“The sad thing is that this man who can’t get out of bed is paying a working woman,” said Linda Morgan, 61, of Lehigh Acres, Florida.
Linda Morgan is part of a growing movement pushing for changes to maintenance laws in several states.
Massachusetts led the way and revised its law last fall. The new maintenance law provides for different types of maintenance with different duration, depending on the duration of the marriage and the financial situation of the spouses. The law also allows dependents to change their terms later and requires payments to be suspended if a recipient has a roommate or, in most cases, when the payer reaches retirement age.
In Florida, a similar bill is going through the legislative committees. In New Jersey, a senator tabled a bill this month to investigate maintenance laws. In Connecticut, advocates of a change in the law hired an attorney to write a bill. And activists in Virginia, Arkansas, South Carolina, and North Carolina are organizing online.
“I’m seeing this wave across the country,” said Steve Hitner, who initiated the Massachusetts Alimony Reform in 2006 and advises other government efforts. “Most of the people who are stuck with these outrageous alimony payments think they have a bad reputation, but in reality it was a bad law.”
In the target states, the maintenance laws are decades old. They were written when divorces were rare and most women were not working outside the home and could become impoverished after the divorce.
The proportion of women in the workforce has grown from 50.9 percent in 1979 to about 59 percent, and their median income has steadily increased from one year to $ 35,000 a year inflation – Adjusted $ 26,500 in 1979, according to the Department of Labor.
Proponents of a change in maintenance laws argue that they need to be updated to reflect 21st century marriages. They say judges have too much discretion on divorce settlements and often order higher-income spouses to pay lifelong support to ex-spouses who are ready to make a living.
“There needs to be a limit on how long you can support and the amount you pay,” said Tom Leustek, 53, president of the New Jersey Alimony Reform. “You could be married at 25, divorced at 35, and spend the next 50 years paying child support. There should be uniform treatment across the board, where one can predict based on the law, not the arbitrary decision of a judge, what will happen.”
Opponents of a change in alimony say laws like the new one in Massachusetts limit judges’ ability to take into account the individual circumstances of a marriage.
“Controlling judges’ decisions is really an unnecessary exercise,” said Kenneth Altshuler, president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers and divorce attorney in Portland, Maine. “There is really no need for lawmakers to dictate to judges that there should be no lifelong support in certain situations.”
Altshuler added that establishing guidelines on alimony may help, but fears that activists “may come back and further encroach on the judges’ discretion and pursue the original goal, which I believe was to completely abolish permanent alimony” .
Others say the laws could harm ex-spouses financially by not providing enough support.
“I worry about unintended consequences,” says Jeffrey Landers, a New York City divorce finance strategist who advises women. “I think a lot of women will end up in poverty and need welfare and Medicaid . ”
He says he worries most about women over the age of 50 with little work experience or education whose maintenance is cut due to rules that end maintenance when their ex-husbands reach retirement age.
Wendy Murphy, attorney and professor at New England Law Boston, says some spouses may feel pressured to stay in violent relationships longer in order to earn more. The law creates “arbitrary lines that treat everyone equally,” she says. “When it comes to families where every case is different, judges need discretion.”
Linda Morgan says her husband has been paying alimony since separating from his first wife in 1992. Michael Morgan was married to his first wife for 36 years and twice opted for mediation over the court to determine how much he would pay in alimony.
From 2002 to 2006, when his Alzheimer’s disease worsened, he and his new wife went to court five times to lower or end child support, but judges have ruled he must keep paying, court documents show. Judge James Thompson has also directed Michael Morgan to pay the legal fees, pointing out the income gap between him and his ex-wife.
Linda Morgan says she can make the payments, but if the alimony were suspended, she could hire more help for her husband. She now has part-time workers who allow her to go out for a few hours a week.
Morgan’s ex-wife Marilyn Morgan declined to comment.
In Massachusetts, Hitner started his group after he was ordered to pay his ex-wife $ 45,000 a year in permanent maintenance. When his printing company was having a hard time, he couldn’t afford the payments.
Hitner says he couldn’t convince the judges he needed a change even though he filed for bankruptcy and is waiting to hear if his house will be foreclosed.
His efforts rested for two years. Then a 2008 opinion piece in the Boston Globe by Elizabeth Benedict, a freelance journalist in New York who works with someone on permanent alimony, drew attention to Hitler’s efforts and got people talking, he says.
“In lifelong support states, there seems to be a presumption that the person receiving support is never required to look after themselves – even if they are educated and have a work history,” says Benedict.
Linda Zampino, 51, from Sparta, NJ, agrees. “Women and men play the system,” says Zampino, manager at a pharmaceutical company. “What is the incentive for you to go back and learn more?”
She says she had to refinance her mortgage multiple times to pay her ex-husband $ 36,000 a year and the $ 125,000 she estimates for fighting child support in court.
In September, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, a Democrat, signed the alimony changes that will come into effect in March.
“This is the 21st century determination of what alimony must be,” says Senator Gale Candaras, a Democrat who led a working group that drafted the law.
In 2010, the state passed an Alimony Act that included the introduction of limited payments for short-term marriages and some guidelines for awards. Activists say the law doesn’t go far enough.
The State House of Representatives Judiciary Committee is reviewing child support reform legislation similar to that in Massachusetts.
Alan Frisher, a financial advisor and co-director of Florida Alimony Reform, says the group has lobbied lawmakers for two years. “You should be able to get on with your life,” he says. “As it stands now, it’s absolutely wrong.”
Senator Sean Kean, a Republican, tabled a bill last week to set up a panel to investigate maintenance laws after hearing from voters, some in their 70s and 80s, who say they can’t retire because of their maintenance payments, he says.
He hopes to propose a bill to amend the law based on the panel’s findings. “We want to see what other states have done,” says Kean.
Attorney Ryan Barry says he’s drafting a bill similar to the Massachusetts Massacre for members of the Connecticut Alimony Reform.
The group’s co-founder David Conway plans to propose the bill to state lawmakers later this month and is considering hiring a lobbyist.
Efforts are still in the early stages in Virginia, Arkansas, South Carolina, and North Carolina.
Kevin Baker, 47, a Navy contractor in Suffolk, Virginia, set up a Facebook page called Virginia Alimony Reform, exchanged emails with other alimony payments, and contacted lawmakers in his state.
Baker was married for nine years and has been paying child support for 12 years, now $ 1,200 a month. He is preparing for a fight.
“A lot of lawyers don’t want the laws to be changed,” he says. “It would take a whole lot of money out of your pool.”
This story first appeared in USA Today.