Should child support laws be changed?

“The sad thing is that this man who can't get up is paying a working woman,” says Linda Morgan, 61, of Lehigh Acres, Florida.

Linda Morgan is part of a growing movement pushing for changes to child support laws in several states.

Massachusetts paved the way and revised its law last fall. The new alimony law provides for different types of alimony with different durations depending on the length of the marriage and the finances of each spouse. The law also allows alimony payers to change their terms later and requires payments to be stopped when the recipient has a cohabiting partner or, in most cases, when the payer reaches retirement age.

In Florida, a similar bill is currently being considered in legislative committees. In New Jersey, a senator introduced a bill this month to examine child support laws. In Connecticut, proponents of changing the law have hired a lawyer to draft a bill. And activists in Virginia, Arkansas, South Carolina and North Carolina are organizing online.

“I see this wave happening across the country,” said Steve Hitner, who launched alimony reform in Massachusetts in 2006 and serves as a consultant on other state efforts. “Most people who are stuck with these outrageous child support payments think they have a bad reputation, but in reality it was a bad law.”

In the target states, alimony laws are decades old. They were written when divorce was rare and most women did not work outside the home and faced potential impoverishment after divorce.

Women's share of the workforce has risen to about 59 percent from 50.9 percent in 1979, and their median income has risen steadily, from about $35,000 a year earlier. inflation -adjusted $26,500 in 1979, according to the Labor Department.

Proponents of changing alimony laws argue that they need to be updated to reflect 21st century marriages. They say judges have too much discretion in divorce settlements and often order higher-earning spouses to pay lifetime support to ex-spouses who are able to support themselves.

“There needs to be a limit on the length of alimony and a cap on the amount paid,” said Tom Leustek, 53, president of New Jersey Alimony Reform. “You could get married at 25, divorce at 35 and pay alimony for the next 50 years. There should be a uniform treatment everywhere, where you can predict what will happen based on the law and not the arbitrary decision of a judge.”

Opponents of alimony changes say laws like the new one in Massachusetts limit judges' ability to consider individual circumstances of a marriage.

“It's really an unnecessary exercise in policing judges' decisions,” says Kenneth Altshuler, president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers and a divorce lawyer in Portland, Maine. “There is really no need for the legislature to tell judges that there should be no lifetime alimony in certain situations.”

While Altshuler added that creating alimony guidelines could be helpful, he fears that activists “could come back and further encroach on judges' discretion and pursue the original goal, which I believe was to eliminate permanent alimony altogether.”

Others believe the laws could hurt ex-spouses financially because they don't provide enough support.

“I worry about unintended consequences,” says Jeffrey Landers, a New York divorce financial strategist who advises women. “I think there will be a lot of women who end up in poverty and need welfare Medicaid .”

He says he's most concerned about women older than 50 with little work experience or education who may have their alimony reduced because of rules that end alimony when their ex-husbands reach retirement age .

Wendy Murphy, an attorney and professor at New England Law Boston, says some spouses may feel pressured to stay in abusive relationships longer in order to earn more alimony. The law creates “arbitrary lines that treat everyone equally,” she says. “When it comes to families where each individual case is different, judges need discretion.”

Linda Morgan says her husband has been paying child support since he and his first wife separated in 1992. Michael Morgan was married to his first wife for 36 years and twice chose mediation instead of court to determine how much alimony he would pay.

From 2002 to 2006, as his Alzheimer's disease worsened, he and his new wife went to court five times to reduce or eliminate alimony, but judges ruled that he must continue to pay, court records show. Judge James Thompson also ordered Michael Morgan to pay legal fees, citing the difference in income between him and his ex-wife.

Linda Morgan says they can make the payments, but if alimony is suspended, she could hire more help for her husband. Now she has part-time helpers who allow her to leave the house for a few hours a week.

Morgan's ex-wife, Marilyn Morgan, declined to comment.

In Massachusetts, Hitner founded his group after he was ordered to pay his ex-wife $45,000 a year in permanent alimony. When his printing company ran into trouble, he could not afford the payments.

Hitner says he hasn't been able to convince judges that he needs a modification, even though he has filed for bankruptcy and is waiting to see if his home will be foreclosed on.

His efforts waned for two years. Then a 2008 opinion piece in The Boston Globe by Elizabeth Benedict, a freelance journalist in New York who is dating someone who made permanent alimony payments, brought attention to Hitner's efforts and got people talking, he says.

“In states that have lifetime alimony, there seems to be a presumption that the person receiving alimony is never required to support themselves — even if they are educated and have a working history,” Benedict says .

Linda Zampino, 51, of Sparta, New Jersey, agrees. “Women and men game the system,” says Zampino, a manager at a pharmaceutical company. “What’s the incentive for them to go back and further their education?”

She says she had to refinance her mortgage several times to pay $36,000 a year in alimony to her ex-husband and the $125,000 she estimates she spent fighting the alimony in court.

In September, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, a Democrat, signed alimony law changes that took effect in March.

“This is the 21st century alimony setting,” said state Sen. Gale Candaras, a Democrat who chaired a task force that wrote the law.

Elsewhere

In 2010, the state passed a child support law that established limited payments for short-term marriages and some guidelines for benefits. Activists say the law didn't go far enough.

The state House Judiciary Committee is currently considering a child support reform bill similar to the one in Massachusetts.

Alan Frisher, a financial adviser and co-director of Florida Alimony Reform, says the group has been lobbying lawmakers for two years. “You should be able to move on with your life,” he says. “The current status is absolutely wrong.”

State Senator Sean Kean, a Republican, introduced a bill last week to create a panel to study alimony laws after hearing from constituents, some in their 70s and 80s, who said they could not retire because of their alimony payments, he says.

He hopes to introduce a bill to change the law based on the panel's findings. “We want to look at what other states have done,” Kean said.

Attorney Ryan Barry says he is drafting a bill similar to the Massachusetts measure for Connecticut Alimony Reform members.

David Conway, co-founder of the group, said it plans to introduce the bill to state lawmakers this month and is considering hiring a lobbyist.

Efforts are still in 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 payers 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.

“Many lawyers don’t want the law to change,” he says. “It would take a whole lot of money out of their pool.”

This story first appeared in USA Today.

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