In September 2014, the long awaited amendments to New Jersey’s alimony statute, N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23, went into effect. With those amendments came a plethora of questions from litigants and practitioners alike in regard to the meaning and application of the amended statutory terms. In particular, the section of the statute addressing the ability of an individual to terminate or modify his or her alimony obligation based on prospective retirement has received significant attention.
Essentially, the law provides that an individual may seek to terminate or modify his or her alimony obligation based on prospective retirement, at which point a court may establish the conditions under which retirement and modification/termination of support should occur. Although payors of alimony may rejoice at seeing these words appear specifically in the statute as a basis for modification or termination of alimony, the definition of “prospective retirement” has received little clarification. Enter the recent unpublished (and therefore non-binding) decision of Mueller v. Mueller, wherein Ocean County Superior Court Judge Lawrence Jones provides some explanation of how prospective retirement should be defined and treated. Specifically, Judge Jones held that:
- While the amended alimony statute does not set a specific minimum or maximum time period for obtaining an advance ruling on prospective retirement and the effect of retirement on an existing support obligation, the “spirit of the amended statute” contemplates that the retirement would take effect “within reasonable proximity” to the application to terminate or modify alimony, and not “several years in advance.” Although Judge Jones did not articulate a precise deadline for the advanced filing, he did reference a period of “twelve to eighteen months” in advance as an appropriate time frame.
- An application such as that brought by the payor in Mueller, which was filed five years in advance of the anticipated retirement, was not considered to be within a “reasonable proximity” and, instead, was deemed to have been filed too far in advance.
- An order for prospective termination or modification of alimony based upon reaching a certain age contemplates that the payor reaches a specific retirement age and actually retires at that age. If the payor reaches retirement age but does not actually retire, the “retirement age” provisions of the statute are inapplicable until the payor actually retires or “submits an application regarding a prospective retirement in the near future.” Such a plan may include, but is not limited to, “not only a proposed specific date of retirement, but details in terms of the obligor’s plan for economic self-support following retirement as well.”
The application to terminate alimony brought by the payor spouse in Mueller was denied as it determined to have been filed too far (5 years) in advance, thereby precluding the court from engaging in a practical analysis of the parties’ economic situations at the time of the anticipated retirement.
The “prospective retirement” language of the new alimony statute will, ideally, allow both payors and payees to plan in advance for the anticipated retirement, and related impact on a support obligation, by permitting a review of alimony in advance of the prospective retirement. Practical interpretation of the alimony statute by our Courts, as was the case in Mueller v. Mueller, helps to clarify the meaning of the statutory amendments and provides litigants and attorneys with a framework for preparing and defending future applications seeking to modify or terminate alimony.