Not All Unemployment is Enough to Modify Your New Jersey Child Support or Alimony Obligation
America's economy continues to crawl and the job market is still very weak. New Jersey's unemployment rate is still well above the national average at 9.3%. Gloucester County, where our attorneys assist many clients, the unemployment rate is still at an astronomically high 9.9%. So can you modify your child support or alimony obligation when the worst happens and you lose your job? The answer: it depends. First and foremost, child support and alimony are obligations. That term is literal applied. Hence, as a general matter, the Court will rarely modify a support obligation on the basis of voluntary or temporary unemployment. Deciding how exactly those terms are defined, as with most things in a court of equity, is highly circumstantial and depends on the facts of your case. There are exceptions which we will discuss at length in other blog posts (like retirement and physical/mental condition that precludes employment). For now, it's important to remember that New Jersey Courts have held that an alimony obligation “rests upon its own particular footing and the appellate court must give due recognition to the wide discretion which our law rightly affords to the trial judges who deal with these matters.” See Martindell v. Martindell, 21 N.J. 341, 355 (1956). So when is routine unemployment sufficiently non-temporary to allow you to go before the Court, state a “change of circumstances” as required by the landmark Lepis decision and reduce your support obligation? See Lepis v. Lepis, 83N.J. 139 (1980). Again, there is no bright line rule. The relatively recent Appellate Division case Piscitelli v. Classic Residence is instructive. See Piscitelli v. Classic Residence, 408 N.J. Super. 83 (App. Div. 2009). That case was decided about one year into the financial crisis, and the Court held that New Jersey family judges can take judicial notice of the poor national economy and job market in rendering a decision as to whether unemployment qualifies as a change in circumstances. Without a firm timeline from the legislature or the judiciary, it's easier to say which cases might be more difficult than others. For example, a healthy 35 year old man with a graduate degree who has been unemployed for one (1) month in a normal job market will have a much harder time decreasing his support obligation than a fifty-five (55) year old diabetic who has been looking for a job for six (6) months in a terrible economy. Things get a little more complicated when we consider the differences between how the law treats child support and alimony obligations. Child support is always modifiable as a matter of public policy. Alimony, however, might be subject to a number of additional restrictions depending on the terms of your marital settlement agreement or divorce judgment. For example, many divorce agreements specify that a modification can only take place upon retirement, death, or the decision of the payee spouse to remarry or cohabitate with another adult. As you can see, a lot goes into crafting, filing and successfully arguing a support modification motion. We know this is a trying time in your life. Losing your job is scary enough. Trying to figure out how to juggle your expenses and support obligations during this difficult time is even more challenging. At DeMichele and DeMichele, we assist hundreds of clients in seeking modifications of their child support and/or alimony obligations; we also represent clients who are trying to maintain their support when the payor files a motion to reduce their obligations. Properly evaluating how the state of the law impacts your particular employment circumstances is critically important. Our attorneys will therefore work with you to not only make the right legal arguments but also help you put together a narrative that unambiguously articulate to the judge why your situation warrants a lower support obligation. Experienced help is a quick phone call or email away. If you have any questions regarding how your job loss may affect your support obligations, or have any other general questions regarding divorce, child support or spousal support, please contact us online today or call (856) 546-1350 for a confidential consultation with one of our skilled family court lawyers.