The Reality of “Changed Circumstances” and the new Alimony Reform Act
authored by – Robert B. Kornitzer, Esq. and Caitlin Dettmer
When the spouse paying alimony seeks to reduce his support, the New Jersey Supreme Court requires the lower courts to consider (among others) two factors set out in Lepis v. Lepis, 83 N.J. 45, 157 (1980): (1) whether there is an initial of “changed circumstances” and (2) whether the supporting spouse has the ability to pay what he was previously paying. Examples of changed circumstances include unemployment of the supporting spouse, changes in the supporting spouse’s income, illnesses, and changes in the dependent spouse’s living arrangements. Courts will not modify alimony if the change in circumstances is only temporary. Unfortunately, there is no perfect rule by which to measure when a changed circumstance is severe enough and has endured long enough to warrant a modification of support.
While there is no set amount of time that constitutes changed circumstances, recent changes to New Jersey’s alimony law (N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23) establish that an application for modification of alimony may be filed once a party has been “unemployed, or has not been able to return to or attain employment at prior income levels” for 90 days. The law maintains that factors other than the amount of time a party has been involuntarily unemployed or subject to a reduction of income are to be considered, but in theory, the law now recognizes that changed circumstances may exist after only three months of continued unemployment or inability to return to the level of income that existed at the alimony was set. This three-month rule was considered to be a major reduction in the burden carried by the supporting spouse.
However, any celebrating by supporting spouses seeking to reduce support may have been somewhat premature. In the recent unreported (meaning non-binding) case of Beschloss v. Beschloss, the court seemed to place more weight on factors other than length of time being unemployed when considering an application for downward modification of support. In Beschloss, the Appellate Division upheld the denial of the defendant’s request for downward modification even though his income had been reduced by approximately one-third of his former income and despite a period of unemployment.It therefore remains unclear as to how meaningful the impact of the revised alimony statute will be in determining future support modification applications. We can look forward to many new cases continuing to define the issue of what constitutes “changed circumstances.