BRATTLEBORO—In 2011, after five years of work, the Massachusetts Legislature approved a major overhaul of the state’s alimony law. It did so without a single dissenting vote, “and it’s very rare that happens,” said Steve Hitner, the man who led the effort.
Now, a group led by Brattleboro businessman Rick Fleming is attempting to use that state’s model to revamp the Vermont law that regulates — or, as the group contends, fails to regulate — the ways in which Vermonters are ordered to compensate their ex-spouses.
Vermont Alimony Reform is comprised of those who feel they’ve been wronged by the system. But Fleming says he wants a robust debate, and he’s lobbying for formation of a special committee or task force that includes judges, attorneys, and others to examine the issue.
“We really feel that it’s important that the legislature take a hard look at this and involve all parties.” Fleming said.
It’s bound to be a sensitive topic, since alimony disputes involve highly personal details — from bank accounts to child-rearing arrangements — and sometimes-acrimonious, years-long negotiations between former partners.
‘No fixed standards’
Fleming is candid about his own case: He has taken his court-ordered alimony arrangement all the way to the Vermont Supreme Court, arguing that his $2,200 monthly payments are unfair and should be lowered due to changes in his personal circumstances. The Supreme Court, in a 2013 entry order, rejected Fleming’s arguments and upheld the lower court’s alimony judgment.
But there is a line in the court’s decision that might sum up Fleming’s problem with the system: “As we have repeatedly stated,” the court wrote, “there are no fixed standards for determining when changed circumstances exist.”
Fleming says his group is not lobbying to abolish alimony; instead, he wants “consistency, predictability, and fairness” built into the process.
“There are no existing guidelines, for the most part, for alimony,” Fleming said. “If you go to court in Windham County with the same set of circumstances that someone in Burlington [has], you could have a completely different outcome. And we feel that you should be able to go into court and have an understanding of exactly what might happen.”
“If there were rules and guidelines, we feel that it would improve the Family Court process,” he added.
There’s also a sense among those in the reform movement that Vermont alimony law — which provides for lifetime payments like Fleming’s — is badly outdated.
“There have been some modifications to the law over the years,” Fleming said. “But a lot of this dates back to when women stayed home all the time, and that’s just not the case today.”
“In many, many relationships, both the husband and the wife work,” he added. “Yet, the alimony laws were written in a time when it was like Leave it to Beaver.”
Some specific goals
Vermont Alimony Reform has a number of goals, including:
• Replacing permanent alimony with shorter terms based on the length of the marriage or on special circumstances.
“We support transitional alimony, which is alimony for a defined period of time to allow someone to get on their feet,” Fleming said. “We also support rehabilitation alimony, where if someone has been out of the work force for a period of time, alimony would be appropriate to retrain them — perhaps [allow] them to go back to college to develop a new set of skills.”
“But we don’t feel, except in extreme circumstances, that permanent alimony would be appropriate just based upon the length of a marriage,” he added. “And we certainly think that, if an ex-spouse cohabitates or remarries, that alimony should end.”
• Providing guidelines to allow payers and receivers of alimony to prepare for retirement. “The current laws,” the reform group argues, “do not allow a payer to ever retire” because there is no guarantee that the court will grant a alimony reduction.
• Establishing specific guidelines for family-court judges in alimony cases. That should include, in Fleming’s view, standards for determining what constitutes a “substantial change” in a payer’s circumstances or income.
“I don’t blame the judges, and I don’t blame the attorneys,” Fleming said. “It’s just a bad law [...] and the law needs to be changed.”
Vermont Alimony Reform has posted a list of issues and goals at www.vtalimonyreform.com. The website also includes testimonials from those who believe the system should change — both men and women.
One of those stories is from Maureen Lynch, who went through a divorce in Caledonia County several years ago and has since moved out of state.
Lynch is a registered nurse, but she says she’s living paycheck to paycheck due to her own family obligations and ongoing alimony payments to her ex-wife, who has retired.
Along with imposing financial pressures, permanent alimony “prevents emotional healing,” Lynch believes. She said the current law essentially ensures that a “contentious divorce goes on forever.”
“That’s part of the need for people to tell their stories,” Lynch said. “I think legislators aren’t aware of the abuses and the ways in which people are suffering.”
Senator is receptive to legislative study
At this point, those stories have not filtered very far into the Statehouse. Vermont Alimony Reform held its first meeting in November and only recently has begun reaching out to legislators.
Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, said she has heard from Fleming and understands his concerns. “I think this is a real issue, and part of it is that our laws are antiquated,” she said.
White serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee and said any family law changes would start there, though there’s been no legislation introduced at this point. Nevertheless, she speculated that language calling for formation of a special study committee or an alimony task force could be inserted into a bill sometime during the remaining months of the 2016 session.
“I am trying to figure out if there’s a way of doing this, even at this late date,” White said.
Advice from Massachusetts
The fledging Vermont effort has gotten some assistance from Hitner, who has been working to spread the Massachusetts reform model far and wide. “Right now, I coach people in a half-dozen states,” the Marlborough, Mass., resident said.
Changes in the 2011 Massachusetts alimony law included a new formula that ties alimony terms to the length of a marriage. There also are term limits for different classifications of alimony, such as rehabilitative, reimbursement, and transitional.
The new Massachusetts law mandated that alimony be suspended, reduced, or terminated when a recipient maintains a common household with another person for at least three months. Alimony also ends when a recipient remarries.
A host of other changes is detailed at www.massalimonyreform.org.
While some complications have led to the need for further legislative tweaks, Hitner believes the hard work of an Alimony Reform Task Force ensured that the Massachusetts statute was updated to reflect the present-day needs of divorced couples.
“Laws have to change with the times,” Hitner said.