Men’s Rights: You have written - and I think the majority of people agree - that alimony can be a necessary tool to ensure that both spouses involved in the dissolution of a marriage receive a reasonable and fair financial outcome. So where does alimony go so terribly wrong in your state, New Jersey?
Assemblyman Sean Kean: First and foremost, it’s an issue of fairness and that’s how it came to me through constituents who contacted the office and really brought it to my attention.
I do practice law – we have a part-time legislature in New Jersey – however, I don’t deal with matrimonial law. I don’t have a great understanding of it, although now, after having gone through the process somewhat with this legislation, I certainly know a lot more about it.
I certainly know as much as anyone else does anecdotally, having heard from friends and family and colleagues and people that have been either directly or indirectly impacted by our state’s alimony laws. That’s how it came to me.
It’s a situation where we haven’t addressed it substantively from a legislative point of view for a long time, and what you have as well is a certain amount of pushback from some in the legal community who don’t want to upset the apple cart. That’s certainly been part of the process as well.
Men’s Rights: Where would you like to see changes in alimony in New Jersey?
Sean Kean: We have a system that has certain judge-made law; cases that judges have handed down from our Superior Court and Supreme Court that say there should be a modification of alimony awards in cases where there have been changed circumstances. That’s the case law.
The reality of the situation is the judges don’t consistently follow that law and that is the thing that really got me involved in the first place. I heard stories from people who had drastic changed circumstances – retirees and pensioners who go from 100% to 60% of income. Or especially in these tough times, when people lose jobs and go to court, and judges just refuse to give them the opportunity to even be heard.
The message from the court is, “Tough luck. You have this obligation and you’re going to continue to pay it.” That’s where the fairness issue comes into it. I am not advocating to do away with alimony by any means, but just to interject some fairness.
My goal is to have judges, and the system in general, abide by certain fairness rules in changed circumstances. That’s really one that has interested a lot of people involved in this whole debate. When someone comes in and they have changed circumstances and a court is unwilling to listen to that, it is an unfair situation.
Then we look at things globally. Should someone have lifetime alimony and under what circumstances? Should there be some kind of mandatory years of marriage before alimony would be awarded?
In the state of New Jersey, like other states, child support is much more formulaic and predictable. If you have a kid and you get divorced, you kind of know what you’re up against. It’s driven by income and by things that you can readily predict.
However, the same is not true on the alimony side. It’s quite the opposite. You go into different courts different counties and you wind up with different results.
This is not just at the high end with the people that are making big bucks. This is in the middle income ranges where people have some assets, some income, and some things that probably are going to be adjudicated; not the real simple boilerplate cases.
There’s just no certainty and I want to bring some certainty into the process. As a result of all of that, I’ve introduced two pieces of legislation, one of which has started to work its way through the system. The other one hasn’t yet, but it has been proposed and is generating a lot of interest.
The community that it impacts has generally been a voiceless group and the reason for that is that there is a perception that people on the receiving end of alimony are really the ones who, in many cases, are victims, and that’s too strong of a word.
Few judges and few people who are on the outside looking in want to change the situation where someone is providing for someone else; they feel like the obligation is on that person to provide and we shouldn’t change that.
Often times, it’s the woman who is on the receiving end because they’re more vulnerable and they’re the ones that raise the children, but when you get into the details, that’s not always the case and it’s not always fair to require the payer to continue to do that for a lifetime. We need to come up with a more modern system.
Men’s Rights: Obviously at DadsDivorce.com and MensRights.com, we’re geared toward men and with guys representing 97% of alimony payers - according to the US Census Bureau – we hear a lot of pro-alimony reform views. I’m curious to know what your opponents say to you about alimony and why they think it doesn’t need reform?
Sean Kean: The only thing they depend on is to continue to give judges as much discretion as possible because every situation is unique. … If you’re an attorney or a lay person and you hear that judges should have discretion, sometimes that’s something that is attractive to people.
But what we have is advocating for the status quo by giving judges unmeasured discretion isn’t working. It’s broken, and there’s not enough direction given to the judiciary.
So that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to provide more certainty. We have case law on the books in New Jersey written right now know as the Lepis case, and that particular case says that judges shall consider changed circumstances when reviewing a modification application.
If someone loses a job or gets a reduction in income or is on unemployment, in reality what we’re seeing is some judges saying “Okay, you’ve been unemployed for 10 months now. You had a great job and now you don’t have it, but I’m not going to give you the hearing, let alone make the modification.”
Some of these people are winding up in jail because they’re not able to keep up. So to me, it’s completely out of whack. Even though there’s judge-made case law, it’s just not being followed. So what I think we need to do is make it statutory and require that certain criteria be considered by the courts.
Men’s Rights: Finally, what’s next for the two pieces of legislation? Where do they stand?
Sean Kean: Well the good news is the less impactful piece of legislation would codify the judge-made law – the Lepis decision – that judges shall consider changed circumstances in whether or not to modify an award. All that bill would do is it would be put on the statute books that the judges shall do that.
And what does that do in practicality? It really reinforces by legislative intent that that’s what the legislature believes should be the practice in the court system. It still leaves discretion up to the judges but it makes it stronger and creates a statement by the legislature that the courts should be paying closer attention to that.
That bill has passed out of committee in both houses now and I’m very encouraged by that. In addition to having it create a buzz and some discussion amongst legislators, it’s also created some media attention.
The larger bill I’ve introduced is pending in both the Senate and the Assembly and is a bill that would create a blue-ribbon commission. In New Jersey, like other places, anytime we tackle a big issue in the state, whether it’s wagering, education issues, or driving safety, it’s not uncommon to create a blue-ribbon commission. We have those individuals meet for public hearings and have members of the legal community and lay people that have been directly impacted by this issue participate.
At the end of the day, the commission comes up with multiple recommendations, some of which may be acted upon by the legislature and some of them may be deemed not something we want to do. The commission also looks at what other states have done, such as places like Massachusetts that have undertaken substantial alimony reform.
I’m hoping that the first bill that’s moving through the process serves at a catalyst to get the second one moving. People are now talking about the issue and that’s important.