factored my annual bonus into my lifetime alimony payment," she said. “When that shrunk to almost nothing in the economic downturn, I couldn't make my bills and I went into foreclosure on my house; but I still had to pay."

Kean said he hopes to achieve more certainty for divorce litigants by providing concrete guidance to the directions divorce courts in New Jersey can take. "I'm not looking to abolish alimony, but you can't expect to hold people to the same standard when their economic and life situations have changed," he said.

Leustek said he believes the New Jersey law allows judges too much latitude in setting lifetime alimony. "This is like playing slot machines in front of a judge. People should be able to predict what their liability is going to be and when it's going to end."

While a number of states have equitable alimony laws on the books, nine states go by community property laws. 

In Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin, everything acquired by both spouses during the marriage is considered community property and is split 50-50. Courts may award one spouse a larger share because of fault in the break-up of the marriage or a disparity in the two spouse's income potential, but is usually split down the middle.

"The reform movement isn’t against alimony,” Leustek says. "We realize people need support to get back on their feet, but it should be proportional to the length of marriage. Lifetime alimony is an abuse of this law."

That's the way Linda Zampino says she feels about it, adding that she's unable to switch jobs or take a retirement package unless the judge approves the alimony terms.

"My lawyer told me that marriage in New Jersey is not based on morals or standards; it's a financial agreement," Zampino said. "I didn't realize how heavily the state was involved when a marriage breaks up." 

Divorced in 2008, Zampino currently pays $36,000 in yearly alimony, and has had to secure a life insurance policy as a means of ensuring that her former husband will receive his court-ordered payment. 

"I can't even die," she said.