Family Law Prof Blog

Editor: Margaret Ryznar
Indiana University
Robert H. McKinney School of Law

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Perpetual Alimony

The battle rages on in Massachusetts to reform what many critics characterize as an antiquated and often inequitable set of principles governing alimony:

Steve Niro got married in 1981 at age 23 and divorced less than five years later. At the time of the divorce, he and his wife were in their late 20s, and both were working. Niro remarried nearly 15 years ago, but he’s still paying his alimony.

Two years ago, Niro’s youngest son graduated from college, ending child support payments and leaving his former wife with alimony of $65 a week. “The next thing I know, I get summonsed to court for alimony adjustment,’’ he says. A probate court judge increased the alimony to $700 a week even though the couple had divorced nearly a quarter of a century ago — five times longer than they were married.

“I paid child support. I paid college. I was never late. I fulfilled my obligations,’’ says Niro, 52, a Milford native who works for an environmental engineering firm in Portland, Maine. “I just have to hope that legislators in Massachusetts have enough sense to pass a law that puts guidelines on alimony because the courts don’t exercise any common sense or logic.’’

Niro and other men — and women — like him say the state’s alimony law is archaic, reflecting an era when women kept house and men provided. Today, with women making up nearly half the workforce, they say alimony should be a temporary boost, not a lifetime subsidy.

Critics charge that the Legislature has avoided the issue for years in part because drawn-out divorce litigation is lucrative for lawmakers, many of whom are lawyers. Now these critics are working to change the law, a vague statute that gives judges wide discretion over alimony awards. Two bills have been introduced, and a legislative task force is working on a third version.

The current law sets no formulas or guidelines, saying only that the length of the marriage, assets, occupation, and employment aspects will be considered in setting alimony. Massachusetts probate judges have relied largely on case law and generally consider any marriage of more than 20 years a long-term marriage that merits lifetime alimony, or payments until the recipient remarries. But often marriages of much shorter duration — such as Niro’s — also result in lifetime payments.

Last fall, a crowd of frustrated alimony payers testified at a State House hearing on a bill that would amend the law.

Introduced by Steven Walsh, Democrat of Lynn, the bill attracted 72 cosponsors. It would limit alimony payments to half the length of the marriage, with a cap of 12 years and automatic termination when the payer turns 65. It would protect second spouses’ income from contributing to the alimony award for first spouses. The court would have to consider “the marketable skills’’ and “willingness and diligence’’ of the recipient to seek work. In addition, if the recipient is cohabiting with a partner, alimony would be decreased substantially.

But that bill has been shelved, and critics of the existing law say the large number of lawyer legislators, many of whom practice family law, is the reason. They argue that the current law encourages endless expensive litigation.

Read the full story here.


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