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Defining Marriage Under the New Alimony Laws

December 26, 2014 | Posted In Family Law - Family Law |

In September, Governor Chris Christie signed legislation that was designed to give the state’s current alimony system a complete overhaul and bring the laws more in line with today’s standards of marriage, divorce and family life. According to the new laws, permanent alimony awards should be determined using more strict criteria, including the age of the partners, their earning potential and whether the marriage lasted 20 years or less. 

The updates sounded great on paper, and pushed through with relative excitement from legislators, but now, New Jersey family lawyers say that their practical application has some judges stumped. In the days since the updates were made law, the state Supreme Court has been struggling with how best to define short- and long-term marriages, and how to match up these definitions with the new alimony requirements.

James and Elizabeth Gnall

A recent case perfectly illustrates the problem that family lawyers are having with the new alimony laws. James and Elizabeth Gnall, two Ridgewood, N.J. residents, were married for fifteen years, from 1993 and 2008. They had three children during that time.

Elizabeth earned her bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and holds a master’s degree in computer science. In 1999, she was making more than $115,000—the peak salary of her career. She then quit her high-paying job to stay home and care for the children. James Gnall is a chief financial officer who brought home annual earnings ranging from $510,000 in 2005 to $2.1 million in 2010.  

In 2009, when the couple began their divorce proceedings, both James and Elizabeth were 42 years old. The trial judge ruled that their marriage was not a short-term one, but ordered a limited period for the alimony payments to be made. Elizabeth was to receive $216,000 per year for eleven years.

On appeal, Elizabeth argued that permanent alimony can be applied to marriages that last less than 20-years, and the case ultimately went before the state Supreme Court. Now, with the new laws, it is unclear which guidelines should be used to determine how to award alimony.

On one hand, Elizabeth’s attorneys argued that she will not be able to sustain the lifestyle to which she is accustomed once the 11-year limit on the alimony agreement runs out. On the other hand, James’s lawyers said that limited alimony assumes that a divorced spouse will eventually begin working or find a way to support himself or herself during the time in which he or she is receiving alimony. Elizabeth was holding down a prestigious, high-paying job before she quit her career to stay home with the kids, and she has not done anything to find work in the years since her divorce.

At Helmer, Conley, and Kasselman, PA, our family law lawyers are keeping up with the state Supreme Court as the new laws take effect and are utilized in state courts. For more information, contact an HCK family attorney today. 

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