A family law attorney’s view on alimony

Issue February 2010 By Denise Squillante

Long has there been a push for more consistent and predictable alimony awards in Massachusetts. Contrary to the sentiments expressed by The Boston Globe's Adrian Walker's "Alimony Agony" column published last November, family law practitioners have been and remain interested in adding predictability to the allocation of alimony payments. And, a point that Walker and others who have written on this topic have not made is that alimony does not only bear a burden on men, as many women are required to complement their ex-spouse's income.

Since the early 1990s, the MBA's Family Law Section has closely monitored the topic, filing a series of proposed legislation to improve the existing alimony laws. Now, the MBA has a seat at the table as this complex topic is addressed at the legislative level.

More recently, the Massachusetts Bar Association and the Boston Bar Association convened an alimony task force to better formalize the attorney voice on the issue. David Lee and I chair the task force that has wrestled with several of the major issues surrounding the current alimony laws, including the issue of durational limits. A comprehensive report issued by the joint task force, endorsed by the MBA's House of Delegates, offers recommendations on standards for reasonable sums and durational terms in cases that do not involve dependent children.

Under the keen leadership of Sen. Cynthia Creem and Rep. Eugene O'Flaherty, the Joint Committee on the Judiciary has established a legislative task force with the charge of determining how best to reform Massachusetts alimony laws. Like the many other individuals serving on this legislative group, the MBA will do its part in relaying the critical need to set alimony standards for the sake of the many families who may need alimony or who may be affected by alimony judgments. I look forward to representing the MBA throughout the group's important discussions led by Sen. Gale Candaras and Rep. John V. Fernandes.

Often a significant obstacle to settling divorce cases, alimony awards are ripe for public and legislative scrutiny. Alimony becomes a difficult issue to resolve without state guidelines. There is a need to balance suggested guidelines with retaining judicial discretion given each case's particular set of facts. Emotions run high in family law cases and when the element of alimony is involved, cases become that much more complex.

The Supreme Judicial Court's recent decision in Pierce v. Pierce, in my view, adds another layer of complexity. This decision will play into the negative perceptions of alimony payments, despite their necessary role in some cases to fairly preserve the financial livelihood of spouses despite a broken marriage.

After practicing family law for more than 25 years, I have seen a trend away from just male litigants paying alimony. As women continue to earn more competitive salaries, as more families name the mother its bread winner, and as same-sex couples divorce, women paying alimony will become increasingly more common.

Like many of my family law colleagues, I am excited to see this issue addressed at the level is warrants. Between what the MBA and BBA are doing at the bar level and what Sen. Creem and Rep. O'Flaherty have recently taken on at the legislative level, the progress is encouraging. As a result, all parties look forward to more predictable, consistent expectations for alimony settlements, orders and judgments.

Denise Squillante is the president-elect of the Massachusetts Bar Association. She practices law in southeastern Massachusetts.