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Minnesota Lawmaker Pushes For Alimony Reform

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- Alimony, or spousal maintenance, is a hot-button, emotionally charged issue for people on both sides of divorce. It can pit the payer and the payee against each other.

Now, the push for alimony reform has made its way to Minnesota. A lawmaker wants to update the law, calling it outdated, and some permanent payments unfair. And one man hopes his story will help move Minnesota's law into the 21st century.

"I was just a kid, I was 19-years-old when I got married," Michael Thomas said.

Thomas' first marriage ended in divorce, after 20 years, and three kids.

"It's a painful part of life, it's difficult to talk about," Thomas said.

What has become increasingly more difficult for the dentist is what he agreed to in the divorce: permanent spousal maintenance.

"You basically get two parties. One party that is 'Hey, I've got this income for life guaranteed by the state' and the other party is saying 'Well I've got to pay until I die,'" Thomas said.

At the time of the divorce, Thomas thought the maintenance would be adjusted if there was a change in circumstance.

A few years ago Thomas learned his ex-wife sold their marital home and bought a condo in Florida, and she was living with her fiancé.

Thomas found out he still had to pay. A judge wouldn't decrease his $5,200 monthly payment.

"I'm here to say that maybe parties that are responsible for giving money to another party shouldn't be supporting other households," Thomas said.

Thomas appealed, and while the judge upheld the decision, he called the situation troubling.

"It comes down to fairness and abuse of the system," Rep. Peggy Scott said.

Scott is leading the charge for change in Minnesota's cohabitation law.

"If you're abusing the system, and just not getting married because you don't want that income to go away, then I have a problem with that," Scott said.

Scott wants to tweak the law to better define cohabitation.

"Because the system right now says as long as you are unmarried, you will receive this spousal maintenance or alimony," Scott said.

"Cohabitation is a tricky topic," attorney Mike Boulette said.

Boulette thinks a broader conversation needs to happen about spousal maintenance.

"If one of the goals of spousal maintenance is to compensate a spouse for years they invested in their ex's career and earning capacity, then why does it end simply because they have a new significant other?" Boulette said.

Still, he calls the law outdated, and says gone are the days of the "Leave it to Beaver" family.  Enter "Modern Family".

"If we think that the law no longer matches the way families look, we need to look to our legislature for change, not expect that we're going to see these wins in a courtroom," Boulette said.

Thomas has moved on. He and Jennifer married nearly 10 years ago, and they started their own family.

"I have a 7 and almost 4-year-old and both of them go 90 mph," Thomas said.

But he wants to make sure he, and others like him, have a voice, which is why he started the website, Minnesota Alimony Reform.

"It cuts to the core. A lot of times people don't want to talk about it because they've moved on with their lives and they have a happy life, which I do. I just think it's a matter of justice and something that should be corrected," Thomas said.

Scott originally introduced a cohabitation bill last legislative session.  This upcoming session, she plans to re-introduce a bill to redefine cohabitation. She is working with the Minnesota Bar Association on the best language for the bill.

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