As a person whose parents split up when I was seven, I’m no stranger to divorce lingo. Child support. Full and part-time custody. Alimony. By third grade, I had all of the vocab down.
But lately, alimony as we know it has been called into question.
In its simplest terms, alimony is “a husband’s or wife’s court-ordered provision for a spouse after separation or divorce.” Get started with a free financial assessment.
Get started with a free financial assessment.
The intent is to provide the spouse with low income, or no income, funds for living expenses outside of child support—in other words money to support themselves. The amount and duration of the payments depend on the laws of individual states, and are at the discretion of a judge.
But now, it turns out, many states are considering new legislation that would put an end to permanent spousal support.
The New Alimony?
Now, instead of alimony for life, several states are contemplating special formulas that would be used to determine a specified amount and length of alimony payments. Massachusetts reformed their law a year ago. Florida’s reform bill was recently vetoed by the governor. New Jersey is contemplating changes, and, just recently, legislation seeking changes was introduced in New York.
Proponents of the laws say it’s only fair that alimony be paid out over a specific amount of time, rather than for the duration of someone’s entire life. The other side argues these changes would hurt women who, in many circumstances, gave up their full-time careers or opportunities for further schooling to become homemakers or to care for children, and who may find it increasingly difficult to find good jobs in this economy.
If the arguments are not surprising, what is surprising is the increasing number of women who are calling for alimony changes. Sheila Taylor is one of them.
The Case for Changing the System
When Taylor, a nurse in Ocean Grove, N.J., managed to divorce her abusive, cheating, alcoholic husband of 25 years, she thought she was free and clear.
The courts, however, felt differently. Because Taylor’s $70,000 nurse's salary was higher than what her husband had been making, she was ordered to pay him permanent alimony, to the tune of $1,250 every month … as long as he never remarried. It didn’t matter that Taylor’s husband had left her for another woman, or that the two of them were living together, or even that they were engaged. (And her ex-husband was vocal about the fact that he never planned to actually remarry, that way he could continue to collect his alimony payments.)
Under New Jersey law, it was up to Taylor to prove to the court at least 90 days of cohabitation between her ex-husband and his new fiancée before it would even begin to reconsider her permanent alimony ruling. “I hired a private investigator twice during the divorce, and the judge discounted the reports both times, without explanation,” says Taylor. “Lifetime alimony, without the consideration of parole, is an unjust sentence.”
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While Taylor—who went on to found New Jersey Women for Alimony Reform to help enact changes to the law—certainly appears to have good reason to argue against the current state of alimony, she’s not alone.
"In many cases, these alimony reforms take away the discretion of the judge and impose severe limitations on what he or she can award in any given case."
“Reform is a good idea when it takes into account the reality of the situation, and when it affords the court adequate flexibility to be fair and equitable to both parties,” says Cheryl Lynn Hepfer, principal of Offit Kurman Attorneys, past president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers and president of the International Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers.
The best outcome for these reforms, says Hepfer, would be for them “to provide structure and consistency, so that the parties can have assurances that the outcomes of their situation will be fair.”
Alimony Changes Might Harm Women
Many critics argue that changes to alimony rules would most directly affect those women who desperately need that money. “In many cases, these alimony reforms take away the discretion of the judge and impose severe limitations on what he or she can award in any given case,” says Jeff Landers, president of Bedrock Divorce Advisors and author of “Divorce: Think Financially, Not Emotionally — What Women Need to Know About Securing Their Financial Future Before, During, and After Divorce.”
It’s the ‘formula’ aspect of the new laws that really angers Landers. “[Divorce cases] need to be determined on an individual basis, and whenever you have some form of formula or are forced to work within strict parameters, you always have unintended consequences,” he says.
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Landers also argues that some of these reform laws (specifically the one that passed in Massachusetts and was defeated in Florida) allow for retroactive changes to alimony, but not to other financial aspects of the divorce settlement. “Consider, for example, a woman who gave up a house or other major assets in her divorce agreement in favor of a certain amount of alimony for a certain period of time,” he says. “If a new law comes along that retroactively changes divorce settlements, this woman may find that her ex-husband can get the alimony reduced or eliminated, even though there’s no way for her to get the house back, and she can’t renegotiate any other aspects of the divorce agreement.”
Of course not every aspect of the changes that would be brought about by new alimony rules are negative, even in the eyes of those who are largely against it. “I do think that the duration of alimony should bear a direct relationship to the term of marriage,” says Landers. “No one should have to pay lifetime alimony if they have been married for under 10 years, or possibly even longer. However, in a long-term marriage where the woman has been out of the workforce for decades and is now in her fifties or sixties, perhaps permanent alimony might be justified in those circumstances.”
Where Do You Stand?
For now, the debate rages on. What seems clear is that there is room in the current laws for some kind of change … but a change that seems fair to all parties has yet to be achieved. After all, as Taylor puts it, “The best possible outcome would be to change legislation so that there would be guidelines, something to ensure predictability.”
Tell us what you think: Is permanent alimony unfair?