In recent years a kind of alimony reform movement has emerged across the country, and now many consider “lifelong support” to be a thing of the past – a relic of a time when very few wives worked outside the home. In fact, most states have already revised their maintenance laws, limiting the duration and amount of payments.
But are these maintenance reforms going too far?
In many cases, I think they do. Unfortunately, it appears that stay-at-home mothers and other women with little or no income of their own have lost their voice in largely male-controlled state legislatures.
For me, the arguments in favor of maintenance are clear. If a woman is in a long-term marriage and either has not been employed for decades or has an income that is significantly less than that of her husband, then I believe that she needs and deserves support in order to maintain a post-divorce lifestyle that is at least somewhat comparable to the lifestyle she enjoyed during the marriage.
(The same of course applies to a man who is divorced under similar circumstances [he stayed out of the work force, has less income]. But even today it is usually the woman who needs support.)
Let me also point out that alimony payments are almost always determined by both the payer’s ability to pay and the needs of the payee, and I generally agree that alimony should be directly related to the length of the marriage.
However, in my opinion, laws that go beyond these reasonable parameters often go too far and represent a major step backwards for women.
To illustrate my point, let’s take a look at what happened in Boston, where lawmakers are now considering the 2011 Alimony Reform Act, a bill that would dramatically change the way child support is set in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
As things stand, judges in Massachusetts cannot limit the length of child maintenance payments. This means that a spouse can be obliged to provide maintenance for an indefinite period of time.
If the MA Alimony Reform Act 2011 is passed, it would change all that by capping the length of alimony payments based on length of marriage. For example, if a couple was married between 10 and 15 years, the maximum maintenance period is 70 percent of the time the couple was married. If the marriage lasted five years or less, the maintenance payments “may not amount to more than half of the marriage months”.
In addition, the draft law defines three new categories of maintenance payments:
- general term maintenancewho makes regular payments to the economically dependent former spouse
- rehabilitation maintenancegiven to a spouse who is expected to eventually become financially independent
- Reimbursement of maintenancePaid to a spouse in a short-term marriage who helped one spouse graduate from college
According to the Massachusetts Reform Alimony website, there are 10 main reasons to support this new alimony reform bill. I agree with many of these reasons including:
- End of maintenance when the dependent remarries
- Limiting the extension of the maintenance period and requiring clear and convincing evidence
- Reduction of the maintenance payment for the payment of health and / or life insurance
- Exclusion of secondary employment or overtime income from the maintenance adjustment
However, I also believe that some of the proposed reforms are simply wrong.
Me for example disagree like the MA Alimony Reform Act of 2011:
- to suspend, reduce or end the maintenance for living together. That’s a bad idea. Living together doesn’t necessarily mean that the person you are living with is supportive. And what if the relationship turns out to be short-lived? Why should women have to risk a permanent loss of livelihood because they want to live together?
- Limit maintenance amounts. From my point of view, the maintenance should be based on the payer’s solvency and the needs of the payee. The goal, in most cases, is to enable the payee to maintain a post-divorce lifestyle that is at least in some ways comparable to the lifestyle she enjoyed during the marriage.
- cancel maintenance when the payer reaches retirement age or when he or she is eligible for the old age pension under the United States Old Age, Disability, and Survivors Insurance Act, 42 USC 416. (And note: under the proposed reforms, the payer’s ability to work beyond this age should not be a reason to extend maintenance.) Obviously, this “reform” is terrible news for women, especially those who happen to be with older men are married. If the husband still has a substantial income and is solvent – and if the recipient still has maintenance needs – why should reaching retirement age play a role in social security benefits at all? Based on this determination, women in Massachusetts may want to begin carefully calculating when to divorce. Or maybe they should just marry younger men!
- allow changes to existing maintenance claims. The bill actually provides that existing alimony payments can now be changed when this bill is passed. What a disaster for women who negotiated in good faith – perhaps giving up property or other rights in the process – thinking they could count on a certain amount of money for a period of time. Your ex-husbands will laugh at the bank!
Right now, Massachusetts is one of the few states that still offers life alimony. If the proposed bill is passed (as expected), the Commonwealth will join several other states that I believe now put women at increased risk of an unstable financial future. In Texas, for example, alimony (or spouse alimony as it is called) is severely restricted. Payments cannot exceed three years unless the payee has a disability that prevents them from being self-sufficient. There is also an alimony cap of either $ 2,500 per month or 20 percent of the payer’s gross monthly income, whichever is less. (Here is a state listing of maintenance laws.)
Interestingly, this summer the Tennessee Supreme Court heard arguments on a case that could also change lifelong child support payments in that state.
My law firm only represents women, and as I watch the alimony landscape evolve, I become more and more convinced that in the vast majority of cases, prepayment rather than alimony is the preferred option, if enough assets are available to do so.
Jeffrey A. Landers, CDFA ™ is a Divorce Financial Strategist ™ and founder of Bedrock Divorce Advisors, LLC (http://www.BedrockDivorce.com), a divorce finance strategy firm that works exclusively with women who may be going through or through a financially difficult divorce . He also advises female entrepreneurs on what steps they can take now to make their company “divorce-proof” in the event of a future divorce. He can be reached at Landers@BedrockDivorce.com.
All articles / blog posts are for informational purposes only and do not constitute legal advice. If you require legal advice, see a lawyer licensed in your jurisdiction. The opinions expressed are exclusively those of the author, who is not a lawyer.
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