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Permanent alimony 'circle of hell' spurs reform in several states

The story of a man who has been jailed at least eight times in the past two years over non-payment of alimony appears to have struck nerves nationwide. The man was making $1 million a year as an investment portfolio manager at the time of his divorce, and his total child support and lifetime alimony payment was set at nearly $100,000 a year. Shortly after the divorce, however, the economy tanked and he lost his job. After forking over all of his savings, he couldn’t keep up. Jail has became routine for him.

“It’s a circle of hell there’s just no way out of,” he told Bloomberg. “I paid it as long as I could.”

New Jersey, where he lives, apparently doesn’t allow post-divorce modifications of alimony, even after a substantial change in circumstances. While this case is extreme, people across the nation find lifetime alimony orders with no chance for modification to be profoundly troubling. New Jersey and 10 other states are currently considering reforming their alimony laws the way Massachusetts did in 2012.

This is not the first time we’ve heard about other states pondering Massachusetts-style alimony reforms. We discussed the trend on this blog in June. With horror stories like the New Jersey man’s getting national coverage, however, the pressure is on. Yet while adding a modification provision to New Jersey’s law seems only reasonable, some critics worry that the alimony-reform bandwagon may be speeding out of control.

A Virginia family law attorney who is writing a new alimony handbook for the American Bar Association expressed that concern that alimony reform could easily turn into alimony eradication. Calling the current reform efforts “very male-driven,” she expressed that most advocates for restricting the amount or term of alimony aren’t like the New Jersey man. They’re just greedy.

“For every horror story that you can come up with about a support obligor,” she said, “I can come up with 10 for an obligee who can’t make ends meet because her post-divorce standard of living has so drastically dropped.”

The Massachusetts Alimony Reform Act didn’t eliminate the possibility of lifetime payment of alimony, although it limited it for marriages that lasted 20 years or less. The key point is that lifetime alimony is needed in some cases, but not all. We need to be cautious about making sweeping changes, or we could end up with harsh, unintended consequences.

Source:  Bloomberg, “Jail Becomes Home for Husband Stuck With Lifetime Alimony,” Sophia Pearson, Aug. 26, 2013

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