States Focus On Altering Alimony Laws


While New York's efforts to overhaul its alimony laws may have stalled this summer, other states in the region are taking initial steps toward change.

Officials in New Jersey and Connecticut introduced legislation this year to help the states make significant changes to their alimony laws, spurred by advocates who are seeking to eliminate lifetime awards and make it easier to modify settlements if financial circumstances change.

Their efforts stand in contrast to New York's, where lawmakers rushed through a measure in 2010 that was drafted by advocates representing mainly low-income people who are alimony recipients. The law, which imposed a formula for temporary alimony, has been praised for helping those New Yorkers, but has drawn criticism for its effects on higher-income couples.

The states have also differed in process. New York passed its law and then formed a commission to analyze its impact. The state's Law Revision Commission was supposed to announce its findings in December but has yet to produce a report.

Meanwhile, officials in New Jersey and Connecticut are seeking to study the wisdom of any possible changes before a new law is enacted, they say. Still, some advocates believe that the necessary changes will be clear.

"Laws in New Jersey are very oppressive," said Tom Leustek, founder of New Jersey Alimony Reform. which he said has about 1,000 members. "It's like playing Russian roulette. Because the sky is the limit, there's a great deal of litigation and a great deal of employment for litigious attorneys."

New Jersey's Legislature introduced a bill this year to allow for the modification of child support and alimony payments under certain circumstances, such as the loss of a job or disability for more than six months by the party obligated to pay.

"We don't want to coddle deadbeats," said Assemblyman Declan O'Scanlon, a Republican sponsor of the bill. "But you've got some decent men who are just crushed by the inflexible nature of our current alimony law."

While the measure—introduced and passed through committees in February—drew little opposition, it has yet to move in the full Legislature.

Another bill under consideration would create a commission to study New Jersey's current alimony laws and make recommendations that could be adopted through future legislation.

"The alimony laws have not been updated for quite some time, and society is quite different than when they were originally written," said Senator Loretta Weinberg, a Democrat who sponsored the legislation. "I'm definitely a feminist, but I've heard stories of guys having to pay a lifetime of alimony."

The Assembly approved the measure June 25; it is expected to be taken up by the Senate.

In Connecticut, officials are in the process of creating a commission that will include legislators, judges and advocates, said Ryan Barry, a lobbyist for Connecticut Alimony Reform.

The commission follows a hearing held by the Connecticut General Assembly this spring on a bill that would have limited the duration of alimony awards to half the length of the marriage and capped payments at no more than 30% to 35% of the difference in income, with judges allowed to deviate at times.

"Alimony laws need to let people move on instead of creating lasting ties that maintain resentments lasting for generations," said Mr. Barry, a lawyer who was hired by Connecticut Alimony Reform to draft the bill and now lobbies for the group.

Mr. Barry, a Democrat who served in the Connecticut House of Representatives between 2002 and 2011, stressed that the group supported the idea of alimony, but questioned lifetime awards where recipients have no incentive to support themselves for the rest of their lives.

Not everyone was convinced, At the hearing, some argued that judges needed to maintain more discretion to account for the unique circumstances of each marriage. Others charged that the bill would hurt alimony recipients—primarily women.

"You've heard the expression throwing out the baby with the bath water? This was a bill that was put together by some angry people," said Westport attorney Arnold Rutkin, who called the bill "catastrophic." He added: "They absolutely took away discretion from the judge."

The proposed changes in Connecticut and New Jersey still provide more flexibility than New York's 2010 law, which imposed a rigid formula for temporary alimony awarded during a divorce.

Although it applies to spouses earning up to $524,000 a year, the law doesn't address issues dealt with by wealthier couples, such as mortgage payments and fluctuating annual bonuses. As a result, it has drawn criticism for creating unpredictable and unfair results in those cases, at times devastating the finances of payor spouses.

Connecticut and New Jersey's reform efforts don't include fixed formulas, but some argued that even suggesting guidelines goes too far.

"The law as it stands gives discretion to judges," said New Jersey divorce attorney Bonnie Reiss. "You can't take two numbers and put them in the computer, and pop out an alimony number."

Although advocates on all sides agreed that a marriage's circumstances should influence alimony decisions, some questioned the assumption behind lifetime awards: that women—especially those with college degrees—will never be able to take care of themselves.

"Alimony should be a transition to an independent life," Mr. Leustek said. "Otherwise it just becomes welfare and even welfare recipients are cut off."

Write to Sophia Hollander at