Till Death Do Us Part
A coalition of lawyers, advocates, and lawmakers in Massachusetts are pushing to reduce judges’ discretion to order permanent alimony. One of the leaders of the coalition is Steven Hitner. Hitner divorced his wife back in 1999. He’s court-ordered to pay $37,000/year to his ex-wife. Three years ago, Hitner’s printing business failed, bankrupting him, so he asked the court for a reduction in alimony. He was denied. The income of his second wife, whom he married about eleven years ago, is part of the alimony. Hitner’s ex-wife, receiving the $37,000 a year in alimony, has retired, but Hitner can’t, mainly because of his alimony obligation. He hasn’t made alimony payments in four weeks and is in contempt of court.
Alimony is governed by G.L. 208 sec. 34. It’s geared toward ensuring that upon divorce both parties are kept as close as possible to the standard of living they enjoyed during the marriage. It’s usually temporary, but sometimes permanent: if a spouse just needs some time to become economically self-sufficient, it’s temporary; however, if self-sufficiency can’t be achieved (e.g. old age, poor health), it’s permanent.
The statute provides a number of factors (e.g. age, health, income, employability) judges must consider, so their discretion is technically limited. However, there are essentially no restrictions, so judges can weigh the factors however they please, leaving them a significant amount of discretion. The coalition is trying to convince legislators to curb that discretion by inserting provisions in the statute that force judges to order permanent alimony only when necessary and feasible. The legislation could be heard as early as April 2011.