1. I am paying my ex-wife $300 per week for permanent alimony. My former father-in-law has just died, and he will bequeath to my former wife approximately $500,000. Can my ex-wife’s inheritance be legal grounds to reduce/terminate my alimony payments?
Yes, if you review New Jersey case law it is clear that if a dependent spouse has received an inheritance, then this event could be a prima facie case to justify a reduction/termination of your alimony payments. However, each case stands on its own merits, and will be reviewed on an individual basis. If you have read my website one of the major themes that I preach is “the one size fits all” concept does not apply in the New Jersey family courts. You could file the same alimony reduction motion based on your wife’s recent inheritance before five different New Jersey judges and obtain five different results. To the public the degree of randomness in New Jersey family law is what makes it so frustrating and to be frank very expensive. It takes thousands of dollars to litigate alimony reduction motions. If New Jersey alimony reduction law were more definitive then the cost to litigate these types of motions would be more streamlined. However, in my professional experience the law on alimony reduction is getting even more complex and discretionary. Therefore, in my professional opinion Lepis alimony litigation will only become more complicated and adversarial in the future.
In my professional opinion the family courts will sooner or later assign a judge to just hear child support and alimony reduction motions. In some county family courts they have more child support and alimony reduction cases than they do actual new divorce filings. The bottom line is that New Jersey support laws have not kept up with the collapsed economy. In the 1980’s and early 1990’s New Jersey there used to have a tremendous amount of manufacturing jobs available. I used to work in several factories in my youth. It was not an enjoyable way to earn a living. However, neither is practicing law. Nonetheless, I earned a good wage and I had “money in my pocket.” Moreover, earning a living no matter what you do (as long as it is moral and not illegal) is respectable and praiseworthy. In today’s economy all of the factory jobs have “skipped town,” and the unemployment rate in New Jersey is more than 10%. Not all of the middle class can work for Home Depot, Lowe’s or Walmart. The New Jersey laws on child support/alimony reduction has not kept up with the hard life realities that almost all of the jobs have left New Jersey. I don’t know how life got has become so hard in New Jersey but it has. I drive around my neighboring town of Sayreville and I notice that the Sunshine Biscuit, Hercules and DuPont factories are all shut down. This means thousands of New Jersey jobs also were lost when these plants shut down.
The standard grounds to file a motion to reduce/terminate alimony are illness, disability, loss of a job, reduced earnings, cohabitation, remarriage, etc. However, a very often overlooked ground to base an alimony reduction/termination motion is when your ex-spouse has received an inheritance. If the inheritance is sizable then this can be the perfect time to file your alimony reduction/termination motion. You can obtain your ex-wife’s inheritance information from the County Surrogate wherein her relative died. Probate records are open to the public and anyone can get them if they apply and pay a fee. The fees to obtain probate records and are very affordable. Moreover, most county surrogate courts have their own website, and you can find the relevant contact and ordering information on their website.
New Jersey black letter law is that an inheritance is not subject to equitable distribution. However, any income derived from any inheritance can be used to determine any alimony award. Moreover, if a person receives an inheritance this is also a factor to analyze any motion to reduce or increase alimony. Therefore, New Jersey law is clear and if your ex-wife has received an inheritance then this could constitute a “change of circumstances” to justify obtaining a reduction or even termination of your alimony. Some of the important cited cases that hold that inheritance can constitute a change of circumstances to reduce alimony are as follows; Dotsko v. Dotsko, 244 N.J. Super. 668 (App. Div 1990); N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23(B)(11); Connell v. Connell, 313 N.J. Super. 426 (App. Div. 1998); Stiffler v. Stiffler, 304 N.J. Super. 96 (Ch. Div. 1997); Aronson v. Aronson, 245 N.J. Super. 354 (App. Div. 1991); Stamberg v. Stamberg, 302 N.J. Super. 35 (App. Div. 1997). In summary, if your ex-wife has obtained a financial windfall from an inheritance then this could constitute a change of circumstances to go back into court to try to reduce/terminate your alimony payments. Nothing last forever in this world. Neither should your ex-wife’s alimony payments!
2. What are the leading cases that deal with reducing alimony based on the grounds of inheritance?
Â A. Aronson v. Aronson, 245 N.J. Super. 354 (App. Div. 2001). Here, the Appellate Division held that the former wife’s inheritance justified reopening the case to review the husband’s alimony payments. The Appellate Division held that the trial court should have considered the former wife’s inheritance in determining whether the ex-husband’s alimony modification motion should have been granted.
B. Stamberg v. Stamberg, 302 N.J. Super. 35 (App. Div. 1997). Here, the Appellate Division reversed the denial of the husband’s motion to terminate alimony. The Appellate Division held that the wife’s sizable inheritance should be considered when the husband filed a motion to reduce alimony. Furthermore, the Stamberg court held that the trial court should have considered the ex-wife’s substantial inheritance in determining whether the ex-husband had made a prima facie showing of changed circumstances, so as to be entitled to discovery of the ex-wife’s financial information.
C. Weitzman v. Weitzman, 228 N.J. Super. 346 (App. Div. 1988), certif. den. 114 N.J. 505 (1989). Here, the Appellate Division held that the father’s post-divorce inheritance had to be shared with the children and the ex-wife. Thus, the ex-wife’s child support and alimony payments were greatly increased.