BRATTLEBORO—The Vermont Judiciary wants to put the brakes on an alimony overhaul effort led by a Brattleboro businessman.
In a new report, the state Supreme Court’s Family Division Oversight Committee recommends adoption of new guidelines aimed at providing more “predictability and consistency” in the alimony process.
But the committee also argues against adopting any mandatory regulations that might curb the ability of judges to consider unique factors in each alimony dispute.
Guidelines that are too “rigid,” the committee’s Jan. 13 report says, “would be more likely to lead to unjust outcomes than no guidelines at all.”
Rick Fleming, president of Vermont Alimony Reform, said he’s “disappointed” in the committee’s conclusions and believes the report falls far short of a thorough review of the state’s alimony statute.
“We are grateful that the Legislature has begun the discussion, and we’re hopeful that both the Senate and the House Judiciary committees hold hearings that will go beyond the scope of what was addressed in the report,” Fleming said.
The dispute highlights two very different alimony reform efforts happening simultaneously in Vermont.
On one hand, the court’s Family Division Oversight Committee has been discussing alimony guidelines since 2008, issuing drafts in 2012 and again late last year. The committee seeks to buttress existing guidelines for attorneys and judges while not imposing hard and fast rules.
On the other hand, Vermont Alimony Reform is a relatively new group that wants an overhaul of the state’s alimony law. The statute is outdated and puts an unfair, long-term burden on payers, reform advocates argue.
Vermont Alimony Reform took its case directly to legislators in 2016, using personal stories of men and women who are alimony payers and feel they’ve been wronged by the system.
Fleming has been candid about his own experiences, telling officials that he’s been saddled with monthly alimony payments of more than $2,300 even as he was forced to sell his oil business amid an economic downturn. In 2013, the state Supreme Court ruled against Fleming’s efforts to lower his payments.
The reform group wants a variety of changes including replacing indefinite alimony with terms based on the length of a marriage; providing allowances for payers who want to retire; and terminating a payer’s obligations when a recipient remarries.
Alimony reform report
Modeling their efforts on alimony changes enacted in 2011 in Massachusetts, Vermont Alimony Reform members asked for creation of a new task force to examine the issue. The idea, Fleming says, is that the task force would be “all-inclusive of all of the parties that are affected by spousal maintenance and alimony,” including payers.
A few months into the 2016 legislative session, the task force idea gained traction in the Senate.
But by the end of the last session, legislation instead called for the Supreme Court’s Family Division Oversight Committee — made up of attorneys, judges, and court staff — to produce an alimony reform report by Jan. 15 of this year.
That report says the Judicial branch has two main interests in the alimony reform debate.
The first is “having clear statutory language from the Legislature, which will enable judges to apply the alimony statute in a manner that is consistent from judge to judge and case to case.”
At the same time, however, the committee says its other priority is “maintaining a level of discretion in issuing alimony awards, as currently exists in the alimony statute ... in order to address the unique facts and circumstances of individual families.”
The importance of judicial discretion is a theme that runs throughout the committee’s report.
For instance, the committee says it sought input on alimony reform from the Family Law Section of the Vermont Bar Association. While attorneys offered various solutions, “virtually everyone ... argued for allowing judges to retain the discretion they currently have,” the report says.
So the committee recommends preserving a statutory list of factors that must be considered in alimony cases. Those include age and health; length of marriage; each party’s “reasonable needs”; time and expenses for employment training; inflation; assets owned by each party; and the standard of living established during a marriage.
Also, the committee recommends that the Legislature should add new, more specific alimony guidelines focused on two factors — the length of a marriage and the difference between each party’s income. Those guidelines are arranged in a grid along with suggested durations for alimony payments, creating “a predictable range of outcomes,” documents say.
Seeking greater consistency
For Fleming, those outcomes aren't nearly predictable enough.
He points to wide ranges of possible alimony awards within each category in the committee’s proposed guidelines. That doesn’t ensure consistency from case to case, Fleming argues.
“We were looking for a defined set of guidelines that would clarify this for the judges,” he said.
Fleming also pointed out that the committee didn’t address key Vermont Alimony Reform concerns such as a payer’s retirement or change in financial circumstances and a receiver’s remarriage or cohabitation.
Fleming said his organization wanted “a good, open discussion about alimony reform, which really hasn’t happened since probably the late 50s. [But] that didn’t happen.”
The Supreme Court committee’s report, authored by Chief Superior Judge Brian Grearson, rebuts that argument in part by considering a number of alimony circumstances “where guidelines alone would not produce a fair result.”
Furthermore, while the committee reviewed materials submitted by Vermont Alimony Reform, Grearson noted that the reform organization “speaks only from the payers’ perspective.”
“There has been no voice from the recipients’ perspective, which may include those who received alimony and believed the award was fair, or those who received an award they believed was unfair, or those who were ordered to pay alimony and believed it was fair,” Grearson wrote.