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Lawmakers Look To Cap Alimony, Make Divorce Cheaper In Mass.

BOSTON (CBS) - Local divorce lawyers say the proposed Alimony Reform Act of 2011, which would dramatically alter how alimony payments are determined in Massachusetts, would make divorces cheaper and make their job of advising clients during a divorce much simpler if passed into law.

In certain circumstances, it would also open the door for divorced parties to revisit their established alimony agreements.

The state's newest alimony reform effort is the product of a significant amount of work and compromise by a task force convened 14 months ago by Judiciary co-chairs Sen. Cynthia Creem (D-Newton) and Rep. Eugene O'Flaherty (D-Chelsea).

"The word I've heard is there is a lot of momentum behind this bill, and that legislators are motivated to do something about this issue," said Kelly Leighton, a divorce attorney at the firm Barnes and Leighton and co-chair of the Boston Bar Association's family law section.

The Joint Committee on the Judiciary held public hearings on the Alimony Reform law on May 18.

Lisa van der Pool of the Boston Business Journal reports:

The proposed bill is being hailed by members of the bar as providing long-awaited guidelines for alimony awards in Massachusetts, which currently does not allow judges to cap duration, resulting in worst-case scenarios in working spouses making lifetime payments to non-working spouses who are supported by unmarried, live-in partners.

The bar uniformly supports the proposed bill, including the BBA, the Massachusetts Bar Association and the Women's Bar Association of Massachusetts, among others.

For the first time, the legislation gives clear-cut definitions of new categories of alimony and defines how long alimony payments should last.

The proposed law introduces several different categories of alimony, including "general term alimony" (giving regular payments to the former spouse who is economically dependent); "rehabilitative alimony" (which is given to a spouse who is eventually expected to become financially independent); and "reimbursement alimony," paid to a spouse in a short-term marriage who helped pay for a spouse to complete a degree.

The proposed law spells out how long alimony payments should last, depending on the length of the marriage.

For instance, the law notes that if a marriage lasts for five years or less, alimony payments "shall be no greater than one-half the number of months of the marriage."

Judges would have discretion to order indefinite alimony for marriages longer than 20 years.

The law also addresses what critics have said are fundamental fairness issues, such as the current ability of alimony recipients to keep receiving money by living unmarried with life partners who provide support. The new law would allow for alimony payments to stop in such cases.

Leighton, who served on the alimony task force, said if the law is changed, "it will make it easier to counsel clients as to what is ahead of them if they have an alimony case."

"It will be a wonderful tool to help settle those cases," said Leighton, who said that under the current law it's tough to make accurate predictions about alimony.

Stephen Hitner, who founded the nonprofit Massachusetts Alimony Reform in 2005 after trying unsuccessfully to lower his own alimony payments, is one of the most vocal critics of the state's current alimony law. He has also deeply criticized past alimony reform bills.

Hitner was particularly outspoken about Senate Bill 1616, which was proposed in 2009 and was also backed by the BBA.

That proposed law simply added the two words "and duration" to the current state alimony law. At the time, Hitner said the bill did not go nearly far enough to reform alimony. He said it would have brought about more reasons to litigate.

But Hitner, who was also part of the alimony task force, is a fan of the new bill.

The task force "met eight times in 14 months," said Hitner. "We went from being adversaries ... to being friends. We all got everything we wanted and we compromised to get it."

Hitner says the proposed law will change alimony in Massachusetts "from an entitled system to a need-based system."

Divorce attorney Howard Goldstein of the Newton-based firm Rosenberg, Freedman & Goldstein LLP says one of the best things about the proposed law is that it clearly defines how alimony should be paid in many different situations.

"There are a lot of really good answers to questions. One thing that makes divorce so expensive in Massachusetts is that the current statute leaves a lot of room for litigation," said Goldstein.

"The new law will make it much easier for people to modify their alimony upon retirement and it will cut down on the time and money spent on negotiating alimony awards."

If the law passes, some alimony agreements made before alimony reform will be modifiable, others will not.

When two parties settle a divorce, they have a choice about how to deal with alimony, Goldstein said.

They can choose to make it non-modifiable and "survive" the judgment, which means that those divorce settlements can't be changed because the two people have signed a binding contract.

But many people agree to an alimony plan that "merges" into the divorce judgment and any court has the power to alter a judgment. Those "merged" agreements can be modified if the law passes.

"Once this law is passed, everybody's going to scramble to take a look, to see if their agreement survives or merges," said Goldstein.

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