Is There a Lifetime Alimony Obligation?

An often-repeated statement by a party responsible for paying alimony is that they have a “lifetime” alimony obligation and will be paying alimony for the rest of their lives. There is a misconception that alimony continues for the duration of the payor’s lifetime, thus characterizing the payments as “lifetime alimony.” This is a misnomer, and unless the parties have specifically bargained for such language in their Marital Settlement Agreement, New Jersey law does not provide for a lifetime obligation.

The duration of a payor’s alimony is determined by either the specific language in a Marital Settlement Agreement or in the absence of defining language, in accordance with New Jersey law. The two most common forms of alimony are limited duration alimony, sometimes referred to as “term alimony,” and “open durational alimony,” previously referred to as “permanent alimony.”

Limited duration alimony is payable for marriages of shorter duration, and by its nature, is for a specific period of time that is delineated in the Marital Settlement Agreement. Open durational alimony is for marriages of longer duration, and the length of time the payor is responsible for making payments is dependent upon whether the specific language in the Marital Settlement Agreement sets forth a date or standard for review. If the language in the Marital Settlement Agreement sets forth a specific date, such as an obligor’s bona fide retirement at a certain age, those terms are controlling. If there is no specific language in the Marital Settlement Agreement, the termination date will be decided in accordance with New Jersey law.

There is a distinction in the burden of proof imposed upon the payor depending upon whether a party’s divorce was entered prior to September of 2014 when the alimony statute was amended. If a divorce was entered prior to September of 2014, an application to the court is based on a change of circumstance standard of review. If a divorce was entered after September of 2014, there are specific statutory provisions relating to circumstances such as retirement or a reduction in income for self-employed and non-self –employed wage earners. Under the revised statute, there is also a rebuttable presumption that alimony will terminate upon the payor attaining full retirement age (FRA), which is defined as eligibility to receive full retirement benefits for Social Security, currently 66 to 67 years old.

Regardless of when the divorce was entered, pursuant to New Jersey law a payor may seek relief from the Court based upon a significant change of circumstances, such as a medical disability, involuntary loss of employment or other permanent, not temporary, occurrence.

For a more detailed analysis of the facts relating to your matter, contact the experienced family law attorneys at Cohn Lifland to discuss questions or concerns you may have regarding these issues.