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States ponder Massachusetts-style end to permanent alimony

In 2012, Massachusetts family law changed. The legislature ended the practice of awarding permanent alimony in virtually all cases. Instead, the new law sets up a number of factors to be considered when courts weigh alimony requests.

Under the previous law, courts often ordered permanent alimony in long-term marriages as a matter of course. Now, our family courts are to take into account how long the alimony will actually be needed -- and order it only for the purpose of helping economically disadvantaged spouses build earning capacity and shore up their financial positions.

In the wake of Massachusetts' limitation on permanent alimony, activists from states such as Florida and New Jersey are pushing for similar changes. Florida's governor recently vetoed an alimony reform proposal, but the reformers say they will keep trying. A proposal is currently being put together in New Jersey for next year's legislative session.

The reformers argue that the alimony rules are not only outdated but also feel arbitrary to those affected. Furthermore, some say permanent alimony is unfair to second or subsequent spouses because substantial payments to an ex-spouse drain marital wealth. Alimony payers would also like to have spousal support end at retirement.

Moreover, reformers say, times have changed. Women make up more than half the U.S. workforce now, so it's unfair to assume that women (who still receive the majority of alimony payments) won't be able to support themselves at reasonable salaries.

"It's like you're incapable of getting on your own two feet, and you need to depend on this person for the rest of your life?" pointed out one alimony reform activist from New Jersey.

A spokesperson for the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers worries that the reform proposals could defeat the purpose of alimony for those who really need it. For example, if one spouse has sacrificed his or her own job advancement in order to support the other spouse's career, he or she should get a share in the gains.

Indeed, while times may be a-changing, there are still millions of women who have stayed at home to raise kids and now have very limited opportunities to build lucrative careers. The same principle applies to automatically ending alimony at retirement -- the higher-earning spouse may have the opportunity to develop substantial investment income later on, which should be taken into account.

The impact of Massachusetts' revised alimony statute is not yet clear. Do you think permanent alimony is appropriate in at least some circumstances?

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