Don’t reform youngster assist legislation, activity pressure says

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

[A]After months of study, a task force recommends no immediate, major changes to Vermont’s child support laws.

The Brattleboro-based group campaigning for reform of the state’s child support laws expressed disappointment that the Spousal Support and Alimony Task Force failed to address critical issues. The group promised to continue.

“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 a lot more that needs to be done on this topic.”

The Vermont Alimony Reform was founded by alimony payers who believe the state’s approach to alimony is unfair, outdated and allowing too much discretion for the judiciary. Members began reform efforts about two years ago, citing recent changes to Massachusetts’ child support law as a possible model.

The reform initiative hopped around the state parliament for a while. Lawmakers first asked the Oversight Committee of the Family Division of the state Supreme Court to review the child support law. The resulting report recommended new alimony guidelines based on income and marriage length, but warned against enacting “rigid” rules that would limit the judiciary’s discretionary powers.

After further lobbying by the reform group, the legislature this year approved the judiciary committee’s proposed guidelines and also created a new task force to study 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 the Vermont Law School where commission officials argued that the reform agenda could have an unfair impact on women.

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

The task force’s report to the House and Senate Judiciary Committees proposes only minor changes to the current child support law. His recommendations include:

• Extension of the new alimony guidelines – which reflect income and the length of a marriage – until July 1, 2021. The guidelines expire on July 1, 2019.

• Conduct a survey of judges, attorneys, case managers and those involved in divorce cases to determine the “application and usefulness” of the new guidelines.

The task force’s report said “hard data” is needed to determine “if the guidelines are being applied, if they’re helpful in reaching solutions, and how they can be improved.”

• Consider the inclusion of retirement—either the payer or the recipient—in the list of factors in determining child support payments.

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

• Clarify that the new child support guidelines are not a reason to change existing child support payments. Those requesting such changes should still have to show they had a “genuine, material and unexpected change in circumstances,” the task force said.

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

The new child support guidelines enacted earlier this year “are really taking some time to kick in so we can see the impact they’re having,” Brown said.

She added that the task force hearings, while conducted over a relatively short period of time, allowed input from “voices we might not have gotten otherwise.”

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

The Vermont Alimony Reform sent the House and Senate Judiciary Committees a detailed overview of the work the group believes needs to be done.

The reformers were pleased that the task force had acted on a key element of the reform agenda, addressing the impact of retirement on child support payments, but said further work was needed on other issues.

The group’s goals include further reducing court discretion, ending alimony payments if a recipient remarries or living together, making prenuptial agreements binding for alimony payments, and removing “past standard of living” from the factors to consider when considering alimony.

“Spousal support should be based on need and not as a reward,” the reform group wrote. “Fairness and justice for both parties should be the rule of law.”

Fleming said he expects to discuss these and other items when the legislature returns to the 2018 session.

“It’s a complex subject,” Fleming said. “But I think the public consultation and meetings within the task force show that more time needs to be devoted to this issue if they are to create effective reforms.”

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