A recent ruling by the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Supreme Court has spotlighted once again a need to review and modify the laws regarding permanent alimony in the state. However, a deeper look into the Court’s decision teaches a much more fundamental and far-reaching lesson that should be taken to heart by anyone going through divorce: How unprofessional courtroom conduct can adversely affect your case.
John Waldorf became the face of alimony reform in New Jersey back in late 2012 when he was jailed for eight weeks on a “non-support” charge for failing to keep up on his alimony payments. With a permanent alimony payment of $2,000 per week to his ex-wife, Waldorf fell $52,000 behind and was consequently locked up.
The New Jersey Supreme Court intervened and released him under the condition that he pays at least $1,000 per week, and ordered that the Appellate Court fast-track Waldorf’s appeal. A year and a half later, the Court finally passed down a ruling.
New Jersey alimony debate
Waldorf will still be shackled with permanent alimony, but the amount will be reevaluated. Unfortunately, this is not uncommon except for the fact that they are actually going to review the figure.
There are countless other horror stories of men stuck with permanent alimony payments they can no longer afford and little chance of getting the amount they must pay reduced. This creates a downward spiral that can be difficult, if not impossible, to escape.
Standards to decrease alimony in New Jersey are extremely strict and are often only accepted if there is some sort of debilitating illness or injury that prevents the payor from working, or by remarriage of the receiving spouse. It can be extremely problematic to convince the court that temporary, or even long-term, job loss is an acceptable reason for modifying the award.
Since the court will look at recent employment history before the divorce to determine income when assigning the amount, a setback in your career is potentially devastating. If you were to lose a high-paying job but quickly found a replacement with a lower salary, you would still be held to your original obligation. The courts would likely decide you are “willfully underemployed” and that if you made the higher salary before, you can do it again.
This also means that you are essentially bound to your job, even if you hate it. Were an opportunity to arise for a position that you would love, but it paid a less, you could not take it. Keeping your ex to a higher standard of living is much more important than your own happiness.
While the laws exist to prevent people from purposefully taking lower paying jobs as a means to undercut the alimony obligation, it is little consolation to those who are forced to take such a position simply to make ends meet — something that can be an impossibility with the alimony responsibility hanging over their heads.
The system appears to discourage alimony recipients from ever remarrying or working to advance themselves in their careers as well. Why work harder when you have a free paycheck rolling in every month? People are going to take the free money every time.
Many attempts have been made to reform the New Jersey alimony laws, with the most recent pushing to eliminate permanent alimony and set up durational guidelines — though the New Jersey State Bar Association has opposed it.
The debate over New Jersey’s antiquated alimony laws will continue until some sort of reform effort is passed to ensure that both sides, payor and recipient, have their financial futures taken into account. However, the original judge for Waldorf’s case and the Appellate Court brought up an interesting point that everyone, no matter where you are getting a divorce, should keep in mind before going to court: Respect the institution.
Importance of courtroom conduct
Well, perhaps that should be revised to showing respect for the institution while you are in front of the judge… It may be a bit of an understatement to say that many have become disillusioned with how the family court system operates.
But no matter how you may feel, you must always come across as humble and respectful whenever you are in the courthouse. The judge has become the master of your fate if your case makes it to litigation, and whether you like it or not, you need to create a positive impression. This means checking your feelings at the door and following courtroom procedure to the smallest details — something Waldorf did not.
In the case of Waldorf, presiding Judge Hany Mawla mentioned several instances of courtroom misconduct from both parties that tried his patience. Examples included false accusations, lack of cooperation during financial disclosure, missed deadlines and violations of court orders. These are all reason enough to exasperate a judge, and you cannot expect to be cut any slack if you are a constant source of irritation every time you show up to the courtroom.
In the Appellate Court’s verdict, they even went out of their way to note “that the trial judge who handled the litigation was extremely patient with defendant despite his lack of cooperation, prevarication, and stalling tactics. Truly, here defendant was the architect of this flawed alimony award.”
Largely because of his “bad-faith” conduct, the Appellate Court also upheld that Waldorf must pay 40 percent of his ex’s legal fees — an amount totaling $84,767 plus $30,843 that was ordered for pre-trial litigation. The list of poor-conduct examples is extensive, but includes allowing health and life insurance to lapse, failing to pay support, numerous tax filing misrepresentations and causing delay through purposeful lack of preparation.
This clearly shows the very real, very expensive consequences of not following the rules and procedures — a judge has the power to penalize misbehavior and lack of cooperation.
Additionally, many of the problems began after Waldorf dismissed his attorney. A skilled family law attorney would have known the ins and outs of the law, importance of deadlines and how / why the determined alimony award was incredibly unrealistic. (After support was paid, Waldorf only had an income of $49,192 per year while his ex brought home $145,056 per year).
It is difficult to stress enough the level of complexity involved in domestic law. No matter how much research you put into learning the nuances of your state or the effort you put into studying courtroom process, you are bound to make a mistake somewhere along the way. Experienced legal counsel, although not cheap, can help prevent errors that would end up costing your much more in the long run.
While the media may use Waldorf’s case to highlight the need for alimony reform in New Jersey, a far more basic lesson can be learned on the importance of courtroom conduct: Professionalism, respect and following judicial procedure are all critical elements to achieving a fair settlement.
Are the laws in New Jersey governing alimony outdated and in need of serious reform? Absolutely. Was Waldorf simply a victim of these antiquated statutes? Not in the slightest. Whether you agree with it or not, the fact that your conduct can have a major impact on the outcome of your case is a reality you cannot avoid.