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Task force may consider alimony reform

At the urging of a Brattleboro-based activist group, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved formation of a task force to determine whether changes are needed in Vermont’s alimony laws

A Brattleboro businessman’s push to reform Vermont’s alimony laws appears to be gaining traction in the Legislature.

The state Senate Judiciary Committee on March 11 unanimously approved a bill that would create a “Spousal Support and Maintenance Task Force” to consider whether changes are needed in the state’s alimony statute.

That vote came two days after Rick Fleming, president of Vermont Alimony Reform, made an impassioned pitch for change to committee members.

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington and Judiciary Committee chair, didn’t endorse any specific shifts in the law. But after hearing Fleming’s request for more clarity and uniformity in the statute, Sears said it’s worth taking a look.

“At least to give an opportunity for us to review our current statutes regarding alimony, I don’t think it’s a bad idea,” Sears said.

Fleming began pursuing alimony reform due to his own experiences. He said he pays more than $2,300 monthly to his ex-wife, and his attempts to get that payment lowered have been unsuccessful.

Meanwhile, Fleming said a downturn in his oil business — which he was forced to sell — has led to financial problems that have been ignored by the courts.

After discussing the issue with Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, Fleming traveled to Montpelier on March 9 to tell his story to the Senate Judiciary Committee, of which White is a member.

“Financially, I have been ruined,” Fleming said. “If not for the support of my (second) wife, I don’t know how I’d be able to meet my daily living expenses.”

Fleming has found that he is not alone: He gave committee members a packet of testimonials from alimony payers — both men and women — who have complaints about the state’s system. And Fleming said his Vermont Alimony Reform organization has grown steadily since first meeting in November.

“We’ve seen more payers with their stories coming from all corners of the state, looking for our help and wanting to champion our cause,” Fleming said. “Many people in Vermont do not know the impact of our existing divorce and alimony laws unless they are personally affected or know someone who is.”

A sweeping alimony reform law was unanimously approved by the Massachusetts legislature in 2011, and the Vermont group has taken that effort as a model. Fleming mentioned Massachusetts during his testimony, and he told committee members that he wants to build “consistency, predictability and fairness” into Vermont’s alimony system.

Vermont Alimony Reform’s goals, which are listed on vtalimonyreform.com, include:

• Replacing “permanent” alimony with terms based on the length of the marriage.

• Providing guidelines that allow those who pay and receive alimony to prepare for retirement. Fleming argues that alimony obligations should end “when the payer reaches the national full retirement age — currently 67.”

“Vermont laws do not allow the payers the ability to ever retire and have their payments ended or lowered without costly returns to court, even when the retirement is forced,” Fleming said. “Even then, there is often no change.”

• Terminating a payer’s alimony obligations “automatically” when a recipient remarries.

• Leaving a second spouse’s income out of the alimony equation when a payer remarries.

• Setting “specific guidelines to give Family Court judges direction and fairness” on alimony decisions.

That request, as well as some other arguments presented by Fleming, are troubling for White River Junction attorney Emily S. Davis. After 25 years practicing family law, Davis is cautioning against setting hard and fast rules for alimony cases.

“The problem with rigid guidelines is that the issues around alimony are so intensely fact-specific,” Davis told Judiciary Committee members March 9.

For example, she said terminating alimony at retirement could be unfair if a couple divorces when the higher-earning spouse already is collecting pension or retirement payments.

Davis also has doubts about the alimony reform group’s pitch for encouraging self-sufficiency among alimony recipients.

“I agree that both spouses, including a lower-earning spouse, should be encouraged to contribute to his or her self-support and shouldn’t be entirely dependent on the other spouse,” she said. “But you do have situations where someone may have given up their earning capacity (during a marriage).”

Davis said she has served on the Vermont Supreme Court’s Family Division Oversight Committee since its inception in 2000. She also serves on a subcommittee that has been drafting guidelines aimed at encouraging more consistency in how Vermont’s current alimony law is applied.

“The guidelines are not intended to be rigid,” Davis said. “They’re not intended to provide absolute, clear answers to what we perceive to be the difficult and complex issue of spousal support.”

Davis lobbied the Judiciary Committee to allow that guideline-development process to continue to play out within the Supreme Court’s subcommittee. But that met with skepticism from legislators who pointed out that members of the general public — including alimony reform advocates — are unable to participate in such discussions.

“Why would the group that’s currently doing this object to having more participation in it from the general public?” White asked.

On March 11, the committee pushed forward with creating a task force similar to a study group that had been recommended by Fleming.

The seven-member organization would consist of two legislators; the state’s chief Superior Court judge; a Superior Court judge with “significant experience” in Family Court; two attorneys appointed by the Family Law Section of the Vermont Bar Association; and a representative of Vermont Alimony Reform.

The task force, if it is eventually approved by the legislature, would be required to submit recommendations for any alimony changes by Jan. 15, 2017.

The task force language was inserted into S.52, which initially had been introduced last session under the title “an act relating to the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act.” A House version of that bill was approved by the legislature last year and signed into law in May, so the Senate version had not moved from the Judiciary Committee.

Fleming praised the committee’s action but said there is much work remaining.

“This is a serious issue impacting many Vermonters that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later,” he said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #348 (Wednesday, March 16, 2016). This story appeared on page A4.

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