Ari Schochet, a New Jersey man sent to jail for missing alimony payments, was ordered by a judge to remain confined in a county work-release program.
Schochet, featured in an Aug. 26 Bloomberg story on proposals to change New Jersey’s alimony laws, must spend his nights and weekends locked inside a county jail unless he pays a lump sum of $25,000 toward more than $233,000 in arrears, New Jersey Family Court Judge Ronny Jo Siegel ruled yesterday after a hearing in Bergen County Jail in Hackensack.
Schochet, who once worked as a portfolio manager at Wall Street firms, has been jailed for missing court-ordered payments at least eight times in the past two years after the end of his 17-year marriage. Job losses and a weak economy caused him to run through his savings trying to pay his ex-wife alimony and child support that totaled almost $100,000 a year.
“Mr. Schochet is attempting to put things back together,” Benjamin Kelsen, a lawyer representing Schochet pro bono, said during the hearing. “This is not a case of someone who doesn’t want to pay but rather somebody who doesn’t have the ability to pay.”
Siegel rejected Kelsen’s request for Schochet to be released from the program pending a 30-day review.
“I’m looking at a defendant who now owes no less than $233,000. That’s an extraordinarily high amount of money,” Siegel said, noting that Schochet could have filed a request for a separate hearing to analyze his ability to pay.
Schochet and other ex-spouses in similar circumstances argue that New Jersey’s law unfairly imposes exorbitant and indefinite alimony payments on them. If they fail to make payments, like the $78,000 a year Schochet owes his ex-wife in alimony, they can be jailed for contempt of court regardless of whether they have a job or resources. Persuading a judge to change amounts is difficult with the average lawyer’s fee starting at about $10,000, according to Tom Leustek, a divorced Rutgers University professor who heads the advocacy group New Jersey Alimony Reform.
“State judges are incarcerating non-criminals without even a sentence,” said Stuart Meissner, a Dumont, New Jersey, attorney who is running as an independent in the October special election for the U.S. Senate. Defendants are being denied their right to counsel and hearings to assess their inability to pay as mandated under state law, Meissner said, who has made family court and alimony reform central issues in his campaign.
Proposed legislation pending before New Jersey lawmakers would allow modification of alimony due to changed circumstances such as a payer’s unemployment or disability. A bill, modeled on Massachusetts’ alimony reform law which took effect last year, would base alimony on the length of the marriage and income and allow ex-spouses to stop payments when they retire.
About 22,000 former spouses receive alimony under court supervision in New Jersey, with child support also going to about 60 percent of them. An unknown number receive maintenance under private settlements that couples reach before going to family court.
Schochet said no hearing was ever conducted to assess his ability to make payments. He has consistently made payments toward child support for his four girls ages 10-16, he said, but because that amount is combined with alimony payments a sum less than the total triggers a default.
‘Off the Wheels’
“I’m in a system that’s working totally off the wheels,” Schochet said in an interview before the hearing. “The hopelessness of it all is that I don’t have the money to fight.”
Schochet’s ex-wife, Sharona Grossberg, told Siegel yesterday that she has struggled with three jobs to support their four daughters.
“I feed my daughters, I clothe them, I pay for their health insurance, I keep gas in the car,” Grossberg said. “My paycheck doesn’t cover the expenses that are necessary. I cannot do this alone.”
Schochet said his wages have been garnished by the state’s probation department for the past 18 months. Schochet now works part-time as an entry-level stock transfer agent, a job that leaves him with about $100 a month in disposable cash after garnisheeing and taxes. An occasional job at a florist helps to supplement his income.
“I’m not sure a work/release program of keeping him in jail overnight is helping in this particular situation,” Kelsen said. “It should be a coercive action, not a punitive one.”