07/27/2011 06:21 pm ET | Updated Sep 26, 2011

States Should Follow Massachusetts' Lead

It seems that of late, Massachusetts is the state that leads the rest of the country when it comes to family law issues. After all, it was Massachusetts that enacted laws permitting same-sex marriage. That started somewhat of a domino effect on the East Coast. It also started a dialogue that is now sweeping across the nation and may result in additional states also permitting same-sex marriage. Now, Massachusetts is in the midst of taking a new approach to reform spousal support laws. Just this week, the Massachusetts House of Representatives passed an alimony reform bill. This bill, if passed by the Senate, would result in removing some of the discretion from trial judges deciding the length of alimony, or spousal support. Most importantly, this bill would put an end to lifetime spousal support awards. It is high time that the rest of the country took note. Why is it that one person is permitted to sit back and collect alimony long after their marriage, and often requiring the other spouse to continue working to support that individual?

In many states (excluding Texas which limits alimony to a three year period presumed to be what is necessary for "rehabilitation"), judges are given fairly broad discretion in determining how long alimony should be paid for. Some states, such as California, have presumptions in effect that either result in an alimony termination date, or which presume that one can collect alimony for a lifetime. In California, if a marriage is less than ten years in duration the presumptive period of time for alimony is one-half the length of the marriage. If the marriage is over ten years in duration, then the presumptive time is until one of the parties dies, the support spouse remarries, or "further order of court" which is a rather nebulous term meaning that it goes on until someone can convince a judge that there is a compelling reason to end it. And in many cases, that can be difficult.

In Massachusetts, there was no time limit specified for the duration of an alimony award. Judges were given discretion. This resulted in numerous court orders for "lifetime alimony", which would go on even beyond the age that the paying spouse retired. Such orders often cause one spouse to have to remain in the work force for much longer than he or she otherwise would, simply because of the alimony required to be paid under these court orders. The irony of course, is that while the working spouse keeps on working to make the alimony payment, the spouse receiving it has often been long retired by being the beneficiary of such an order. Under the proposed Massachusetts bill, a guideline would be implemented determining the maximum length of an alimony order. At the outside, in a marriage of over twenty years duration, alimony would end when the paying spouse reached Federal retirement age. With shorter marriages, a specific time frame would be put on the duration of the alimony payment.

And this is how it should be. After all, alimony, as originally conceived was intended to provide supplementary income to a spouse who needed it so that this individual could reach a point of becoming able to support himself or herself. Unfortunately, in many states alimony ultimately became an entitlement that people could often not get relief from paying. In some cases, even after a relatively short marriage the supporting spouse found themselves on the hook for years which far exceeded the duration of the marriage.

Alimony as it now exists in most states is out of control. People get divorced for a reason and if they decide to get divorced, that should not mean a lifetime or even a lengthy period of having to make payments to the person that they are no longer married to. People need to take responsibility for themselves. If they choose not to obtain training necessary to renter the job market, that is their choice. But that choice should not mean years of payments by the spouse who happens to be productive and working. After all, people are often forced to reenter the job market if a spouse becomes disabled or dies. Why should it be any different if the parties are no longer married? Long and lifetime alimony payments serve no purpose but to create a culture of dependency and entitlement. They are inconsistent with the concept of no-fault divorce, which is the law of the land in nearly every state. The goal of securing such payments often results in divorce cases being longer and more costly than they should be. They prevent people from moving on with their lives. They often make it impossible for the person paying alimony to become financially independent as well because that individual's ability to save is greatly affected by the payment that have to be made to the recipient. And they create a culture of deception where people will intentionally avoid remarrying and decide to live together just to avoid losing that monthly payment.

The Massachusetts bill is a good start toward reforming alimony laws in states other than Texas. Hopefully, it will be the start of momentum that leads to other states making people take responsibility for themselves. It is long overdue.

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