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Boston Herald: Amendment would give judges more power of settled alimony cases

July 19, 2011

By Colleen Quinn/State House News Service

Two Republican House lawmakers plan to file an amendment to the alimony reform bill that would allow judges to stop or reduce payments in cases considered settled under current law.

The bill House lawmakers will debate Wednesday affects only cases where the courts retain jurisdiction over cases indefinitely, known as merged cases. In a merged case, judges have the authority to revise alimony years after a divorce is finalized. In other cases the parties agree to the terms of their divorce as being final, referred to as “survives with independent legal significance” and it does not allow judges to modify decisions in the future. The amendment, to be filed by Rep. Sheila Harrington (R-Groton) and Rep. Daniel Winslow (R-Norfolk), would allow the courts to adjust or stop alimony in all cases.

Under the bill, alimony would be dramatically revamped, with specific guidelines laid out for the first time on the levels and duration of payments to former spouses.

Critics of the current system say it is inconsistent and arbitrary and leaves many without redress even if their financial situation changes. The proposed law would also curb “lifetime” alimony, something reform advocates say Massachusetts judges award too often.

The bill would also allow judges to end payments to a former spouse who is living with someone else, sharing living expenses. Nothing in the current alimony statutes allows judges to reduce or terminate alimony when a former spouse lives with someone else, lawmakers said.

Harrington, a practicing divorce attorney, said everyone should be able to modify alimony payments if circumstances change, even if the courts no longer retain jurisdiction over the case. If the new law allows changes in divorces that are “merged” in the courts, it should be the same for “survived” cases, she said.

During the May hearing on the bill before the Joint Committee on the Judiciary, dozens of people testified they were stuck paying alimony despite the fact their former spouse was living with someone else, sometimes for decades, Harrington said.

“People are living together to prevent losing their alimony,” she said.

Sen. James Eldridge (D-Acton), another co-sponsor of the bill, said the section of the bill that stops payments for an ex-spouse living with someone could draw opposition. The bill would allow judges to cut off alimony for anyone living with someone for more than three months.

“I have heard that is too short a trigger,” Eldridge said.

Eldridge said he “expects there will be a fair amount of debate” on alimony reforms because it has been so contentious in the past.

If the bill passes in the House, the Senate is expected to debate it before the end of July, according to Sen. Karen Spilka, another co-sponsor of the legislation. Spilka (D-Ashland) said there were several similar bills filed over the years that failed because there was no consensus.

But this bill has a good chance of passing because it came out of a year-long effort from a task force compromised of groups and attorneys on all sides of the issues. Spilka said she heard for years from constituents about the need to change alimony laws. She described the proposed law as fair, saying it supports spouses that may have given up careers to help raise children, while taking into consideration the length of the marriage.

“The bottom-line is it establishes clarity over what alimony will be with some discretion,” Spilka said.

Proponents of the bill say it has gained support from many sides, including divorce attorneys.

Stephen McDonough, a divorce attorney with the Divorce Collaborative in Bedford and Franklin, said he follows the bill closely like many in his field, and likes the changes.

“The vast majority of practicing divorce attorneys realize it is a little bit of a strained system that has evolved, and often times you get some results that just don’t seem fair,” McDonough said.

McDonough said the law would “be a big improvement but still be supportive of people who do need alimony.”

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