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Should Alimony Laws Be Changed?

Michael Morgan only groans as his wife bathes his body, shaves his face and gently kisses his lips.

A retired physician diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease 14 years ago, Morgan, 72, no longer walks or talks. His wife and full-time caregiver, Linda Morgan, makes sure he's fed and clothed, and that $25,200 in annual alimony is handed over to his ex-wife, a college professor he divorced in 1997.

Don Farrall | Getty Images

"What's sad is that this man who can't get out of bed is paying a woman who is working," says Linda Morgan, 61, of Lehigh Acres, Fla.

Linda Morgan is part of a growing movement pushing for changes to alimony laws in several states.

Massachusetts led the way, revamping its law last fall. The new alimony law creates different types of alimony with varying durations, depending on length of marriage and the finances of each spouse. The law also allows those paying alimony to modify their terms later and calls for ending payments if a recipient has a live-in mate or, in most cases, when the payer reaches retirement age.

In Florida, a similar bill is moving through legislative committees. In New Jersey, a state senator introduced a bill this month to study alimony laws. In Connecticut, advocates for changing the law have hired a lawyer to write a bill. And activists in Virginia, Arkansas, South Carolina and North Carolina are organizing online.

"I see this wave going across the country," says Steve Hitner, who started Massachusetts Alimony Reform in 2006 and is a consultant to other state efforts. "Most people who are stuck with these outrageous alimony payments think they got a bad rap, but in fact it was bad law."

In targeted states, alimony laws are decades old. They were written when divorce was rare, and when most women did not work outside the home and faced possible impoverishment after divorce.

The percentage of women in the workforce has grown to about 59 percent from 50.9 percent in 1979, and their median income has climbed steadily to about $35,000 a year from an inflation -adjusted $26,500 in 1979, according to the Labor Department.

Advocates for changing alimony laws argue that they need to be updated to reflect 21st-century marriages. They say that judges have too much discretion in divorce settlements and often order higher-earning spouses to pay lifetime alimony to ex-spouses capable of supporting themselves.

"There need to be limits to the duration of alimony and caps on the amount you pay," says Tom Leustek, 53, president of New Jersey Alimony Reform. "You could be married at 25, divorced at 35 and spend the next 50 years paying alimony. There should be consistent treatment across the board where you can predict what's going to happen based on law, not a judge's arbitrary decision."

Opponents of alimony changes say laws such as the new one in Massachusetts limit judges' ability to consider individual circumstances of a marriage.

"It really is an unnecessary exercise in trying to control judges' decisions," says Kenneth Altshuler, president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers and a Portland, Maine, divorce lawyer. "There's really no need for legislatures to dictate to judges that in certain situations there shouldn't be lifetime alimony."

While Altshuler added that creating guidelines for alimony can be helpful, he fears activists may "come back and further encroach on the discretion of judges and pursue the original goal, which I believe was to eliminate permanent alimony altogether."

Others think the laws may harm ex-spouses financially by not providing enough support.

"I'm concerned with unintended consequences," says Jeffrey Landers, a New York divorce financial strategist who counsels women. "I think you will have a lot of women ending up in poverty and requiring welfare and Medicaid ."

He says he is most worried about women older than 50 with little work experience or education who may have their alimony cut short because of rules that end alimony when their ex-husbands reach retirement age.

Wendy Murphy, an attorney and professor at New England Law Boston, says some spouses may feel pressured to stay longer in violent relationships to earn more alimony. The law creates "arbitrary lines that treat everybody alike," she says. "When you're talking about families where every single case is different, judges need discretion."

Linda Morgan says her husband has been paying alimony since he and his first wife separated in 1992. Michael Morgan was married to his first wife for 36 years and chose mediation twice, rather than court, to set how much he would pay in alimony.

From 2002 to 2006, as his Alzheimer's worsened, he and his new wife went to court five times in attempts to lower or end the alimony, but judges have ruled that he must continue paying, court papers show. Judge James Thompson also has ordered Michael Morgan to pay attorney's fees, citing the difference in income between him and his ex-wife.

Linda Morgan says they can make the payments, but if the alimony were suspended she could hire more help for her husband. Now, she has part-time aides that allow her to leave the house for a couple of hours a week.

Morgan's ex-wife, Marilyn Morgan, declined to comment.

In Massachusetts, Hitner started his group after he was ordered to pay his ex-wife $45,000 a year in permanent alimony. When his printing business fell on hard times, he couldn't afford the payments.

Hitner says he couldn't convince judges that he needed a modification, even though he had filed for bankruptcy and is waiting to hear whether his house will go into foreclosure.

His efforts languished for two years. Then a 2008 opinion piece in The Boston Globe by Elizabeth Benedict, a freelance journalist in New York who is involved with someone who paid permanent alimony, brought attention to Hitner's efforts and got people talking, he says.

"In states where there is lifetime alimony, there seems to be a presumption that the person who receives alimony never has any obligation to take care of him or herself — even if they are educated and have a work history," Benedict says.

Linda Zampino, 51, of Sparta, N.J., agrees. "Women and men play the system," says Zampino, a manager at a pharmaceutical company. "What's the incentive for them to go back and educate themselves?"

She says she's had to refinance her mortgage several times to pay $36,000 a year in alimony to her ex-husband and the $125,000 she estimates she spent trying to fight the alimony in court.

In September, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, a Democrat, signed the alimony changes into law, effective in March.

"This is the 21st-century determination of what alimony needs to be," says state Sen. Gale Candaras, a Democrat who co-chaired a task force that wrote the law.

Elsewhere

  • Florida

In 2010, the state passed alimony legislation that included establishing limited payments for short-term marriages and some guidelines for awards. Activists say the law didn't go far enough.

The judiciary committee of the state House of Representatives is reviewing an alimony reform bill similar to the one in Massachusetts.

Alan Frisher, a financial adviser who is co-director of Florida Alimony Reform, says the group has been lobbying lawmakers for two years. "You should be able to move on with your life," he says. "The way it stands right now is absolutely wrong."

  • New Jersey

State Sen. Sean Kean, a Republican, introduced a bill last week to establish a panel to study alimony laws after hearing from constituents, some in their 70s and 80s, who say they can't retire because of their alimony payments, he says.

He hopes to introduce a bill to change the law based on the panel's findings. "We want to look at what other states have done," Kean says.

  • Connecticut

Lawyer Ryan Barry says he is drafting a bill similar to the Massachusetts measure for members of Connecticut Alimony Reform.

David Conway, co-founder of the group, say it plans to propose the bill to the state's lawmakers this month and is considering hiring a lobbyist.

In Virginia, Arkansas, South Carolina and North Carolina, efforts are in early stages.

Kevin Baker, 47, a contractor for the Navy in Suffolk, Va., has set up a Facebook page called Virginia Alimony Reform, exchanged e-mails with others paying alimony and contacted lawmakers in his state.

Baker was married for nine years and has been paying alimony, now $1,200 a month, for 12 years. He is bracing for a fight.

"A lot of the lawyers don't want the laws changed," he says. "It would take a whole lot of money from their pool."

This story first appeared in USA Today.

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