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Advocates for alimony reform see some success at Statehouse

Committee will study Vermont's alimony laws, but a Brattleboro-based reform group won't have a direct hand in that work

BRATTLEBORO—As the 2016 legislative session began, Rick Fleming’s goal was to start a conversation about changing Vermont’s alimony laws.

The Brattleboro businessman accomplished that and more, though the conversation ended differently than he had hoped.

The Legislature has asked a state Supreme Court oversight committee — made up of attorneys, judges, and court staff — to report back on its study of Vermont’s alimony guidelines by Jan. 15, 2017. That report “shall include any legislative recommendations for changes” in the law.

Members of Fleming’s group, Vermont Alimony Reform, had been hoping for a direct role in that study. Nevertheless, Fleming said he’s happy the issue is getting some attention, and he is pledging to stay involved.

“The fact that we were able to get [study] legislation passed relatively quickly shows to me that the legislators understand that there’s a problem that needs to be addressed,” Fleming said.

‘Consistency, predictability, and fairness’

Alimony reform advocates — both men and women — have been lobbying for more “consistency, predictability, and fairness” in spousal-support laws. They have been using their own stories to argue that the state’s statutes are outdated and unfairly burdensome to payers.

Fleming, the group’s president, was embroiled in his own, years-long alimony battle that went all the way to the state Supreme Court. The court in 2013 rejected Fleming’s request to lower his monthly payments to his ex-wife.

The reform organization’s goals include replacing indefinite alimony with terms based on the length of a marriage; providing guidelines that allow payers to prepare for retirement; and terminating alimony obligations automatically when a recipient remarries.

Advocates also want more specific alimony guidelines for Family Court judges.

Fleming took those goals before the Senate Judiciary Committee in early March, where he encountered both support and skepticism. Also testifying that day was White River Junction attorney Emily S. Davis, who cautioned against enacting strict alimony laws that might unfairly penalize some recipients.

A ‘fact-specific’ area of law

“The problem with rigid guidelines is that the issues around alimony are so intensely fact-specific,” Davis said at the time.

Shortly after that hearing, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to form a “Spousal Support and Maintenance Task Force” to examine the issue. The group would have included legislators, judges, attorneys, and a member of Vermont Alimony Reform.

But that proposal changed as the session continued. Eventually, a legislative conference committee found common ground, inserting language in H.869 that says the alimony study should be entrusted to the state Supreme Court’s Family Division Oversight Committee.

That committee must make a report to the House and Senate Judiciary Committees by early next year.

Vermont Chief Superior Judge Brian Grearson said the Family Division Oversight Committee “has been working on the idea of alimony guidelines for a couple of years now.” Davis, the attorney who testified on the alimony issue in March, is one of the committee’s members.

“We’re going to give it our best shot and continue the work we’ve done in this committee, but perhaps with a different focus,” Grearson said.

Though Vermont Alimony Reform won’t have a seat at the table, Grearson said he will give members of the court committee all the materials that have been presented by Fleming’s group. “I anticipate explaining to them why this came about and why we’re being asked to look at this issue,” he said.

To the extent that it is feasible, Grearson said he is in favor of more consistency and predictability for those involved in the alimony process. But he also said each case is different.

“Alimony is a complicated, emotional, very fact-driven area of the law,” Grearson said. “It can become very personal in your view of whether you’ve been treated fairly or not, and I understand that.”

Fleming said he is looking forward to the court committee’s work and expects to continue lobbying for change in Montpelier when the Legislature reconvenes next year. He said two members of the Senate Judiciary Committee — Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, and Chairman Dick Sears, D-Bennington, have been particularly supportive.

“They really pushed this forward,” Fleming said. “We’re excited that it’s on the legislative agenda.”

White said she preferred an alimony study that included the reform group. But she noted that, once the court committee makes its report to the Legislature, “there will be public input at that time.”

Alimony reform “is something we should look at,” White said. “The laws are medieval. I don’t think they’ve been changed since the 1950s.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #357 (Wednesday, May 18, 2016). This story appeared on page A3.

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