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Never-Ending Alimony in Massachusetts

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On Friday, I published an op-ed in the Boston Globe on the particular injustices of Massachusetts alimony laws, which inflict grave financial and emotional hardships on young and middle-age, middle-class people in no-fault divorces. The current laws are so extreme that two prominent lawyers told me that they believe they have "a chilling effect on marriage" in the state. Even prenups don't help, because judges routinely ignore them. (N.B. Don't count on the lawyer who does your prenup to mention this.)

Until my op-ed appeared on Friday, many legislators had no idea about the worst of these laws, because they are case law, not statute. No legislator has ever ruled on these practices. For the most part, they are known only to victims and beneficiaries, among whom I include divorce lawyers.

By Friday afternoon, the op-ed had made ripples -- and a few waves. A woman who had plans to marry a divorced man in September phoned Mass Alimony Reform, which is leading the reform movement, and said that she had canceled her wedding. Since then, emails have poured in from other women, with cancellations and questions about whether to marry divorced men.

I'm one of the people on whom these laws have had a chilling effect. My partner has alimony obligations, and if we marry, his obligations could indirectly, or directly, become mine. If his circumstances change because of illness or retirement, and he goes back to court to reduce his payments, my income and assets would likely be considered in assessing what he has available to give his ex. Sometimes, if a man remarries, his ex automatically goes back to court, asserting that she has "needs" and her ex now has new means -- those belonging to his wife, even if she has a menial job and few resources.

Divorce in Massachusetts means never have to say goodbye to your ex. It means a lifetime of new relationships with divorce lawyers. Instead of vacations and new cars, you can look forward to repeat visits to divorce court, when circumstances change. Decades after your divorce, you can be summoned to court, or you can do the summoning yourself.

Massachusetts is the only state in the country with laws like these. In the other 49 states, divorces mean "the end," and the income of new spouses is irrelevant to alimony in post-divorce modifications.

Massachusetts alimony law is gender neutral, but 96 percent of payers are men paying women - often 30 to 40 percent of gross earnings. It's not unusual for women who work full-time to receive alimony for life, even women working in high-paying fields or very specialized fields, including nursing, finance, and real estate.

Why should the rest of the country care about divorce laws of this one state? It's always been a symbol of enlightenment, tolerance, and education. It's home to the country's preeminent colleges and universities, including colleges that have educated the most celebrated women in American history. It's known throughout the world as the state that first sanctioned gay marriage. But it's known increasingly as the state whose divorce laws are so out of whack that they discourage marriage. Here's the truth: gays can marry here, but straight people can't truly get divorced. Now that women are the presidents of both Harvard and MIT, does the state really want to boast of having two classes of women: those who are never expected to lift a finger to support themselves or their children and those whose labor is required to help support them? Is this the image that the education state wants for itself?

But here's some good news: I hear that lawyers are thrilled at the new gay marriage law. Why? Because there are so many new opportunities to write wills and prenups, and so many new divorces to look forward to. Gay advocates please take note: when gays begin to get divorced from longer term marriages -- even five years long -- these alimony laws will apply to them.

Alimony is awarded even in short-term marriages. Judges have unlimited discretion in the Mass Probate Courts. They answer to no one. And few people can afford appeals.

Wedding planners, caterers, florists, hoteliers, Chambers of Commerce, take note. It's wedding season. Your business will suffer until these laws are changed.

When news of the laws spreads across the country, men and women may make different decisions about where to live and work, when they write off Massachusetts as a sane place to make their home. Will business leaders protest? Will the presidents of colleges and universities take an interest in reform, to make sure that they don't lose faculty because of these laws?

One of the leaders promoting legislation that will fix the broken system is Steve Hitner, who started Mass Alimony Reform in 2007, after a shattering experience in the family court system. A judge told Hitner, who owns a small copying and printing company and was forced into bankruptcy by alimony obligations, that when he runs out of money to borrow on his credit cards to pay his ex, the judge will throw him in jail. The judge also said that she realized that he wouldn't ever be able to do anything generous for his grown children because of his alimony ($865 a week, for life), but she wouldn't reduce his payments. Why? He owns his own business, and she did not trust any of his financial documents, including evidence that his business declined after 9/11. Hitner's second wife had to get a second job in order to send alimony payments to his ex. If she didn't come up with the money, he would have gone to jail.

Judges have sent men to jail who couldn't make payments because they lost jobs and had no income. At least one judge awarded alimony payments that were higher than the man's income.

Soon after starting Mass Alimony Reform, Hitner was surprised to get calls from women -- forced to pay alimony to their husband's ex-wives. One of them, Deb Scanlan, started The 2nd Wives Club. Both organizations support HR 1567, a comprehensive reform bill that is modeled on California's alimony laws, known to be very protective of women's situations in divorce.

The Joint Judiciary Committee in the state legislature held a day of hearings in January, and the heartbreak was palpable. But that didn't keep legislators from sending the bill for "study," a polite form of death. Still, one legislator told a constituent:

"At first we thought people who opposed alimony were rich guys who had dumped their wives for younger women. But we saw clearly that the laws are hurting ordinary people, women and children of second marriages."

There is no opposition to HR 1567. No women's groups have come forward. The only people who go negative when talking about the bill are divorce lawyers, the more prominent the more negative. One insists that the legislature doesn't want to pass new law. Another asserts that the solutions for the problems stemming from lifetime alimony are "guidelines" for judges, not legislation, even though judges have unlimited power. Another says that HR 1567 wouldn't be good for one of her clients who has triplets. The lawyer ignored the provision of HR 1567 that allows for exceptions. The lawyer has no interest in improving the bill.

The lawyers don't say so directly, but there is no other conclusion to reach except that they are opposed to legislation. It's too specific, too prescriptive. Translation: They want vagueness and generality because it means they have to try every case anew, and bill for every hour. Lifetime alimony and murky laws are a lifetime windfall for divorce lawyers. If I'm wrong about the lawyers and their intentions, I invite them to propose legislation -- not "guidelines" for judges -- that will help ordinary citizens. I invite them wholeheartedly into this conversation. When we hire them, they think creatively about how to use the laws to our advantage. Let's hear from them about how to rewrite the laws, so that in keeping with the ideals of state, there is fairness, equity, and justice for all.

Family law varies wildly from state to state. Typically and tragically, women and children are given short shrift. As the daughter of a deadbeat dad, I know this first-hand. Inequities and injustice need to be repaired wherever they exist.

Massachusetts owes it to the rest of the country, not to mention to its own men, women, and children, to have divorce laws that are a symbol of our best selves, the selves that support justice, common sense, women's rights, and equal protection of the laws. We are a long way from that. Until then, my advice will not please the Chamber of Commerce or the Bar Associations: look elsewhere for love or make choices that will have the Puritans rolling in their graves: avoid lawyers and live in sin with the one you love.

Elizabeth Benedict is a novelist and journalist whose works appears in The New York Times, Daedalus, and The Huffington Post. For a copy of her essay "What I Learned About Sex on the Internet," please click here (LINK: www.elizabethbenedict.com).

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