Don’t reform upkeep regulation, says Process Pressure

Brattleboro businessman Rick Fleming, who heads the Vermont Alimony Reform, testifies at a hearing at the Vermont Law School in South Royalton. File photo by Mike Faher / VTDigger

AAfter months of study, a task force is not recommending any immediate, major changes to Vermont’s maintenance laws.

The Brattleboro-based group advocating for government maintenance reform expressed disappointment that the Spousal Maintenance Task Force did not address critical issues. The group promised to carry on.

“I think one of the problems was that there really wasn’t enough time for a full review,” said Rick Fleming, a Brattleboro businessman and president of Vermont Alimony Reform. “This is an important first step, but there is definitely still a lot to be done in this area.”

The Vermont Alimony Reform was founded by maintenance debtors who believe that the government’s handling of maintenance payments is unfair, out of date, and leaves too much judicial discretion. Members began reform about two years ago, citing recent changes to the Massachusetts Maintenance Act as a possible model.

The reform initiative wavered for a while in the state parliament. The legislature first asked the supervisory committee of the family department of the Supreme Court to examine the maintenance law. The resulting report recommended new maintenance guidelines based on income and length of marriage, but warned against introducing “rigid” rules that would limit the courts’ discretion.

After more lobbying work by the reform group, the legislature approved the directive proposal of the judicial committee this year and also created a new task force to examine the situation more closely.

The task force included representatives from the Vermont Alimony Reform and the Vermont Commission on Women. These two groups were at odds during a November hearing at Vermont Law School at which commission officials argued that the reform agenda could have an unfair impact on women.

Cary Brown is the executive director of the Vermont Women’s Commission. File photo by Erin Mansfield / VTDigger

The Task Force’s report to the House and Senate Judiciary Committees suggests only minor changes to the current Maintenance Act. His recommendations include:

• Extension of the new maintenance guidelines – depending on the income and the length of the marriage – until July 1, 2021. The guidelines are to expire by July 1, 2019.

• Interview judges, attorneys, case managers, and people involved in divorce cases to determine the “application and usefulness” of the new guidelines.

The task force’s report stated that “hard data” is needed to determine “if the guidelines are being applied if they are helpful in finding solutions and opportunities for improvement”.

• Consider adding retirement – either the payer or the beneficiary – to the list of factors in determining maintenance entitlements.

• Replace the legal term “permanent” maintenance with the word “long-term”. The task force says this is a “more accurate reflection of case law” that allows maintenance decisions to be changed.

• Make it clear that the new alimony guidelines are not a reason for changing existing alimony. Those who request such changes should still be required to demonstrate that they had a “real, material, and unexpected change in circumstances,” the task force said.

Cary Brown, executive director of the Vermont Women’s Commission and a member of the task force, said the group did a great job “considering the wide range of recommendations” on an “incredibly complex topic”.

The new alimony guidelines, which were passed earlier this year, “really take some time to go into effect so we can see what impact they are having,” Brown said.

She added that the task force hearings, although conducted over a relatively short period of time, would have allowed “votes we might not otherwise have received” to be cast.

“I think the task force is trying to be as deliberate as possible,” said Brown.

The Vermont Alimony Reform sent the Justice Committees of the House and Senate a detailed review of work that the group believes remains to be done.

Reformers were pleased that the task force was addressing a key element of the reform agenda, namely the impact of retirement on alimony, but said that more work was needed on other issues.

The Group’s objectives include further restricting judicial discretion, ending child support payments when a recipient remarries or cohabiting, binding marriage contracts for maintenance payments, and removing “previous living standards” from factors that should be considered in support counseling .

“The provision of spousal support should be based on need and not serve as a reward,” wrote the reform group. “Justice and justice for both parties should be the rule of law.”

Fleming said he expected to argue these and other points when the legislature returns for the 2018 session.

“It’s a complex subject,” said Fleming. “But I think the public hearing and the meetings within the task force show that more time needs to be devoted to this issue in order to bring about effective reform.”

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