Valley Information – Vt. Activity Drive says to not reform upkeep legislation

After months of study, a task force is not recommending any immediate, major changes to Vermont’s maintenance laws.

The Brattleboro-based group advocating reform of state maintenance law expressed disappointment that the Task Force on Spousal Maintenance and Maintenance did not address critical issues. The group promised to carry on.

“I think one of the problems was that there really wasn’t enough time for a full review,” said Rick Fleming, a Brattleboro businessman and president of Vermont Alimony Reform. “This is an important first step, but there is definitely still a lot to be done in this area.”

The Vermont Alimony Reform was initiated by maintenance payers who say the government’s handling of maintenance is unfair, out of date, and leaves too much discretion. Members began reform about two years ago, citing recent changes to the Massachusetts Maintenance Act as a possible model.

The reform initiative wavered for a while in the state parliament. The legislature first asked the supervisory committee of the family department of the Supreme Court to examine the maintenance law. The resulting report recommended new maintenance guidelines based on income and length of marriage, but cautioned against introducing “rigid” rules that would limit the courts’ discretion.

After more lobbying by the reform group, this year the legislature approved the directive proposal of the judicial committee and also created a new task force to deal with the situation.

The task force included representatives from the Vermont Alimony Reform and the Vermont Commission on Women. These two groups were at odds during a November hearing at Vermont Law School at which commission officials argued that the reform agenda could have an unfair impact on women.

The Task Force’s report to the House and Senate Judiciary Committees suggests only minor changes to the current Maintenance Act.

His recommendations include:

Extend the new maintenance guidelines – which reflect income and length of marriage – to July 1, 2021. The guidelines are due to expire on July 1, 2019.

Conduct a survey of judges, lawyers, case managers, and people involved in divorce cases to determine the “application and usefulness” of the new guidelines.

The Task Force report states that “hard data” is required to determine “whether the guidelines are being applied, whether they are helpful in finding solutions and ways to improve”.

Consider adding retirement – either the payer or the recipient – to the list of factors in determining alimony payments.

Replace the legal term “permanent” maintenance with the word “long-term”. The task force said this was a “more accurate reflection of case law” that would allow the maintenance decisions to be changed.

Make it clear that the new alimony guidelines are not a reason to change existing alimony payments.

Those who request such changes should still be required to demonstrate that they had a “real, material, and unexpected change in circumstances,” the task force said.

Cary Brown, executive director of the Vermont Women’s Commission and a member of the task force, said the group did a great job “considering the wide range of recommendations” on an “incredibly complex topic”.

The new alimony guidelines, which were passed earlier this year, “really take some time to go into effect so we can see what impact they are having,” Brown said.

She added that the Task Force hearings, although conducted over a relatively short period of time, would have allowed “votes we might not otherwise have received” to be cast.

“I think the task force is trying to be as deliberate as possible,” said Brown.

The Vermont Alimony Reform sent the Justice Committees of the House and Senate a detailed review of work that the group believes remains to be done.

Reformers were pleased that the task force was addressing a key element of the reform agenda, namely the impact of retirement on alimony, but said that more work was needed on other issues.

The Group’s objectives include further restricting judicial discretion, ending child support payments when a recipient remarries or cohabiting, binding marriage contracts for maintenance payments, and removing “previous living standards” from factors that should be considered in support counseling .

“The provision of spousal support should be based on need and not serve as a reward,” wrote the reform group. “Justice and justice for both parties should be the rule of law.”

Fleming said he expected to argue these and other points when the legislature returns for the 2018 session.

“It’s a complex subject,” said Fleming. “But I think the public hearing and the meetings within the task force show that more time needs to be devoted to this issue in order to bring about effective reform.”

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