Garden State voters are split over two separate issues being debated by state political leaders: alimony reform and the appropriate use of bond money for higher education, according to today's poll released by Fairleigh Dickinson University's PublicMind.

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Bills in the State Senate and the General Assembly would set guidelines for how long alimony should last following a failed marriage or civil union, rather than leaving it solely to a judge's discretion. Despite being unanimously approved by committees in both houses, the measures have remained stalled for over a year.

The survey finds that opinion is divided over whether to support or oppose legislation that would make it harder for one to receive lifetime alimony following a divorce. A third (33 percent) support the legislation, 40 percent oppose it, and another quarter (26 percent) are unsure. When asked how long a marriage should last in order for one to receive alimony, over half say at least ten years, with fewer who say a couple should make it to at least their fifteen year anniversary.

"The complexity of determining financial support following a divorce is mirrored in public attitudes," says Krista Jenkins, professor of political science and director of PublicMind. "Garden State voters support the practice of making someone support his or her ex, but they are not united in their opinion over the issue of lifetime alimony."

A clear story regarding which groups support or oppose the legislation is also not apparent. 37 percent of married respondents support the bill. 27 percent of single people favor it. Although there are some marginal partisan differences, with Republicans more supportive (40 percent) than Democrats (25 percent), other group differences are less pronounced.

New Jersey's alimony laws are outdated and often very unfair according to Assembly members who sponsor legislation to eliminate permanent alimony and establish guidelines for the amount and duration of other types of alimony. The bi-partisan measure is co-sponsored by Assembly Democrats Charles Mainor, Benjie Wimberly and Angelica Jimenez and Republican Sean Kean.

Under current law, a court may award four types of alimony: permanent, limited duration, rehabilitative and reimbursement. These types of alimony are designed to address different types of considerations that arise during the dissolution of a marriage or civil union. There are no guidelines in the law concerning the duration or amount of an alimony award.

"I have heard countless stories from constituents concerning alimony cases with outcomes that were terribly unbalanced. You have some individuals who are paying alimony to former spouses for longer than they were actually married," says Mainor. "I understand 'til death do us part', but it is incredibly unfair for one person to make lifetime contributions to another person when the two are living separate lives and the only thing that binds them, at this point, is their divorce."

The Bill's Goals

The bill would eliminate permanent alimony awards and establish guidelines for the term of limited duration alimony based on the length of the marriage. The guidelines are as follows:

  • If the duration of the marriage or civil union is five years or less, the term of alimony would be a maximum of one-half the number of months of the marriage or civil union
  • If the duration of the marriage or civil union is 10 years or less but greater than five years, the term of alimony would be a maximum of 60 percent of the number of months of the marriage or civil union
  • If the duration of the marriage or civil union is 15 years or less but greater than 10 years, the term of alimony would be a maximum of 70 percent of the number of months of the marriage or civil union
  • If the duration of the marriage or civil union is 20 years or less but greater than 15 years, the term of alimony would be a maximum of 80 percent of the number of months of the marriage or civil union
  • If the duration of the marriage or civil union is greater than 20 years, the court would have discretion to award alimony for an indefinite length of time

"The purpose of this bill is to bring fairness into the system and ensure that individuals are not disadvantage financially to the point where they cannot even afford to provide for themselves," says Wimberly. "Certainly there is a financial responsibility that must be met even after a marriage has ended, but there must be parameters dictating how big it should be and for how long it should be met."

The bill would also provide that the amount of a limited duration alimony award should generally not exceed the recipient's need or 30 to 35 percent of the difference between the parties' gross incomes.

A court would be permitted to deviate from this guideline upon a written finding that deviation is necessary. Additionally, the court would be permitted to attribute income to either party when it finds that said party is voluntarily underemployed or unemployed.

"I understand why permanent spousal support would be necessary when employment opportunities for women were limited and husbands were the main breadwinners," explains Jimenez. "That is not the case today. The system must catch up. This bill helps make the system more equitable so the payer is not unfairly burdened financially for the rest of their lives."

The bill is modeled after the Massachusetts "Alimony Reform Law of 2011," and would take effect on October 1, 2013. It has been introduced to the Assembly Judiciary Committee.

Higher Ed Bond

In November, voters approved a bond that would give New Jersey's colleges and universities $1.3 billion for infrastructure repairs and improvements. Recently, it was decided the money would go to schools that are both open to students of all faiths and those that restrict enrollment to students of a particular faith.

The vast majority of registered voters say they've heard a little (35 percent) or nothing at all (35 percent), but when asked whether religious institutions should or should not be eligible to receive funds from the higher education bond act, the ratio of those who support and oppose the practice is one-to-one. 45 percent say religious institutions should be eligible to receive the money, and 44 percent are opposed.

A similar trend is apparent when the question turns to whether the use of taxpayer money for religious institutions of higher learning is or is not a violation of the Second Amendment and its separation of church and state mandate. 44 percent believe it is a violation while 40 percent think otherwise.

"Some see the use of taxpayer funds for religious schools as inappropriate, while others are more sanguine about the practice," says Jenkins. "All schools would like a piece of the pie, and these findings underscore the difficulty of parsing how religiosity should factor into any decision regarding where the funds will go."

The Fairleigh Dickinson University poll of 705 registered voters in New Jersey was conducted by telephone with both landline and cell phones from June 10 through June 16, 2013, and has a margin of error of +/-3.7 percentage points.