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Elizabeth Benedict

Elizabeth Benedict

Posted: February 8, 2011 11:55 AM

You may have heard Massachusetts is a liberal state. You may have heard it was the first state to legalize gay marriage (true!). You may have heard about those crazy Kennedys--Senator Ted was a liberal before Scott Brown went to his first tea party.

But on the subject of alimony, forget everything you've heard about Massachusetts. Its alimony laws are medieval. Draconian. Pure insanity. Whatever you do, don't get divorced in Massachusetts--and don't be living there if your spouse decides to divorce you, especially if you're the higher earner. (Yes, some women pay alimony, and some get thrown in jail if they can't make the payments, even if they have custody of the kids.)

The lower earner (even if you make $200,000 and he makes $150,000) can be slapped with lifetime alimony--that doesn't end even at retirement. And that has nothing to do with marital assets. You divide the assets and each of you gets $1 million--and the higher earner still has to pay lifetime alimony.

If this doesn't make sense to you, it shouldn't. It makes no sense to anyone anymore. But if you've never heard of such things, you're in good company. Most people in Massachusetts don't have any idea that the alimony laws work the way they do until divorce moves into their living room.

There's a good chance that change is coming to the Bay State, because of the efforts of a man named Steve Hitner and his grassroots organization, Mass Alimony Reform. He started the organization four years ago, after his own horrific experience in divorce court. After 9/11, his printing business took a hit. He went back to court to have his alimony payments lowered--$850 a week!--and the judge denied him, arguing that because he's self-employed, his financials can't be verified, and therefore he's probably lying. No reduction. Not long after, he had to declare bankruptcy.

Turns out there are a lot of other men and women--but mostly men--in this enlightened state who identify with Hitner's experience. There are also untold numbers of men in their 70s and 80s--some with cancer, some with Alzheimer's--who are paying alimony from their Social Security payments, doing without medication, and threatened with jail for inability to make payments. If you can bear to read them, there is a set of horror stories on the MAR website. (Keep a stiff drink nearby.)

Once the press verified and exposed these ghastly stories, the legislature was shamed into forming a committee to overhaul the laws. After a year of meetings, the result is a new bill that radically changes the laws and brings Massachusetts into the 21st century. Alimony will still be much more generous than it is in other states (at least half the length of the marriage, and more for longer marriages), alimony ends at retirement, and no one's new spouse can be forced to pay alimony to her husband's ex--a bizarre feature of current law.

The bill has more than 30 co-sponsors, and the support of women's groups, the Massachusetts Bar Association, and thousands of men and women throughout the state and across the country who are affected by these laws.

If you divorce in Massachusetts, the terms of the judgment go with you wherever you live--and if you fail to make payments in California, the sheriff can easily come and arrest you there. And if you think that a good prenup will spare you, it won't. Judges routinely throw out prenups if one of the parties objects--at least in the enlightened state of Massachusetts.

This weekend, the Boston Herald devoted its front page--and three articles inside--to exposing the horrors of the current law. The Herald joins the Globe, the Wall Street Journal, ABC News, Boston Magazine, and many local TV stations in decrying current law.

Steve Hitner has suffered the trials of Job--and turned those trials into a citizens movement that is making serious and vitally needed change. He may even have found himself a new line of work.

In the meantime, he's working to make the new bill a reality, still paying alimony, and still running the copy and printing shop in a suburb outside Boston. But when he talks to people about the current law in the state where he lives, they no longer shake their heads and say, "This can't be, can it?" Yes, it can.

Hitner and thousands of others are working to make sure that it won't be this way for much longer.

Do the divorce laws in your state need updating?