Reform measure gains traction with leaders on Beacon Hill

By Matt Pilon | Worcester Business Journal Article

Marlborough business owner Stephen Hitner’s first marriage ended in divorce 12 years ago. Since that time, his court-ordered alimony payments have been so restrictive that he’s been forced to borrow from his second wife’s credit line to keep up.

In fact, the combined effects of alimony and the economic downturn have dealt a nearly fatal blow to his business, MetroWest Printing.

But Hitner, 63, isn’t taking the pain lying down. In fact, he’s been a prime mover over the last six years to reform the state’s alimony laws.

The Proposal
A bill championed in part by Hitner that’s making its way through the House and Senate would set guidelines that curb lifetime alimony payments. The bill would allow for the termination of alimony upon the retirement of the payor and upon the cohabitation of the recipient with someone else for three or more months.

Currently, alimony in Massachusetts can last for life and cohabitation is not a reason for termination.

While the bill seeks to reduce the impact of alimony on payors, judges would have the discretion under the proposal to grant larger alimony payments for longer durations in cases where the recipient is unable to work for various reasons, including advanced age and chronic illness.

Hitner said that he is pleased the bill allows for lifetime alimony in certain cases because he feels that it is sometimes warranted.

The proposal was crafted by a task force made up of legislators, attorneys and Hitner. It has garnered co-sponsorship from 72 state legislators.

Under the bill, lifetime alimony would only apply in cases in which the marriage lasted 20 or more years. Shorter marriages that end in divorce would have set limits on how long alimony could last.

The bill also limits alimony at 35 percent of the payor’s gross income.

Hitner and other alimony payors who testified at a State House hearing last month paint a bleak picture of the situations that arise around alimony payment.

Some of the worst tales told by Hitner include the drug addicted ex-spouse cohabiting with a new lover while receiving alimony payments and the second wife forced to enroll her disabled baby in daycare to take a low-wage job to help her husband pay his ex-wife’s alimony.

But the horror stories told by Hitner may be more the exception than the rule, according to at least one local attorney.

Worcester-based family law attorney Elaine Gordon said that while alimony rulings can be “unpredictable,” in her three decades of practicing law she has never seen a payor come to financial ruin because of court-ordered payments.

“The court cannot enter an order that is so severe that it deprives the payor of the ability to meet his daily expenses,” Gordon said.

Gordon supports most of the reform proposal, as does the Massachusetts Bar Association. She also said that she does not think the reforms will take away work or income from attorneys. She pointed to the child support reform of the 1980s, which established stricter support guidelines.

“Everyone was up in arms because they didn’t think lawyers would have any work because everything would be by guideline,” she said. “Now no one feels that way. Attorneys still have work.”

Michael Franklin, who also practices family law in Worcester, said that he is pleased to see that judges would have more discretion in setting the duration of alimony payments.

Franklin added that under the current system, taking an alimony case to court turns a payor into a bettor.

“Judges don’t order short-term alimony awards,” Franklin said. “If you go before a judge, you have to be prepared for alimony for life. It’s a huge gamble.”

Worcester family law and divorce lawyer, Attorney Michael Franklin represents individuals in Worcester, Massachusetts and the Worcester County region including the cities and towns of Auburn, Boylston, Clinton, Charlton, Holden, Leominster, Leicester, Paxton, Shrewsbury, Sturbridge, Westborough, Northborough, Webster, Dudley, and Oxford, Massachusetts.