'Til Death Do Us Pay: Legislators Consider Divorcing Alimony Law | News | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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'Til Death Do Us Pay: Legislators Consider Divorcing Alimony Law

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SEAN METCALF
  • sean metcalf

After 26 years of marriage, Rick Fleming and his wife divorced in the fall of 2009. The court ordered Fleming to send her $2,200 a month — for the rest of his life. Their children are grown, and they've both since remarried and have jobs, but he still has to hand over 40 percent of his income to her.

"Divorce shouldn't be a life sentence," Fleming told a panel of state senators at a public hearing last month.

His crusade for changes to the law — he wants to abolish permanent alimony and limit judges' leeway to determine payments — is gaining momentum in the Vermont Statehouse. On March 1, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to create a task force to recommend changes to the law.

"We've heard a lot of horror stories," said Sen. Jeanette White (D-Windham), who serves on the committee. "I think it's important to have this task force to look at it."

Alimony is a court-ordered payment from a higher-income ex-spouse to a lower-income former partner. Traditionally, that has resulted in divorced husbands paying alimony to their ex-wives. The centuries-old system was designed to prevent nonworking women from becoming destitute after separating from their wage-earning husbands.

Today, either spouse can be ordered to pay alimony. The logic for alimony's continued existence: When one spouse makes sacrifices that advance the other spouse's career, that person should be remunerated for those years of nonmonetary contributions. Postdivorce payments also help address the fact that job prospects can be meager for older people who have been out of the workforce.

"There's no question that it's outdated — that today's marriages and today's lifestyles are much more different than they were 50 years ago," said Senate Judiciary Committee chair Dick Sears (D-Bennington), referring to the state's alimony statute.

"The perception is that this is a rich, white, old man's issue, and that's not the case," said Fleming, who is white and a manager at an oil company.

But according to U.S. Census Bureau data, men still make up about 97 percent of those paying alimony. And not everyone is convinced that scaling back the practice would be in the best interest of women.

"I would hate to take alimony off the table," said University of Vermont professor Felicia Kornbluh, who specializes in gender, sexuality and women's studies. Dismissing the policy as being outdated, she argues, "ignores the fact that we do still have economic discrimination" against women.

Deeply personal and sometimes messy divorce proceedings aren't often openly discussed. But a group of exasperated divorcées, led by Fleming and his second wife, are going public with stories they believe show alimony gone awry. In 2015, they created a group called Vermont Alimony Reform, now 70 members strong, according to Fleming.

"It's a growing movement throughout the country," said Fleming. "Vermont, which is very, very progressive in many ways, is behind the times."

States including Minnesota, Florida, New Jersey, Connecticut, Arkansas and Oregon have recently changed or are considering changes to their alimony laws.

Massachusetts revamped its statute in 2012, placing strict limits on alimony. Payments cease when the payer retires or when the receiving spouse has lived with another romantic partner for at least three months. To bring more consistency to the system, the Massachusetts law also creates guidelines for determining alimony, based on the length of the marriage and the disparity between incomes.

Vermont Alimony Reform is seeking those same changes in the Green Mountain State, which, Fleming maintains, has one of the most "archaic" and "draconian" laws in the country. He notes that Vermont is one of only a handful of states that still allows permanent alimony.

When making these decisions, Vermont judges consider both spouses' finances, the length of their marriage, their ages and their ability to work. They also take into account the couple's standard of living. Alimony is supposed to allow the person it supports to maintain his or her lifestyle, not just stay out of poverty.

Vermont Alimony Reform wants payments limited to the amount necessary for the other spouse to become self-sufficient — through training programs or education, for instance — rather than continuing indefinitely. Exceptions would be made for people with disabilities or mental health problems.

"Currently, our system is based on entitlement — it should be rehabilitative," Craig Miller told senators at the public hearing. The Chester resident introduced himself as a former payer of alimony. He said his lawyer warned him ahead of his divorce: "You're a man, you're a professional, and you've been married for 15 years. You're gonna get screwed."

Miller was one of about a dozen people who shared stories of financial hardship that evening. The committee, however, heard only one side of each account. No one on the receiving end of alimony testified, nor did the judges who made the decisions.

Dan Woodcock of West Topsham, who divorced in 2013, told the committee, "I am hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. This was a known fact [when the court issued its alimony order], but I still pay over $100 a day in spousal support."

Charlie Morse, a Northfield farmer, said he nearly had to sell off farm equipment to make an unexpected alimony payment. Ultimately, his second wife stepped in to cover the $17,000 expense.

Fleming is also relying on his second wife, Amy, to make payments to his first one. If not for Amy, he said, "I would probably be living in the back of my car." At the time of his divorce, he owned a business he says was on the brink of going under; he later sold it to pay his debts.

Fleming asked for reconsideration in a case that went to the Vermont Supreme Court, which ruled against him. Two years ago, after spending upwards of $250,000 in alimony payments and legal fees, he filed for bankruptcy.

A divorced Essex Junction woman told the Senate committee, "I am responsible for paying alimony to a man who was emotionally abusive to me, and every month that I have to write that check to him and provide for him a life that I cannot provide myself is very difficult."

"Obviously, it's a very personal, emotional issue for anyone involved in the process," said Chief Administrative Judge Brian Grearson. But, he noted, alimony disputes are quite rare in Vermont. Of the 2,380 divorce cases that came though the state's court system last year, only 181 were contested, according to Grearson. The judiciary doesn't track why cases were contested, he said, but it's unlikely all 181 dealt with alimony.

Sears said he's aware that his committee is hearing about "outlier" cases — and only getting one side of the story. "Nevertheless, they're cause for concern," he said.

Grearson has been reluctant to embrace wholesale reform. He said he does support writing guidelines into the law but cautioned the committee against adopting rigid standards that would reduce judges' discretion.

Pricilla Dubé, a longtime Burlington divorce attorney, agreed that approach is impractical: "I have people who have moved from other countries to be with their spouse. They don't even speak the language, and then they get divorced. I mean, how do you take that into account with a [formula]? It's not possible."

Patricia Benelli, a lawyer who chairs the Vermont Bar Association's Family Law Committee, unsuccessfully tried to dissuade the committee from calling for a comprehensive review of the law. "I think if you do this, you're going to be opening Pandora's box," she said.

The endeavor will almost certainly stir up a debate about gender roles.

Alimony reformers say they're trying to modernize a patriarchal policy that's now punitive for both women and men. Still, regardless of their motives, they must deal with the fact that men's rights groups champion the same cause. (Fleming said Vermont Alimony Reform has no ties to such groups.)

"It's a difficult issue for feminists," said Kornbluh, who admits to having mixed feelings about alimony. She added: "The claim is that [the push for reform] is not for alimony payers or for men, and yet it seems clear that the outcome would be that alimony payers, typically postdivorce men, would be paying less. I would have to believe that this is kind of the point," she said.

Senate Majority Leader Becca Balint (D-Windham) supports the effort to reexamine Vermont's laws — with some reservations. "Although gender roles within households have shifted dramatically over the last three decades, we still do not have parity," she said. "Study after study has shown that women who work outside the home still do the majority of housework and childcare duties on top of their career work."

Kornbluh has concluded that alimony, although imperfect, addresses this persistent inequity: "It is not a great system, and yet it is the system we have."

Correction, March 13, 2017: A previous version of this story reported incorrectly that Dan Woodcock told the committee he'd asked a court three times to reconsider his alimony. That testimony was actually from another man. The previous version also reported incorrectly where Woodcock lives.


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