Alimony Reform Becomes A Reality
Supporters are hoping the recently approved changes to Massachusetts’ “archaic” alimony laws will trigger successful alimony reforms in other states.
One of the driving forces behind alimony reform is Elizabeth Benedict, a journalist and novelist whose op-ed piece in the Boston Globe in 2008 helped the Massachusetts alimony reform movement gain momentum.
Current alimony laws are written to be gender neutral, but the fact that 97% of alimony payers are men prove the reality is anything but gender neutral, according to Benedict.
She spoke with MensRights.com editor Matt Allen about the forthcoming changes to Massachusetts alimony laws and what other states need to adopt alimony reforms.
Men’s Rights: Why did you call the Massachusetts alimony laws “medieval?” What about them seemed so archaic?
Elizabeth Benedict: Well, how long do you have? The current laws, which the Massachusetts legislature just voted to overhaul, reflect ideas about men and women and marriage that are not part of the world we live in.
The laws on the books are gender neutral, but the facts are not gender neutral. 97% of alimony payers are men and most of alimony awarded in Massachusetts is lifetime, permanent alimony that does not end even with retirement.
So you have men in nursing homes, men with dementia and men with terminal illnesses paying alimony from their social security checks or from their retirement pensions that could be worth almost nothing. And if these men stop paying, they could be sent to jail.
Under current law, a judge cannot put an end date on alimony. So even when judges feel alimony should end, they are hamstrung by the current laws.
Another very disturbing feature of Massachusetts law that is not part of the statutes but rather is case law, is if someone marries an alimony payer the ex-wife can come back to court and say she has greater financial needs and her ex-husband now has greater financial means because he has married someone else. We’re not talking about people who marry millionaires, just everyday people.
One other abuse that I think is really important for people to understand is the higher earner has to pay the lower earner. So alimony doesn’t just go to the wife who stayed at home for 30 years taking care of the children; alimony is going to a woman making $200,000 whereas her husband is making $250,000. Now he is forced to pay her the difference in alimony and is forced to pay until he dies or she remarries. There’s no end to this and that’s bizarre, unfair and unnecessary.
Men’s Rights: As mentioned, Massachusetts has approved changes to its alimony laws so what are the new laws, presumably designed to protect husbands?
Elizabeth Benedict: First, I want to say that the Massachusetts House and Senate approved these reforms unanimously; there was not a single vote against them, which tells you how bad these laws were and how much momentum there was to change them.
One of the main things is judges will be able to put an end date to alimony. For shorter-term marriages, there will be clear guidelines for how long alimony can last. There will be different types of alimony based on the situation of the marriage. For longer term marriages there will be durational alimony. Essentially, the longer you are married the higher percentage of time you will pay alimony for, but there is an end even if someone is paying it for a long time.
There are safeguards in place for special cases where someone needs alimony for longer, such as if a party is ill or incapacitated or the couple divorces at an old age. But the standards to meet those provisions to those exceptions are very high.
Finally, the incomes of second wives or new spouses cannot be considered in alimony determinations when the recipient party goes in for a modification.
Men’s Rights: We’ve talked a lot about Massachusetts reform, but what about other states that are in desperate need of alimony reform?
Elizabeth Benedict: Florida for sure. There’s a group called FloridaAlimonyReform.com that is trying to mimic what Massachusetts has done. I’ve heard New Jersey has some serious problems, along with several states in the South such as Georgia. Tennessee’s Supreme Court is currently deciding an important case about lifetime alimony and income equalization.
So there are a number of states that still have these alimony problems, but I think it’s important to understand that most states do not have lifetime alimony. Most states also encourage people to have several years of alimony or short-term alimony depending on the length of marriage and then become self-sufficient.
Alimony reform is an interesting and very, very important subject these days.
Note: Watch Ms. Benedict’s interview on DadsDivorce.com. If you are looking for an alimony modification, then schedule an appointment with the divorce attorneys for men at the Cordell & Cordell Law Firm.