States no longer wedded to idea of alimony for life

Bay State unties knot

The traditional idea that post-divorce alimony payments should last “until death do us part” may itself be on its deathbed.

By a unanimous vote Thursday of its state Senate, Massachusetts joined a growing number of states that are junking the old model of virtually unlimited support payments to an ex-spouse.

While some divorce attorneys and marriage-law specialists fear the reforms may go too far, there has been a clear trend in states from Rhode Island and Pennsylvania to Texas and Utah to place new caps, time and age limits, and income criteria on alimony payments, reflecting in part social changes over the past few decades and the changing status of women in the workplace.

Just this year, Florida state lawmakers passed a law holding that the divorced spouse responsible for the alimony did not have to pay if the partner’s net income was significantly higher. Tennessee’s state Supreme Court is also currently weighing a challenge to the idea of lifetime alimony.

The vote in Massachusetts means that the Bay State is catching up to other states regarding alimony laws, said Linda Lea M. Viken, president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers.

“The whole purpose of alimony is to allow a former spouse to maintain their standard of living” from at the time of the marriage, said Ms. Viken, a former judge and lawmaker in South Dakota.

So for years, “alimony used to be, in many states, permanent, like it is in Massachusetts,” she said.

But as the U.S. culture changed and more women entered the workforce, many states updated their alimony laws, she said, leaving Massachusetts as “a little unique in still having this really strong, permanent-alimony law.”

Texas and Mississippi are among the states that award alimony only in marriages lasting 10 years or more. In Utah, an ex-spouse can only be forced to pay alimony for a period of time equal to the length of the marriage.

The Massachusetts bill means alimony won’t be an “entitlement for life,” said Steve Hitner, who turned to credit cards and home-equity loans to make the $865-a-week alimony payments to his ex-wife. His experience led him to create Massachusetts Alimony Reform, which helped pushed the bill through the state legislature.

Just before Thursday’s 36-0 vote, state Sen. Gale D. Candara predicted the bill would “modernize outmoded alimony law,” which has “not been touched for 21 years.”

It offers a “good balance” between “finality and fair play,” she said.

The House passed the bill July 20, also unanimously.

If signed by Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, state judges will have new guidelines on how to fashion the size and duration of alimony payments that one ex-spouse will be required to pay to the other.

Many payments will be time-limited: Couples who divorce before five years can expect alimony to last a few months or years; couples who divorce after a decades-long marriage might receive alimony until the payer reaches official retirement age, such as 66.

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About the Author
Cheryl Wetzstein

Cheryl Wetzstein

Cheryl Wetzstein covers family and social issues as a national reporter for The Washington Times. She has been a reporter for three decades, working in New York City and Washington, D.C. Since joining The Washington Times in 1985, she has been a features writer, environmental and consumer affairs reporter, and assistant business editor.

Beginning in 1994, Mrs. Wetzstein worked exclusively ...

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