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Alimony in Massachusetts - Is it predictable?

Alimony is an emotionally charged word and concept. Just mention the word in passing and the responses are swift and diverse. "Boy, was I taken; the judge swallowed her sob story hook, line, and sinker. Now I work and she stays home - the queen of the block".

And then representative of the other side. "After eighteen years of cleaning his toilets and raising his kids, I'm considered qualified to be president of a company. He walked off and bought a big house and I'm living with the kids in this dump."

Nobody, but nobody believes they got a fair deal. They are either paying too much or receiving too little. Everyone believes he or she is the victim of a capricious and unfair system - and these are the mellow translations of the acidic and charged descriptions bantered around.

Alimony, however, is not without an historical purpose understandable to most people. Marriage, as an economic partnership, is based on each spouse assuming different roles during the marriage. Some roles, by their nature, do not yield monetary compensation. Others, and, in particular those performed in the workplace, obviously do mandate compensation and, at times, significant compensation. As long as both partners "buy" into this arrangement, combining "unpaid and paid" positions, the system works. Obviously each marriage emerges as a unique economic partnership. In some unions, both parties work inside and outside the home; in others, one partner is in the workplace and the other manages the home front. And so on and so on considering the countless variations in the "deal" derived by two people in forming their unique union.

The trouble begins when the partnership is to be dissolved by divorce or even separation. Now the same pot of money that served one household is being tapped to form two households. The standard of living of each spouse and the children cannot be maintained, unless the available pot of money is increased.

Alimony, as a key factor to be determined in many divorce actions, is intended to rectify, to some extent, the financial dependence of one spouse upon the other. Long-term marriages, where only one spouse has been in the workplace or where income discrepancies between spouses is significant, are recognized by most as "alimony-deserving". Still, even in long-term marriages of twenty years or more, there is no real consensus on how much spousal support should be paid or for how long it should continue. Most alimony seekers think their spouses will become more prosperous, climb even higher heights. Most alimony payors think their spouses are extremely capable of earning big bucks, even if they never held a job outside the home. The expectations and over-worked imaginations of divorcing individuals are hard to exaggerate, so flamboyant are they.

If there is some consensus on alimony in long-term marriages, or at least on its need for some period of time, there is considerably less unanimity when it comes to middle-length marriages of more than five years and less than twenty years, the time period when the majority of divorces occur. The range of opinions is extremely diverse. Some propose that alimony be paid in some amount or for some limited time period to provide the economically dependent party with financial backing while he or she is training for a career or something along those lines ("Rehabilitative Alimony"). Others prefer termination points that pertain to particular events (e.g., the years of the marriage, the retirement of the payor spouse, the receipt of an inheritance by the recipient spouse).

In short union marriages of usually less than five years, there is an even greater tendency to create categories of alimony, a labeling of sorts. For example, there are those who argue for support as a form of restitution, such as for supporting a spouse while he or she earned a degree or trained for a career ("Reimbursement Alimony"). And there are others who tout "Transitional Alimony" where some assistance is provided as a financial bridge from marriage to singlehood.

In June of 2008, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was "a buzz" with alimony opinions and counter-opinions. Newspaper articles, pro and con, op-ed pieces, radio talk shows, and last, but by no means least, the appointment of an alimony task force with representatives from the Boston Bar Association and Massachusetts Bar Association. The latter group is here to "stimulate" discussion and recommend changes in the current system. In particular, they, as a group, aim to introduce consistency and predictability into an inconsistent and unpredictable system and in the process to produce a more formulaic approach to the adjudication of spousal support. It remains to be seen whether they will be successful in achieving their goal and, more to the point, whether their "product" will indeed be a fair and equitable resolution to this age-old dilemma or whether change will simply substitute a new form of inequity.


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