Welcome to another episode of the exEXPERTS Divorce, etc… podcast where we give you all kinds of information and tips on everything divorce. Why? We’ve lived it, so we get it! We’re T.H. & Jessica.
T.H.: Hi everyone. Welcome to today’s podcast with exEXPERTS. We are happy to have Jennifer Armstrong from Jennifer D. Armstrong Law based in New Jersey. She specializes in divorce and family law. Welcome to the podcast today.
Jennifer: Hi, thank you so much for having me.
Jessica: We’re so glad to have you.
T.H.: Today’s topic is going to be about spousal support, but before we jump into that Jen, why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Jennifer: Sure. My name is Jennifer Armstrong of Jennifer D. Armstrong, LLC divorce and family law. I am a solo based out of Toms River. I’ve been doing divorce and mediation. I’ve been doing divorce matters probably for 18 years, so almost 20 years, because prior to becoming an attorney, I was a paralegal doing divorce and family law matters. I really do have almost 20 to 20+ years of experience doing this. I really enjoy it. I do like it. It’s not for everybody. Then most recently, a couple years ago, I became a qualified mediator here in the state of New Jersey, which just is a fancy way of saying that I took a bunch of mediation courses for 40+ hours. Now I can do divorce mediation also for couples, which I actually enjoy a little bit more than the divorce, because those people are usually on the same page. They’re a little bit more amicable and they want to resolve their matters without litigation. That’s always fun to do.
Jessica: Can I just ask a quick question with regards to the mediation, even though I know that’s not our topic today, because I know it varies from state to state. In New Jersey, if someone comes to you and hires you as a mediator, do they also need to have a separate lawyer who then reviews everything before it’s filed or not?
Jennifer: If they’re going to utilize an attorney, they would have to get a separate attorney. A mediator here in New Jersey can’t be both mediator and attorney for a party because first off, we cannot represent two parties in a divorce. That’s unethical, so no attorney can represent both spouses in any kind of divorce. While it’s not always necessary to get an attorney, most parties, one of the spouses will get an attorney to actually file the paperwork, to file the complaint for the divorce, let the court know that this is an uncontested divorce, and let the court know that look, we’ve already got a signed agreement. We already worked everything out in mediation, and we just need someone to button up those loose ends and dot those i’s and cross those t’s. You don’t necessarily have to get an attorney to rehash the entire agreement that the two of you came to in mediation. Obviously, both spouses are totally entitled to take that. It’s called a memorandum of understanding, which is the document that the mediators are going to draft. Both spouses are given that memorandum and they are free to go and have that looked over by attorneys and get a second opinion. Again, in the mediations that I’ve done, both spouses don’t even choose to get an attorney. Usually, only one and it’s usually the wife, goes and gets an attorney just to put through the paperwork.
Jessica: Got it. Okay, good. All right, so let’s get to the money, honey.
T.H.: Yeah, spousal support, can you just define it for our listeners today? What is it exactly?
Jennifer: Oh goodness gracious. Spousal support, which is probably the most highly contested and contentious issue in any divorce, talks about the sum of money funds, that one spouse is typically going to pay to another spouse if it’s warranted. There’s no laundry list that I could give you as to what expenses that covers. It covers a lot of things. The alimony statute actually is like eight pages long and everything. It was recently amended back in 2014. It’s really lengthy. I encourage people to go online and take a look at it and everything. There are different types of spousal support, and there are different levels of spousal support, so it’s really involved. That’s one of the things that makes it so highly contested and contentious in divorce actions is that a lot of people don’t really understand what it is and they don’t really understand what they’re supposed to be asking for or getting.
Jessica: Why did they change the name from alimony to spousal support? I feel sometimes people still are still referring to it now as alimony and don’t know what spousal support is.
Jennifer: It is still alimony. It is still alimony, and actually because I printed out a copy of the statute, I have it in front of me. The statute is still called alimony and maintenance. Spousal support is just another term that someone is using for that, but it’s all the same thing. Whether it’s alimony or spousal support, it doesn’t matter. It is different from child support. Typically in a divorce where if you have children, there’s going to be two types of support that you’re going to be addressing and that’s typically going to be alimony, otherwise known as spousal support, and then child support. Alimony is really referencing support that’s going to be between the spouses that is for the spouse and for the upkeep and maintenance of that individual spouse, whereas child support is the support that’s going to be for the benefit of the children of the relationship.
T.H.: When you talk about supporting the other spouse, do you have to indicate what that money is used for or is that part of the negotiating? Or this is just money for you to have and spend as you like? Or do they check and say this is for the house, this is for the car. This is for —
Jennifer: Yeah, I’m sure a lot of spouses who are paying spousal support would [want that kind of detail].
T.H.: Wait. Wait. With or without that kind of detail?
Jennifer: No, no. You’re not. Look, everyone is free here in the state. The great thing about getting divorced here in the state of New Jersey is that you’re allowed to agree to pretty much whatever you want. Assuming that it’s not illegal, you can agree to whatever and a judge is not going to pass judgment on that.
All the court cares about is that you came to an agreement together, that it was knowledgeable and freely entered into. The judges just care that no one’s pressuring anyone into the agreement. They don’t care how crazy the agreement is or how one-sided or anything the agreement necessarily is if both parties are entering into it freely and voluntarily. While you can certainly agree to that level of detail in your agreement, most people are not going to and most attorneys are not going to let their clients agree to something like that. I’ll get the question all the time, especially when it comes to child support, “Well, doesn’t he/she have to show me receipts of what they’re spending my child support money on?” No, they don’t.
T.H.: It’s really good to know.
Jessica: That’s really good to know, because I think a lot [inaudible]. Right, I remember in my divorce, my first husband he wasn’t asking for receipts once we settled on the numbers, but to get to the numbers, there was a lot of like —
Jennifer: You’re right, that’s a different story. With respect to spousal support, that can sometimes take the form of other things other than just a monetary payment each month too. Sometimes you’re trying to keep a spouse and children in a house, and so instead of paying spousal support to that spouse, the breadwinner, the person who’s paying the alimony or spousal support, may instead be making a mortgage payment to the mortgage company, or maybe paying other things in lieu of alimony. Again, alimony doesn’t have to be a check or a payment made to the other spouse. It can also be other forms of payments or other like payments that are being made that we are still going to dub alimony or support and everything. Again, each case is very unique in that set of circumstances. When you’re dealing with alimony, you have to not only negotiate the amount of alimony, but you also have to negotiate the duration of alimony How long are you going to get alimony for? That’s a big deal, and that was a big change when the alimony statute was amended in 2014. It directly impacted marriages and split things down the middle as far as if you’re married for 20 years or less, you’re going to have more likely than not something called limited duration alimony, meaning you’re going to get alimony for a set timeframe, whether that’s months, weeks, years, or whatever. It’s going to be of limited duration and time that we’re going to negotiate. If you’re married for more than 20 years, then you’re going to likely have alimony that’s called open durational alimony, which used to be called permanent alimony. They took away the word permanent, which as a lay person you think permanent means the rest of my life until I die, only that’s not true. You were never going to get alimony until you die. Most people when that spouse, the paying spouse retires if they’re not making the same amount of money in retirement as they were during their working life, they were going to take you back to court and they were going to modify or terminate their alimony. Alimony was never really permanent. The legislature thought we should get rid of that word permanent. We’ll call it open durational meaning you’re going to get alimony for an open duration of time. We don’t know what that is, but it’s likely that at the time the payer goes to retire, you’re probably going to revisit this. It’s not just the amount of alimony, it’s the duration of time that you’re also negotiating.
Jessica: Right. The big question is, we a little bit know the answer to this, but we have to ask it. Because the big question is anyone who goes into this situation, I think I vaguely remember from growing up, that phrase of alimony to keep you in the lifestyle to which you become accustomed, that that’s actually the standard anymore.
However, I think what everybody always wants to know is how do I know how much I’m going to get? It seems to vary from state to state.
Jennifer: It varies from state to state, but it varies from court to court. I always tell people when you’re going through divorce and you’re talking to your friends or family members or other people that you know, who have been through divorce, limit the conversations you’re having with them, because people are going to tell you all different kinds of things. You’re going to be talking to a coworker who you think makes around the same amount of money as you who may be in a similar situation, and you’re going to wonder why they’re getting one thing and you’re getting another. The fact of the matter is, alimony is very, very fact-specific, and everything. You could give the facts of your case to five judges here in New Jersey, and you’re going to get five different answers on alimony back. There’s no formula for alimony. Child support, we have this nifty computer formula. We punch some numbers in and the computer spits out a number and tells us how much child support is. We don’t have that for alimony. Alimony is determined by various factors that are within the alimony statute. The court has to look at how long were you guys married? What was your marital standard of living? What expenses are you going to have after the divorce that you may or may not have had during the divorce? How much does each of the parties make? What are the ages of the parties? What’s the health of the parties? All of those things are major factors. I recently just had a case where the parties are very young. They’re in their early 30s, and they have another 30 years until retirement. When we’re talking about duration of alimony, the duration of alimony is not going to be nearly as long for two parties who are in their early 30s, as it might be for two parties in their late 30s, early 40s, or 50s, and everything. Every factor is weighed differently, and every judge weighs those factors differently. Unfortunately, there’s no uniformity, there’s no formula or calculation that you can just come to. Now, I will say that when we’re looking at alimony, obviously the standard of living plays a huge part in that, but you have to also remember that here in the state of New Jersey both parties are entitled to that standard of living. If you have two spouses who earned X, and that those incomes were used to maintain that one household, you now are trying to split that money up to maintain two households. How could you possibly continue to live the same lifestyle? You’re not going to. Both of you are going to live a reduced lifestyle because that same amount of money, the money that’s in that pot, cannot stretch far enough to maintain two identical households. I used to always tell clients, yes, you’re going to be entitled to alimony, and you’re going to get alimony and whatever you get, you’re never going to think is enough. And yes, you’re going to have to pay alimony, and whatever you’re paying, you’re always you’re always going to think it’s too much and everything. Then you have to tell the spouse who’s getting alimony, yes, you’re going to get alimony, but he or she who is paying alimony is not going to live in a box under a bridge someplace. They have to live too. They have to have a place to live and a place to have the children and they have to provide for the children when the children are with them. We’re taking this pot of money, and we’re trying to split it up between the two of you, and that’s not always easy. That’s why there’s so much litigation around the issue of alimony and how much does everyone get.
T.H.: Right, right. I mean, I remember. My divorce took four years. I had three judges, all had very different opinions. The big word that always came up was setting a precedent. Setting a precedent, the last five years set a precedent for the rest of your lives. If he all of a sudden makes a quarter of the money he’s made through your whole marriage, his whole career path all of a sudden just plummeted. Isn’t that amazing how that happened?
It’s good to know that they set a precedent because there could be foul play, sometimes playing around with how much money he or she is earning at that time, whoever the breadwinner is.
Jennifer: Right. This is why it’s so important. First off, every one of my clients will tell you that they’ve been thinking about divorce for a long time. This is not a decision that people come to lightly. It’s not something that they come to spur of the moment. They have either been thinking about it for several weeks, several months, more often, several years. One of the things you need to do and that people can do to help themselves if they’ve really seriously tried marriage counseling, it’s just not working, you know you’re headed down this path and everything, is you want to make sure you keep tabs on what your status quo is. You keep tabs on and you know how much does my spouse make? How much do I make? Let me keep those records. Let me pay attention. Because when someone starts planning for divorce, that overtime is going to suddenly dry up. They’re not going to work so many jobs or get those same commissions. Or they’re going to do things to start, once they speak to an attorney, they’re going to get it in their head that they’re going to start manipulating the situation and manipulating the facts to their benefit. I always tell clients, look, you want to get divorced when everyone is making as much money as possible. When money is good, and it’s coming in, that’s when you want to get divorced. You don’t want to get divorced when your spouse is unemployed and sitting on the couch not doing anything day in and day out, or hasn’t been, or is newly disabled and everything and now you suddenly find yourself to be the breadwinner and everything. With that being said, what causes divorce? Lack of money, lack of communication. When the money is flowing and the money is good, people are less likely to file for divorce, because they’re not arguing as much about money because they have it. It’s kind of this catch 22, but you really have to pay attention and be on the lookout, because you could find yourself in a situation where you have had 15 years of one type of status quo throughout your marriage, then the last year or two, those things have changed so dramatically that now when someone does file for divorce, the court’s not going back and looking at all that other time. They can’t go retroactive. They can’t jump in a time machine and go back. They take you as they find you, is what we always tell clients and everything. If we find you in a situation with no money, with your spouse, disabled, your spouse not working, and everything, that’s how the court takes you. If you’re no longer going on those fancy vacations, you’re no longer spending all of the monies that you were living the lifestyle that you had once been living and everything, then no the judge is not going to go back in time and try to recreate that. That’s why you really have to pay attention and ask yourself, have things changed for a particular reason? Is there something suspect about this? It’s terrible to be thinking like that and to have to protect against that, but at the end of the day you have to.
T.H.: Yeah. Let’s talk about how support is paid. Because there are a few different options, and then if you are in a situation, I have friends who have gone through the probation office and garnishing wages and stuff like that.
Can you tell us a little bit about the general ways that spousal support is paid or the more popular?
Jennifer: Sure. The two most popular ways is direct payments or through probation. Direct payments, you trust your spouse, your spouse is either going to give you a check every week, or they might have monies that they directly deposit into your account themselves from their bank account. That’s clean and simple if you trust your spouse and if your spouse is going to be making those payments. You do become a bit of a bookkeeper doing that, because everything’s on you to make sure those payments come and that you keep track of those payments. No one else is overseeing that for you. If you are dealing with a spouse who is not happy about having to make those payments to you, that’s not what I would recommend. Because if you think for any reason that your spouse may stop making payments to you, and you don’t want to chase them and you don’t want to get into a big old litigation down the road about who made what payments to whom, and when were they received, and things like that, direct payments are probably not for you. I will say if you are the payer of alimony, don’t ever pay your ex-spouse cash —
T.H.: Right, it has to be traced.
Jennifer: Right, you have to be able to trace it. The first thing any judge is going to ask you to do is produce evidence that you made the payments, and no one’s going to listen to cash. You could have actually given that person cash every single week and done the right thing and stuff and no one’s going to believe you. It’s just the way that it is.
T.H.: But it never happens.
Jennifer: Yeah, direct payments, I’m not a fan of. It’s slightly better if there’s going to be something where they’re going to make those payments directly from their bank account into your bank account. But again, I’m not particularly a fan. The second most common way for payments to be made is through the probation department, where the probation department is the one that’s going to monitor the payments that you receive. There’s actually an app that you can download onto your phone, and you can see when the payments hit. It’ll tell you whether there’s arrears and whether they’re behind in their payments. If you’re signed up for certain services, they can help you try to go after those monies and everything against your spouse. Now, there’s much more that the probation office can do when it comes to child support versus alimony. So again, if you think you’re dealing with somebody who’s not going to be making his payments, you definitely want your payments to go through the probation department.
Jessica: Who pays the probation department for that?
Jennifer: Nobody does. There is an annual fee. If you have child support and alimony and you are having them go through probation, you’re going to pay a one time $6 fee to the probation department to enroll in what’s called Title IV-D services, where they will do credit monitoring. They will also see if he or she is in arrears, and if they are not paying their support, they will intercept their tax returns, they can file for bench warrants against the other person. They used to be able to suspend the driver’s license or passport of the other individual, so there are all types of enforcement action that probation can do for you. I believe if it’s just alimony that they’re monitoring, there might be a $25 annual fee that you have to pay. But again, it’s very minimal, [a nominal fee] and it is well worth it.
T.H.: Right, there’s no headache. If you don’t even get along, and you can’t communicate at all or anything, it’s better to let somebody else handle it. But I do have friends who have had to be on top of it, also who were recipients of the money, and if they didn’t get it, then they have to follow up with probation. I still feel like anybody who is receiving money should still be tracking, whether they’re getting probation or direct deposit. Sometimes my ex misses payments, and then he pays and it’s fine. It was just he forgot. But you have to stay on top of your money and what’s owed to you and when it’s owed to you because if it goes back too far, it’s going to create a huge —
Jennifer: Yeah, some people have inaccurate expectations as to what probation is going to do for you. While probation will track the payments received, and they will directly deposit them into your bank account if you want, or there’s a debit card I think that you can also choose to have your payments placed upon, in enforcements, let’s just say that there’s a lot of people that go through probation. It’s a lot of work for them, and so the enforcement’s not always what it should be and everything, so you have to be your own advocate. You have to stay on top of that account, and you’ve got to keep an eye on it. When you see they are over $1,000 in arrears, you’ve got to call up probation and see if you can get a bench warrant issued. If that bench warrant is issued, you need to be calling up the sheriff’s department and telling the sheriff’s department where your ex is. They’re not out there looking for these guys. One or two times a year, they’ll do one of these child support round-ups where they’ll go around and try to round up some of the people that have bench warrants, but they’re not actively out there searching. Unless your ex gets pulled over for a moving violation or something, they’re not going to get picked up. You really do still want to be checking that you want to make sure that you are advocating for yourself because again, you’re just one of thousands of people in the system, and it’s really easy for them to overlook you. I know lots of clients that have tens of thousands of dollars in arrears. Those arrears never go away. They’re on that account forever.
Jessica: This is such amazing information. I feel like this conversation we could keep continuing it. We’re probably going to ask people and anyone who’s listening, if you have questions specifically about spousal support/alimony, please feel free to let us know what they are so that the next time we have Jennifer come back, we can continue the conversation and get your specific questions answered. Jennifer, for anyone listening who’s interested in reaching out to you directly, what are the best ways for them to contact you?
Jennifer: The best way to contact me is to obviously go on our website, which is www.jdarmstronglaw.com. You can also check us out on Facebook at New Jersey divorce attorney. I’ve been overseeing administrating of a Facebook group. It’s a private Facebook group called New Jersey Divorce Tips and Resources. I will say, look, it’s a private Facebook group, but we’re not cross-checking who joins the group. One of the things that you should do, if you become a member of the group, is you want to make sure that your ex is not also in the group before you post any type of information. It’s a Facebook group with generalized information about divorce and resources for family law litigants. I’m not there to give specific legal advice. Obviously, if you want specific legal advice, I’m more than happy to have a consultation with somebody and go through their specific set of facts, but you can find a lot of generalized information on our Facebook group. I do encourage people to check that out.
Jessica: Love it.
T.H.: That’s how I found Jennifer by the way. I really loved the way she was responding to people and engaging with people, so I tracked her down.
Jennifer: I’m on it every day, so I do engage with a lot of litigants and everything on there. I appreciate them participating. It’s scary. Most of the people on there do have attorneys, but sometimes you want a second opinion and sometimes you want to find out what’s going on with other people and feel like you’re not so alone going through this process.
Jessica: And that’s exactly what exEXPERTS is all about. Totally. We’ll have links to all of your contact points as well on our website. Thank you so much Jennifer for joining us and giving your time. We really appreciate it.
Jennifer: Yeah no problem. Glad to do it, ladies.
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