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Elizabeth Benedict

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Alimony in the Air: Arnold, Maria, Massachusetts and Florida

Posted: 08/01/11 01:44 PM ET

In every corner of the country -- California, Massachusetts, Florida -- spousal support is in the news. These last two weeks have been a crash course in what we talk about when we talk about alimony.

Arnold Schwarzenegger has done an about-face on spousal support for Maria Shriver, whose own personal fortune could be in the $100 million range. According to tabloids, he'll pay her spousal support after all, in addition to child support and to splitting their marital net worth, some $400 million.

The legal theory here is that spousal support should not be tied entirely to "need." The ex is entitled, the thinking goes, to money for time served and investments (emotional, financial) made. In this case, Arnold and his lawyers/handlers have acknowledged that Maria deserves that which she clearly does not "need" by any rational measurement.

There's nothing we love more than the accounting problems of the obscenely rich, and an excuse to insist to ourselves that were we in their Manolo Blahniks, we would never be this greedy/stingy/skeevy/two-timing--whatever.

The angle of the story that isn't high-carb gossip is the serious issue of who deserves alimony/spousal support, what for, and for how long. Most states have already answered these questions. In Texas, alimony lasts for three years in a marriage that's ten years or longer; in New York, alimony is intended to help the lower earner become self-sufficient ASAP, though exceptions are made when large fortunes are involved. In Rhode Island, alimony is rare; even victims of domestic violence are not automatically entitled. In most other states, alimony, when there is any, usually has a time limit determined by the couple, amicably, or by a judge, less amicably.

By contrast, under the long-standing Massachusetts law there is no way for a judge to set a time limit on alimony. As a result, the state has become littered with men (97 percent of payers are men) paying lifetime alimony to women who are in their 30s, 40s, and 50s, and who may be highly educated, highly skilled, who may have worked throughout their marriages for high wages, and may be working still. There are cases of women who, after dividing millions in marital assets, are making $100K-plus in their jobs and receiving lifetime alimony from an ex who makes $150K plus. The payments don't end at retirement, only at the recipient's remarriage or death. And few remarry because the money supply will end. And there are cases of men in their 70s and 80s -- some in nursing homes with dementia -- paying alimony from Social Security checks while their "new wives" of many decades must chose between paying the alimony and buying prescription drugs.

Increasingly in Massachusetts, higher-earning ex-wives are paying lifetime alimony to ex-husbands. In one case, a woman taking care of a child with cerebral palsy was jailed because her real estate business had tanked and she could not make payments of $5000 plus a month.

If these laws sound medieval to you, you've got company. On July 28, the Massachusetts Senate followed the House the previous week and passed a sweeping overhaul of its alimony laws by unanimous votes in both houses. When the new law takes effect in eight months, Massachusetts will enter the 21st century and acknowledge the economic and earning power of the fairer sex-- while continuing to give alimony for quite lengthy terms, if necessary, to the lower, or non-earning spouse. In the meantime, lawyers and judges may begin using the new law anyway, because if they decide cases based on the old, the alimony-paying party has the right to return to court and petition for an update.

One feature of the new law allows alimony payments, with some exceptions, to end when the payer reaches retirement age, as defined by the Social Security standard, when s/he is eligible for the full benefit, currently 66 years old.

Another plus is that those who entered into agreements or had judgments forced on them prior to now can return to court in time and revisit what are, in many cases, draconian obligations that have routinely forced people into bankruptcy, foreclosure, and sometimes extended prison stays. In many cases--with exes returning to divorce court whenever circumstances change--the couples' children, even as adults, are pitted against their parents, fostering lifelong animosities.

Most impressively, a broad group of lawmakers, family lawyers, and grassroots advocates came together to rewrite the laws and marshall support for them, culminating in the unanimous votes.

Down south, in the retirement capital of the country, the news is grim. A grassroots organization, Florida Alimony Reform, just released a chilling report, "The Shame of Florida: Alimony Horror Stories from the Sunshine State,", detailing 33 stories of financial and emotional abuse created by current laws, which have much in common with the Massachusetts laws just voted out.

Far from painting Florida as a dreamy retirement spot, the message seems to be: If you're male, stay as far from this place as you can, lest you too become a victim of alimony payments without end and of courts where gender bias runs deeper than common sense and simple justice. Divorce is a no-fault proposition - but alimony is often forever, even when the recipient works, cohabits with another partner for years, and starts collecting in her 30s.

As in Massachusetts, men in their 70s, living on Social Security, are paying lifetime alimony to women who received more than half the marital assets and have pensions and Social Security of their own. Men in their 40s and 50s are told by judges that their combined alimony and child support payments will "impoverish" them, but the judgments are ordered--and impoverishment follows--despite a recent amendment that prohibits impoverishing an alimony payer.

The gender bias is so extreme and so obvious that some lawyers market themselves as only serving one sex or the other. Orlando attorney Jeffrey Feulner runs the firm he calls Men's Divorce. He chose to limit his practice because "I saw the need for someone to champion the cause of husbands and fathers," he explains. "There's the appearance of bias in how men have been treated in court cases." He points out the benefits of not involving the state in a committed relationship, while noting that the Florida legislature recently amended alimony laws in several positive ways for his client base. He hopes Florida legislators will continue to fine tune the statute and "add some things that are now part of Massachusetts law."

Judges can now limit alimony if they chose--though they can still award permanent alimony for short-or medium-length marriages. And new law prohibits, at least on paper, an alimony recipient from having more money than an alimony payer--something that common sense or simple justice did not take care of in the past. But no one with judgments entered before these changes has the right to correct the abuses inflicted on them.

Welfare recipients are given several years to get on their feet, but the same is rarely expected ever of able-bodied, educated ex-spouses in Florida. The Sunshine State needs to follow Massachusetts into the 21st century, pronto. In the meantime, slather on the sunscreen-- and stay out of those shark-infested waters.

Elizabeth Benedict is a novelist, journalist, and publicist. In 2008, her Boston Globe op-ed ignited the alimony reform movement in Massachusetts. Please contact her for a copy of the article at info@elizabethbenedict.com.