It’s Time for Alimony Law Reform in Massachusetts; Bill Seeks to Do Just That

Fathers and Families, Massachusetts Alimony Reform, and others have long agitated for alimony reform in Massachusetts, and it appears these efforts are coming to fruition. This op-ed tells us that the Alimony Reform Act of 2011 passed the House Judiciary Committee and will be taken up by the full House soon (Boston Herald, 6/20/11).

If passed, the Massachusetts Alimony Reform Act of 2011 will allow judges to base alimony awards on the recipient”s actual need for spousal support. It will end alimony payments for long-term marriages at the age of retirement — sooner for short-term marriages. And it will require that alimony payments terminate upon the recipient”s remarriage or cohabitation.

The bill would be a huge change for the better in Massachusetts whose current alimony law borders on the absurd.  Among other things, it allows judges to order that alimony be paid indefinitely, even past the payor’s retirement age.  It does so even in cases of short-term marriages.  It further takes no account of the recipient’s ability to support her/himself or whether the recipient has remarried.

The op-ed gives some examples that would startle anyone unfamiliar with alimony law in the Bay State.

At the time Gringas and Scanlon married, Gringas was paying his ex-wife $39,000 a year in alimony (or spousal support, as distinct from child support). When Gringas was laid off from his job as a computer programmer, Gringas”s ex-wife agreed to modify the alimony order in light of changed circumstances. But the court held that the adjusted amount of alimony must be based on Gringas”s total household income — including Scanlon”s salary as a full-time executive assistant.

So it’s not only the ex-husband who must pay, but his new wife as well.  She of course had no relationship with his ex-wife and you’d think no obligation to her.  But in Massachusetts, her income gets figured into total household income for the purposes of calculating alimony.

On divorce, it’s pretty much a calculation of who makes more.  If he does, he pays; if she does, she pays.  And they do so indefinitely irrespective of the length of the marriage.  So a young man who gets married “in a fever” when he’s in college and divorces four years later can pay his ex alimony for the rest of his life irrespective of her ability to earn.

As the op-ed  makes clear, the very concept of alimony is outdated.  It’s based on the notion that women can’t support themselves and therefore need the man’s support.  That was actually never the case, but notions of noblesse oblige ruled back in the days when alimony laws were originally passed.

[C]urrent law, originally enacted to protect less-skilled women from being left destitute by husbands who walk out, reflects antiquated notions of a woman”s ability to earn a living in the 21st century.

Today, welfare laws reflect current expectations of self-sufficiency, allowing able-bodied persons to receive public support only temporarily. Yet, under Massachusetts divorce law, first spouses can collect alimony for life (even after the payer has retired) regardless of the duration of the marriage.

Thus, a man who earns more than his former spouse of less than five years may be forced to pay lifetime alimony, even if the ex is an educated 30-something fully capable of supporting herself.

But that was then and this is now.  Today, men and women are equally able to work and earn equally and should be encouraged to do so.  That means that alimony should be done away with entirely.  After all, the very concept of divorce holds that the two don’t want to be responsible for each other any more.  It simply makes no sense for one person to have to support the other just because they were once married.  Divorce is about moving on; alimony is about maintaining the financial status quo.

On the other hand, bountiful alimony laws encourage divorce.  The slightest dissatisfaction with a marriage could easily turn into divorce with the encouragement of a big lifetime pay-off.

The only exception I’d make to the no alimony rule is where a couple has been married for a very long time, both are advanced in years, and/or one has become disabled.  In that case, I’d let the obligation to support continue.  But only then.

Of course the Alimony Reform Act of 2011 doesn’t pretend to dispense with the requirement altogether, but only to make it more reasonable.  As such it’s a step in the right direction and no more.

One thing about the op-ed that’s almost amusing is that reading it you could easily conclude that it’s women who suffer the inequalities of alimony law in Massachusetts.  The writer gives two outrageous examples of ex-spouses victimized by the state’s alimony law, and both are women.

Of course the opposite is actually true.  Across the country and the state, men outearn women.  That means that far more men than women pay alimony in every state and Massachusetts is no exception.

But it may be one of the many benefits of greater workplace equality for women.  Now they often earn more than men and in their cases, the shoe is on the other foot.  Plus, one thing we’ve learned in many different ways is that state legislatures are far more inclined to listen to the grievances of women, at least as they relate to family law, than of men.  So while men have been complaining about alimony laws in Massachusetts for years, it’s only now that certain women are on board that change may be around the bend.

I hope they succeed, because if they do, countless men and women alike will benefit.  It’s far past time that Massachusetts entered the 21st century in the matter of alimony law.

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