We’re still fighting this fight, but now it looks like some MSM commentators have gotten the message. The fight I’m referring to is the one against the Massachusetts spousal support statute. This article rightly calls it antiquated and aimed more at lining the pockets of attorneys, many of whom happen to be Bay State legislators as well, than at any sensible or fair system of alimony (Boston Herald, 1/30/11). The writer, Margery Eagan, points out that,
• In Massachusetts you can be married for just five years but pay alimony to your ex for another half century. • The income of a divorced man or woman”s second spouse may be used to pay the alimony of the ex.
• If a divorced man or woman loses a job or a business, a judge may order that divorced person to keep paying alimony to the ex at the original amount, even if that causes bankruptcy.
• A divorced man or woman may be unable to afford to retire because of alimony payments made to an ex — who is retired.
All of that is true enough, as well as this:
[O]ur Legislature is notoriously slow to move on any reform, particularly a reform that might threaten their outside jobs as lawyers representing divorcing couples.
Although she doesn’t name names, the poster child for that very thing is Senator Cynthia Creem. She just happens to be co-chair of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary through which any legislation reforming spousal support law in Massachusetts must pass. Care to guess what Creem’s day job is? If you guessed family lawyer doing a lot of alimony work, go to the head of the class. Given her unique ability to block legislation affecting her own $400/hour fees as a family attorney, many including the Boston Globe, have concluded that she has a conflict of interest. And sure enough, bills seeking to bring a semblance of reason to the state’s spousal support laws have come before Creem’s committee where they died a none-too-slow death. When asked, Creem pronounces herself open to reform, but so far none has met with her approval. Then there’s the fact that the laws reflect what the legislature believed to be reality back in the 1950s when fewer women worked at all than they do now and men and women both tended to see their earnings as merely supplemental to the man’s. So it made some sense to make sure that, if there was a divorce, the man continued to support the woman. But needless to say, times have changed. Few would argue that women now aren’t expected to work and be able to support themselves. And if they choose not to, it’s much more likely to be the result of their own free choice than one urged by a June Cleaver culture. It’s that combination of radical unfairness and outdatedness, all kept in place by politicians making bank off of the arrangement that Eagan calls “insane.” And no one knows it like Steven Hitner. Amazingly enough, his support obligations to his ex drove him into bankruptcy when his business failed but the court ruled that he had to keep paying the same amount anyway. Into the bargain, Hitner remarried and the court ruled that his new wife’s income should be used to pay support to Hitner’s ex. Face it, Massachusetts’ spousal support law makes no identifiable sense, but I suppose someone might argue that an ex-husband in some way owes an ex-wife. (I wouldn’t argue that, but someone might.) But what promises did the second wife make to the first? None. When did she take an oath to love, honor and cherish the other woman? Never. So why is her income being used to support wife No. 1? And that brings me to the pernicious part of spousal maintenance in Massachusetts that Eagan overlooked – its tendency to discourage marriage. Obviously, any man who knows what he’s getting into would hesitate to do so. If he does and then gets divorced, any candidates to become his second wife may well balk for the same reason. So alimony, that continues the marital obligation of support indefinitely after the marriage is over, discourages marriage in the first place. This is something the state legislature wants to do? And needless to say, spousal support obviously encourages divorce in the same way. No wife who’s dissatisfied with her husband will be discouraged from seeking divorce by Massachusetts’ spousal support laws. Of course, in certain cases, temporary spousal support can be appropriate. If one spouse is disabled and can’t work or has spent so much time caring for the children that his/her work skills have eroded, support for a time can be necessary. But in all cases except those of extreme disability or old age, spousal support should be as limited as possible to allow the supported spouse to get back on his/her feet. And that person should be required to make diligent efforts toward retraining (if necessary) and finding work. Failure to do so should result in the termination of spousal support. One good thing Fathers and Families will do in California this year is attempt to pass a bill requiring courts to use the services of employment experts who would testify not about what the spouse seeking support is earning, but what he/she is capable of earning. That’s what support should be based on; to do otherwise is to reward sloth. Massachusetts should pass such a law as well. But of course the bill would come before Cynthia Creem’s committee and we all know what that means.