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Five Years On, Mass. Alimony Reform Remains Controversial — And Possibly Incomplete

When a storybook marriage goes south, how long should alimony last?
Wim van Rossen/Nationaal Archief via Wikimedia Commons

On Beacon Hill, the personal tends to become political — which is how alimony reform became a hot legislative topic.

“I had a divorce that kept me in court for almost 14 years,” says Stephen Hitner of Marlborough. “I could not convince a court — any court — that I could not afford to pay $865 a week in alimony.”

So in the early 2000s, when alimony could last for life and payments were up to individual judges, Hitner started organizing. He launched a website, Massachusetts Alimony Reform, and urged people who felt cheated by the system to push for change at the State House.

“I’m not against alimony,” Hinter says today. “I’m against alimony for life. Basically, the receiving spouse wants security, but the payer wants some kind of finality so both people can go on with their lives. And we didn’t have that then.”

It took years, but Hitner’s efforts finally paid off. In 2011, the House and Senate unanimously passed An Act Reforming Alimony In The Commonwealth, which then-Governor Deval Patrick signed into law. It took effect in 2012, linking the duration of alimony to the length of marriages and allowing payments to be reduced or ended if the recipient started living with someone new.

But according to Hitner, the law’s most important provision allowed the termination of alimony when the recipient reached retirement age.

“We put a duration limit to retirement age so that people knew that when someone reaches the age where they can collect their full retirement benefit, the alimony would end,” Hitner says.

The state court system doesn't track alimony awards, so quantifying the law's effect thus far is difficult. But one thing is certain: It hasn’t been as effective as Hitner and others hoped it would be, thanks to a controversial set of rulings by the state's Supreme Judicial Court.

One of those rulings involved Roberta Rodman, a 70-year-old woman who lives in a suburb south of Boston. Since her divorce in 2008, Rodman had been receiving weekly alimony payments from her husband of just over $1,500. When the Alimony Reform Act kicked in in 2012, Rodman’s husband filed a motion to stop those payments, saying he’d reached retirement age.

Rodman opposed the request. As she saw it, an important principle was at stake.

“My divorce was several years before this act went into effect, and I feel I should not be penalized for something new,” she says. “Had I known when I got divorced and I was doing this agreement, had I known what was coming ahead of me, I would have asked for different things."

Based on the law's text, the SJC ruled in 2015 that only part of the Alimony Reform Act was supposed to be retroactive. Older settlements could be changed based on marriage length, the court decided, but not because the recipient starts living with someone or the payer reaches retirement age.

Rodman was thrilled. 

“I had…women I did not know calling me up, thanking me for doing it because I saved them, [because] their lives would be better now,” Rodman recalls.

Hitner had a different take.

“Son of a bitch,” he says. “That’s what the reaction was. I was astounded.”

Hitner wasn’t alone. Among dozen of divorce lawyers who spoke with WGBH News, there was an even split between those who thought the law was clearly supposed to be retroactive and those who thought it clearly wasn't.

Once again, Hitner started pushing Beacon Hill. Last year, he backed a bill that would have made the provisions of alimony reform apply to existing settlements as well as new ones. It passed the House unanimously but died in a Senate committee.

When you ask people why, one person comes up repeatedly — state Sen. Cynthia Creem.

Back in 2011, when Creem co-chaired the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, she called the Alimony Reform Act a “good plan.” But today, she says she always had concerns about its scope.

“To go back and change things, without giving you an opportunity to open up the whole case, is not fair,” Creem says.

“I never was never sure that it was a retroactive bill, even though I voted on it, because I never felt that was necessarily constitutional.”

Since the law passed, Creem adds, she’s become keenly aware of how reduced alimony can impact women — especially older ones.

“There’s always a face behind every story,” Creem says. “There’s the face of a person that got married, got divorced 20 years ago, and is sitting eating bonbons 20 years later. There’s the face of the person that’s been divorced for 20 years, and they gave up their career to bring up their children, and what could they earn now? And their spouse wanted them to do that.”

As things stand now, Creem says, the Alimony Reform Act is working pretty well, offering a mix of predictability for couples and flexibility for judges.

But Hitner won’t be satisfied until the law works the way he thought it would.

“I got a call from a woman about her husband just the other day,” Hitner says. “He’s 80 years old, he’s suffered three heart attacks, and his ex-wife is taking him to court on contempt cause he can’t pay the alimony.

“This is awful! 80 years old and he's still paying alimony. It's ridiculous.” 

Recently, another bill that would broaden the Alimony Reform Act was filed at the State House. It has 40 sponsors — and two years to pass before the process begins all over again.

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