Alimony reform in Massachusetts ends pay until death

September 27, 2011

By Cheryl Wetzstein-The Washington Times

Gov. Deval Patrick has signed a sweeping reform of Massachusetts’ alimony system that activists are praising as bringing rational criteria to a hodgepodge system and for ending “alimony-until-death” payments.

Once the alimony law goes into effect March 1, divorcing couples will see their alimony payments established based on numerous factors, such as length of marriage, ages, income, employability and spousal conduct during the marriage.

“Judges will now be able to consider the facts of each case in determining alimony orders,” said Denise Squillante, past president of the Massachusetts Bar Association. Before, she said, litigants were faced with “a hodgepodge of conflicting alimony orders.”

Mr. Patrick, who signed the law at the statehouse Monday after both legislative chambers passed it unanimously, praised the law as “an important set of reforms to modernize and make more fair the alimony system.”

Activists with Massachusetts Alimony Reform, who gathered “horror stories” for lawmakers, thanked them for the “long-overdue” reform.

Under the new law, judges will be able to time-limit alimony, and assign it based on need and fairness. For instance, if a couple’s marriage fails after a few years, a spouse may be asked to pay a specific amount of alimony to help the other complete job training. Also, payments, which normally end if the receiving spouse marries again, now also can be suspended if the spouse cohabits with a lover, even if they don’t marry.

Couples who wish to change their current alimony orders can file for modifications after 2013. But no one knows how judges will use the new law, especially in established alimony cases.

California journalist Estelle Shanley-Duff said her husband, John B. Duff, president emeritus of University of Massachusetts-Lowell, has paid $4,000-a-month alimony to his ex-wife for more than 30 years.

Mr. Duff, 80, now has advanced Alzheimer’s disease and lives in a California facility. However, he is still required to pay his ex-wife $3,000 a month, and due to rising costs for his care, he has fallen behind in the payments.

This year, Mr. Duff was ordered to appear in court, even though “he can barely walk and has no cognitive ability to understand” the legal situation, Mrs. Shanley-Duff said Monday.

“I think it’s a great day for Massachusetts” to reform its alimony law, she said. “I don’t know” if the new law will impact our case, she said, “but I do intend to go to court to see if we can get some relief.”

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