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Massachusetts considers ending 'lifetime alimony'

BOSTON — Steve Niro got married three decades ago but divorced less than five years later. He's been paying alimony ever since — and there's no end in sight.

After Niro's youngest child graduated from college a few years ago, his child support ended and his remaining alimony payment was $65 a week. But his wife took him to court for a modification, and a judge agreed to increase the alimony to $700 a week, or $36,000 a year.

Niro's story is one of many expected to be heard by Massachusetts lawmakers this week as the legislature considers a bill to reform what critics call an antiquated law that allow judges to grant so-called "lifetime alimony."

"I could be paying alimony for the rest of my life for a 4½-year marriage when I was a kid," said Niro, now 53. "It's just unfair."

The state's current law does not contain any duration limits for alimony, but allows judges to consider assets, the length of the marriage, employment and other factors when deciding how much a spouse should pay in alimony.

Divorce lawyers say Massachusetts judges frequently award lifetime alimony in both long- and short-term marriages, creating animosity and a disincentive to settle cases.

"The alimony friction is huge. It creates stress and tension, and it filters down to the kids. It is a very, very hot issue and has been for years," said Denise Squillante, a family law attorney and president of the Massachusetts Bar Association, which supports the reform bill.

Most states have done away with lifetime alimony — with some exceptions — considering it a relic from the days when most women stayed home and raised children and did not work outside the home, said Linda Lea Viken, president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers.

"Most judges today expect that both spouses will go to work," Viken said. "That is one of the differences that drives this. That wasn't the view years ago, but it is the view now."

The law proposed in Massachusetts would end lifetime alimony payments in most cases and cap how much one spouse is ordered to pay the other. For example, for marriages of 5 years or less, the maximum alimony term would be half of the number of months of marriage, or 2½ years. For marriages over 15 years, the maximum alimony term would be 80 percent of the months of marriage. For most long-term marriages of more than 20 years, alimony would end at the retirement age defined by the Social Security Act.

The new law would also set up various categories of alimony, such as "transitional alimony" for people who need job training or other assistance, in an attempt to limit the length of time alimony is paid.

Some spouses who are forced to pay alimony for years say they find it ironic that Massachusetts — the first state to legalize gay marriage — could have such an outdated view of alimony. The current law also allows judges to consider the income and assets of second spouses when calculating how much alimony paying spouses can afford, a factor that would be eliminated under the reform bill.

Stephen Hitner founded a group called Massachusetts Alimony Reform about six years ago after becoming frustrated with his own alimony payments. He said that when he first began to lobby for reform, many people he spoke to were incredulous that state law allowed for indefinite alimony.

"The legislators just didn't believe that there was lifetime alimony, but after so many people stepped forward with their horrors stories, they started to get it," he said.

Hitner filed for bankruptcy four years ago after his printing business suffered a severe downturn and he went to probate court to try to reduce the $45,000 he has paid his ex-wife in alimony since their divorce in 1999. A judge refused to reduce his payments.

"There is no consideration for the ability to pay," Hitner said.

Hitner's ex-wife could not be reached for comment.

Previous attempts to modify the law have failed, but the bill now being considered has more than 130 co-sponsors and appears to have widespread support.

State Sen. Cynthia Creem said the bill would allow judges to impose transitional alimony "for the short term instead of forever."

"I think that people shouldn't have to pay alimony forever and not be able to retire and not be able to change their situation. On the other hand, there are people who really need spousal support," said Creem, the Senate chair of the Judiciary Committee, which will hold a hearing on the bill Wednesday at the Massachusetts Statehouse.

The reform movement heated up in Massachusetts after the state's highest court ruled in 2009 that alimony payments don't automatically stop when someone reaches retirement age. The proposed law would end alimony at retirement age for long-term marriages and before retirement age for shorter marriages.

Niro said he hopes the new bill will finally win approval.

"It really is imperative to put some structure and guidelines around alimony," he said. "I've seen people who have gone bankrupt. I've seen people thrown in jail (for failing to pay alimony). Something needs to be done."