Thursday, September 20, 2012

The purpose of limited duration alimony in New Jersey

In New Jersey, the goal of an alimony award is to assist the dependent spouse with maintaining a lifestyle that is as similar as possible to the lifestyle he or she had during the marriage. Because two households are more expensive than one, it may be impossible to duplicate the marital lifestyle.

There are three other types of alimony that a court can award in addition to permanent alimony: (1) limited duration, (2) rehabilitative, and (3) reimbursement. This blog addresses limited duration alimony, which is awarded in recognition of a dependent spouse’s contributions to a relatively short-term marriage. An award of limited duration alimony upholds the policy that marriage is an economic and social partnership and that financial and non-financial contributions of both spouses should be recognized. However, it also takes into account the length of the marriage.

The length of the marriage, rather than financial dependency, is the defining distinction when courts decide whether to award permanent and limited duration alimony awards. Yet, courts also will consider the degree of financial dependency of one spouse upon other when deciding if permanent alimony is appropriate.

Mental health issues can lead to one spouse being found to be financially dependent on the other spouse. In New Jersey, however, mental heath issues alone, will not always influence a judge to award permanent alimony. In J.E.V. v. K.V., Wife asked the appellate court to overturn the trial court’s decision to award limited duration alimony for a period of ten years, and instead asked that the court award permanent alimony after the end of their nine-year marriage. J.E.V. v. K. V., 426 N.J. Super. 475 (2012). Over the course of their marriage, Wife had maintained a steady job and earned a maximum salary of $65,000 before she became involved in Husband’s lucrative dermatology business.

Wife argued that she was now unable to maintain a steady job because of her mental health problems, which developed during the last three years of the marriage. Specifically, Wife suffered from bipolar disorder and anxiety. Wife’s psychiatrist testified that she might not be able to retain a job because of the mood swings that she experienced in stressful situations. This psychiatrist also testified, however, that about eighty percent of the patients he treated with bipolar disorder do maintain steady employment. Wife’s vocational expert reported that she told him that she was not interested in employment, but the vocational expert concluded that she was capable of earning between $45,000 and $55,000 per year. At the conclusion of the trial, the judge awarded Wife over $20,000 a month in limited duration alimony for the next ten years, which ended when the youngest child turned eighteen years old.

In setting the type, term and amount of alimony, the trial judge must weigh the thirteen alimony factors set forth in the New Jersey statute. N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23(b). In J.E.V. v. K.V., the trial judge determined that permanent alimony was not warranted because of the short length of the marriage, Wife’s inability to present evidence of a permanent disability, Wife’s ability to earn an income, and the fact that she had been successful in past jobs. The judge also cited to the fact that Wife also received an equitable distribution award of approximately $650,000.

During an appeal, a trial court’s findings regarding alimony will not be vacated unless the trial court clearly abused its discretion, the court failed to consider all of the controlling laws, the court made mistaken findings of fact, or the court reached a conclusion that could not reasonably have been reached given the evidence it was presented. In J.E.V., the appellate court denied Wife’s request for permanent alimony because her economic dependency only arose in the last half of the marriage and the evidence failed to persuade that her mental health challenges prevented her from earning an income. The fact that Husband had started to earn a substantial yearly income in the last half of the marriage was a factor only when deciding the length and amount of limited duration alimony.

The court also relied on the fact that Wife had worked in the past and, throughout the eighteen-day trial, she was able to take notes and participate with her attorney. Clearly, her mental health issues were not as severe as she alleged. Wife was also very involved in her children’s lives and her community which demonstrated her ability to overcome obstacles due to her mental health issues. Limited duration alimony for ten years allowed Wife to remain the primary caretaker of her children and maintain the lifestyle she had previously enjoyed, but required her to prepare to re-enter the work force and take steps to become independent.

Because alimony is highly dependent on facts and circumstances of each case, you should contact an attorney if you have questions regarding alimony.

Written by Allyson Lutley, law clerk at the Law Offices of Linda A. Kerns, LLC.  Edited by Elizabeth A. Bokermann, Esquire, associate attorney at the Law Offices of Linda A. Kerns, LLC.


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