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.
Judges will have discretion to adjust alimony in hardship cases, and may terminate payments if the receiving spouse enters a cohabiting relationship of at least three months.
“This legislation will completely overhaul the state’s current antiquated system of setting alimony,” said Denise Squillante, president of the Massachusetts Bar Association, who urged Mr. Patrick to sign the bill.
Mr. Hitner, the reform activist, divorced more than a decade ago, and then saw his successful publishing business falter during the recession.
“I went in for a modification” of the alimony payment, he said, but nothing he showed the judges “was credible” enough to allow them to lower the alimony payments. Mr. Hitner, who has remarried, eventually filed for bankruptcy.
After starting Massachusetts Alimony Reform, Mr. Hitner helped collect “horror stories” from hundreds of alimony payers. His efforts helped spark a legislative task force, which produced the bill passed Thursday. If enacted, it would go into effect March 1, 2012.
Among the changes in the bill:
c For marriages that fail before the fifth anniversary, a judge has the option to assign “transitional alimony” to allow an ex-spouse to relocate or make other changes to get back on his or - far more often - her feet. Judges can also call for “reimbursement alimony,” which would compensate one spouse for the support given the other spouse for education or job-training during the brief marriage.
c For longer marriages ending in divorce, a judge could assign “rehabilitative alimony” to support an ex-spouse while he or she prepares to become economically self-sufficient by a predicted time.
c “General term” alimony can also be assigned, but this too has endpoints, such as the payer reaching retirement age; death of either ex-spouse; remarriage of the ex-spouse receiving alimony; or the receiving party’s cohabitation of at least three months with a new partner who provides economic support.
If this cohabiting relationship fails, the alimony payments can be restarted, but they only last as long as they were originally intended, said Mr. Hitner. “The clock keeps ticking.”
Lawmakers said their new bill could not address certain “surviving” alimony arrangements, but would allow people to file for a review between 2012 and 2015.
Another significant change says that the income of a payer’s new spouse cannot be considered when calculating alimony. This spells relief to the “hard-working women who have been ordered by the Massachusetts family courts to pay alimony to our husband’s ex-wife, a person we never married,” according to a statement from “The 2nd Wives & Partners Club,” a group run by Mr. Hitner’s wife, Jeanie.