Steve Hitner worked to reform government maintenance laws after he went bankrupt trying to pay
He remarried and part of his second wife’s income went to Hitler’s alimony
Hitner: New law has guidelines and sets reasonable deadlines for payments
He says many states are considering new laws that won’t ruin the payer financially
Editor’s Note: Steve Hitner is President and Founder of Mass Alimony Reform and President of Metrowest Printing Co. He is a divorce advisor and mediator.
My marriage ended in 1995 after 23 years. My two daughters were grown up. I knew I had to pay alimony, split my wealth, and get health insurance for a reasonable period of time. But a marriage that had been difficult for years was finally over, at least I thought. Little did I know I was going to step into the twilight zone of alimony in Massachusetts.
The process took three days and a verdict took 10 months. My legal fees were nearly $ 150,000. I was ordered to pay $ 865 a week forever. After 9/11, like many others, my business suffered and I couldn’t afford the payments. I ran into credit card debt that scared me. I had to file for bankruptcy.
When I went to court to change the alimony, the judge pulled out of the case, saying her husband had played cards with the bankruptcy trustee once and I would have to start over. Something was very wrong and I had to fix it.
I started a website, MassAlimonyReform.org, and started the maintenance reform movement with my current wife, Jeanie, and several couples in similar situations.
Little did I know at the time that it was common for ex-wives to go to court after a former spouse marries and receive a raise in child support if the new wife increases their income.
I also discovered that the lower-income spouse had to be led by the standard of marriage – and that even in short-term marriages, judges could not set an end date for maintenance. All alimony was lifelong. The payers were not entitled to retirement.
Jeanie, divorced after 23 years of marriage in New York, received only three years of support. When she was married to me in Massachusetts, she would have to contribute an income to supplement my payments to my ex-wife or I would go to jail. She took a second job.
Despite little media attention, our organization began to grow.
Horror stories like mine were coming in daily and people from all over the country started joining MAR. A major turning point came when The Boston Globe published an article describing the Massachusetts Maintenance Act. On that day, many women who were about to get married called men who were paying child support to say they would cancel their wedding. The Second Wives Club, led by Deb Scanlan, was born.
Massachusetts MP Steven Walsh advised me that lawmakers only act on “problems in their village.” We spent many months teaching villagers suffering from the law how to get lawmakers to support the cause.
In 2009, after several reform attempts, the Massachusetts Justice Chairmen formed the Alimony Reform Task Force. Members included the Mass Bar, the Boston Bar, the Women’s Bar, the American Association of Matrimonial Lawyerse, the Supreme Probate Court, and I, the only non-attorney.
I gave descriptions of the problems and the lawyers provided the solutions. Task Force Chairs Sen. Gail Candaras and Rep. John Fernandes approved the bill and it was passed unanimously in the House and Senate. It was signed by Governor Deval Patrick on September 26, 2011 and came into effect on March 1.
Click here for the opposite view: Why the new law is bad for women
The new law provides guidance and structure, consistency and predictability. It provides adequate maintenance to help lower-income former spouses adjust and return to the labor market or live on their maintenance, marital assets, social security and pensions from the marriage. It suspends, reduces or ends maintenance if one spouse lives together.
The payer’s maintenance obligation ends when they reach full retirement age as defined by the Social Insurance Act. This enables a payer and payee to plan retirement knowing in advance that it will end. Depending on the length of the marriage, there are guidelines on how long the alimony must be paid.
Since the law was signed, I have received calls regarding the marriage of the payers’ ex-spouses. Long-term maintenance payers are finally free. Received spouses go back to work. What used to be a claim is now based on need and solvency.
The judges have guidance that they have asked for and are happy to have. Lawyers can solve cases that go on forever, and Massachusetts residents are no longer afraid to marry for fear of endless litigation if the marriage fails. No matter where you live in Massachusetts, the result will be the same.
The mission that I began is now spreading to many states across the country. I have consulted with divorce reform activists in Florida, Colorado, Oregon, Connecticut, New Jersey, Virginia, and South Carolina. People have to support themselves after a maintenance period and cannot rely on an ex-spouse. Maintenance is a payment of maintenance by a solvent spouse to a needy spouse for a reasonable period of time. That has to be the rule, not the exception.
In Massachusetts the law is. Now it is the duty of lawmakers in other states to listen to the victims of ruinous alimony laws and to do the same.
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The opinions expressed in this comment are solely those of Steve Hitner.