It could be said that in many situations, lawyers prefer certainty yet stand to benefit from change. Lawyers, or the noble majority of lawyers, prefer certainty because it allows us to better advise our clients. Lawyers prefer certainty because that is what’s in our clients best interests. As lawyers, we have a fiduciary duty to place our clients’ interests even above our own. But, you may now be wondering, how does this intro relate to New Jersey alimony reform?
New Jersey Alimony Reform as Discussed at the Annual Family Law Symposium
This weekend, I attend the Annual New Jersey Family Law Symposium. There, the topic of Alimony Reform legislation became a focal point of the event’s series of lectures. In particular, Jeralyn Lawrence, Esq., and Amanda Trigg, Esq., lectured on the topic (although the entire panel, too large to name individually, all discussed the topics as well), tracing the recent alimony reform movement from Massachusetts and other “early adopters” and then to New Jersey, analyzing the shifting momentum in our state’s legislation. In particular, the pending alimony reform bill(s) were discussed and analyzed. It was noted that one of the primary alimony reform bills, which would provide “Guidelines” for Alimony and end “permanent alimony” in its current incarnation, would allow for retroactive application if passed. In other words, almost every case where a party is still paying alimony would likely be subject to review.
Pending Alimony Reform Bills
The number of motions created by passage of that bill would almost certainly be a bonanza to the family law bar (at the cost of perhaps crippling the Court system). Yet, the New Jersey State Bar Association (through the work of attorneys like Ms. Lawrence and many others), has opposed the stricter version of alimony reform and obtained backing for a competing bill that would soften the edges of reform. The irony is that many people unfamiliar with the situation believe the opposition by the family law bar is meant preserve “lifetime” alimony to further “line divorce lawyer’s pockets.” The reality is that nothing could be further than the truth. As stated above and demonstrated by the State Bar’s response, a lawyer’s primary duty is to zealously advocate for their clients. That is exactly what those attorneys opposing alimony reform—as alimony reform is currently defined by most of the pending bills— are trying to accomplish. This is not to say that any attorney supporting the bill is not acting in their clients best interests. There is certainly room for debate on these issues. But the issues are clearly being debated in the best interests of the citizens of our state, not in the best interests of what is most lucrative for family law attorneys.
What was also clear from the Family Law Symposium, is that it’s still uncertain how this will all play out. It’s possible, as with any bills pending in the legislature, that these bills will “die” in committee, not be passed, or be passed and then later vetoed. Change is not certain, and the timeline on when such changes might occur is even more unclear. To my mind, it appears that most family law practitioners (certainly myself included) are uncertain how to address this uncertainty. For instance, should Marital Settlement Agreement’s contain language attempting to deal with the uncertainty surrounding alimony reform? To what extent should we address these issues with clients? Is there a reason to slow down or speed up the divorce process? These issues were also discussed by the panel at yesterday’s event. There remains no definitive answer to such difficult questions.
For those interested in reading more about the current state of New Jersey Alimony reform, here’s a link to an article describing the current status of alimony reform in our legislature.
It’s not often that family law issues become front page news. Although uncertainty is not ideal as an attorney, it’s a good thing so many groups and individuals are engaging in this issue and the legislative process. It will be a nerve-wracking but interesting next few months as a family law attorney seeing where this all ends.
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