January 18, 2012
“I can’t even die.”
That’s the grizzly conclusion that New Jersey divorcee and lifetime alimony payer Linda Zampino has reached, now that the state has obliged her to purchase life insurance. Why? So that if she passes away, her husband will continue receiving his $36,000 a year in alimony.
Zampino is just one of many anguished New Jersey residents who are calling upon state legislators to modernize ancient alimony laws that, in their view, unfairly enrich alimony recipients regardless of life changes.
“Lifetime alimony and the family court system in New Jersey are driving real people to the brink,” Tom Leustek, president and founder of New Jersey Alimony Reform, told FoxNews.com. “My own divorce resulted in a lifetime alimony order in 2008. I remember during one of the court hearings, the judge saying to me, ‘It’s not fair, but it’s the law’…We realize people need support to get back on their feet, but it should be proportional to the length of marriage. Lifetime alimony is an abuse of this law.”
It’s a law, however, that may be on the brink of changing now that Leustek’s group has recruited a political heavy hitter.
“In New Jersey, an individual divorced 30 years ago could still be required to make payments to his or her spouse while in retirement, irrespective of changes in income or other life events,” commented New Jersey state senator Sean Kean, who yesterday sponsored legislation that would create a panel to study reforms to the state’s alimony laws. “The existing law doesn’t set adequate limits on the length and amount of alimony payments or provide for adjustments as a result of changed life circumstances.”
Currently in New Jersey, judges have the discretion to award lifetime alimony for marriages that have only lasted a decade. And unless the paying spouse can successfully get the court to change its order, there is no legal provision to adjust the alimony amount due to job loss, expensive medical bills, or other major negative change in financial circumstances.
If New Jersey ends up changing its stance on lifetime alimony, it would join a growing number of states, such as Florida, that debating the same issue. One state, Massachusetts, has already passed legislation ending lifetime alimony in most cases.
Yet, while Leustek and his supporters are cautiously optimistic that progress will be made, not everyone sees this as a step in the right direction.
“Divorce cases are so fact-specific that trying to come up with one set of rules for every marital situation is nearly impossible,” Jonathan Wolfe, a matrimonial lawyer with the New Jersey, told FoxNews.com.
Wolfe believes that it’s best to leave lifetime alimony as one of many potential tools, to be applied at a judges discretion. He also points out that spouses already have the right to petition the court to get their alimony judgement changed.
However, while Senator Kean acknowledges that a remedy technically exists, applying in the real world it is easier said than done.
“[Revisiting a judgement] doesn’t happen with great regularity and that process of revisiting is expensive, and a burden many applicants can’t handle procedurally or economically,” the senator commented.
For the aforementioned Linda Zampino, who is in the somewhat unique – but certainly not exclusive – position of being an ex-wife paying alimony instead of receiving it, words like ‘expensive’ and ‘burden’ are all too familiar.
“The judge factored my annual bonus into my lifetime alimony payment,” lamented Zampino. “When that shrunk to almost nothing in the economic downturn, I couldn’t make my bills and I went into foreclosure on my house; but I still had to pay….My lawyer told me that marriage in New Jersey is not based on morals or standards; it’s a financial agreement. I didn’t realize how heavily the state was involved when a marriage breaks up.”