States Beginning to Take on Sweeping Alimony Reform Laws

By Chris Wilkerson, staff writer – February 1, 2012

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has been on the front end of several legal trends during the past few years from same-sex marriage to health care reform. Last fall, Massachusetts passed sweeping alimony reform laws advocates hoped would bring the commonwealth into the 21st century.

The new law eliminates lifetime alimony judgments and puts caps on the number of years people will receive alimony based on the length of time they were married. [1] Other states have taken notice. Florida and New Jersey have introduced legislation in the 2012 session to update the alimony laws.

Reform advocates argue that state laws regarding lifetime alimony were drawn up in a bygone era. In the mid-20th century, the social norm of the wife staying home to raise the children and forgo her career to tend to the family led to lifetime alimony laws that respected the possibility that women were, in fact, less likely to be able to start a career later in life and they should be compensated as such.

Today many women see that thinking as antiquated. Judge Jeanine Pirro, who has a show on the Fox News Channel called “Justice with Judge Jeanine”, recently spoke in favor of eliminating lifetime alimony because it simply implies that women have inferior opportunities. [2]

“To me, it supports the idea of women being dependent on men,” she said in a January interview on Fox. “The whole concept of alimony is rooted in an archaic thought that women need to be supported by their husbands.”

Opponents to alimony reform in Florida argue that the law has been written by men with no regard for women and family issues, and that it could deal a crushing blow to women who have spent a lifetime in a supporting role and are left later in life when their job opportunities are limited. About 90 percent of Florida alimony payers are men, according to a November opinion piece in the Orlando Sentinel. [3] The Florida House and Senate are debating separate versions of an alimony reform bill in the 2012 session.

In Massachusetts, bills failed to pass through the Legislature until the state appointed a task force made up of a cross section of reform advocates and family law attorneys with strong and different opinions to debate what needed to be done. According to the Boston Globe, the only consensus among task force members was that the existing system was broken.

The Massachusetts compromise eliminates lifetime alimony and ties the number of years of payment to the number of years in the marriage. In a move to satisfy some family law attorneys, it also allows for alimony in the case of some shorter-term marriages that might not have qualified at all before so that there is time for one party to get back on his or her feet, according to the Boston Globe.

Also under the new Massachusetts law, a judge can eliminate alimony payments when the person receiving alimony begins to live with another person in a “marriage-like situation”. Those involved in the business of divorce in Massachusetts say the new law provides a better and more contemporary roadmap for divorcing couples, family lawyers and judges.

In giving everyone a clear understanding of what kind of outcomes to expect with regards to alimony in a divorce hearing, parties might be more likely to reach a settlement. In the past, divorcing couples were spending many thousands of legal fees trying to squeeze every nickel from each other. The man who started the Massachusetts Alimony Reform movement spent $250,000 in legal fees to reduce his alimony payment by $42,000 a year, according to the Boston Globe.

Another possible side effect to the changes in the law is that people might be more inclined to think twice about new commitments. In most cases, lifetime alimony judgments are nullified when the payee gets remarried. An unintended consequence of that provision is that it discouraged people from making new marital commitments. The new law in Massachusetts and the Florida proposal both address this phenomenon with rules that say as soon as the payee takes up with another partner, the alimony payment is subject to review.

The partner’s new boyfriend/girlfriend phenomenon is a big part of the platform pushed by Florida Alimony Reform’s Alan Frisher. He told The Huffington Post that people cohabitate with a new boyfriend or girlfriend for decades while continuing to collect alimony from their former spouse. [4] One of the bills making its way through the Florida Legislature could even punish a payee for hiding a supportive relationship by making him or her refund alimony paid during the new relationship.

Reform advocates say lifetime alimony is inconsistent with the spirit of the law. So, is alimony about helping a divorced spouse get back on his or her feet? Or is it about punishment?

Fox News’ Judge Pirro argued that the spirit of alimony is helping someone who legitimately needs financial aid get restarted with his or her life. To say that alimony should last forever implies that that person is incapable of getting on with his or her life.

Laws are now being considered in New Jersey that could change the rules that allow for lifetime alimony awards after as few as 10 years of marriage. [5] Judges in the Garden State use 13 factors including duration of the marriage, age and health of the divorcing couple and earning potential at the time of the split. Judges are not looking at other factors like why the marriage is breaking up or the financial responsibility of the divorcing partners, according to the report by Fox News.

Grassroots movements in Virginia, Arkansas and Connecticut are in the beginning stages of getting new laws considered by their state legislatures. Laws in Florida and New Jersey are both long shots to get passed this session, especially since the Florida Legislature is working on redistricting this year. But as the issue gets debated and gets more coverage, more and more states are likely to consider bringing alimony laws into the 21st century.

Sources
[1] http://articles.boston.com/2011-09-26/news/30204977_1_alimony-law-family-law-alimony-payments

[2] http://video.foxnews.com/v/1389167805001/fight-to-change-nj-alimony-laws/

[3] http://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/opinion/views/os-scott-maxwell-divorce-alimony-112011-20111119,0,3431551,full.column

[4] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/elizabeth-benedict/usa-today-on-florida-and-_b_1216240.html

[5] http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2012/01/11/new-jersey-looks-to-update-alimony-rules-after-advocacy-groups-shudder-at/

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