By Mike Faher, VTDigger.org
In 2011, after years of work, the Massachusetts Legislature approved a major overhaul of the state’s alimony law. There was not a single dissenting vote, “and it’s very rare that happens,” said Steve Hitner, the man who led the effort.
Now, a group led by Brattleboro businessman Rick Fleming is attempting to use that model to revamp the Vermont law that regulates—or, the group contends, fails to regulate—the ways in which men and women are ordered to compensate their ex-spouses.
Vermont Alimony Reform is made up of those who feel they’ve been wronged by the system. But Fleming says he wants a robust debate, and he’s lobbying for formation of a special committee or task force that includes judges, attorneys and others to examine the issue.
“We really feel that it’s important that the Legislature take a hard look at this and involve all parties,” Fleming said.
It’s bound to be a sensitive topic, since alimony disputes involve highly personal details—from bank accounts to child-rearing arrangements—and sometimes years of acrimonious negotiations between former partners.
Fleming is candid about his own case. He has taken his court-ordered alimony arrangement all the way to the Vermont Supreme Court, arguing that his $2,200 monthly payments are unfair and should be lowered due to changes in his personal circumstances. The court in 2013 rejected Fleming’s arguments and upheld the lower court’s alimony judgment.
But there is a line in the court’s decision that might sum up Fleming’s issue with the system: “As we have repeatedly stated,” the court wrote, “there are no fixed standards for determining when changed circumstances exist.”
Fleming said his group is not lobbying to abolish alimony; instead, he wants “consistency, predictability and fairness” built into the process. “There are no existing guidelines, for the most part, for alimony,” Fleming said. “If you go to court in Windham County with the same set of circumstances that someone in Burlington [has], you could have a completely different outcome. And we feel that you should be able to go into court and have an understanding of exactly what might happen. . . . If there were rules and guidelines, we feel that it would improve the Family Court process,” he added.
There’s also a sense among those in the reform movement that Vermont alimony law—which provides for lifetime payments like Fleming’s—is badly outdated.
“There have been some modifications to the law over the years,” Fleming said. “But a lot of this dates back to when women stayed home all the time, and that’s just not the case today. In many, many relationships, both the husband and the wife work. Yet, the alimony laws were written in a time when it was like ‘Leave it to Beaver.’”
Vermont Alimony Reform has a number of goals, including:
Replacing permanent alimony with shorter terms based on the length of the marriage or on special circumstances. “We support transitional alimony, which is alimony for a defined period of time to allow someone to get on their feet,” Fleming said. “We also support rehabilitation alimony, where if someone has been out of the workforce for a period of time, alimony would be appropriate to retrain them—perhaps (allow) them to go back to college to develop a new set of skills. . . . But we don’t feel, except for in extreme circumstances, that permanent alimony would be appropriate just based upon the length of a marriage.” He added, “And we certainly think that, if an ex-spouse cohabitates or remarries, alimony should end.”
Providing guidelines to allow payers and receivers of alimony to prepare for retirement. “The current laws,” the reform group argues, “do not allow a payer to ever retire” because there is no guarantee that the court will grant an alimony reduction.
Establishing specific guidelines for Family Court judges in alimony cases. That should include, in Fleming’s view, standards for determining what constitutes a “substantial change” in a payer’s circumstances or income. “I don’t blame the judges, and I don’t blame the attorneys,” Fleming said. “It’s just a bad law . . . and the law needs to be changed.”
Vermont Alimony Reform has posted a list of issues and goals at its website. The site also includes stories illustrating the arguments for why the system should change.
One person featured on the website is Maureen Lynch, who went through a divorce in Caledonia County several years ago and has since moved out of state. Lynch is a registered nurse, but she says she’s living paycheck to paycheck due to her own family obligations and ongoing alimony payments to her former spouse, who she said has retired.
Along with imposing financial pressures, Lynch believes permanent alimony “prevents emotional healing”—essentially ensuring that a “contentious divorce goes on forever.”
“That’s part of the need for people to tell their stories,” Lynch said. “I think legislators aren’t aware of the abuses and the ways in which people are suffering.”
At this point, those stories have not filtered very far into the State House. Vermont Alimony Reform held its first meeting in November and only recently has begun reaching out to Legislators.
Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, said she has heard from Fleming and understands his concerns. “I think this is a real issue, and part of it is that our laws are antiquated,” she said.
White serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee and said any family law changes would start there, but no legislation has been introduced. Nevertheless, she speculated that language calling for formation of a special study committee or an alimony task force could be inserted into a bill sometime during this session.
The fledgling Vermont effort has gotten some assistance from Hitner, who has been working to spread the Massachusetts reform model. Hitner said he believes the hard work of an alimony reform task force ensured that the Massachusetts statute was updated to reflect the present-day needs of divorced couples.
“Laws have to change with the times,” Hitner said.