Five years to measure. Alimony reform remains controversial – and possibly incomplete

On Beacon Hill, the personal tends to become political — and so alimony reform has become a hot legislative issue.

“I had a divorce that kept me in court for almost 14 years,” says Stephen Hitner of Marlborough. “I couldn’t convince any court – any court – that I couldn’t afford to pay $865 a week in child support.”

So Hitner began to organize himself in the early 2000s, when maintenance could be granted for life and payments were left to individual judges. He launched a website, Massachusetts Alimony Reform, urging people who felt betrayed by the system to push for change in the State House.

“I’m not against maintenance,” says Hinter today. “I am against lifetime maintenance. Basically, the receiving spouse wants security, but the payer wants some sort of finality so that both people can move on with their lives. And we didn’t have that back then.”

It took years, but Hitner’s efforts finally paid off. In 2011, the House and Senate unanimously passed a bill to reform child support in the commonwealth, which then-Governor Deval Patrick signed. It came into force in 2012 and linked the duration of maintenance to the duration of marriages. Additionally, payments could be reduced or stopped if the recipient lives with someone new.

However, according to Hitner, the most important provision of the law allowed alimony to be terminated when the recipient reached retirement age.

“We have put a time limit on the retirement age so that people know that support ends when someone reaches the age at which they can receive their full pension,” says Hitner.

The state court system does not track alimony payments, so it has been difficult to quantify the law’s impact. But one thing is certain: It wasn’t as effective as Hitner and others had hoped, thanks to a series of controversial rulings from the state Supreme Court.

One of those verdicts involved Roberta Rodman, a 70-year-old woman who lives in a suburb south of Boston. Since their divorce in 2008, Rodman had been receiving just over $1,500 in weekly alimony payments from her husband. When the alimony reform law came into effect in 2012, Rodman’s husband filed an application to stop these payments on the grounds that he had reached retirement age.

Rodman denied the request. From their perspective, an important principle was at stake.

“My divorce occurred several years before this law came into effect and I believe I should not be punished for something new,” she says. “If I had known when I was getting divorced and making this agreement, had I known what was coming, I would have asked for different things.”

Based on the text of the law, the SJC decided in 2015 that only part of the alimony reform law should be retroactive. Older settlements could be changed based on the length of the marriage, the court ruled, but not because the recipient is living with someone or the payor is reaching retirement age.

Rodman was thrilled.

“I had…women I didn’t know calling me and thanking me for saving them, [because] Your life would be better now,” Rodman recalls.

Hitner had a different opinion.

“Son of a bitch,” he says. “That was the reaction. I was surprised.”

Hitner was not alone. Among the dozens of divorce lawyers who spoke to WGBH News, there was an even split between those who thought the law clearly should be retroactive and those who thought it clearly wasn’t.

Once again, Hitner began to push Beacon Hill. Last year he sponsored a bill that would apply the maintenance reform provisions to both existing and new settlements. It passed unanimously in the House of Representatives but failed in a Senate committee.

When you ask people why, one person always comes up: Senator Cynthia Creem.

When Creem was co-chair of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee in 2011, she called the alimony reform law a “good plan.” But today she says she always had concerns about the scale.

“To go back and change things without giving you a chance to uncover the entire case is not fair,” Creem says.

“I was never sure that it was a retroactive bill, even though I voted on it, because I never felt like it was necessarily constitutional.”

Since the law’s passage, Creem added, she has become aware of how a reduction in support can affect women – especially older ones.

“There is always a face behind every story,” says Creem. “There is the face of a person who got married 20 years ago, got divorced, and 20 years later is sitting there eating candy. There is the face of the person who has been divorced for 20 years and gave up her career to raise her children, and what could she be making now? And their spouse wanted them to do that.”

As things stand, Creem says, the alimony reform law works fairly well, providing a mix of predictability for couples and flexibility for judges.

But Hitner will only be satisfied when the law works the way he imagined.

“I recently got a call from a woman about her husband,” says Hitner. “He’s 80 years old, he’s had three heart attacks and his ex-wife is suing him for contempt because he can’t pay child support.

“That’s awful! He is 80 years old and still pays child support. It is ridiculous.”

Another bill to expand the alimony reform law was recently filed in the State House. It has 40 sponsors – and it takes two years before the process starts again.

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