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Alimony Reform

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In her October 31 Wall Street Journal article, Jennifer Levitz discusses the ongoing movement in some states to place limitations on the amount of alimony someone can receive in a divorce. She provides examples of how the law regarding spousal support often results in inequitable outcomes for people who are paying support, and windfalls to those who are receiving it. Ms. Levitz talks about how the downturn in the economy has resulted in more people to change spousal support orders.

Spousal support is an oddity in this country. While the initial concept of alimony was intended to assist someone in taking steps to support himself or herself, our existing system has turned into a system of private welfare, where the party earning money is penalized at the expense of the party receiving support, oftentimes for the duration of the supported spouse's life. In truth, because of the manner in which many states treat spousal support, support recipients often fare better economically by divorcing their spouses than they would if they were widowed.

Many years ago this country instituted welfare reform in an effort to put those who were receiving income and not working back into the workforce. We in the United States seem to want to hold people accountable for supporting themselves, except when there is a private citizen available to do it. While our European counterparts enjoy the benefit of free health-care, paid vacations, and guaranteed retirement all provided by the government, in this country we expect our citizens to be responsible for themselves financially. Some times they are, and some times they are not. Compare the number of homeless people wandering the streets of any major American city to those you will see in any European capital and the contrast is astonishing. When people cannot take care of themselves in this country, it seems they are out on their own. That is, unless they were married.

In a small number of states, such as Texas, the amount and duration of spousal support is limited by statute. The original intent of support in those states is carried forward into the modern day. If you want support, you get it for a limited period of time and up to a limited amount. After that, you are on your own.

While Texas is a community property state, it seems to recognize the fact that anything more than a short term rehabilitative support order is a windfall. After all, why should someone continue to live a higher level lifestyle, years after they are divorced, simply because their former spouse is able to make money? By the same token, why should someone be forced to work at level that they would not otherwise work, simply to provide support for their former partner who is not inclined to support himself or herself.

Contrast the following situations: Mary and Joe are married for 10 years. They separate, and Mary gets support from Joe until she dies or remarries. Mary intentionally does not remarry; she does not want to lose the support the court ordered Joe to pay her. Joe has to keep on working to pay Mary, and is still paying her 15 years after their 10 year marriage ended. Bob and Carol are married for 10 years. Carol is the breadwinner, Bob stayed home. Carol passes away unexpectedly after the tenth year of marriage. Bob gets nothing, while Mary doesn't have to work for the rest of her life.

There is something wrong with this picture. There are divorce cases that go on, at times, for years, simply arguing over the amount of support. Once the amount of support is determined, these cases come back to court arguing over modifications of the amount of support and terminating it. These proceedings take up court time, and cost thousands of dollars in legal fees.

It is time for us to reconsider the issue of spousal support. People need to be responsible for taking care of their own needs. If they cannot do so at the level they enjoyed during the marriage, then so be it. If they want to enjoy the same standard of living that they formerly had, then they need to find the means to provide themselves with that level of income. There is nothing wrong with providing financial assistance for a reasonable period of time so that someone can become trained to go out in the workforce if necessary. However, there is nothing equitable, nor appropriate, about requiring one party to work to support another long after the marriage as ended. Once the marriage is over, and the divorce is done with, people need to be responsible for themselves. A marriage should not be a windfall. The time for alimony reform is now.

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