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Posted Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Alimony in Massachusetts Gets Overhaul, With Limits


BOSTON — Gov. Deval Patrick on Monday signed into law new limits on alimony in Massachusetts, sharply curbing lifetime alimony payments in divorce cases and making a series of other changes to a system that critics considered outdated.


The previous system allowed judges to award lifelong alimony after both short and long marriages, in contrast to the practices of most states. It often required payments to continue even after the spouse paying the alimony retired or the spouse receiving it moved in with a new partner.

The new law, which had widespread support in the legislature, allows most of those paying alimony to stop once they retire. It also sets limits, based on the length of a marriage, on the number of years former spouses can receive payments.

A marriage of five years or less that ends in divorce, for example, could require alimony payments for up to half of the length of the marriage. Those lasting between 15 and 20 years could require payments for up to 80 percent of the marriage.

“It’s a good bill that balanced the needs of the payees and those who are paying their spouses,” said Denise Squillante, a family law lawyer who worked on the task force that wrote the bill. “It strikes a balance between the two.”

Linda Lea Viken, president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, said the law represented an about-face that could reverberate across the country. Most states, she said, do not have such specific guidelines for determining the length of alimony. “They’ve gone from the extreme of having it set in permanency to now being specific about when it terminates,” Ms. Viken said of Massachusetts.

Steve Hitner, president of Massachusetts Alimony Reform, a grass-roots group made up mostly of alimony-paying men, said he hoped the law would prevent situations like his. When Mr. Hitner sought to have his $45,000-a-year alimony payments reduced in 2000, he said, the judge refused and Mr. Hitner went into bankruptcy, having spent more than $250,000 on legal fees.

“It put a lot of people in the poorhouse,” he said. “It made people never able to retire.”

But Wendy Murphy, an adjunct law professor at New England Law of Boston, said she worried that the new law could be unfair to women who leave the work force to raise their children.

“It’s arbitrary to have cutoff periods that effectively make it harder for that opportunity loss to be valued in the divorce,” Ms. Murphy said.

Ms. Murphy also said the new system might encourage women to stay in abusive marriages longer in order to qualify for more alimony.

“It’s kind of a one size fits all,” she said. “I’m worried that the hard lines that have been drawn will become the rule.”

Reprinted from The New York Times, National, of Tuesday, September 27, 2011.

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