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Involuntary Servitude has a Little Brother Named Permanent Alimony

Yet again NJ is on the wrong side of history with permanent alimony

Historically, for better or for worse, (and usually it has been for worse) NJ has a knack for being late when it comes to adopting progressive measures. After the revolutionary war, New Jersey was the last Northern state to pass an anti slavery bill as well as one of the last Northern states to completely abolish slavery. At the end of the Civil War, NJ was the only Northern state that initially failed to ratify the 13th Amendment.

Nearly 150 years later, New Jersey has stubbornly chosen yet again to cement itself on a short-sighted beach of permanent alimony while the waves of progress and reform can be heard crashing in the distance.

What is alimony?

Alimony is an individual’s legal obligation to provide financial support to her or his spouse after a divorce or marital separation.  The NJ statute provides that, “In a matrimonial action, the trial court may award one or more of the following types of alimony: permanent alimony; rehabilitative alimony; limited duration alimony or reimbursement alimony to either party.” (N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23(b)). Please see below for brief definitions on alimony which is generally considered temporary in nature:

  • Rehabilitative alimony—designed to allow the spouse (who is receiving the support) to strengthen their skills through education and training, the purpose of rehabilitative alimony is to reintegrate lower earning spouses into the workforce, by providing them with the tools necessary to find gainful employment. In general, the payment duration for rehabilitative alimony is short-term.
  • Limited duration alimony—is also referred to as term alimony because it provides for payments to be made for a specified number of months or years. The start date and end date of a limited duration alimony award are fixed. In general, limited duration alimony is used when a permanent alimony award is deemed to be too long (usually due to the length of the marriage and/or other relevant alimony factors).
  • Reimbursement alimony—this type of NJ alimony recognizes the contribution that one spouse made to the other spouse’s career, education, or advancement.” ["Is John Waldorf a Deadbeat Dad or Harsh NJ Alimony Laws?"].

Permanent alimony, the forever you never asked for

Permanent alimony is a form of NJ alimony that is indefinite, and ceases to exist only upon one of the following occurring: 1) the death of either spouse, 2) substantially changed circumstances over the course of a certain period of time (although the courts have not provided any particular guidance on how long a time period should be) (Innes v. Innes, 117 N.J. 496, 504 (1990); Larbig v. Larbig, 384 N.J. Super. 17, 19 (App. Div. 2006)) 3) and sometimes but not always upon the payor spouse (the party paying the alimony) reaching retirement.  To make matters worse, while permanent alimony is generally only supposed to be awarded  in situations involving marriages of 15 or more years, it has also been awarded to spouses engaged in even shorter marriages. The entire purpose of permanent alimony and in fact its most controversial aspect is its creation of a lifetime system whereby the payee spouse (the party receiving alimony) is entitled to maintain their former lifestyle after the divorce.

Permanent alimony problems, a new kind of involuntary servitude

The 13th Amendment, having been immortalized by Hollywood in the recent picture of Lincoln, prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude except as punishment for a crime, yet many individuals undergoing matrimonial proceedings in NJ often feel as though they are being punished with a new age form of involuntary servitude, namely permanent alimony. In the seminal case of the United States v Kozminski, 487 U.S. 931, 942 (1988), the supreme court defined involuntary servitude stating, “servitude is a condition in which a person lacks liberty especially to determine one’s course of action or way of life.” Id. at 968.  Importantly, the court also noted that, “involuntary servitude necessarily means a condition… in which the victim is forced to work for [another] by the use or threat of physical restraint or physical injury, or by the use or threat of coercion through law or the legal process.Id. at 952.

John Waldorf is an individual who knows all about forced work by the use or threat of the legal process. After already paying over $400,000.00 to his spouse, he was nonetheless imprisoned for seven weeks last December for falling behind on his alimony payments. Sheila Taylor is also another individual who understands what it means to be unable to control the course of one’s life. As a permanently disabled woman living on SSI and a pension she has been forced to pay her abusive, addict, alcoholic and adulterous ex-husband permanent alimony even though he is currently living with a new woman.

Commentary

While matrimonial actions require a delicate balancing between choosing which spouse requires a benefit and which spouse is more capable of handling a detriment, no spouse should ever suffer through the inequality, injustice and obtuse nature of the NJ permanent alimony system. Laws which force anything no matter how small, are usually at odds with most Americans’ conceptions of liberty and any law which requires that a man or woman provide a lifetime support system for someone else, is itself an infringement and an antiquated system that needs to go.

 

 

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About Tristan Cavadas

I have spent most of my life as an obsessive schoolaholic. While attending college, I became a licensed NJ title insurance producer. After earning my degree, I pursued a graduate program in London, and then attended law school. I welcome the opportunity to write about important legal developments, court decisions, and moderating discussions that impact the lives of our audience.

13 Responses to “Involuntary Servitude has a Little Brother Named Permanent Alimony”

  1. Jane June 24, 2013 at 2:20 pm #

    Thanks for another great article, Larry. Wish we had more supporters like you!

  2. lawrence berezin June 24, 2013 at 2:32 pm #

    Dear Jane,

    Good afternoon.
    So kind of you to say.
    But you do have “more supporters…”

    I’d like to introduce you to my blogging partner, Tristan Cavadas. I thought Cogitations needed some “yut.”

    Tristan is a recent law school graduate with a lot of passion to release. One of the topics he is anxious to write about is the evils of permanent alimony.

    This is Tristan’s first post, and I think it’s one he should be proud of. You’ll be reading a lot more from Tristan on this and other important topics.

    Thanks so much for your support, Jane.
    Best,
    Larry

  3. Jane June 24, 2013 at 3:25 pm #

    Thank You so much, Tristan. Looking forward to more of your articles!

  4. FemaleReformActivist June 26, 2013 at 2:21 pm #

    Thank you for posting this articulate, straight to the point and accurate article.

    In addition to agreeing with all aspects of this article, I think it is quite suiting to share a brief Q&A excerpt from Real Simple (a magazine aimed at women). The article is listed in the Modern Manners section and Catherine Newman, Real Simple’s Etiquette Expert, responds to the questions. This article clearly speaks to the 2013 social culture within the United States. I recommend that New Jersey legislatures write alimony laws that mirror current and futuristic social norms. Here is the Q&A.

    Q: I am a 21-year-old junior in college. I have been out a few times with one man, and I think a relationship is possible. When we go out, he generally pays for both of us. However, once I surprised him by taking care of the bill, and he told me that he felt
    embarrassed and that I should never pay again. Are there rules when it comes to who pays?
    A: The only rules you need to know are these: 1) Relationships should feel good, and (2) mutual graciousness is always in style. Old-fashioned chivalry may seem appealing, but rigid gender based conventions-the kind that determine who makes decisions or acts in certain ways-are outdated.

    In closing, many states don’t have alimony and certainly permanent alimony is a sign of the past. New Jersey needs to catch up with the rest of the modern world.

    • lawrence berezin June 26, 2013 at 2:38 pm #

      Dear FRA,

      What a thoughtful and thought provoking comment.
      Thanks for sharing the Q & A from Real Simple.
      I look forward to continuing the conversation.
      Best,
      Larry

  5. ShiningBeacon July 1, 2013 at 8:01 am #

    Great article. I also liked this one: http://www.abolish-alimony.org/content/articles/Alimony-peonage-or-involuntary-servitude-03.pdf

    It seems there are certain exceptions that are made to the 13th amendment, such as for jury duty or as part of sentencing for a criminal act. Should the enforcement of permanent alimony also be an exception?

    Alimony plays an important role in society, and I have the feeling that if ever such a case made it to the supreme court, rather than determining alimony violates the 13th amendment, they would probably say, yeah, it’s okay if the amount is not too high. I have that feeling.

    That said, the role of long-term alimony should be replaced with a better system that doesn’t run afoul of the 13th Amendment. It clearly IS peonage. Such court orders as we saw in the John Waldorf case, where they order him to pay $100,000 per year to an ex-spouse and to work harder if he doesn’t have the money…well, that’s morally reprehensible. Monstrous, actually.

    A much cleaner solution is for the State to take care of indigent ex-spouses via the welfare system. I think some people would resent the idea that their taxes would go for this purpose, but if they realized how much of their tax money is already wasted on judges, sheriffs, jails, and collection efforts related to the current system, then maybe they might wake up and realize this whole system as it currently is structured is not only ineffective and unjust, but also wastefully expensive.

    Even for small, sustainable awards of permanent alimony, there is an element of servitude that is morally abrasive. Ex-spouses cannot move on with their lives. How would you feel if you could not quit your job to pursue another, perhaps more satisfy, alternative career, because the consequence would be destitution if a court would not relieve you of alimony? Perhaps there are some great artists who are stuck in accounting jobs because of this system. Maybe it really impoverishes us all. Anyway, at the end of the day, permanent alimony is just wrong.

    • Tristan Cavadas July 1, 2013 at 9:59 am #

      Dear Shinning Beacon,

      Thank you for your kind words and excellent response. I am glad that you discovered that article by Alfred J. Sciarrino and Susan K. Duke, as it is truly one of the most concise and well written pieces on the dilemma of permanent alimony.

      As you stated, since a permanent alimony case has never reached the supreme court under a 13th amendment challenge all we can do is speculate as to how they would ultimately rule. Several lower courts have cleverly navigated their way around this issue by stating since the divorcing parties have entered into an “agreement” their is no question as to whether alimony is “involuntary”. (see D. Wiese, 11 J. Contemp. Legal Issues 419). However, I think it is important to ask whether the agreement was truly voluntary in nature or simply the product of an antiquated system.

      Interestingly, one lower court was not afraid to tackle this controversial issue and stated the most pertinent question facing NJ legislators today. “the facts…emphasize the need for re-examination of the entire concept of alimony and the continuing viability of that concept in contemporary society. Put in different words, the question facing the Court is whether a
      judicially imposed system of involuntary servitude is to be continued wherein one human being is placed in bondage to another for what is effectively the remainder of his natural life.
      (Olson v. Olson, 98 Idaho 10 (1996).

  6. ShiningBeacon July 3, 2013 at 5:45 am #

    The State of New Jersey should not enforce anyone to be an indentured servant because they “agreed to it”. I don’t think this is a serious point, do you? Anyone arguing that should be forced to wear the letter S for sophistry. These divorce agreements are signed under the duress of the New Jersey legal system — to avoid a costly legal battle that would probably just give you the same nasty result. It’s hardly voluntary. So, it is hard for me to see that an alimony agreement even qualifies as a legal contract. Not only is it signed under duress, but it is also without consideration. It’s totally bogus. :-)

    Still, there is so much nonsense in the NJ Family Court that you never know WHAT they might decide. In my own case, which is now going to the appeals court, the judge told me that I must continue to pay (forever) my entire income to my ex-wife because I “agreed to it” and because my “circumstances have not changed.” It’s ludicrous. Neither of these two reasons were even remotely true, and even if they were true it would be inhuman for the court to enforce such an unconscionable agreement. In fact, this experience has deeply shaken my belief in the NJ justice system. Actually, I find it totally contemptible, and to my own horror I now sympathize with people who are deceitful in their approach to the Court in order to try to get justice.

    The consequences of this decision have been disastrous, not just for me, but also for my ex-wife. Besides the fact that my ex-wife is currently spending my retirement funds as though there is no tomorrow, as a family we are now wasting thousands of dollars in taxes and penalties on early 401K withdrawals and further flushing tens of thousands of dollars down the toilet on legal expenses that would be avoided if the Family Court judge could make some kind of sensible ruling. The sad ending to this will be that my ex-wife and I will both be indigent when we are too old to work — thanks to a NJ judge without enough sense to make a sustainable plan for us.

    So, besides permanent alimony being wrong, the NJ law compounds this with ineptitude and cruelty in the way it applies the concept. Reform is desperately needed.

    • Tristan Cavadas July 4, 2013 at 11:50 pm #

      Dear Shinning Beacon:

      Thank you for your recent comments. Unfortunately, you are correct that the divorce agreements are often signed under horrendous conditions and extreme circumstances. You have to make an intuitive decision between a bad choice and a potentially worse one. Namely, hammer out an agreement now, which possibly could be better for you or potentially face the the full weight of the judicial hammer later. While the individuals making these agreements have not had their their lives threatened, which is the criteria for duress, I would argue that they sure don’t have complete and full autonomy in the agreement process. Also, just because the agreement, arises under the context of the judicial system doesn’t necessarily implicate fairness or fair dealing for both parties. In regards to your sophistry comment, I think you might be surprised as to how many “supermen” there actually are.

      Further, as I mentioned earlier, lower courts have bypassed the entire 13th amendment issue by stating that one doesn’t exist in the first place because of a “voluntary” agreement. (see D. Wiese, 11 J. Contemp. Legal Issues 419). Unfortunately, though, some legal conclusions are not always well founded upon but rather just simply accepted.

      Thank you for reading and commenting and I look forward to experiencing the continuing efforts at reform, because as you said, “(it) is desperately needed”.

  7. ShiningBeacon July 3, 2013 at 5:52 am #

    By the way, nice quote from the Idaho court: permanent alimony is a “judicially imposed system of involuntary servitude is to be continued wherein one human being is placed in bondage to another for what is effectively the remainder of his natural life”.

  8. ShiningBeacon October 4, 2013 at 7:57 am #

    Hi again. This whole thing just bothers me so much, I’m back again to ask some questions. It does sort of seem to me that at a certain level alimony does run afoul of the Peonage Abolition Act. I think especially when the State is imputing a level of income that creates a heavy burden on the payor. In this way the payor’s freedom of action becomes limited because there are probably very limited ways in which he can achieve the required income in order to make payment.

    So, how is it that a case like this has never been confronted, either in State supreme court or in the US supreme court? It’s especially curious since the Peonage Act was clearly written in very broad terms. It prevents any enforcement of servitude, either voluntary or involuntary, “in liquidation of any debt or obligation, or otherwise…” The NJ State constitution prohibits jailing debtors for inability to pay, but the family court sweeps around this by semantics, declaring that alimony is not a debt. But, I don’t see how you can use semantics to get around the breadth of the Peonage Act — “debt or obligation, or otherwise” seems as though it would encompass alimony.

    And, then, the next thing that comes to mind, since you are making references to constitutional amendments, is the 14th Amendment. The Due Process Clause prohibits state and local government officials from depriving persons of life, liberty, or property without legislative authorization. Where is the legislative authorization in the case of John Waldorf or Ariel Schochet? Why is there no appeal to the Supreme Court for being jailed for something that the legislature has not deemed a crime?

    I understand the laws. But I don’t understand why the legal system fails to abide by them.

  9. ShiningBeacon October 4, 2013 at 8:03 am #

    I guess I should have added…when the NJ Supreme Court ORDERS John Waldorf to get a high paying job and pay his ex-wife or face imprisonment…how can that not be peonage?

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  1. Sheila Taylor, a Muse for NJ Alimony Reform | Larry the N.J. Lawyer's Cogitations - July 2, 2013

    [...] would find out that her misery was only beginning as the court ordered her in 2005 to provide permanent alimony, in the amount of $1,250.00 a month to the man who had abused her for their entire marriage. After [...]

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