Massachusetts divorce attorney Jason V. Owens reports on a Boston Globe editorial calling for an end to “lifetime alimony”.
The Boston Globe has released an editorial making an impassioned plea to “[p]lug the loopholes in alimony reform”. It is unclear if the Globe’s piece will break the logjam in the Massachusetts Senate Judiciary Committee, where the bill endorsed by the Globe is presently mired. The bill, H.740, seeks to close loopholes in the Alimony Reform Act of Massachusetts, passed in 2011, by providing for the reduction or termination of alimony when an alimony payer reaches retirement age or when a recipient is cohabitating with a new romantic partner.
The Globe’s editorial appears to point a finger directly at “State Senator William Brownsberger, whose judiciary committee is looking at the legislation”. Advocates for the bill have pointed to Brownsberger as the main force preventing passage of H.740 in the Massachusetts Senate. According to the Globe:
[Brownsberger] called [H.740] a zero-sum game, and he’s right: Someone is going to come away feeling robbed. But while applying the reforms retroactively will undoubtedly create disruption, legislators should approve a bill that would extend the 2011 reforms. As a matter of fairness, all couples in Massachusetts should be subject to the same rules.
The Globe’s endorsement comes on the heels a May 2017 Boston Globe Magazine opinion piece urging the passage of H.740. However, the May editorial represented the views of a single contributor to the Globe’s Magazine. Sunday’s endorsement represents the view of the entire Boston Globe editorial board, which holds greater sway on Beacon Hill. Alimony reform advocates hope that the Globe’s full-throated support for H.740 will overcome opposition from Brownsberger and others on the judiciary committee, where H.740 has stalled for weeks.
Brownsberger Seeks to Delay Alimony Reform Vote to 2018
In a recent email to supporters, Stephen K. Hitner, the President of Massachusetts Alimony Reform, called out Brownsberger and other members of the judiciary committee, writing:
The chairman of the Joint Committee, Senator Will Brownsberger seems to be ignoring the urge to push thing along claiming that he is afraid of causing pain. While there are some recipients of Spousal Support that may experience some discomfort with the Passage of H 740, it is a question of NEED vs. GREED. At least one of the complaints at the Judiciary Hearing was mostly HOT AIR as she is worth well over a million dollars. As I have repeated many time, a recipient spouse with solid evidence of need is protected by Judicial Discretion in the form of Deviation Factors.
Currently Senator Brownsberger says that the Judiciary is working on other issues and will not be dealing with the Alimony Reform issue until next February, 2018. While I do respect the Senator as an honorable person, I do not feel very comfortable that after all of our efforts he is not sympathetic to the plight of the Alimony Payer.
If Brownsberger succeeds, it will be the second year in a row that advocates have seen their hopes dashed in the Senate. In 2016, an identical bill passed by a unanimous 156-0 vote in the Massachusetts House, only to become mired in a senate subcommittee. The bill seems to be hitting the same bottleneck in 2017, despite substantial support from individual senators.
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According to the Globe, unless H.740 is approved, a substantial portion of Massachusetts divorcees will continue to be subject to lifetime alimony awards:
That means that some of the bizarre outcomes that were possible under the old alimony system endure. Writing recently in the Globe Magazine, one author related how her partner has to continue sending alimony checks to his ex-wife, even though she has found a new partner. Under the courts’ interpretation of the 2011 law, paying spouses who divorced before then also must keep paying alimony after they retire. Those spouses also can’t automatically end alimony at retirement (though they can ask a court to modify alimony if their circumstances change).
Lest anyone think that alimony cases involving pre-2012 divorces are rare, it is important to note that at any one time, our law office is always handling multiple cases for clients who are paying alimony from pre-2012 divorce agreements. Indeed, as the alimony-paying population ages, the two-class system used in Massachusetts becomes ever more stark. For nearly all of those divorced after 2012, alimony stops when the payer reaches federal retirement age. For those divorced before 2012, alimony continues into the payer’s 70’s. For pre-2012 divorcees, it is not unusual to see a husband still paying alimony 30 years after a divorce for a marriage that only lasted 20 years.
The view advocated by opponents like Brownsberger – that applying the retirement and cohabitation provisions to pre-2012 would be unfair to former spouses who negotiated under the old law – does not make much sense. Under Massachusetts law, parties have long had the ability to make alimony obligations modifiable or unmodifiable. Unmodifiable alimony agreements would not be affected by H.740. Only alimony orders that both parties agreed could be modified by a subsequent court order would be affected by a payer reaching retirement age or a recipient cohabitating with a new partner.
Given Sen. Brownsberger’s opposition to H.740, alimony reform proponents are pessimistic about the bill’s passage in advance of the end of the 2017 legislative session on July 31, 2017. Perhaps the Globe’s editorial will change the dynamic on Beacon Hill, but it is difficult to see this happening without a significant increase in public focus on the judiciary committee.
About the Author: Jason V. Owens is a Massachusetts divorce lawyer and Massachusetts family law attorney for Lynch & Owens, located in Hingham, Massachusetts.
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