Divorce is never a happy experience. It is often emotionally charged, and the litigants' clarity of thinking and judgment are often clouded. All the more reason for there to be definite guidelines so that both parties know what the future may hold if their marital or civil union does not work out.
Last month, Gov. Chris Christie signed legislation (S2151) that strengthens the enforceability of premarital and pre-civil union agreements. Essentially, the revised law limits the discretion of the courts to overturn prenuptial agreements, a practice that had become all too common in New Jersey.
Until now, the family courts had free reign to overturn fully executed contracts based on the circumstances that exist many years after the contract was signed - like buying a house and then having a court change the previously agreed to purchase price 10 or 20 years later. The Legislature's intent was to support fairness and provide structure to court decisions to avoid protracted and unnecessary litigation.
In that same vein, the New Jersey Legislature needs to act on the next phase of common-sense matrimonial law reform - alimony. As gender roles have changed, so too must the laws that were enacted in a different era. Legislation pending in New Jersey (A3909/S2750) seeks to add certainty and closure to both parties to divorce. The legislation eliminates the life sentence of permanent ex-spousal support, places guidelines for alimony based on the length of marriages and changes the definition of short-term, moderate-term and long-term marriages.
Almost as important, the reform guidelines will curtail the ambiguous and inconsistent interpretation by judges that is commonplace in New Jersey. The New Jersey judiciary's discretion is so broad that attorneys from other states seek to try cases in our state in order to increase the likelihood of substantial alimony support for their clients. In many cases, litigants find themselves liquidating their entire net worth including retirement and college savings, and going deeply into debt to pay experts or litigation expenses or support obligations that if unpaid result in incarceration. All with the end result being the attorney's advice to take the settlement offer, for good or bad, because not enough money remains to pay legal counsel.
N.J. Women for Alimony Reform and New Jersey Alimony Reform propose modest reforms to New Jersey's alimony laws to reflect the realities of modern society. The reforms proposed in A3909/S2750 already are the law in states such as Massachusetts and are also the unofficial but haphazardly applied guideline in New Jersey. NJWAR and NJAR propose modernizing our state's laws to promote fair mediation and discourage prolonged litigation that serves no other purpose than to enrich matrimonial attorneys.
The madness needs to stop. As gender roles have evolved, society has come to expect our laws to evolve as well. The time has come for real alimony reform.
Thomas Leustek is president of New Jersey Alimony Reform