Now that President Obama has come out in support of marriage equality, I'm beginning to think that talking about alimony in public is one of the only taboos still left. Sure, it's fine to discuss movie stars or the divorces of the super rich that splash the gossip pages, but your own alimony issues in public? In print? With your legislator? Are you kidding?
But the times - and the laws - are a-changing, and Connecticut is now part of a nationwide movement of men and women working to bring out-dated alimony laws into the 21st century. With women's economic power, the widespread acceptance of people living together outside marriage, and our increased longevity, alimony laws built on the premise that divorced women have no options but lifetime support from ex-husbands have made many state legislatures tailor their laws to the times.
Each state has its own laws, and they are as different from each other as apples are from antelopes. New York State changed its alimony assumptions in 1980; Massachusetts came in 30 years later, in 2012, on March 1st, bringing guidelines and limitations where there used to be none.
It's important to stress: The new MA law does NOT eliminate alimony by any means; it limits it in generous ways based on the income of the parties and the length of the marriage, with extensions for special cases.
Connecticut's laws are now being re-examined by lawyers and legislators, led by a grassroots organization, CT Alimony Reform, which supported a bill inspired by the new law in Massachusetts. Like the MA law, the CTAR-sponsored bill did NOT propose ending alimony; it tried to limit it based on income and length of the marriage, so that the lower-earning spouse, male or female, has many years to make a transition, as is the case in most other states.
The bill, introduced earlier this year, would have brought guidelines to alimony decisions, with exceptions for special cases. The purpose of guidelines: to cut down on uncertainty, unpredictable awards, conflict, and litigation for divorcing couples. Under current law, every alimony decision is up for grabs: each must be fashioned from scratch with every divorce. Lawyers consider it the most contentious area of divorce, and contention=conflict=legal fees.
Unlike the child support guidelines, which lay out parents' obligations and expectations early on, alimony awards are a crapshoot. Lawyers can't tell clients what to expect. The judge in Room A will make a different decision from the judges in Room B and Room C. What's at stake? Family resources, good will, and the ability of divorcing couples to remain co-parents to their children. High conflict divorces are toxic for good parenting -- and quickly eat away marital assets. A divorce can cost the family four years of a college education.
The alimony reform bill died in the Judiciary Committee. It was supported by several women legislators, strapped alimony payers left having to ride a bike to work or borrow money to put gas in their cars, and some lawyers who believe that the time for guidelines has come, as it's come to many other states. Opposition to the bill came from powerful divorce lawyers, who argue that everything's fine in family courts, even when they tell their clients differently.
Many lawyers favor some form of guidelines, and many believe that the current cohabitation laws need an update. The CTAR-supported bill has sparked much conversation and debate across the state. Lawyers will be discussing the matter of guidelines at their annual meeting in early June.
CTAR is holding a free public meeting on , to educate and inform citizens about current law, about proposals for change, and about how they can become involved in moving our laws and expections into the 21st century.
Alimony laws in Massachusetts changed when citizens began to speak out, when the taboo was broken. As people began to speak up, more people joined the conversation - and pretty soon, word got out about what really happens in family court, under a system that offers no guidance for lawyers or judges. And legislators knew they had to make changes. It took input from citizens to make a difference.
I'll be blogging on this issue leading up to the meeting and afterwards. I'm eager to hear from you - publicly or privately - on where you stand, what your concerns are, and what you think alimony reform should look like. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you are interested in the issue but can't come to Westport, please contact us and we'll respond. We need your voices to be heard: email@example.com.