Probably everyone that’s been involved in or around a divorce has heard the old cliche, “It’s cheaper to keep her.” One of the banes of divorces is the payment of alimony, a system a growing number of grassroots organizations in the United States say is antiquated and should be updated for the 21st Century. They have a good point – the concept goes back to the Babylonian reign of Hammurabi. Thousands of years.
It’s not the concept of alimony itself that has the groups’ ire: It’s the concept of lifetime alimony, where one spouse (most commonly and traditionally the man) supports their ex for the duration of their post-married life.
New Jersey Alimony Reform (NJAR), an organization advocating for changes to alimony laws, held a conference at Rutgers University on June 9th entitled “Alimony Reform: Fair Laws for the 21st Century.” The event brought together activists from Massachusetts, Connecticut, Florida, and New Jersey to discuss the changing views about permanent alimony in today’s society and the role of concerned citizens in shaping public policy.
“These laws are harsh enough to bankrupt alimony payers and send them to jail,” said NJAR President Tom Leustek, in a prepared statement preceding the event. “Our objective is to bring alimony laws out of the 1950s, when men were the breadwinners, women were housewives, and Father Knows Best played on black and white televisions.”
The NJAR mission statement is explained on the group’s website, njalimonyreform.org: “Today’s NJ alimony laws are oppressive. They are harsh enough to force the money-earner into bankruptcy, incarceration, to leave the country, or worse. All this the result of lifetime alimony. Why should anyone be forced to pay 50 or more years of lifetime alimony after having been married for just 10 years?”
The group contends that, since New Jersey alimony laws were mostly established in the 1940’s and 1950’s, when virtually all women were stay-at-home mothers and men were the family breadwinner and few career opportunities existed for women, alimony laws were necessary to ensure that divorced wives didn’t have to collect welfare. Times have changed, they say, with women flooding into the workplace and making up half of the workforce. The idea that a divorced woman can’t support herself and needs lifetime alimony payments from her ex-husband is an old fashioned idea.
Few clear statistics about alimony exist but a look at the New Jersey’s records show that while only about 25,000 people out of 280,000 divorced spouses pay alimony in the Garden State, those who do pay a significant sum. According to the U.S. Census there are 560,000 divorced people in New Jersey and there were about 20,000 divorces in 2011. Child support is much more commonly awarded than alimony in divorce judgments. In 2009, 25,000 people reported paying $535 million on their state tax returns, according to the New Jersey State Treasury’s Statistics of Income report. Alimony payments are tax deductible in New Jersey. That’s an average of $21,406 per tax return, and some estimates show 97 percent of alimony payers to be men.
Making their case for the unfairness of the current system, NJAR advocates cite numerous cases of spouses, typically men, who are forced to continue paying alimony decades after a divorce and long after retirement or disability to a spouse who they contend never tried to get a job. Leustek maintained it can take between two and four years after a person loses a job before a judge will relieve him of his responsibility to pay alimony.
“These are well-meaning, hard-working people who have never been in trouble with the law, except that they married badly and lost a job,” he said. “They were unable to pay alimony and a judge put them in jail.”
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