Courts consider a variety of factors when determining what amount of alimony is appropriate. Among these factors are the actual needs of the person requesting the support, the financial wherewithal of each party, and the earning capacities of each of the parties. N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23(b). This last factor may require the court to consider what income, if any, should be imputed (assigned) to a spouse who is either not working or underemployed. This “imputation of income” is important in determining the extent to which the party requesting support can contribute to his/her own support, as well as the ability of the other party to pay support. For a party seeking alimony, a higher imputed income to her/him may result in a lower alimony award, so this issue is the subject of much litigation.
An interesting illustration of one way the courts approach imputation of income in the unreported (non-binding) 2014Maine v. Maine. This case discusses an alimony request by a spouse who has some vocational training, but who was not employed in that field during the marriage. The wife in Maine sought support and explained that during the marriage, her husband had been the primary financial provider, earning $68,000 a year while she earned only $10,000 a year as a part-time custodian. The husband argued that the wife should have a higher income “imputed” to her because she was capable of earning more money ($32,400 according to the N.J. Department of Labor (“DOL”)), having trained as a medical assistant during their marriage.
The court determined that while it would impute income to the wife, it would not do so without further inquiry and blindly use the average income of a medical assistant as reported by the DOL. Instead, the court took into consideration the time it may take the wife to find work at the average income level of a medical assistant, due to her minimal work history in the field. The wife was assigned an income of $23,000 which the court found she could earn immediately if she were to work forty hours a week at her current hourly rate. The wife was also given four months to demonstrate that she had sought and was unable to obtain employment at a higher income level, before the court would reconsider her imputed income.
While the DOL’s averages provide helpful guidelines for determining what income should be imputed to someone who has training in a particular field, they are not necessarily representative of the income that a court will impute to a spouse who has a spotty work history in that field. The Court will examine all specific circumstances surrounding the spouse for whom income is sought to be imputed and will not solely rely on a government statistic offered in a vacuum.