Thursday, August 11, 2005

S is for Separation

What does it mean to separate? In some states, separation or ‘legal separation’ can be considered the end of a marriage. Not in New Jersey. In New Jersey, the marriage ends with the divorce decree, and the length of the marriage is determined as the period from the wedding until when the divorce was filed for. This wouldn’t be so terrible, except for the rest of the New Jersey divorce equation. One part of that equation is the alimony determination, which uses as one of its most important factors the length of the marriage. In practical application, the court awards longer terms and larger amounts of alimony for longer marriages, tending to award permanent alimony for marriages that lasted longer than a decade.

And there is more. Theoretically, the law requires that you should have been paying alimony SINCE YOUR SEPARATION. That’s right. Not since the divorce, not even since the filing, since you were separated. So let’s hope you were taking really good care of your Soon-To-Be-Ex during your separation, because otherwise, once they have calculated your alimony and child support numbers (which may be based on an income much higher than your average during the separation), they will multiply it by the number of years you were separated, and subtract what you actually paid, if you can document it, and the remainder is more that you owe. I assume here that you didn’t overpay, because with our alimony system that is a really hard thing to do. But if you did, don’t expect it back. It’s a one-way road from you to her.

This ‘length of marriage’ is yet another example of what I think of as the upside-down nature of divorce – the way that divorce turns normal values, responsibilities, and reward systems on their heads. In this case, the law encourages the man in a troubled marriage to get out, and get out fast. It says to the married man: “Just think! If you bail in the first year or two, you might avoid alimony entirely.” Certainly one should never stay an extra year to try and work things out (not even ‘for the kids’) especially if one is approaching the magical 10 year mark. No, the law teaches us, we have to get those papers filed ASAP. Shoot your marriage in the head quick, before goes rabid, before it bites. And let’s not talk about those poor fools living separately, and thinking that they have dodged a bullet by avoiding divorce. They are really in legal free-fall, liable to be sued at any moment for an ongoing financial liability that could last the rest of their lives.

In short, Mother Jersey says: “File divorce soon, and leave before they go bad, or else ever after, you’ll wish that you had.” …Thanks Ma. Pity no one put that on the back of my marriage certificate.


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