Time Magazine Takes on Alimony Reform

Robert FranklinJune 6, 2013 by Robert Franklin, Esq.

None other than Time Magazine entered the alimony reform fray recently and with sadly predictable results. Like so many news outlets, Time often wants to appear “fair and balanced,” which is a good thing. But in the case of alimony, it attempts to balance things of unequal weight. It’s like discussing evolution by granting equal time to the anti-evolution crowd. Balance is nice, but only when there are roughly equal arguments on both sides.

That said, the article does get at one thing I’ve suspected for a long time — that the involvement of women may be the thing that ultimately tips the scales in the direction of reform. Put simply, men have been complaining about draconian alimony laws for decades, with essentially no response from lawmakers. But now that second wives are starting to feel the alimony pinch in their current husbands’ paychecks, they’re none too pleased and, unsurprisingly, have many of the same complaints those husbands have had for years.

Related, but unmentioned in the Time piece is another thing I’ve suspected; with women earning more than ever before, it won’t be long before men are the ones to start cashing those sometimes-hefty alimony checks. Then it’ll be former wives and current alimony payers hammering on the doors of state legislators. And when that happens, you can bet you’ll see action.

Beyond that though, the article has little to offer. It recounts a few anecdotal cases and dutifully quotes those on the pro- and anti-reform sides and generally never gets around to answering the basic questions about alimony.

As I’ve said before, I’m opposed to alimony except in exceptional circumstances and for usually short periods of time. Therefore, if a wife hasn’t worked for a significant period, she should be able to collect alimony for a short time, say, two years. By that time, she should have been able to retrain for and find a job.

And of course, if one spouse is very old or disabled and unable to find work, then alimony can be necessary.

But for everyone else, having been once married to someone cannot be used as an excuse to be permanently (or for any significant time) supported by that person. The prospect of alimony constitutes a monetary incentive to break up a marriage. Governments of all stripes loudly proclaim that marriage is good for society and so it is. That of course raises the question “why offer women money to end it?”

Needless to say, that’s not a question Time asked.

Or how about this one? “Why shouldn’t we expect people to live with the consequences of their own choices?” Doing so of course is one thing we refer to when we talk about accountability or taking responsibility. Again, we say those are necessary things, we talk a good game about adult responsibility. But when a woman chooses not to work, whether to take care of children or not, and then opts for divorce (remember, 70% of divorces are filed by mothers), all of a sudden state lawmakers do handstands explaining why she shouldn’t have to live with the obvious results of decisions she made.

Face it, the great majority of mothers do some form of paid work. If a mother chooses not to, she’ll get no objection from me. I figure she’s got the right to decide how she wants to spend her time and if her husband agrees, being a stay-at-home mom is a perfectly legitimate choice. But what’s not legitimate is for her to file for divorce and still expect to live as though she were still married. Yes, her standard of living may come down, but why shouldn’t it. According to the Time piece, asking women to bear the consequences of the decisions they make is in some way questionable, or so it seems.

Seriously, the article gets down to this: Massachusetts recently did away with permanent alimony and made other reforms. Now it seems that’s made a change in certain women’s lifestyles. Time recounts the story of one of them.

A 70-plus-year-old woman asked for [an alimony mediator’s] help recently because her ex-husband had just unilaterally decided to stop paying after 32 years.

The tone suggests that what the man did was outrageous, but let’s do a little math. The woman is 70 and she’s been receiving a check from a man she divorced when she was 38. Are we really to believe that she could find no means with which to support herself in 32 years? Please. The fact is that she goldbricked for that long assuming the money would never run out, and now that the legislature finally enacted sensible, just reform, she’s caught.

And notice too that the man is depicted as a cad. He “just unilaterally decided to stop paying.” The nerve of that man! What’s lost in the woman-as-victim narrative is that the man paid her for 32 years. How long had they been married? Ten years? Maybe less? He’d supported her for over three times that long, but according to Time, his action is spiteful.

And that pretty much sums up not only the undercurrents of the Time article (that alimony is bad only if it’s bad for women), but of what it reports as well. Time and again we learn that men’s complaints to legislatures go unheeded, but when women show up, their issues go to the top of the agenda. They’re the same issues, but the ladies get a hearing.

WHEN STEVE HITNER, THE PRESIDENT AND co-founder of Massachusetts Alimony Reform (MAR), which was instrumental in the state’s 2011 move to eliminate permanent alimony and establish a formula for rehabilitative payments, first approached his local representative about his complaints in 2002, he was quickly rebuffed. "He said, ‘It’s a man-vs.-woman thing, and I’m not going to expose myself to that,’" recalls Hitner, who says he got involved in alimony reform after the costs of his divorce forced him to declare bankruptcy.

But Hitner noticed a lot of second wives contacting him through his blog. In Massachusetts, the only kind of alimony available was permanent. Some men had been married very briefly and were paying money to their ex-wives decades later, sometimes to the impoverishment of their current family. "We met with the legislator again, and this time I had the women speak," says Hitner, "And wow, he listened." MAR gathered together the first Second Wives Club, and Hitner, who’s now a divorce mediator, has advised every state’s alimony-reform group to build one.

That pretty much says it, doesn’t it? Same issues, same office holder, but the sex of the lobbyists caused a 180-degree turnabout in the reception they received.

No one expects Time Magazine to be the voice of good sense and social justice, and certainly not on an issue like alimony reform that might actually benefit men and fathers. But the fact that Time ran a major article on the topic is good news. That puts it before a larger audience than ever and perhaps is a harbinger of change.

And when it comes to alimony, change is desperately needed. Alimony is a holdover from a past that is never coming back, a past in which many women didn’t work at all and weren’t expected to earn equally with their husbands, a past in which divorce was uncommon. None of that is true today. With the minor exceptions I mentioned earlier, alimony should go the way of the whalebone corset and the press gang — into the dustbin of history.

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