07/27/2011 12:01 pm ET Updated Sep 26, 2011

What Massachusetts Alimony Reform Really Means

Reforming the alimony system has been an issue in states across the nation. The rest of the country has been less reluctant to reform than my home state of Massachusetts, limiting duration and amount of alimony as the workplace and the rate of divorce changed. In Rhode Island, regardless of how long the marriage, alimony is to last for a "reasonable period of time" to allow the recipient to become self-supporting; this usually translates in practice to five years. States like Texas and Mississippi award alimony only to marriages of 10 years or more. Utah will not grant alimony past a time period equal to the duration of the marriage, and Kansas curbs its durations at 121 months.

In Massachusetts, however, the guidelines are nonexistent and the possibilities almost limitless. People can get stuck sending money to their former spouse well into retirement, even if the recipient has his or her own career and is living with a new partner. In Massachusetts judges have lacked the authority to terminate alimony, which has resulted in instances of clear injustice.

After much contention, Massachusetts is getting closer to alimony reform. On July 20th, 2011 a reform bill passed the House unanimously. There is no reason to think it will not likewise pass the Senate this week.

When the law becomes effective, it will drastically alter the lives of many folks. Some of these alterations will be good and are, arguably, necessary, but more will be unanticipated changes in the personal and economic landscape of divorced families.

The act makes a lengthy and complex change in the law. It changes duration in most circumstances favorably to the payor. There has been a lot of pre-passage discussion selling the bill on the argument that this bill will result in less litigation. That seems unlikely. The term and termination provisions alone will trigger such an overwhelming number of modification cases that the bill has built in timeframes for when modifications can be filed. It also has a provision to suspend alimony when the recipient is living with someone. That will also cause a lot of unexpected litigation, as payors attempt to prove their exes are cohabiting. You might consider that part of the legislation as a make work bill for private investigators.

In addition to the provision which allows alimony to end on retirement, two of the better provisions, in my opinion, are these:
· Allow for spouses to be supported while they become self supporting.
· Provide recompense to the spouse who put her or her spouse through school and who should be rewarded for that effort.

An unanticipated side effect will be a surge in divorce filings, as the bill contains drop dead times, meaning that filing for divorce later rather than sooner will result in paying alimony longer. That says to me that in many marriages where the payor spouse may be on the fence as to whether to file for divorce or attempt marriage counseling, filing for divorce will happen sooner and marriage counseling will not occur as there will be real economic consequences to waiting.

There is also a law of unintended consequences. Any time the legislature or the courts change the way families are dissolved there are abiding socioeconomic consequences that have usually not been considered. There will immediately be a number of older alimony recipients who have made certain plans for retirement and whose lives will be undoubtedly disrupted. The alimony reform law will improve life for many alimony payors, particularly some who have been paying alimony for 30 years on a marriage of 10 but there will be a whole new class of older women who are surviving on their alimony and will now drop below the poverty line. It is one of those hard circumstances and major changes where there will always be someone who gets hurt. I am old enough to have seen the drastic, unintended results of the passage of the no fault divorce laws. Women's post-divorce economic standing dropped considerably, the numbers of divorces increased, and as a result, the status of children was affected.

I have no doubt that many situations for both genders will be improved by passage of this bill. Women are second wives as well as first wives; women as well as men pay alimony. Divorce lawyers, me included, are already using the proposed law to try to settle cases. The real effects will not be visible for years to come.