It only took eight years. But once it got traction, nothing
could stop it.
The Alimony Reform Act of 2011 was signed into law by Gov. Deval
Patrick on Sept. 26 after winning unanimous approval from both
houses of the Legislature. Family court judges are no longer
constricted by legislation derived from 1785 English law, and now
have many options to use when issuing an alimony decree.
The Reform Act does the following:
- Sets limits on duration of alimony
- Establishes separate alimony categories
- Alters alimony when ex-spouses cohabit with new partners
- Adds factors to consider in an alimony order
- Allows judicial discretion to deviate based on particular case
Under the old law, alimony was a blunt object. Now, it's more
like a scalpel. Instead of alimony for life, which originated in a
time and place in which wives were
considered the property of
their husbands, judges can adjust the terms of
alimony to reflect
the length of the marriage. And now, not only do judges have
alimony options that reflect how people live today, they are
allowed to make exceptions on a per-case basis.
"The previous law was more about keeping the receiver's standard
of living. There was no consideration of the standard of living of
the payor. The new law will [consider] the standard of living of
both parties, and will also encourage people to be responsible for
themselves and take control of their lives," says Steve Hitner,
president of Massachusetts Alimony Reform, a grassroots group that
took its case to Massachusetts lawmakers.
On first glance, that sounds as if the new law offers exemptions
of a sort to the divorcing party with more financial clout, which
throughout most of history has been the man. But the law gained the
support of the Massachusetts Bar Association, the Women's Bar
Association, the Massachusetts Bar for Indigent Women and the
Second Wives and Partners Club, before its acceptance in the
The scrapping of the antiquated alimony-for-life proviso makes
alimony a more viable option for marriages of short duration,
thereby making it more plausible to award to indigent and
marginally-indigent individuals (who are still mostly women) to
transition out of a short-term marriage, says MBA Immediate Past
President Denise Squillante, a family law attorney who practices in
the Fall River area.
The provisions in the Alimony Reform Act reflect decades old
social changes, such as more women in the workforce, the rise of
cohabitation without marriage, the economic consequences of people
living longer, sometimes with long-term chronic diseases and in
need of long-term care.
"Overall, it's good public policy -- good for families and for the
commonwealth. Going into alimony in the past was the great unknown
for all the parties, and it could vary from judge to judge,"
The new law "provides payors with knowing there's an end, and
provides payees with reasonable expectations. This is fair to both
sides," she says. It also addresses cohabitation. Under the old
law, a payee could be living with someone, sharing a common
household with the accompanying economic advantage, and still
receive alimony. The second hot issue, she says, is second wives.
Before, a second wife's income could be taken into consideration in
determining alimony payments when the payor remarries. Now, it
can't. The third "very hot issue" deals with retirement. Payors who
work after retirement age shouldn't have that income factored
This provision is long overdue, indicates Hitner. "We have people
in their 80s with Alzheimer's, who don't understand why they're
going to jail for nonpayment of alimony," he says.
In addition, the law takes into consideration the double penalty
of child support and alimony. If a payor is paying out a majority
of income on child support, the new law prevents the excessive
overlap of child support and alimony.
There are exceptions, such as when a long-term marriage dissolves
and the payee is battling cancer. Health insurance and who pays it
are also on the table now -- a reflection of the economic
significance of what under the old law was barely on the radar
From many voices, one
For years, call for alimony reform has resonated beyond the
legal community. Every year since 2003, the Massachusetts Bar
Association has filed and re-filed alimony reform legislation.
During MBA President Mark Mason's tenure (2006-07), a joint task
force of the MBA and the Boston Bar Association was convened to
address alimony issues. Squillante served as the MBA co-chair and
David Lee represented the BBA as co-chair. The task force issued
its report in 2009, the recommendations of which were supported by
both the MBA and the BBA. Later that year, Squillante was invited
to participate in a legislative task force formed by the chairs of
the Joint Committee on the Judiciary, Sen. Cynthia Creem and Rep.
Eugene O'Flaherty. Task force chairs Sen. Gale Candaras and Rep.
John Fernandes proposed a bill to address the need for alimony
Massachusetts Alimony Reform's Hitner was the only non-lawyer on
the task force, but it was through his dogged efforts to build a
critical mass of credible people adversely impacted by alimony law
(he dubs both male and female speakers the "Minute Men") that kept
the wheels moving. His own experiences with alimony have taken a
heavy financial toll on him, pushing him into bankruptcy and
foreclosure. His experience might have been a prime breeding ground
for fringe-group zealotry, but Hitner didn't go that way. "I backed
up what I had with proof. I wasn't looking for anything extreme,"
Through an online network, he built a cadre of people with alimony
experiences similar to his, and coached them in how to meet with
and build relationships with their lawmakers. He also kept the
network updated as to when issues were coming up for a vote.
Attorney Rachael Biscardi represented the poorer, largely silent
group of women recipients, says state Rep. John Fernandes, a member
of the task force, which filed the legislation. "She was really the
conscience of our task force. She made us look at the perspective
of the indigent spouse, and without her, we would not have [had]
the voice we needed to hear in that room."
Biscardi, a representative from the Women's Bar Association and
director of the pro bono project for the Women's Bar Foundation,
notes the many problems with the old law, most notably that judges
felt they didn't have the option to award short-term alimony.
"If I had someone who was a victim of divorce from a short-term
marriage, who needed alimony to get themselves back together, then
it was really hard to get that," she says." One of the major
reasons people stay in abusive relationships is that they can't
support themselves. ... Clients might need alimony for a short time
to get themselves together, but judges thought they were unable to
award alimony in those cases."
During its 14 months of work, the task force adopted pieces of
legislation from other states and the American Academy of
Matrimonial Lawyers. "Nobody compromised on this," Hitner says.
"Compromise means people gave things up. We came up with a
solution, the way the system was designed to work." As he recalls
it, the "victims of the old system" approached their lawmakers.
"There was no picketing, no name-calling, there was nothing but
respect and listening to make change for a better system. Everybody
agreed it was broken, but nobody knew how to fix it." But they
At first, the spokesperson group didn't understand the reasons why
lawyers couldn't adopt certain measures, but they learned that some
of the limitations occurred because of tax issues and other
situations. Additionally, Hitner says, each attorney had a
different point of view because of the type of clients they
"It was like a room full of doctors. They didn't understand the
problems the other doctors were having. Some dealt with indigent
and abused clients only; others dealt with wealthy clients," he
says. Despite that, the work environment was without argument. When
differences of opinion arose, the group worked for however long it
took to develop a solution, and then moved on.
When the bill came before the legislators, it moved smoothly from
the house to the senate, and was not delayed in conference
committee. At the end, the Alimony Reform Bill had 133 cosponsors.
"Everyone was working for the same purpose -- to change a bad law,"
Making the future better
"If a marriage lasts five years, and the litigants are in their
early 20s, judges would have been very reluctant under [prior] law
to issue alimony because they knew it would be for life," says
Fernandes. "We looked and said we want to turn this upside down.
It's too broad and too singular in its design. Let's create
something that gives guidance to the court."
"People were abusing the system," Hitner says, citing alimony
payment streams that endure for 30 years and more. "They were
abusing it when the economy was good, and when the economy went
bad, judges couldn't make changes."
"Everyone on the committee was extremely sensitive and
compassionate about issues about low-income recipients, to make new
law apply to everyone, not just those with the loudest voices,"
says Biscardi. "There's always going to be culture shock when a new
law comes down. People find predictability will help settle cases.
Family law cases rip a family apart. With guidance and help, we can
allow parties and lawyers to settle cases, so families don't have
to go through that."
Hitner notes, "I know on my last day of breath what happened to me
will never, ever happen to someone [else] in Massachusetts. I won,
that's what means the most to me. No one else will go through what
I went through."