Editor’s Note: Steve Hitner is president and founder of Mass Alimony Reform and the president of Metrowest Printing Co. He is a divorce consultant and mediator.
Steve Hitner worked to reform state alimony law after he went bankrupt trying to pay
He remarried and some of his second wife's income went to Hitner's alimony payments
Hitner: New law has guidelines and sets reasonable length of time for payments
He says many states are considering new laws that don't financially ruin the payer
My marriage ended in 1995 after 23 years. My two daughters were adults. I knew I would be required to pay alimony, split the assets and provide health insurance for a reasonable period of time. But a marriage that had been difficult for many years was finally over, or so I thought. I didn’t know I was about to enter the twilight zone of alimony-without-end in Massachusetts.
The trial took three days, and a judgment took 10 months. My legal bills were nearly $150,000. I was ordered to pay $865 a week – forever. After 9/11, my business suffered, as many did, and I could not afford the payments. I racked up credit card debt that terrified me. I had to file for bankruptcy.
When I went to court to modify the alimony payment, the judge recused herself from the case, saying her husband had once played cards with the bankruptcy trustee, and I would have to start over. Something was very wrong, and I had to fix it.
I launched a website, MassAlimonyReform.org, and with my current wife, Jeanie, and several couples in similar situations, began what became the alimony reform movement.
At that time, I didn’t know it was common for ex-wives to go back to court when a former spouse got married and get an increase in alimony if the new wife added income to the marriage.
I also discovered that the lower-earning spouse needed to be supported to the standard of the lifestyle of the marriage – and that judges could not put an end date to alimony, even for short-term marriages. All alimony was for life. Payers did not have the right to retire.
Jeanie, who was divorced in New York after a 23-year marriage, was told she would get only three years of maintenance. While married to me in Massachusetts, she was forced to contribute income to supplement my payments to my ex-wife, or I would go to jail. She took on a second job.
Despite scant media attention, our organization began to grow.
Horror stories like mine were coming in daily, and people from all over the country began to join MAR. A major turning point came when The Boston Globe ran an article that described Massachusetts’ alimony law. That day, many women about to marry men who paid alimony called to say they were canceling their weddings. The Second Wives Club, headed by Deb Scanlan, was born.
Massachusetts Rep. Steven Walsh advised me that legislators only acted during “trouble in their village.” We spent many months teaching those villagers who were suffering under the law how to persuade legislators to support the cause.
In 2009, after several attempts to pass reform, the Massachusetts judiciary chairmen created the Alimony Reform Task Force. Members included the Mass Bar, Boston Bar, Women’s Bar, American Association of Matrimonial Lawyerse, the chief justice of probate and me, the only nonlawyer.
I provided descriptions of the problems and the lawyers provided the solutions. The chairs of the task force, Sen. Gail Candaras and Rep. John Fernandes, approved the bill, and it was passed unanimously in the House and Senate. It was signed by Gov. Deval Patrick on September 26, 2011, and went into effect on March 1.
The new law provides guidelines and structure, consistency and predictability. It provides reasonable terms of alimony to help lower-earning former spouses adjust and return to the job market or live on their alimony, marital assets, Social Security and pensions from the marriage. It suspends, reduces or terminates alimony if a recipient spouse is co-habitating.
Payers’ alimony obligation ends when they reach full retirement age, as defined by the Social Security Act. This allows a payer and payee to plan for retirement because they know ahead of time that it will end. There are guidelines for how long alimony must be paid based on the length of the marriage.
Since the law was signed, I have had calls about payers’ ex-spouses getting married. Long-time alimony payers are finally free. Receiving spouses are going back to work. What was once an entitlement is now based on need and ability to pay.
Judges have guidance they have been asking for and are happy to have. Attorneys can solve cases that went on forever, and Massachusetts residents are no longer afraid to get married for fear of unending litigation in case the marriage fails. No matter where you live in Massachusetts, the result will be the same.
The mission I began is now spreading to many states all over the country. I have been consulting with divorce reform activists in Florida, Colorado, Oregon, Connecticut, New Jersey, Virginia and South Carolina. People need to be self-supporting after a term of alimony and not rely an ex-spouse. Alimony is support payment from a spouse, who has the ability to pay, to a spouse in need, for a reasonable length of time. That needs to be the rule, not the exception.
In Massachusetts, it is the law. Now it is the duty of legislators in other states to listen to victims of ruinous alimony laws and do the same.
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Steve Hitner.